Words || Tea Cooper
I didn’t set out to write a story about a naturalist, never mind his daughter or a platypus —strangely, it was a mermaid that sparked my imagination. I was already interested in the idea of a hoax and then I stumbled — there is no other way to describe my early ‘research’ when I’m playing with ideas for a story — across the Feejee mermaid. ‘She’ began life at the hands of a Chinese (or some sources say Japanese) taxidermist who sowed a monkey’s torso onto the tail of a fish. As I delved deeper into my wombat hole of research, I discovered many believed the platypus to be a hoax. No wonder it sparked a fierce debate which raged throughout the nineteenth century.
The debate began in 1799 when Governor John Hunter watched an Aborigine spear a ‘Small Amphibious Animal of the Mole Kind’ and sent the skin, preserved in a keg of spirits, to The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The scientific world was aghast: strong blunt claws, webbed feet, the broad flat tail of a beaver, the beak of a duck — it had to be a hoax.
Each nineteenth-century reference contradicted the others. Even as late as 1884, the letters to the editor of the Australian Town and Country newspaper sparked inflamed and contradictory discussion.
I thought I’d hit paydirt when I came across a front-page article in The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge written in 1835. It summed up the controversy well:
Among the strange and interesting productions of that little explored country, Australia, not one is so anomalous, so wonderful, such a stumbling block to the naturalist, as the Ornithorhynchus platypus or as it is termed by the colonialists the water mole. Its first discovery created the utmost surprise; nor has the feeling much abated. http://www.virtual-markets.net/~platypus/PlatyPennyMag.pdf
But a summary was about all it provided, while the facts contradicted almost everything I’d read to date.
The search was on …
The stories I write revolve around the Hunter region of NSW, and I wanted to continue that tradition. Were platypus found in the Hunter? I turned to platypusspot.org and discovered
one had been ‘spotted’ in Murrays Run, only a hop, skip and a jump from my home.
I spoke to some of the long-time locals, and they agreed platypus played in Wollombi Brook and other local waterways but they were hard to find. I was told the Koori story about Daroo the Duck …
Daroo, along with all the other ducks, lived in fear of Mulloka, the Water Devil who lurked in the deeper waters so they never strayed far from their pond.
One day, however, Daroo decided to disobey the elders’ advice and venture downstream. She stumbled across the territory of Bilargun the Water Rat. When she tried to flee, he threatened her with his spear and dragged her underground into his burrow. He forced her to mate with him, and she remained his captive for weeks before escaping.
When it came to hatching season, all the other ducks emerged from the reeds to parade their newborn ducklings. Daroo lead out two extraordinary offspring.
They had fur instead of feathers, a bill and webbed feet, and a spike on each hind leg, reminiscent of the Water Rat’s spear. Daroo was ashamed, so she left the pond with her offspring, the first platypus.
I needed to know more …
My trusty long-suffering librarian at Cessnock Library pointed me to Ann Moyal’s 2010 book Platypus: The Extraordinary Animal that Baffled the World, an amazing piece of research and a wonderfully readable book that I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in the truth, facts, not fiction.
Armed with the current facts my curiosity spiralled out of control … And then I found it. One line in an old journal suggesting Sir Joseph Banks had already received a strange pelt from an ‘unknown source’ in the Antipodes, before Hunter’s discovery in 1799, that fired my imagination: who had sent that first pelt to Sir Joseph Banks, and how? And more to the point, if they had, what happened to their research and why were they never acknowledged?
Charles Winton, my fictional naturalist, his daughter Rose and the sketchbook took wings!