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4 january 2014

Alligators, as I have learned and forgotten several times in my life, are a small minority of the world's "crocodilian" species. Despite the fact that several Southern states are literally crawling with them, alligators are far outnumbered worldwide by their slim-nosed cousins, crocodiles.

Dan Wylie teaches English in South Africa, which features no alligators at all. (China is the only country outside the US to have any, and they are nearly extinct.) He considers both crocodiles and alligators in his outstanding Reaktion title Crocodile. "Crocodilian" encompasses both. In fact, there has been some confusion in the English language, historically. Mrs. Malaprop is famous for her "Allegory on the banks of the Nile," which perhaps works even better when you realize she means crocodile. And one also recalls the objection that one of Ben Jonson's characters had to tobacco: "And who can tell if, before the gathering and making up thereof, the Alligarta hath not pissed thereon?" Probably still better than whatever chemicals they're adding these days.

I have never seen a wild alligator. I believe I heard one once. Hiking in a swampy reserve near Fort Worth, my partner and I once heard an enormous splash a few meters away. It was either Mark Spitz or one of the alligators of the Trinity River system. Global warming seems to be expanding the range of these once-beleaguered creatures northwards. Wylie notes that in colonial times, alligators once roamed as far north as Maryland (probably prompting Ben Jonson's concerns about tobacco).

And they are roamers. We think of crocodiles as sitting vacantly in the mud waiting for a convenient fish. But in Australia, "salties" have been known to migrate around Queensland, up one coast and down the other. They are smart, patient creatures with good memories.

They don't make good pets, despite people's fascination with domesticating them. (In Tennessee, says Wylie, it is illegal to keep a crocodile in a bathtub.) There are reports of crocodilians becoming somewhat acclimated to human handling, but they're just not very predictable even if they are usually placid. You may think that Cammy the Caiman is as tame as your cat, and then Cammy may just up and eat the cat.

Much of Wylie's book is taken up with a continent-by-continent examination of the role that crocodiles play in human mythology and culture. They tend to be gods of power and stealth, often implicated in origin stories. Above all, crocodiles are symbols of transformation. People and crocodiles can exchange shapes (mythically. I hope.) Crocodiles are thus false friends. Their tears (a real enough phenomenon, if unrelated to emotion) are the epitome of hypocrisy. They are the familiars of strong men, and though they are shape-shifters, they are not tricksters: crocodiles always have a certain gravitas.

There are, of course, cartoon crocodiles who sound a lighter note. Wylie doesn't mention Walt Kelly's Albert the Alligorator, but he was a funny guy (if notoriously grumpy). However, even in animated form, crocodiles can evoke wistful notes of the danker places of the soul. Wylie notes the long Russian fascination with the entirely non-native crocodile, summed up best by Gena, who celebrates a birthday in a sort of continuous sigh.

Wylie, Dan. Crocodile. London: Reaktion, 2013.