Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 2, 2022

Questions Raised by Quolls, by Harry Saddler

At this time last year, Melbourne was in Lockdown, and the Melbourne Writers Festival had been cancelled, disappointing local authors who had been expecting to promote their new books at the festival.  My small gesture to try to help those authors was to offer publicity space on the blog, and Melbourne author Harry Saddler was the first to take up my offer, participating in Meet an Aussie Author and introducing his new book Questions Raised by Quolls: Fatherhood and Conservation in an Uncertain World. 

Throughout those long lockdowns, I was supporting my favourite bookstores, using the money I couldn’t spend anywhere else.  So of course, I bought Saddler’s book, and I’ve just read it, in preparation for meeting the author in person at the forthcoming Port Fairy Literary Weekend hosted by Blarney’s Books.

Questions Raised by Quolls is a very personal meditation on species extinction and conservation in the context of global climate change.

When I think about the animals that have disappeared from the Australian continent and its surrounding islands — the thylacine, its last living survivor pacing hopelessly back and forth in its concrete cage and left to freeze to death; the Bramble Cay melomys slowly starved of food as climate change pushed the sea around its tiny island home higher and higher; the numerous native and unique rodents all-too-easily hunted by cats and foxes throughout Australia, etc., etc, — it feels emblematic of everything else that colonisation has destroyed, or attempted to destroy, and I feel an almost unbearable weight of loss, a lead-like heaviness in my heart.  I ache for the absence of these unique species, each inherently deserving of their place on earth, and I ache for the lost or fragmented knowledge of them and of their place in the vast interconnected web of life. (p.26-7)

The last living Thylacine, Hobart 1933 (Wikipedia)

Saddler does not balk at asking the difficult question about whether he should have a child of his own:

… did I imagine, when I was a boy bushwalking with my parents, or a young man hiking with my father, that one day I might bring my own children hiking with me through that same landscape?  I can’t remember.  But I know that, for as long as I’ve been old enough to think far into the future, I’ve wanted to one day have a family.  Now I can all-too-easily imagine myself — in my early forties as I write this, and my father the same age that my grandparents were when I was a boy — pointing out the same things to some hypothetical child that my father pointed out to me.  That child has been hypothetical my whole life — now, I’m wondering: can you still call a child hypothetical if it will never exist? (p.9)

This is what it really means when we talk about existential threats.  The planet will ultimately survive.  It is the species on it, including us, that are in peril.

Questions Raised by Quolls was written before the change of government last May. So at times, it expresses perfectly the way many of us felt when we had a government that symbolised the lack of concern and the lack action in our country.  The truth is, that for ten years, Australians chose to vote for a government that was actively hostile to any action on climate change.  It repealed the Rudd Carbon reduction scheme, rejected international efforts to reduce emissions, and it mocked the plight of Pacific Islanders confronting rising waters around their land.  Yet Australians went right on voting for it, making many of us feel frustrated, and hopeless.  In Chapter 4, Saddler recognises that the bushfires of 2019-20 were a catalyst for a shift in public attitudes:

During the bushfires of 2019-20, inner-city Melbourne felt like the safest place to be.  Even the fire that broke out in Plenty Gorge, only half an hour by train from where I live, felt a world away.  In the 2020-21, ads started appearing on TV in Victoria explaining what to do if there was a grass fire near your home: ‘Move two streets back.; The urban environment — all that glass and concrete and tarmac — is a buffer against infernos.

But it’s not protection from other environmental threats. (p.119)

Suddenly everyone cared about the environment because our cities were wreathed in smoke.  It wasn’t the vision of communities ravaged by fire; Australians have seen that before, though never on the same scale.  As it always does, the media showed us charismatic creatures like koalas receiving care for their burns, but this time, for the first time, the mainstream media featured experts talking about species extinction because of the fires. About the flora and fauna that might be lost to us forever.

Chapter 4, with its hopeful news about the Flinders Ranges being home to quolls again, shows us what we can do.

Though the question of what to do about feral cats and foxes is a difficult one.  And the horses:

…horses, recent arrivals to a continent with no native hoofed animals, are intrinsically alien to Australia.  The year after the 2019 survey, and after the bushfires of 2019-20, Professor Jamie Pittock of the Australian National University wrote of flying over the northern part of the alpine Kosciuszko National Park, home to several endangered native species:

At first I wondered if the fires may have spared two animals which live in tunnels in the vegetation on the sub-alpine high plains: the alpine she-oak skink and broad-toothed rat [endangered and vulnerable, respectively]. But not only was their understory habitat burnt, a dozen feral horses were trampling the peat wetlands and eating the first regrowth.

