The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat
That versatile polymath historian Tim Bonyhady’s latest book is nostalgic in the weirdest way. Where, he asks, are the great rat plagues of yesteryear, those rodent hordes that, in times past, regularly swept the back blocks of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia?
The native long-haired rat, or mayaroo, baffled and amazed 19th-century colonists. Reports describe the rats pouring down in their millions from the country between Cooper’s Creek and the Bulloo River, infilling tanks and wells, destroying gardens, erasing dirt roads and eating food stores and leather saddles.
Bonyhady’s The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat is a kind of social history of this spectacular natural phenomenon. Quoting extensively from newspaper reports, he attempts to map colonial encounters with the mayaroo and to document local attitudes to its sudden appearances in vast numbers. Despite the mayaroo’s resemblance to the European black rat, fear and loathing was not the universal response. Indeed, some people thought the mayaroo might be a potential saviour, an exterminator that could halt the dreaded rabbit in its apparently relentless march north. Still, the rats were a nightmare for towns in central and western Queensland: in 1880, for example, the residents of Winton said that not even the hair on a sleeper’s head was safe from depredation.
Today there are still eruptions – the most recent was in 2011 – but, according to Bonyhady, these are minor compared with the great pre-Federation plagues. And, although the mayaroo is not officially endangered, he seems resigned to its eventual extinction.
Is Bonyhady’s almost fatalistic, all but elegiac description of the mayaroo’s decline justified? Well, Australia is a world leader when it comes to the annihilation of small furry animals. But, even if extinction is not imminent, the mayaroo’s diminished presence should give us pause. Those old-time plagues must have felt like sheer mockery to the colonists in their faltering attempts to subdue the country, an upsurge of all that was inscrutable and unconquerable in nature. Now, though, the balance has tipped. The outback has been degraded. And soon, perhaps, there’ll be no more wonders of vitality – no strange and multitudinous others – to confound us and to defy us, and, yes, to enchant us.
Text, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Tim Bonyhady, The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat". Subscribe here.