Call of the wild

“Amid sorrow I also felt hope. Perhaps by learning more, we might start to care more. The nearby wild deserves at least this from us.”

. . .

I’m driving home towards kunanyi/Mt Wellington on an early winter’s evening. A south-west change has blown itself out, and the sky is drained of both light and smoke. Against the pale sky, the mountain is a dark linocut, its edge as crisp as the air. 

Even in the falling dark the mountain’s familiar shape calls to me, a promise of altitude and snow and wildness, untamed cold and uncounted adventures. It’s a token of the wild Tasmania we so readily love.

When we first moved to this hillside suburb, more than 30 years ago, it was the mountain that drew my gaze. That and the amazing garden I could scarcely believe had come with the house. It was May, and the garden’s European and American trees were in their late autumn glory. As much as I loved Australian native plants, my head was still turned by that blushing northern deciduousness.

It was a spacious garden – three quarters of an acre – and active children took me out in it. Over time I paid some attention to the native bush at the back of our block. Tall stringybarks (Eucalyptus obliqua) and massive blue gums (E. globulus) jostled with straggly wattle trees. And over the back fence, those trees gave way to spacious mixed forest. Silver peppermint (E. tenuiramis) dominated the drier parts, stringybarks persisted where it was wetter. Both had a scraggy understorey of sagg, bracken, sunshine wattle, prickly beauty and dozens of other small species. There were weeds too, typically gorse, blackberries and various garden escapees.

This was certainly not the wilderness I longed to be walking through. Yet over the years it began to feel like my patch of bush. It was not actual ownership, more a sense that this was a space in which I could feel at home; the nearby wild that welcomed my wanderings at any time. 

The Patch is roughly three kilometres long by 500 metres wide, or about 150 hectares. It’s a sloping, misshapen rectangle sandwiched between a few South Hobart roads, connected by corridors of bush to the wilder slopes of the mountain, while largely hemmed in by suburbia. 

As I walked The Patch, I began to consider the other life-forms that shared it with us. I was familiar with some of the plants, knew a bit of its geology, could recognise a dozen or so bird calls. But if you’d asked me about, say, the life of its marsupials, my answer wouldn’t have detained you long. I knew too well the nightly piratical rantings and thumpings of brushtail possums. But I couldn’t have told you where they went during the day. As for the bouncers in our bush, I knew pitifully little. 

So I began to ask questions, starting with the macropods that call The Patch home. Scats helped to confirm the presence of at least potoroos, pademelons and Bennetts wallabies. Naively, I thought it best to start my on-ground search with the most abundant, pademelons (or rufous wallabies, Thylogale billardierii), but these stealthy little bouncers proved elusive. 

Apart from tell-tale scats and runways through the bush, I would hardly have known they were there had I not heard their percussive sounds. As with many grazing mammals, they thump their hind legs in warning. And of course they make a similar sound when hopping. I think of it as our bush’s crepuscular heart-beat. 

Occasionally I also hear them “pish” at each other, presumably during a dispute. And the males sometimes “cluck” when pursuing a female. I learned that when that business is over, the female carries young in her pouch for as long as seven months. Another embryo (or blastocyst) can be held in reserve, ready to take over when the pouch young leaves. It allows pademelons to respond to good seasons by breeding continuously.

When at rest, their varicoloured fur, which grades from burnt-stump black through to rusty grey, helps them blend perfectly with our bush. Only on their bellies and ears are the rufous colourings of their common name evident. I imagine an impressionist artist seeing a tilted, furry pear. The haunches are disproportionately large, the shoulders slim and hunched, the petite, romanesque heads topped with flicking, flame-tinged ears. 

Despite their rotund looks, pademelons are agile and quick-footed, and bounce away rapidly when approached by humans or dogs. I was once taking our ageing dog for her evening walk when she heard and saw something, and yanked away from me, lead and all. I thought she’d seen the neighbours’ cat and was simply continuing their long conflict. But a moment later a dark shadow bounced out of the gloom and almost ran into me. A pademelon. As shocked as I was, it careered sideways, before darting into the bush, our dog in hot pursuit.

Thankfully the plant cover was thick enough for pademelon to evade dog. Or perhaps a canny “paddy” can always outrun an ageing quadruped. At any rate, the panting dog came back to me once the pademelon had put decisive distance between them.

Not all contact with humans ends so well. One frosty morning I crunched down through the grassy field that marks the city-ward boundary of The Patch. It’s a favourite grazing ground for the wallabies, but it brings them close to a busy road. On the road-side verge I found a pademelon that had been hit during the night. Dazzled by a car’s lights, its agility and grace had only been enough to put it beneath unforgiving wheels. It lay cold and still, its fur flecked with frost, its lifeless eyes milky. I checked to see if it was carrying any young, but it was a male. 

I was sad that this beautiful, gentle creature had met such an end; that it would grace our bush no more. But amid sorrow I also felt hope. Perhaps by learning more, we might start to care more. The nearby wild deserves at least this from us.

. . .

Peter Grant

Peter Grant lives in the foothills of kunanyi with his wife. He worked with the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service for 24 years as manager of interpretation and education. His passion for the natural world led him to write Habitat Garden (ABC Books) and found the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize. More of his writing can be seen at naturescribe.com.

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