On the unburnt or partially burnt plains a few ridges over, 100 or more horses were mowing down the surviving vegetation. (p.131)

Remember this next time you see the ‘people who ‘care for the high country’ campaigning against a cull of feral horses.

This is such an endearing book, and although it’s about a very serious issue, it’s not depressing to read. It’s full of family stories, and there’s a memory of a first date at Studley Park in 2019, (as well as a little about other aspects of the park, from Kristin Otto’s fascinating Yarra: a diverting history, which I read and reviewed ages ago.)  There’s the excitement at the finding of scats found in the Kinglake National Park and other sightings near Erica in Gippsland.  The activities of the Australian Quoll Conservancy offer hope too, and the invitation to become a citizen scientist ameliorates any sense that there is nothing we can do.

You can follow Harry Saddler at Twitter @MondayStory  The following is from his author page at Affirm Press”

Harry Saddler is the author of We Both Know: Ten Stories About Relationships (2005) and Small Moments (2007), a short novel about the aftermath of the Canberra bushfires of 2003, both published by Ginninderra Press. In 2014 he was joint-winner of the Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb Inc ‘Blog-to-Book Challenge’ for his blog Noticing Animals, resulting in his third book Not Birdwatching: Reflections on Noticing Animals.

His non-fiction writing about the ecological, physical, and philosophical interactions between humans and animals has been published online at Meanjin and the Wheeler Centre, and in print in The Lifted Brow. He has twice been shortlisted for The Lifted Brow’s Prize for Experimental Non-fiction.

His book The Eastern Curlew, Affirm Press, 2018 was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards in 2019.


News via Twitter is that Questions Raised by Trolls has exhausted its warehouse space at the publisher’s,
so if you want to buy it from a bookshop, now’s the time.

Image credit:

Thylacine: By (Series relates to Australian Information Bureau and successor agencies) – National Archives of Australia [1] Image no. : A1200, L35618 Barcode : 11450586, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=983116

Author: Harry Saddler
Title: Questions Raised by Quolls, Fatherhood and Conservation in an Uncertain World
Cover design: Christa Moffitt, Christabella Designs
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781922419514, hbk., 199 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

 


Responses

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Harry Saddler – I must look for his books.

    Like

    • Hi Eleanor, I’m hoping that maybe there will be some secondhand down here in Port Fairy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a terrific book.

    Like

    • Yes, I was torn between being enchanted by it and subdued by what he was saying.

      Like

  3. As someone who works in the book industry, I have to say that it’s green credentials are not particularly good. The excess/wastage of books horrified me when I first started working in it. I guess it still does, although I have become numb to it after all this time. The dilemma – I still love paper books more than anything else, especially if the only other options is an ebook.

    Like

    • I hear you. This is where I’m going to sound like a book snob…
      A book is like any other consumer product. If it is a quality product it will be read and re-read many times and earn its right to exist. It may even be passed on to future generations.
      But not every book is worth the carbon emissions it produces, and I think there are too many books produced today, just as there is too much fashion and too many cars and too many consumer goods that last less than a year.
      I guess we all have to make our own decisions about how much we consume…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Just at the point where I was thinking this sounded fascinating but very gloomy I noticed that you felt it’s not depressing to read. The message is certainly a sombre one. Maybe it should be required reading for all Aus politicians?

    You’ve given me me titbit of knowledge for today: Australia has no native hoofed animals.

    Like

    • I was minded to make that comment because I’d reached a gloomy bit in my current novel, where one of the characters in a doomsday cult was making me feel that all was lost, and then I went back to Quolls and I felt the sense that it’s too late for the creatures that are gone, but not too late for others – if we act…

      Like

  5. Great review Lisa. I will look for ‘Small Moments’. I think that one might interest me more.

    Like

    • Good luck… it’s nice to have a book quest!

      Like

      • It is indeed, Lisa. I have a ‘pile-up’ on my Kindle at the moment because of all the Canadian authors I am reading. There is just too much to get through in one lifetime (and I often feel I started too late, LOL)

        Like

        • LOL I think you’ve got a good few years left in you yet, Karenlee.

          Liked by 1 person


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