Sunday, November 21, 2010


Something that always amazes me when reading stories of shark attacks is that the survivors consistently and immediately go to the defence of their attacker. After facing annihilation by some 'other' than us, survivors of shark attacks seem to possess a compassion that goes beyond hunger and food and who belongs where.

Only recently when someone was attacked in metro waters, the public salivated for great white blood like Pavlov's Dog to the media bell. And boy, did they drool. I'm not mentioning names of the dead in this post but when a man was killed a decade ago during his extremely civilised morning dip at Cottesloe Beach, the footage of the guilty shark lounging around in the shallows just offshore ('I'm digesting, mate. Gimme a break will ya?') whipped up a lot of anger against the only minister who could authorise its execution. He was in a meeting apparently.

Cactus Beach, South Australia, is a roadhouse of the Southern Ocean for great white sharks. On one side of the peninsula, the locals from the windmill-strewn farms a bit north pull up their caravans and leave them there. At the jetty the plaque to a young boy killed by a shark is enshrined with a pair of goggles, flippers, seashells, red strands of sea weed, sea urchins. The shark net makes a triangle of the jetty and the shore. Despite how shallow and grotty the water is, swimming outside of that net induces certain insecurities and Does Not Feel Safe.

The other half of the peninsula is owned by a bloke called Ron. He bought the place in the 70's for a song after working as a brickie's labourer in Queensland to get the cash together. Ron's an Aquarian after my own heart. He's a bit of a hermit and became an environmentalist once he lived this patch of land for a while and saw its frailties. When I met him it was his birthday. He told me that not long after he bought the place, they staged the first RipCurl Classic there. Hundreds of people came, ripped up all the wood in the place, left toilet paper everywhere and trashed the sand hills. After that, he brought firewood in and started looking after the peninsula, acknowledging that surfers would always want to come visit one of the best breaks in Australia.

Two young surfers have died at Cactus by shark attack and this brings the peninsula toll up to three, plus the others we don't know about. On the headland looking over the Cactus main break is cemented another plaque and a familiar shrine to the Noah's supremacy in these parts. Like I said, no names, but some joker (probably a local with a sense of humour) had rubbed salt away from the brass, so that the only white, salt-stained letters left of the victim's name read 'Ron's Meat'.

Here is where I segue from the Southern Ocean to our northern waters, and from sharks to crocodiles. This is because I've just read Val Plumwood's story Being Prey and it reminded me to re examine my thoughts about shark attacks and the way us guys think we are somehow above the whole concept of being edible.

I've just discovered Plumwood and it feels like my discovery of the writer Michael King when I arrived in New Zealand. I encountered a writer whose work and life resonated so beautifully and perfectly and from whom I learnt from so quickly, only to realise they'd died a year or so before. Both of these revelations quite devastated me! Val Plumwood died in 2008. I hate to label her but she could be described in academic circles as an environmentalist/feminist/philosopher. She also was a relatively innocent party to a crocodile roll and that is the subject of her amazing essay Being Prey.

Plumwood's rendition of being dragged out of her canoe in a Northern Territory tributary by a hungry crocodile who wanted her for dinner is one of the most terrifying and lucid pieces of writing I have ever read. She was rolled, thinking she was going to die, not once but twice and then dragged out of the tree that she'd clung to when the crocodile tired, only to be grabbed and rolled under the water again.

As in the repetition of a nightmare, the horror of my first escape attempt was repeated. As I leaped in to the same branch, the crocodile seized me again, this time around the upper left thigh, and pulled me under. Like the others, the third death roll stopped, and we came up next to the sandpaper fig branch again. I was growing weaker but I could see the crocodile taking a long time to kill me this way ...

Val Plumwood's story is an amazing read but not because she describes the attack itself. In Being Prey, she applies her eco feminist philosopher's lens to the subject of whether or not humanity's supremacy automatically negates us from being the wagyu steak or sushi for other apex critters. And she is dogged in her dissection:

This denial that we ourselves are food for others is reflected in many aspects of our death and burial practices - the strong coffin, conveniently buried well below the level of soil fauna activity, and the slab over the grave to prevent any other thing from digging us up, keeps the Western human body from becoming food for other species. Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: Horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood and alien monsters eating humans.

Now I get why sea lice falling out of the nets and biting my toes upsets me so much.

Plumwood dragged herself up a slippery clay bank and started walking. She lay down bleeding in the floodplains. I hoped to pass out soon but consciousness persisted. It's a bastard, that consciousness. She was rescued many hours later and began the thirteen hour trip in the ambulance to Darwin.

My rescuers discussed going upriver the next day to shoot the crocodile. I spoke strongly against this plan: I was the intruder, and no good purpose could be served by random revenge.

When I talked about this across-the-board-attitude of victims towards their sharky attackers to a surfer friend, he said, "Well. Obviously. Most people who are attacked are people who hang out in the water. They are surfers, abalone divers, skin divers. They get it. They know the place belongs to the sharks and the fish. They know it doesn't belong to us."

And Plumwood saw in that universe of the crocodile roll that she had no more significance than any other edible being. She dismantled the 'monster, master narrative' in Being Prey. Her clarity and precision on the subject of how easy it is to be eaten, whether you are human or cow or rabbit or fish, is truly terrifying and kind of edifying all at once.

All italicised passages are from the article 'Being Prey' by Val Plumwood.


  1. I agree about the uselessness of random revenge. I let my parents die a natural death.

  2. I don't know, but meal times were always a frenzy.

  3. I have the same horror of parasites ST and now I know why. It is very humbling to remember that you are inevitably, despite being a top level feeder as we humans are, just food.

    Another civilisation that was probably even more paranoid about joining the food chain than us were the Egyptians of course. The irony of us digging them up, even thousands of years later, still amuses me. But whatever happens to the body, dead is dead.

    I actually want to have my corpse thrown whole into the sea to be devoured finally by a Great White. Two problems with that - the law would never allow it. AND worse - what if I was just nibbled on by millions of blowies, or sea-lice! Ugh.....

  4. Yes parasites are a constant reminder of how edible we are! Gross!
    Interesting that when the whale was euthenaised here recently, they put the body on the truck to the dump, where they buried him. No sea burial where sharks could have a feed ... and yet somehow land burial seems so much more disrespectful.

  5. I also discovered Michael King when I was in NZ, Sarah. Whilst in Frame country I read his magnificent biography "Wrestling with the angel: a life of Janet Frame". I thought the book was brilliantly done.

  6. Thanks Barbara. A friend told me yesterday that the nation went into mourning when he died.
    Hey also, I happened upon your story 'Tyger Tyger' in Meanjin the other day. Wonderful. I really liked it.

  7. Wow, that's from a while ago... Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. There's quite a story behind that publication. Not all the editors wanted to published Tiger, but Jenny Lee went into bat for it and so it eventually appeared. She was a very supportive person, Jenny, and would stand her ground when she thought a work was worth it. I often wonder where she moved on to.
    And while I'm at it .... big congratulations on the Best Aust. Essays publication ... so proud of you and all you have achieved!
    We're moving to Narrogin mid December. Know anything about the town or anyone there?

  8. Fantastic rose gardens, strangely enough. Other than that, nope. Sorry. But at least you'll be able to flit down to the southern edge on a day off!