Wom­bats di­vine

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Viewpoint - By phillip adamS

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.

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