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12 may 2013

I had read a bit about the natural history of the kangaroo in Stephen Jackson & Karl Vernes's Kangaroo. Some of that natural history I learned again in John Simons's Kangaroo, but this is one of the Reaktion Animal titles that leans far more toward cultural history. "Perhaps no other animal is quite so closely identified with a country and a culture," says Simons (181). Kangaroos are not just Australian; they are Australia. Simons adduces the outrage that greeted early kangaroo-themed Australian postage stamps, issues that dared replace Victoria or George V with a hoppy marsupial (114). The monarchy has survived even that, but Simons also prints a page of proposed flags for an eventual Australian republic: every one includes a kangaroo (110).

The kangaroo is the national emblem of Australia, it's often said, because of fortuitous symbolism: as an animal that cannot walk backwards, it's ideal for a venturesome folk. But kangaroos are far deeper in the continent's imagination than this bit of recent hucksterism. Indigenous art often features kangaroos, who are central to the Dreaming that preserves the traditions of so many diverse cultures. In fact, they are so central that their meanings cannot be conveyed: whether because they are inextricably esoteric, or whether they're simply secret, and defended as such. Or perhaps, because the guardians of those secrets are in extreme cases dying along with their languages, and their ways of seeing the kangaroo.

Simons prints a painting by George Stubbs, 18th-century master animal artist (76); nothing remarkable there; if it was an animal known to Georgian England, Stubbs probably painted it. (He apparently worked from dead rather than live specimens, but that's not remarkable either.) No, remarkable is how often the attitude of Stubbs's kangaroo was reproduced in other drawings and paintings. Even the early Anglo settlers of Australia preferred to draw kangaroos the way Stubbs had taught them: upright, startled, peering back over one shoulder in the direction that they're unable to hop.

Paradox is one of Simons's largest themes. An animal welded to its native continent is at the same time now adapted to captivity or to feral existence on many others. An animal symbolic of the outback can frequently be met in Australian cities in captivity, or hopping around in the nearby campagna. An animal that seems doomed to defeat in the survival of the fittest (despite their boxing skills, kangaroos are as easy to shoot as passenger pigeons); but an animal that has rebounded in vast numbers, to the point where Australian populations are wholly unthreatened. An animal that seems inedible to many, and intractable to all (they have never been domesticated as livestock, though sometimes kept as difficult pets); yet an animal that generates an almost boundless supply of very efficiently grown protein from thin resources. Kangaroos must be hunted if they're to be eaten, and we've come to think of the hunting of large mammals as an outrage. But there's another paradox: a wild kangaroo lives a far more natural and fulfilled life, even if it ends up as rooburger, than a feedlot steer.

Or if it ends up as shoe leather. I will here confess that the best pair of shoes I've ever had is a custom pair of kangaroo boots. (At least as to comfort; I ordered them, inexplicably, in a hideous burgundy color.) They are supple, indestructible, and as the fellow who measured me for them said, "they'll fit you like slippers." And it's odd: the cowboy boot, the symbol of masculine expropriation of the world's spaces and resources, may in this one case be the greenest and fairest-trade thing I could have gotten for my feet. A wild animal, hunted sustainably, its skin worked by an individual artisan into a supremely durable good. How paradoxical an example of a proper relation to nature.

Simons, John. Kangaroo. London: Reaktion, 2013.