I can see clearly now …..

When I awoke the crackle pop of the egg fryer waterfall outside the window had stopped. I listened to the unfamiliar creaks and clicks as our week only house expanded into a new day. It was quiet, but not silent, it was not raining. The sky was still heavy and grey and you could smell the promise of more rain, but for now none fell. I could hear the waves as they whoosh-crashed on the beach. The light leaking around the curtain’s edge was pale and weak, bounced and reflected. A small person arrives, claiming the warmth of other people’s sleep, and talks and talks and talks. Talks in circles and talks in straight lines. Talks of this and talks of that. The kettle sings. The day begins.

Under still dark skies we go to find an icon. In most shops you would see images of Tasmanian Devils. Chunky animals, with a white chest stripe, and ears that flare red when they are angry, they make an ideal, but unrealistic, soft toy. When I was in Tasmania a decade ago you would see them by the side of road, arguing - with bright red ears - over road kill. They sneaked down river sides in the falling light, and sometimes you saw them in car parks. But most often it was by the road, flashed in the headlight’s glare. But that was 10 years ago and now they are gone from the east. In another ten years the largest surviving marsupial carnivore may be surviving no more, gone the way of the dodo and thylacine.

A little way north of Coles Bay is a wildlife sanctuary - a zoo really. And here you can see Devils. Remarkable animals, thick set and rugged. A barrel on legs. Their jaws open surprisingly wide, and size for size they bite harder than almost any other animal. They have a strange, rolling gait, as if their back legs are about half a second behind their front. They fight and squabble with admirable passion; they squeak, squall and scream with the voice that gave them their name. But for all their vigour, these are caged animals, and day by day the chances of seeing one in the wild fall.

As we entered the zoo it started to rain, which seemed appropriate really. In 1996 a Devil was found with facial tumours, cancers that were destroying its face, starving it to death. The disease spread and was called, with the brutal simplicity of science, Devil Facial Tumour Disease. It could have just been called Death Sentence, for no Devil that has contracted it is known to have survived. The cancer itself is spread by contact between Devils, making it one of the few transmissible cancers known to science. Tasmanian Devils are all remarkably similar genetically, and this adds to the problem - if the cancer kills one, it kills them all. Things are being done - insurance populations on islands, gene sequencing, breeding programs in zoos, but if my kids are to see these animals in wild in years to come what we need to act now and we need to spend money. I’m struck that the AFL has just sold the rights to a football game that is really only of interest to Australians for $1.4 billion. What could be achieved for the Devils with that amount of money? How much biodiversity could we protect with that amount of money? People could claim that AFL contributes to world sporting “biodiversity” and that the world would be a poorer place if it was lost - and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s a construct that could be resurrected at any time. Once the Devils have gone they’re gone for all time. Watching this animal become extinct whilst we spend more treasure than most people can imagine on sport - and for that matter royal weddings - seems short sighted beyond belief. I’d trade a truck load of Olympic gold and decades of live sport on TV for healthy Devils, howling in the Tasmanian night.

And what would I have done if I’d seen a Devil in the wild, with a ruined face and only weeks to live? Would I have photographed it? Yes. Would I have put the pictures on this blog? Almost certainly. It would have given me a reference point the next time I was challenged about evolution. Or asked about plans and purpose, design and destiny. What are these plans? What is the purpose of letting an animal die in pain and starvation? The blank, flat truth is that there is no plan, and saving this animal requires human action not divine intervention. And the quicker we start, the more likely we will get a better outcome for the devils. (If you can hear a hiss in the background here, it’s just me letting off steam!)

I leave with selfish worries about the kind of world my kids will come to know. I wonder if there will still be wonder, I worry about the spread of brutality and the lack of hope. A grey sky mood in slight, drifting rain. But it’s a mood the kids don’t share. They roar like Devils, they talk to the parrots who sometimes talk back, they bounce like kangaroos. They remain kids and the world is, for now at least, a playground of wonder and adventure. My mood changes in an instant, and under skies which now seem to be clearer we head for the beach.

