Review: The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat by Tim Bonyhardy

In The Swan Book, Alexis Wright’s grim vision of future Australia, some of her characters encounter a wondrous plague of rats and grass owls running riot over the climate-changed outback. When I first read it I thought Wright had drawn this scene from the depths of her prodigious imagination. But Tim Bonyhardy’s “rodent history of Australia” has got me thinking otherwise.

The long-haired rat, as Bonyhardy writes, is Australia’s “prime irruptive rodent”, which doesn’t sound particularly promising, but proves to be an excellent subject for an environmental history of Australia since colonisation.

Irruptive species are organisms whose populations grow exponentially in good times before seemingly disappearing when they are bad. They are the stuff of biblical plague. Locusts are one. Passenger pigeons were another, which is indication that despite their uncountable multitudes, these species are also no match for humans. 

The long-haired rat was first recorded by colonisers in 1847. Its subsequent plagues, spreading outwards from western Queensland, were the subject of much interest in late-19th/early-20th Australia, including to bush naturalists such as the dogged Kenric Harold Bennett, who emerges as one of the heroes of this book (despite his acknowledged part in the dispossession of Indigenous people). Most intriguingly, Bonyhardy suggests the rats played a part in the deaths of explorers Bourke and Wills, covering their tracks so a colleague did not realise they were still in the bush. It seems a long bow, but over and over again the colonists wrote about the rats appearing in such numbers that their tiny footprints destroyed the traces of anything else.

Bonyhardy’s thesis is that you can trace the history of this part of Australia through records of the rat. It proves fruitful ground. With plague outbreaks linked to the cycle of drought and flood caused by El Niño and La Niña, he tells of the devastation caused by drought, of flocks of sheep reduced by thousands, eerily reminiscent of what is happening right now in similar regions. And then there’s the wonder of wet years, of the rivers and inland seas of the outback temporarily coming to life.

There’s the story of the inexorable spread of the colonists and their livestock, and their violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The Diyari people, who came onto missions in the late-19th century, had a special relationship with the rat, performing ceremonies to increase its numbers. Some colonists sympathised with the catastrophe unfolding for these people; most worked to hasten it along.

The colonists’ livestock, and animals like cats, foxes, and rabbits that came along with them, was doing similar harm to native wildlife. The land of the rat is the epicentre of Australia’s mammal extinctions, where 30 species – 10% – have gone extinct since colonisation. Many other species, birds and mammals alike, are found in nowhere near their past numbers. This book’s greatest achievement is evoking this lost world. How amazing it must have been, where bilbies were as common as rabbits, and flocks of bronzewing pigeons were said to darken the sky. It is a dismantling of a continent’s ecosystems that we are yet to fully comprehend. We live now in a shadow country.

The rat too has suffered, although it is for the moment secure, along with its whole fascinating ecosystem – the letter-winged kites that follow its irruptions, the world’s only nocturnal raptor, and the inland taipan, the world’s most toxic snake.

This book’s existence is remarkable enough. Bonyhardy provides exhaustive evidence of the rat plagues in colonial newspapers, which I have to admit I started to find dry even with my interest. Still, it is new ground, and I appreciated the work.

More compelling is Bonyhardy’s argument for recognition of the work of the untrained naturalists in the bush, the ones who didn’t have access to collections, classification or scientific training. Instead they were farmers who were curious about the world, whose accounts were often dismissed. They are now the only records of a lost world.

The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat is published by Text. 

Gay rating: 0/5 for no gay content, not even a curious rat. 

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