While the wom is not the largest bat, it is certainly the heaviest. Yet despite its bulk and lack of streamlining the wombat is capable of flying short distances. Hyperventilating, it inflates itself into a sort of furry balloon and can travel from branch to branch and tree to tree, usually under cover of darkness. When tweeting this little-known fact I was met with widespread disbelief.
Yet this next fact, concerning the wombat’s speed and endurance, cannot be disputed. It comes from the current issue of that most august of journals, the London Review of Books. Writing that “wombats are deceptive; they are swifter than they look, braver than they look, tougher than they look”, essayist Katherine Rundell compares them to Usain Bolt. During his record-breaking 100m in 2009 Bolt managed to “hit a speed of 27.8mph [44.7km/h] but maintained it for just 1.61 seconds” – whereas “a wombat can run at up to 25mph, and maintain that speed for 90 seconds”. A clear win for the wombat.
Rundell talks about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s affection for the creatures. “The wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness,” said the famous painter, who kept kangaroos, wallabies and a zebu in his back garden in London, and two wombats that lived indoors under his grand piano. He’d take one of them, Topsy, for leashed walks around Chelsea. Rundell records that the other wom “interrupted a seemingly uninterruptable monologue by John Ruskin by burrowing its nose between the critic’s waistcoat and jacket”.
Rossetti drew his beloved animals repeatedly – and was disconsolate on their deaths, perhaps caused by poor diet (they loved to munch cigar butts). A final drawing shows him weeping over a tubby corpse. At the time he intoned this poem: “I have never reared a young Wombat/to glad me with his pinhole eye/but when he was most sweet and fat/and Tail-less; he was sure to die!”
There’s a theory that Lewis Carroll, having met one of Rossetti’s wombats, was inspired to include it in the Hatter’s Tea Party. Alice arrives to find the two mad hosts – the Hatter and the March Hare – using a sleeping creature as an armrest. There’s evidence that the original was a wombat, later redrawn by illustrator John Tenniel as a dormouse to avoid cultural confusion.
We’re talking of a time when wombats had some very distinguished fans. Returning from New Holland in 1804, Nicolas Baudin’s vessels were crowded arks of animals for Napoleon and Josephine. Most of the kangaroos and wombats died en route, but one survived its diet of wine and sugar and was handed over safely to the Empress.
For some years my wireless program used as its theme Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag, a witty and whimsical piece reminiscent of Prokofiev. I gave it a new name, The Waltz of the Wombat, though Elena’s work had nothing to do with the animal and certainly wasn’t a waltz. But as with Rossetti, the wombat became my totemic animal. Now, like the koala, their populations are under pressure and they’re protected – but in the early 20th century they were classed as vermin and millions were slaughtered for the bounty. Habitat destruction, roadkill and hostile farmers have since conspired to make the “common wombat” increasingly uncommon.
Unlike Rossetti in his studio, indigenous artists rarely depicted wombats in rock art, and they’re treated with indifference verging on contempt in legend. But I think the world of them and like to sit on the farm veranda at twilight watching them fly from tree to tree.