Extract from Questions Raised By Quolls
This is an edited extract from Questions Raised by Quolls by Harry Saddler, out now through Affirm Press. This compelling work of local non-fiction is an eloquent examination of extinction and conservation set against the backdrop of global climate change.
One night I was walking home from Merri Creek at the end of my street in the inner north of Melbourne just after dark when, a few doors from my house, I saw something I’d never seen before: a common ringtail possum on the ground. Ringtails are called ‘common’ for a reason: there’s one that lives in the wall of my house; I often hear them trilling to each other from people’s gardens when I walk around at night, to the train station or the tram stop or the shops. They’re so abundant in the suburbs of Melbourne that they even sustain a good number of powerful owls, Australia’s largest owl species, more typically associated with deep, wet forests. I’ve seen more hundreds of ringtail possums in my life than I could possibly remember – but never, ever one on the ground.
This one was feeding on nuts dropped on the road by the ornamental hazel trees planted along the street. It’s possible that ringtail possums do this every year, in this seasonal abundance, and I’ve just never noticed it before. But the sight struck me not just because of its novelty but because of the timing: it was 5 April 2020. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, had declared a State of Emergency three weeks earlier. Only one week before I saw the possum, stage-three restrictions had been put in place, making people liable to be fined if they were outside for any reason but shopping for essentials, medical reasons, work or study, or exercise. Exercise was my excuse.
The reason for all this, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic. At first we heard whispers, in vague but largely unconcerned headlines, of a new virus. By the time the news of Italy entering lockdown reached us, the virus – and the increasingly erratic responses to it from governments around the world – had spread, taking over our lives almost before we knew what was happening. Weeks seemed to be months; riding my bike to get groceries one day, just before stage-three, I passed a pub with a Valentine’s Day display in its window, and I thought, ‘Wow, that was a long time ago’ – before realising that it had only been the previous month.
Shortly into the pandemic stories of animals reclaiming abandoned streets began appearing, often debunked only the day after going – in the now-ironic term used by the digital world – ‘viral’. Soon the trend spawned a short-lived meme: people posting photos of rubbish or some other detritus of human civilisation accumulating on the streets and joking that ‘wildlife is returning to the cities’ – always good for a grim laugh in these bleak times. It was in this context, at this time, that I saw the ringtail possum on the ground, and I’ll likely never know if it was exhibiting natural behaviour long suppressed by the presence of people, or if it was merely something that I’d never noticed before.
Replying to my social media question in 2019 about having children, one of my friends, James, told me: ‘I’ve pretty much always known I don’t want children and none of my partners do either. The changing climate and the rise of fascism really only cements that for me.’
His mention of fascism is pertinent. Although often well-intentioned, the posts and comments on social media during the pandemic about wildlife returning to cities, about the sudden cleanness of a world without traffic pollution, betrayed a naive thoughtlessness about the real impacts of the pandemic; not just that the virus directly and indirectly destroyed lives, but that those lives – whether uninsured Americans, immunocompromised people or the elderly, or even healthy people who lost income, jobs, homes, support networks through an increasing casualisation of the workforce and governments that fail to provide adequate safety nets – overwhelmingly belong to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged in society. No good and equitable environmental movement can be built on the back of the entrenched power systems that have led us to this very moment of catastrophe: to celebrate a greener world yet ignore or even embrace or further enforce inequity is to run the risk of indulging in ecofascism.
As US academics Jordan Dyettand Cassidy Thomas put it in a paper published in Perspectives on Global Development and Technology in 2019:
While ignorance obviously does not qualify one as an ecofascist, it is vital to consider the consequences of the approaches and scenarios that this ignorance may precipitate. In refusing to address the root causes of various modern crises … they will be allowed to reproduce and increase in intensity. With the resurgence of far-right movements around the world, most strikingly in the US, it’s no surprise that such attitudes are seeping into conversations about how nature might be ‘healed’.
One of the more preposterous climate-change conspiracy theories is that scientists are perpetuating a climate change ‘hoax’ as a way to get rich off grant money for their research. Anybody who’s ever met a scientist will know that it’s an ascetic existence, and vulnerable to forces well beyond the control of the scientist. The day after I see the ringtail possum eating the nuts on my street I email Belinda Wilson, who is studying a PhD on the reintroduction of quolls to Canberra’s Mulligans Flat, to see how restrictions due to COVID-19 have affected her work. She replies the next day:
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our work, with social distancing restrictions causing the ANUAnimal Ethics Committee to cancel all future fieldwork… the quoll monitoring session that was scheduled for May cannot go ahead, which will impact two ongoing studies of population dynamics that began in 2016.
The February monitoring session gives us an idea of how much juvenile recruitment contributed into the population after they become independent of their mothers in November. The May session, however, helps us find out who remains at the start of the breeding season which indicates effective population size (those that contribute to reproduction later in May). That announcement of fieldwork cancellation by the ANU also means that the fieldwork phase of my PhD has come to an abrupt end. While this is good in some ways and allows me to start writing up my results earlier, it is also sad that the February session will be the last quoll monitoring session I will run under my PhD. Apart from anything else, I will really miss the quolls …