Running up the east coast, running away from Coles Bay, are the Friendly Beaches. Walking here was like entering a world that had lost most of its colour. The sky was (still) grey, the water was grey, the sand was pale and littered with round grey stones. Even the birds were black and white. It was a space dominated by tone rather than colour, and strangely what little colour you could find was orange lichen or the blood-red stab of an oystercatcher’s beak. Lichens painted patches of rock with vivid colour, and in places orange seaweed was heaped up or spread over the beach. The land may have cast from a single greyscale pallet, but the air was full of smells - especially around the piles of seaweed. There was a tangible, almost tactile sense of sulphur in the air; it was strongest by the weed, which I took as its source.

Thankfully and surprisingly, beyond the tide cast weed there was little else on the beach. But the beach was not entirely free of human litter. Every now and then, at odd intervals, you could find walnuts. Whole walnuts, still in the shell, and still sound when you cracked open the shell. Did they speak of some small shipping disaster, or just a single large bag fallen overboard? We walked until we choose to stop, along a beach that went on in front of us to the horizon and followed for miles behind. Then we turned and walked back.

Other beaches were smaller, coves you might even say. Here all that the sea had brought was heaped into deep piles, with no room to spread. The same sulphur smell pinched my nose. Shells were heaped up in piles on the beach, the silver sheen of oysters, not long dead. Pointed shells, blunt shells, broken and whole, some with needle holes where death came to visit.

On the piles of weed a Forest Raven searched with bright eyes and sudden movement. Blue under the clouded sky, not black. The large beak made small delicate movements, flicking aside weed and stones, foraging, feeding, finding. The sun set and for the first time this week the stones and rock faces flared red in the light of a clearing sky.


Anonymous said…
Happy Birthday
Dean V said…
Hi Stewart,

Your post paints a vivid picture of the Tasmanian coast. I have thought about traveling there for some time, but as is often the case for many of us, more far flung places have always seemed to hold greater intrigue, and thus the time is not made to explore the places closer to home that are often more deserving.

Your thoughts about the fate of the devils hit home. It is such a shame that more is not said about the loss of species. It is also a pity that most often we hear about such scenarios when the species happens to be attractive or cute.

I hope that your birthday is far more positive than my comment and that the smiles are infectious amongst those that share it with you.


Denis Wilson said…
Poignant writing there, Stewart, about the plight of the Devils
Nicely written.
joco said…
Thrilling writing style Stewart.

And yes, I share your up-and-down melancholy about the state of the natural world and the human hand in it.

At least there is a turn of the tide, albeit laden down with tokenism.
And at least this emerging attitude frees me at last of receiving veiled criticism on my style of gardening, or rather non-gardening.

I am no longer told to spray my roses or get the violets out of the lawn or rein in the campanula taking over the borders.

Still, that new eco-attitude is still selfish and variable.

Let's hope the globe is robust enough to fight back, even if it takes centuries.
Pat said…
Thanks for sharing this well-written post. I did not know of the tragic plight of this iconic animal.
What lovely photos, it looks like a wonderful coastline.

I had read about the facial cancer affecting the devils, it really is such a tragedy that the species may become extinct and yet so little seems to be being done to help, when compared as you say with the amount of money spent on football and royal weddings
gwendolen said…
I'm so sorry to hear about the devils. I didn't know about this cancer.
They are such wonderful & unique animals. I've only seen them once, at Healesville Sanctuary, almost a decade ago now.
Stewart M said…
Thanks for all the comments.

Gwendolen - dont seem to be able to reply to your comment as the link does not work.

Anonymous said…
What an adorable creature. Lovely pics.
Anonymous said…
It's rather like a horror flick, isn't it? We sit by watching football and weddings, and one by one the animals species disappear.

It makes me so sad this is happening, and so frustrated that it could be a life's work and still not reverse the course. I hope your children and their friends will realize what we're losing and salvage as much as they can for the future.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful shots of the coast. And oh, so tragic about the Devils... Sometimes I wonder about people#s priorities and what is going to happen to the planet.

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