Tagged: Harry Saddler

Questions Raised by Quolls

All Harry Saddler really wanted to do was to see a quoll in the wild.

It was November 2019, and the Melbourne-based author was enjoying a surprise publishing success: his small book, The Eastern Curlew, a telling of the extraordinary migration of Australia’s largest shorebird, had sold through its hardcover print run, opening a new niche in Australia for natural history writing.

This was when Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were beginning to choke the eastern states, and before the pandemic that would force Saddler to write from home. It changed his focus. “It became impossible to write about the state of the environment in Australia and not confront those things head on,” he says.

Saddler’s new book, Questions Raised By Quolls, became more a work of moral philosophy than natural history. Written quickly, it became part-treatise on the legacy of colonialism, part-family history: Saddler’s ancestor Michael Farrell was transported as a convict to Sydney from Ireland in 1816.

“I think that aspect of the family story in the book was a way to write about the human effects of colonialism without co-opting other people’s stories,” Saddler says. “I touch on the damage done to Indigenous societies in the book too, but I was conscious that those are not my stories to tell.”

Another consequence of colonisation has been a wave of mammalian extinctions: 34 Australian species have been officially extirpated since European settlement. Eastern Quolls disappeared from the forests of the mainland decades ago and are now confined to Tasmania; Western, Northern and Spotted-tailed Quolls are all threatened.

It helps that these predatory marsupials are charismatic animals. Saddler wonders briefly if he should have written about rodents instead: “They’re the unsung heroes of the Australian mammal fauna, and they’ve really copped the brunt in terms of mammal extinctions,” he muses. “But it might not have been as appealing.”

So, instead of paying tribute to rodents, Saddler writes about those doing the work on the ground to save them – quolls and much else besides – in sanctuaries like Mulligans Flat in Canberra and Arid Recovery Reserve in northern South Australia, where long-gone species are being reintroduced in fenced-off environments.

“All these places run on the smell of an oily rag, because there’s no money in conservation at all, and yet people are nonetheless doing incredible work to restore ecosystems as best they can to bring the animals back, and you can see tangible results in some places,” Saddler says.

Unfortunately, the pandemic confined Saddler to writing about these places from his desk. Somehow, it increased the urgency. “Being someone who’s prone to introspection at the best of times, I think it helped me look beyond the four walls of my house, because I was thinking about larger things, looking back into the past, and potentially into the future.”

Writing Questions Raised By Quolls enabled him to focus on hope, instead of submitting to grief. “There is an understandable urge to despair in terms of the environment [but] there is still an enormous amount in the world to be saved. Yes, we’ve lost an extraordinary amount, but we haven’t lost everything, and we have to fight for everything that we have left,” he says.

It also raises ethical questions not often touched on by men. Saddler’s father instilled in him a love of bushwalking. Now in his early 40s, Saddler wishes he could pass on the knowledge he inherited to children of his own: “I get clucky when I see baby magpies begging for food,” he admits. (Saddler is currently single.)

But he worries about the world he would be bringing a child into. This is not, he says, a question of overpopulation: “I really strongly reject that argument, primarily because it presupposes that our systems and ways of living and organising society and our economy are just fixed and immutable and are never going to change.”

Saddler is more concerned with the question of raising a child on a planet that is literally burning up. But he prefers to imagine a more equitable world, where sustainability is possible – in which case the question of the Earth’s ultimate human-carrying capacity is less urgent.

It was with his own father that he saw his first Eastern Quoll, hiking in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. Soon, he hopes, he may be able to see one again. “If you’re going to write a book about an animal, you should be able to see the animal, that’s half the fun of it,” he says. “At least I saw some Eastern Curlews writing The Eastern Curlew.”

First published in the Guardian, 28 July 2021

Flight Lines

Nearly 20 years ago, in pursuit of a different sort of life, I spent six months commuting between Brisbane and Robbins Island, a remote chunk of privately owned land just off the far north-west coast of Tasmania. My job at the time was identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed windfarm.

The uninhabited island is a tough place to get around, accessible only by four-wheel-drive across the mudflats, at low tide. But its wild west coast is a haven for many thousands of migratory shorebirds, around 25 species of which perform marathon, nearly non-stop flights from the Siberian tundra, where they breed, all the way to Australia and back, every year.

