It’s not Easter time but I’ve been thinking about rabbits. A wild storm blew part of our fence down on Christmas eve and I’m grateful that the rabbits have not come and eaten up my tender garden beds. “They won’t eat the basil,” my friend said philosophically. Looking at my inch-high basil plants I’m not so sure.
I understand that, on their original side of the planet, rabbits were a venerated symbol of fertility and renewal. I had a rabbit as my first pet. His name was Peter, like the famous story-tale rabbit of Beatrix Potter. From an irresistible bundle of downy grey fur. he grew into a strong, silky monster that put up a vigorous fight whenever Mum had to catch him to put him back in his cage. Peter was not a responsive pet but he’d let you stroke him. I liked the way he stretched himself out, entirely comfortable on the grass. Peter chomped through any kind of plant matter we gave him with his two sharp front teeth. I was growing two sharp white front teeth myself at the time.
Fifteen years later, when my son still had most of his milk teeth, I travelled with him and his dad to Lake Mungo, a waterless desert in western New South Wales. Lake Mungo is the site of the oldest use of ochres in a human burial. “Mungo woman,” now an ancient skeleton, was buried with care forty thousand years ago. Her remains carry traces of ochre traded from across the Australian continent.
Lake Mungo is also the site of the early (perhaps the first) use of fire to cook fresh-water fish about thirty-five thousand years ago.
When we visited Lake Mungo just over twenty years ago the Park Ranger took us to see the charcoal of that fire. The collection of stones and burnt wood is tens of thousands of years old, but you wouldn’t notice it if it wasn’t pointed out to you.
The lake that provided fish for that fire is long gone, as is the forest that surrounded it. The landscape at Lake Mungo now consists of infinite powdery dust sculpted into channelled and corrugated ravines. They turn pink and orange in the crepuscular light of dawn or sunset. Bright pink galahs fly in big squawking flocks over your head and kangaroos come out to the old sheep station dam for a drink at sunset. In ancient — but still human — times, animals lived at Mungo that challenge the imagination. Called Megafauna, they were giant animals of many kinds. There were kangaroo-like beasts that weighed over 200kg (440lb) and could reach three metres (10 feet) to eat leaves off the tree tops, called now Procoptodon goliah. There was the Diprotodon, the biggest marsupial known to have lived on this island. The Diprotodon weighed over 2 tonnes, a giant wombat-like creature. The Megafauna made for easy hunting and fed a big crowd. Lake Mungo was thus a place of great wealth and culture. I thought about the people of those times. There was a place of plentiful food and shelter: time for exposition, thought and ceremony.
The evening light in the desolate landscape of Lake Mungo National Park was so beautiful you could almost taste it. Magnificent clouds piled up and dispersed. Rare rainbows could be seen from twenty miles away. It was important to look down, though. The place was riddled with rabbit burrows. The sun-baked earth that seemed so solid could collapse suddenly, just a veneer over a rabbit city.
The Mungo Park ranger and his wife lived there with their son, who was about 3 years old. The child could talk in simple sentences and the main thing he talked about was rabbits. “Wabbits, wabbits, wabbits,” he exclaimed like a tiny Elmer Fudd. His father had to round up and club the rabbits periodically. This grisly and energetic spectacle impressed the child. “Rabbits on the roof, rabbits in the sky,” the infant would say, pointing to the clouds, clearly absorbed in the idea of endless rabbits.
“Can’t you shoot them?” I asked the Ranger.
“Nup. They won’t let me have a gun,” he said with a roll of the eyes. “City people’s rules out in the desert. Clubbing them’s gotta be worse.”
“What about that disease that kills them, myxomatosis?”
“A lot of them are resistant to it now. Myxo was excellent when they first brought it out in the fifties, but it doesn’t work very well anymore.”
Nowadays, C and I live at a resort town, well-watered and maintained for tourists, which keeps the rabbits fat and healthy. You see them everywhere at night.
Before we came to live here, back in 2007 C and I travelled through the Central Australian desert visiting communities on a health workers study trip. Our tour guide, cultural educator and organizer was Kym Thomas, an Aboriginal man who knows this country well. Kym told us about his first job, rabbiting as a boy. He and his mates hunted the rabbits and skinned them, then hung them over a wooden pole in pairs. Thus they carried their produce from house to house for sale. “It was a good income for us,” he said. “Some of the older Aboriginal people say we would have starved if it wasn’t for the rabbits.”
In Sydney there’s a strongly Aboriginal football (rugby) team with a long working class tradition called the Rabbitohs. In 2014, the club won their first premiership (the league competition) in 43 years, rewarding long-term supporters. They took their name from the market men who sold the skinned rabbits, calling “Rabbit - O!” to attract custom.
So far, the plump rabbits of the resort have left my little garden alone. The grassy lawns of the caravan park and the resort gardens seem to keep these voracious animals satisfied. I’m happy to see them hop by in the moonlight, heading for greener pastures. The Diprotodon had two big front teeth too. Our lifestyle might be very different if they were still around.