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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 53 [48]

Writing Roos

There are some interesting things you observe, as you’re writing about animals. The disrespect of and distance from them that are built into the language, so that even as you try to approach them you’re doing so through a hostile medium.

The mere fact that one finds it so natural to talk about ‘animals’ in the first place is part of it. Derrida says (in The Animal That Therefore I Am) that to speak about ‘animals’ – a lump-term to cover so many utterly different creatures, and to submerge to fact that we are ourselves creatures amongst those creatures – is an intellectual violence, and despite my many disagreements with Derrida I have to applaud him for this.

We can compensate a little for this intellectual crudity by speaking about ourselves not as humans as if they/we were a separate category, but as human animals, and others as non-human animals, but it’s clunky – all change/correction is clunky – and only goes part of the way.

You might (to look at a different problem) write of the Red kangaroo as a creature of the great plains.  You might speak of it as a species that has made remarkable adaptations to the landscapes of saltbush and red earth. You might talk of its speed, its endurance. But already you’re in the territory of error and distance, disrespect. No creature is an it. A kangaroo is either male or female, a him or a her, and even that might be reductive. We might think that, in speaking of a species as an ‘it’, we’re on safer ground, but even that can and should be avoided. Species are made up of individuals. Try saying that, as a species, they are (x or y or whatever).

The word species, since we have come to it, is itself a bit of a problem, itself a significant part of the species barrier. It may be quite appropriate in an overall taxonomy of earth’s creatures, but how much do we need to allow its cold distancing into our relations with other creatures? We human animals are one of the tribes on earth (a particularly dangerous and destructive one, I think). Red kangaroos are another of those tribes. Etc.

Baby steps – I have not even begun to speak of the conceptual things we must resist (the sexual bias of taxonomy, for example: the predominance of male features in our classifications; female ‘red’ kangaroos are not red; female and juvenile Blue Satin Bower-birds are not blue, etc.) – but we have to start somewhere.

Rule of thumb? If you would not like to be talked about in the manner in which you find yourself talking about them, then do something about it. Force the language into some respect.

Last night I was reading some ‘indigenous’ accounts of the kangaroo’s origins (the word ‘indigenous’ in inverted commas since these accounts came largely through white/invader intermediaries). This one, recorded in the 1860s by Charles William Peck in the Burragorang Valley, tells how the kangaroo arrived, and developed their long legs, during a violent windstorm:

During all this terrible wandering and blowing the first kangaroo had a weary time. He could not land. He was blown before that aimless wind and was tossed up and down. In his endeavours to gain a foothold his hind legs stretched out, and if they had not grown long as they did, he would never have alighted except in the sea, where he would have been drowned.

And this, from storyteller Nugget Jabangadi James, a ‘Warlpiri Dreamtime story from the Tanami Desert’, telling, amongst other things, how Red kangaroos got their dark paws:

Photo: ‘Red Kangaroo’, David Cook/Flikr, Creative Commons licence.

One day while he was sleeping … a bushfire blazed across the plains. Kangaroo woke up and tried to run to safety, but he was caught by the flames. As he ran through the fire his front paws were badly burnt. They were now much smaller, and burnt black. … He decided that he would have to run using only his strong back legs and his long tail. And so he hopped … Kangaroo continued hopping until he was safe.  When he tried to walk again on all fours he found he couldn’t so he began hopping again and has done so ever since. (1)

Not perfect – the kangaroo is automatically ‘he’, for example – and I’m not proposing Dreamtime myths as ultimate guides, but there’s no ‘it’ in either story, and a good deal more respect and sense of individuality than invader culture tends to show. Perhaps, alongside all I say here, you need to take such accounts into consideration. It’s 40,000 years (plus) of relationship, after all, against a couple of hundred.

(1) Kangaroo: Portrait of an Extraordinary Marsupial, Stephen Jackson and Karl Vernes (Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2010), 24 & 27.

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