Going through my notes from December 2002, a few numbers jump out: over 600 Curlew Sandpipers; 100 Great Knots; 180 Grey Plovers; more than 3,000 Red-necked Stints. One month later, these birds were joined by over 240 Bar-tailed Godwits. The numbers were impressive, but fairly typical at the time.

Five Grey Plovers over the Oregon coast, USA. Photo: Roy L Lowe

Now the windfarm proposal is back on, and Andrew Darby – a Hobart-based journalist and the author of a new book, Flight Lines – has been helping survey birds on the island again. In 2015–2016, the Curlew Sandpiper, great knot and the local subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit were all listed as critically endangered. Last year’s counts turned up just one Grey Plover.

But wind turbines are not the cause of the birds’ decline. The overwhelming threat is habitat destruction, particularly the mudflats of the Yellow Sea in China – a critical layover where the exhausted birds replenish themselves – and around the Australian coastline, including Toondah harbour in south-east Queensland.

It all sounds familiarly grim. And yet Flight Lines, which was written either side of a life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer in 2018, is far from it. In dark times, Darby looked for inspiration in the resilience of shorebirds, in particular the stories of two satellite-tagged female Grey Plovers named CYA and CYB.

Until recently, Darby was no more interested in birds than the average person and shorebirds existed on the periphery of his consciousness – until he learned about their ultra-marathon travel schedule. “They are the birds ‘out there’, on the edge of the tideline, not really very noticeable creatures, and yet they have such extraordinary lives,” he says.

He describes the Grey Plover as the “everybird” of our Siberian migrants: the greyest and drabbest of a group of birds which, in Australia, tend to be grey and drab, moulting into their brighter summer plumage on their breeding grounds. That interested Darby: “In life, there are many surprises to be found among the overlooked,” he writes.

Like Harry Saddler’s surprise hit from 2018, The Eastern Curlew (which follows the journey of another long-distance migrant), Flight Lines takes what appears to be a niche topic and turns it into an immense, heroic and surprisingly uplifting narrative of endurance and survival, with an obvious parallel to his own experience.

But whereas Saddler’s account is intimate and personal, Darby’s book, which was nearly curtailed by his illness, directly engages with, and celebrates, citizen science. The book opens with a tense account of a cannon-netting session at the head of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, that captured CYA and CYB.

Cannon netting, where birds massed on the shoreline are trapped via a net literally launched from a cannon, is a contentious method of study in some quarters. The hard truth is that birds, occasionally, are killed. But it has also greatly advanced our knowledge of shorebird movements and their conservation requirements.

Satellite tracking enabled close observation of the challenges CYA and CYB faced; CYB, for example, had to contend with a super-typhoon as she flew back to the Yellow Sea after breeding. Not surprisingly, Darby says, “I became very fond of them” and it was in science, as well as the pluck of the plovers, that he drew hope for himself.

There’s some lesson in that, particularly as science is being pilloried and politicised as never before. But there’s no politicising a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy, still a relatively new field, has Darby in better shape – though he says it would be wrong to say he’s cured. “Oncologists are learning about it as we go. It’s a new journey for all of us.”

The link to shorebirds, he says, is in the simple grunt work of gathering data. “It’s all about doing science for science’s sake – they didn’t start off looking for immunotherapy as an answer to cancer when they were investigating how it worked with the immune system; they were just looking at the immune system,” he says.

Similarly, he says, tracking shorebird migration didn’t begin with a particular goal in mind. The pioneer of shorebird study in Australia, the late Clive Minton, told Darby “we do it to answer a question, and that leads on to the next question”.

But the questions Minton asked helped provide the data pointing to the alarming decline of shorebirds worldwide. That’s led in turn to some more hopeful outcomes. Last year, the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China was placed on the UNESCO world heritage register, specifically aimed at protecting migratory shorebirds such as the tiny, charismatic and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper doesn’t occur in Australia, but it’s considered a flagship species, so inherently appealing that by saving it we might save much more besides. Listening to Darby describing his own encounter with one, it’s clear why: “It was like this cute little wind-up bird, I was sure he was going to fall over and [I was going] to see the key in his tummy.”

After a summer in which so much of our own wildlife has been obliterated by fire, he has retained his optimism. “The capacity of these birds to persist is what I found astonishing, and to someone who lives a precarious life with cancer, like me, it’s a lesson. You know, I will come and go – these birds will roll on.”

First published in the Guardian, 22 February 2020