Of Marsupials and Men (Alistair Paton, Black Inc.)
If members of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria had had their way, monkeys and boa constrictors would have been let loose in the foliage of 19th-century Melbourne. That idea was shot down, of course, but the group’s—and the era’s—relationship with animals remains just as perplexing to a modern reader. With Of Marsupials and Men Alistair Paton, a sports journalist by day, leads us into the world of Australia’s naturalists: often self-styled, frequently eccentric. We spend time in the Victorian era, gripped by a frenzy for the ‘exotic’, when native Australian flora and fauna were whisked across the high seas to stock public and private collections. We meet snake hunters and bird men, pioneering conservationists such as David Fleay, who assisted in the notorious scheme to ship a platypus (plus 50,000 worms) to Winston Churchill during World War II, and, later, the Taylors, the couple who shot pioneering shark footage that ended up in Jaws. Paton is an affable and enthusiastic guide, marvelling at the skill, fervour and dedication of his subjects while highlighting the darker side of their pursuits: many animals perished in transit (and there was once a predilection to shoot or eat them). The hubris of colonialism and empire is made explicit, but the book remains centred on European subjects and perspectives. While the majority of Of Marsupials and Men focuses on the colourful, the coda (in a perhaps inevitable tonal shift) veers from zany to serious in its consideration of all that’s been lost due to human intervention—and all that remains at stake.
Kim Thomson is a freelance writer and editor.