Book Review: The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat, a Rodent History of Australia

Author: Tim Bonyhady | Publisher: Text Publishing 2019 | Reviewed by Helen Wilson, Illawarra Branch

Bonyhady has a wide range of expertise as historian, cultural critic, environmentalist and lawyer. I loved his last book Good Living Street, about his Viennese Jewish family’s pre World War 2 history, which came out in 2011. The Enchantment of the Long-Tailed Rat is a return to environmental themes, but with the same openness to a variety of sources and nose for revealing stories.

Bonyhady says he first came across this creature when working on a book on Burke and Wills, who starved rather than eat it. He discovered a lot of stories about its prodigious habits, irrupting in plagues after rains and destroying almost everything, then declining to insignificant numbers in dry times. He set himself to show how ‘the rat was once a very different creature from what it is now: found in very different country, interacting with different animals, and with a very different place in the lives of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous’.

This environmental history is indeed illuminating. He follows over a century of documentation of this species, Rattus villosissimus. Underlying all the settler experiences is the European loathing of rats as vermin. In contrast, the Long-haired Rat or Mayaroo does not spread disease and is one of a host of small Australian mammals that have suffered alarming declines or extinctions. Our disproportionate extinction crisis is due not just to misguided and destructive efforts to subdue the environment and introduce new predators, but also the cultural biases of the settlers.

Bonyhady highlights the tragedy of the European attitude, for it meant that settlers wouldn’t countenance eating the animal even when they were starving. Aboriginal groups feasted on it and indeed welcomed the abundant numbers with rituals of ‘enchantment’. The settlers weren’t uniformly ignorant however, for some early naturalists are key figures in the book. They often had difficult relationships with arrogant museum curators and colonial scientific societies.

The climate is also a major player. The author traces the patterns of rains and drought in El Nino and La Nina years and the settlers’ inability to comprehend them. Bonyhady follows his historical curiosity through the records and this results in perhaps too much detail of particular individuals and episodes. Despite this the book gives great insight into the now lost history of our continent and the role of one particular species and those it interacted with, including particular humans and their cultures.

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