Dylan Thomas once bemoaned the existence of books that tell "everything about the wasp except why." Those of us who are charmed by kangaroos have the opposite problem. We know why kangaroos exist. It’s because they are delightful creatures that could have been created by Dr. Seuss, and, for many of us, that is all that we know.
Tim Flannery, native Australian and author of The Weather Makers, is out to change that dismal state of affairs, and with his latest book he certainly will. From his initial foray into the field of kangaroo study, when he embarked on a teenage motorcycle circumnavigation of Australia to collect specimens of road kill, to his journey with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to populate an island with the nearly extinct banded hare wallaby, Flannery combines information and adventure with highly readable results.
Kangaroos are creatures of amazing diversity, with over 70 species alive in the world today and new ones discovered on a regular basis in the rainforests and mountains of New Guinea and Indonesia. Some live in trees, some in burrows. One member of the kangaroo family, the nailtail wallaby, has what looks like a fingernail growing from the end of its tail, and nobody knows why. They are the only large animals that hop, although it has been discovered that hopping is "the most efficient means of locomotion ever evolved by a land-bound creature." The desert rat-kangaroo, now extinct, weighed less than a kilogram but one of them stayed ahead of pursuing men on horseback for 12 miles, caught only when it collapsed and died.
In search of the evolution of the kangaroo, Flannery has crawled on his hands and knees across miles of Australian desert, pursued by a "caravan of flies," in search of ancient marsupials’ tiny bones. Once found, the bone would immediately go into his mouth to clean away the dirt and salt and "decomposed crocodile turd." As arduous and unappealing as this may sound, the discoveries could be thrilling. During one expedition a "jaw so small that half a dozen could sit on your thumbnail" proved that the earth’s first placental mammals had originated in Australia, not in North America, as scholars had previously thought.
Flannery’s passion for science propels his narrative but it is also enriched by his stories of Australia and the people who live there. In his wanderings he has found opal lying in the rocks of a mesa, aboriginal paintings on canyon walls and daisies in "a field of shimmering gold" surrounded by sand dunes. He is puzzled when the hospitality of a cook at an isolated sheep-shearing camp suddenly changes to outright hatred, until he learns that the cook is hard of hearing and thought Flannery announced himself as a possum hunter rather than a fossil hunter. When the possum population continued to increase, so did the animosity of the possum-hating cook. And his story of how his adolescent motorcycling adventure ended when his bike was put to the torch by Walmatjarri tribesmen is sensitive and alive to the tragedy of a disappearing culture.
"They are," Flannery says of kangaroos, "in my opinion, the most remarkable animals that ever lived, and the truest expression of my country … because they have been made by Australia." Nobody will read this book without coming away with an expanded knowledge of the kangaroo family and a deep appreciation of the country that claims them as its symbol and its "most successful evolutionary product."
Reviewed by Janet Brown