by Angela Rockel
capable of being in uncertainties
Working at night, I disturbed a little bat; I heard wings and thought a bird had found its way in, then recognised the sound and saw the dark, glove-leather sheen of fingered webbing as the bat made puzzled rounds of my head in the glow of the screen. It’s a chocolate wattled bat – they hibernate for a shorter time than the other seven species that live on the island. Tucked into a fold of curtain or wall-space cranny, this one is already beginning to rouse from its winter sleep. All the bats here are small insectivores – microbats of the Vespertilionidae family. A couple of species have adapted well to living around humans, making use of buildings as roosting places and feeding on insects attracted to their lights. The walls of my workspace are porous – the flittermice have made themselves at home.
I once found a sleeping bat on a footpath in the middle of Hobart. It was about this time of year – someone must have put on a seldom-used coat that had been chosen by the bat as a hibernation roost; it was carried along until it fell out, there in the street. These bats are tiny, covered in fur that’s thick and ravishingly soft; holding the sleeping creature in my hand, its few grams’ weight was imperceptible – all I could feel was the faintest warmth as my own body heat gathered in its pelt. Its face was almost invisible, deep in a ruff of fur; along its sides I could see the arm-bones and shirred skin of its folded wings. I wrapped it loosely in a shirt and kept it in a quiet place while I worked. Walking back to my car after dark, when I lifted a corner of the shirt, the bat stirred and flew off. How far from its roosting place had it been carried? Did it survive until spring? All the species here hibernate through the coldest months and to be disturbed at the wrong time can mean death by starvation.
On the mainland, bat lyssavirus, a form of the rabies virus feared throughout history for its symptoms of delirium with terrified aversion to water, followed by convulsions, paralysis and death, has become a cause for concern among those who come into contact with the big fruit bats of the tropics and subtropics. Several people have died after being scratched or bitten. There’s a vaccine but not much hope of cure once symptoms appear in the unvaccinated. As settlement encroaches on forest and the fruit and blossoms these bats feed on become scarcer, they move into orchards and parks; as seasonal patterns alter, they’re also extending their range further south. Occasionally one strays across Bass Strait, although there are no colonies here, so far. But the virus has been found in one species of microbat on the mainland too, so it’s possible that animals here could carry it.
It has snowed – big wet flakes mixed with rain at first, then the rain stopped and the snow continued, falling in silent showers through the night. But the ground here was sodden and all that remained in the morning was a crusted glaze on the grass, though the lower peaks and passes were white and the mountains gleamed. By late morning it was gone from all but sheltered pockets in the high country. Thirty years ago, we used to get two or three falls each winter that lasted a day or so, but now that’s rare and some years pass with none at all.
With the snow, the black cockatoos are back – they’ll tell you when bad weather’s coming, yes, and where from too – they’ll be flying out of it, away. A flock of sixty or more make the rounds of pine hedges and wattle gullies along the valley and their signs are everywhere in shredded cones and chunks pulled from fallen timber, torn apart for the grubs that live in the dead wood. Three young birds, their feathers still greyish, not yet grown into glossy black, sit in the prickly wattle outside my workspace and eye me, unconcerned, as they strip bark from a rotted limb. They keep up a continuous conversation – it’s a sound I love, a mixture of hissing creaks and a kind of nickering wail, keen and directed out of some wild will, untrammelled.
And mixed with these cold days, wafts of balmy air and the smell of working ground – grass in the paddocks has begun to grow and buds are moving – all of it beginning weeks early. Parrots feed in flowering wattles and shower the ground with nipped yellow sprigs. The call of the first pardalote falls, drip-drop, into the still air of afternoon from high in a eucalypt, and the first quail answers from the cover of grass and tangled weeds under the lucerne hedge, sip here? sip here?
The platypus has appeared in the dam, as it did last winter after heavy rain turned roadside drains into creeks it could follow uphill, investigating. It took up residence for a few weeks under the upturned canoe, coming and going via the prow, which had been submerged by quickly-rising water. Then it was gone – did it move further on or go back the way it came, to the dams and permanent creeks in the valley below? Now at twilight it surfaces and goes under in smooth, rolling, purposeful dives, stirring up mud and turning the dam turbid in search of its invertebrate food. The canoe has been dragged well clear of the water’s edge and I don’t know where the animal is sleeping.
Last year the platypus came in the days after I returned from a journey to Ireland, to the area where my maternal grandparents were born in the nineteenth century. The creature’s combined reptilian and mammalian attributes, its capacity to move back and forth between day and night, between land and water – these things were consoling to me in the state of self-divided turmoil I had been thrown into, having been given a disturbing reconfiguration of my Irish family narrative; not victims or bystanders, some of my people had been landlords’ agents during the famine.
Around the anniversary of that pilgrimage I had this dream: I am standing on a quay in West Cork with a little town at my back, watching seals sunning themselves on rocks some way offshore. Complacently, my dream-self rehearses the selkie stories in which certain seals, benign shapeshifters, are able to shed their skins and leave behind their oceanic life at will, to walk on land as humans, with whom they sometimes fall in love, though often at great cost. But as I look, I realise that by some reversal I’m using the wrong word and that these creatures are not selkies but kelpies – waterhorses, also able to take human form but at best tricksters and at worst intent on taking humans – the unwary, the greedy and naïve – with them into the water to be drowned and eaten.
I took my familial blindspot, my cushioning ignorance, with me into famine country in Ireland and in return the ancestors showed me faces I hadn’t bargained for. Working in the dark, we scare up what’s been sleeping; into the dream-space and the space of each moment, uninvited, come uncertainties, mysteries, doubts – furies that can tear us apart in payment of blood-debts incurred generations back.
In the light of our little lamp, the space of the page permits a meeting with these rouselings in a human arena, mediated. And if, as part of a writing practice, we can sit with what approaches, if we can tolerate grief and anxiety for the necessary interval (days, months, a lifetime), sometimes a curse can be transformed; we find a way to honour the furious dead, let them speak, hold the tension between worlds to find what redress is required.
But there’s a seasonality to this process and we override it at our peril – periods of shutdown in the face of wintry forces, periods of choosing life on land over entry into the cold and dark, infected by a horror of the watery realm and its fearful work – acknowledging all that is damaged and destructive. And then there’s a shift and again the work becomes possible.
Early or late, ready or not, change comes. Something wakes us; our dwelling is plucked up and removed and we take to the air, the water, the road. There we go – zigzagging up into the darkening sky, or over the rise and down to the west-flowing winter creek; drawn or driven, impelled by necessity we add our inscription to the immense tracery that elaborates itself everywhere.
Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters. Ed. Edward Hirsch. Random House, 2001. Kindle