Sunday, September 23, 2012

Raised by Wolves

"Becky's eyes growed as large as saucers when he told her 'bout a man eaten by a sperm whale. It swallowed him right up but when they killed the whale and cut it open there he was, this fella looking like death but still alive. His black hair were bleached white, he had no top skin left and he were nearly blind. Then me father were telling us how he was going to give up whaling cos there were not many whales left when he cried out, Look! Before I could see what he was pointing at I heard me mother say, Oh my goodness, it's one of those hyenas.

I turned and there, there on the bank not more than ten yards from us, were a wolf creature with yellow fur and black stripes. It were about the size of a real large dog. I remember it to this day, cos it were the first one I had ever seen. It had a long muzzle and stripes on its side like a tiger. The tail were thick and the fur so fine and smooth it were like it didn't have hair. It's like a wolf, I heard me mother say and indeed it looked like one of those wolves I seen in me fairytale books. It stared at us with huge black eyes, then opened its jaw real slow til I thought it could swallow a baby. I'll go bail if it were not the most bonny, handsomest thing I ever seen ..."(1)

And so begins the wonderful tyger tale as narrated by Louis Nowra in his new novel Into That Forest - an antipodean foray into the ancient and recurring theme raised by wolves. Anyone familiar with WineDark penchants will know that Thylacenes are an enduring obsession. It is something to do with extinction but more to do with a palpable but inexplicable sense of loss; a longing for something meaningful that could have existed but doesn't ... a unicorn narrative for what could have been. The tigers have conveniently morphed into a mythology rather than a demonstration of our dark past. I've shed tears in a bank queue on seeing footage on the television of the last Tasmanian tiger pacing its concrete, wire-bound cage. I've said that I covet its tanned hide but really, hunting the critter throughout the museums of Australia and finding stuffed or photographic examples always makes me feel appalled and very sad. Sheep killers get shot around here.




"This was the time just after the coming of the dogs, when everything changed.
A barren woman who carried a ginger pup strapped to her belly, told the girl the story of the strange men who sailed in from the north. They wore spiked helmets fashioned from stonefish and breastplates of thick, felted coconut fibre that repelled even the death spears. They brought the dogs with them for food and were bejeweled in the toothed necklaces of ones they'd eaten on the journey.
These dogs without pouches were welcomed. Dogs didn't compete with people like the tigers. They hunted in teams and brought food to the camp, where they sat on the outer rim of firelight, their jowls resting on their paws, ears cocked, waiting their turn. With them came a new mammalian knowledge of fatherhood and birth. The old women said that's when things began to change.
Some nights when the moon was full, the dogs left the camp, silently, in rows like militant wraiths. Then the cold, damp air was fraught with the smell of terror and blood. The dogs yipped and howled as they sniffed out den after den of tigers. They tore apart the marsupial bitch in a cramped little cave and they devoured her babies."(2)

Thus the dingoes wiped out the Thylacenes on mainland Australia. Well, according to John Mulvaney (and I'd trust him because he's dug both of them up and dated them):
"Considering it took the introduced red fox only 70 years to cross Australia, the dingo's expansion across the continent from its point of arrival similarly may have taken only a few decades. It has been long assumed that it was responsible for the disappearance of the meat-eating Tasmanian tiger and Tasmanian devil from mainland Australia. These two marsupials survived into modern times only in Tasmania. David Horton has argued that if the dingo had contributed to their continental demise the process had been attritional and ended perhaps less than 1000 years ago. However archaeological evidence for the latest appearence of both the tiger and the devil on the mainland coincides with the early dingo remains around 3000 years ago."(3)  
ie. it took only 100 years for the dingoes to get rid of the tigers on the mainland. In Van Diemen's Land it took the humans about 50 years to do the same job.

Images of Tasmanian tigers are carved into Kakadu caves, Northern Territory and the Burrup rocks in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

So the tigers were everywhere. Australian tigers, roaming the red north and deep into the green light of southern forests. In the land occupied by marsupial carnivores, giant reptiles and humans for millennia, something happened and the balance shifted. Long after the land bridge to Tasmania flooded, protecting and creating a weird time capsule, the dogs came to Australia.

Now, onto the dogs. Apparently dingoes are not actually dogs.
"The red-blonde canine trots over and sits patiently as Watson demonstrates all the ways a dingo is not a dog. First, she puts a hand under the animal's chin and one at the top of its head, then - as if it has a hinge at the back of its neck - she gently pushes back until the top of the dingo's skull touches its spine. With Snapple's head upright again, Watson turns its ears like radar dishes. When dingoes hunt, one ear points directly forward and one directly back. (Me: who has seen a dingo-cross do this thing with their ears? I have.) Next Watson rotates the dingo's head from side to side, and it travels at least 200 degrees each way. It's like the famous head-spinning scene in The Exorcist, except it's adorable ... Watson takes me to an inconspicuous hole near a log in the paddock. It extends four and a half metres underground, yet no one saw the dingoes dig it and no one has any idea where the displaced dirt went ... the problem, says Watson, is that because dingoes look like dogs, we think we know them." (4)

Anyhoo, back to tigers and Nowra's tale of the little girls who were lost and orphaned by a river storm ... "The cave were small and the floor covered in dried fern fronds. It smelt cosy and warm. I told Becky there were two tigers and I were going inside to be with them."

"We laughed and the tigers moved right away from us. We were still laughing at them when they suddenly went all frozen. Their ears turned towards a sound they heard. The male tiger stood on his hind legs like it were a human or a roo, so he could see over the high grass and ferns. Then without looking or coughing at each other they ran off. I felt this bolt of excitement flow through me and I found meself running after them, so did Becky."

Louis Nowra's book is classified teen fiction.
I loved it.

1. Louis Nowra, Into That Forest, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012, pp. 10 - 32.
2. Me, Here.
3. Mulvany and Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Sydney, 1999, p. 260.
4. Christine Kenneally, 'Not a Dog', in The Monthly, September 2012, p. 17.

Kakadu tiger:
Tasmanian tiger: Queen Victoria Museum, Launceston, Tasmania.
Burrup tiger: Castillo Rocas
"This engraving was removed from its original location and taken to the office of a transnational conglomerate CEO in the Burrup. A few months later it was returned to its 'original' location and stuck in with cement. 

Burrup Peninsula, Pilbara District, Western Australia."


  1. I can't wait to get into it! Cheers Sarah!

  2. That's fascinating, about dingoes not being dogs. Not the kind we know of, anyway..

    That last scene with the kids in the cave and the tigers hearing something, very well done..

  3. It is a nice scene yes? I can't recommend this book enough. You can feed it to your kids and then devour it yourself. A gorgeous tale.