Banksia: A Kangaroo’s Tale: Review by Fiona Calabro
Right from the start, this story of a grey kangaroo, and an imaginary peninsula off the Australian east coast, is deeply engaging. Sandy explores his world, as a young, developing animal, making sense of it by naming things, and one can’t help but be reminded of one’s own childhood explorations, particularly if lucky enough to have access to bushland. The reader shares in Sandy’s thrills, trials, and journeys, as he learns to relate to the world around him. As he develops relationships, we are reminded of our own, with other humans, and also animals. The author uses an intriguing combination of observation and imagination to create this vivid and challenging tale.
In the course of the book, all of life’s milestones and major relationships are explored and discussed. While the book does become fantasy to some extent, as Sandy is unusually intelligent and communicative, the main relevance of this stratagem is to make us reconsider our assumptions about animal and human consciousness, to think again about the continuum between them, and about what an animal might perceive, feel, and think. It also provides a compelling storyline, as we are searching to know and understand Sandy better and ourselves at the same time.
What makes the book unique and tremendously appealing is the fact that it is written by a geographer, and the observations and interpretations of the natural life of the peninsula are richly and intensively described and recorded. The story of the kangaroo and his friends, including, eventually, human ones, allows for a philosophy of life to be presented in miniature. The animals and plants are closely related with the earth itself, depending on the rocks and soils beneath for their very nature, and these relationships allow for a wonderful complexity of life forms, developed after aeons of history. We are even given finely detailed maps so that we can understand the peninsula fully. The book is clearly based on a lifetime of thought, observation and study.
In a recent issue of the Guardian, (3/8/07) Madeleine Bunting described a new genre of writing which is putting centre stage the interconnectedness between human beings and the wilderness. People, often cut off from natural surroundings in large cities, crave to know “the bush” better. Often the books deal with a natural world happening right under our noses. In books such as Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, the author writes a tremendously detailed description of the life of crows in England, going to great lengths to find and study rookeries. The appeal of such books is that we can enrich our lives and understand ourselves better by heeding and observing nature, often much closer at hand than we might imagine. Banksia could be an imaginary Fraser or Moreton Island. Sandy could be the next grey kangaroo you spot. It is hard not to look a little bit longer at them after reading this book.
Banksia, a geological paradise with tremendous variety, and indeed representative outcrops of most geological ages, allows for a stunning microcosm of varied plant and animal habitat, and its description becomes a vivid and wonderful scientific tour. The inter- reaction between the peninsula and the “bipeds” who live close by, particularly after a meteor strike, allows for a fascinating depiction of man’s effect on nature, coping with change, and the damage that humans can cause by trying to control the earth for their own ends. Again, many different sorts of relationships are described, from those who want to goggle at the meteor strike, scientists who wish to study it, others to exploit the opportunities commercially, still others who wish to steal or tame the animals, to controlling bureaucrats who are also fearful, inflexible, and unwilling to make decisions. Far from being an inert and unresisting canvas, Banksia and its inhabitants often fight back against these intrusions!
Banksia leaves us with a feeling of wonder at the beauty and interest of the world around us, and a wish to explore further the poetry of science. Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow, begs for poets and scientists to cross the divide which traditionally but unnecessarily exists between them. He wishes for poets to obtain inspiration from science, and scientists to be able to write in a manner which inspires people to love and respect scientific learning and discovery. Surely Rob Simson achieves the combination Dawkins is looking for.