Including "enchantment" in a book about an aggressive plague rat might seem like hyperbole, irony or a veiled reference to the Pied Piper. The word might be compared with writing about the "charm" of a cane toad or "allure" of taipans.
Nonetheless, Tim Bonyhady's story works admirably, in large part because his prose is so well-informed, empathetic (even to the rats) and readily accessible to a lay reader. Bonyhady depicts rattus villosissimus (known more melodically to Indigenous Australians as artoka, gootanga or yimala) as a miniature hero. His rats sometimes seem akin to a couple of more innocuous mice, Stuart Little without a car, Mickey Mouse without his suit. In this setting, the long-haired rat is not only "an easy source of abundant food", "exceptional for the extent of the terrain it occupied and the duration of its plagues". Bonyhady boldly claims that: "Possibly no other Australian animal - not even the dingo - responded so aggressively to Europeans."
In our household, although we have eaten reindeer's hoof, dog's testicles and pigeon's claw, we still think that the only good rat is a dead rat. Encountering a hideously fecund, occasionally cannibalistic, ruthlessly voracious long-haired rat in plague proportions might not immediately have changed our minds, had it not been for Bonyhady. Only an intrepid rat historian would entice a reader by conjuring up the taste of a grilled long-haired rat in the mouth of a saddler, after that lost explorer had munched the decaying flesh of a long-dead horse, then rinsed out his mouth with his own urine.
Bonyhady is equipped to tug the long-haired rat out from among the other sixty Australian species of non-marsupial rats and mice. He deftly describes the apogee of the rat empire, after floods when numbers swelled and predators (like dingoes, owls, brown snakes and the letter-winged kite) could not keep up the kills needed to suppress the rats. Of the period 1885-88, on which he concentrates heavily, Bonyhady writes: "At the plague's peak, much of the continent became an immense rattery." No plague of mice, rabbits, locusts or cane toads was comparable in scale or impact. The book includes a fearsome illustration, portraying a bushie hiding up a tree, clutching his dog, while a torrent of rats beneath swallows wombats and kangaroos.
In prolonged and severe drought, remnants of the rat population retreat to "refuges", where they are presumably lodged now. Intrusions on the rat's habitat, combined with the impact of settlement, the rigours of climate change and the appetites of predators, may save us from any repetition of the 1880s. In any case, we rely less now on boots and saddles, which were the rats' favourite foods when they were denied access to new-born lambs.
The author guides us through his sub-set of rat'ology with both erudition and charm. Scholarship does not constrain Bonyhady's gift for seeking out, then fleshing out, a colourful tale or two. He has worked hard to establish the peculiar significance of the rat in Indigenous diet, speech, geography and cosmology. Indeed, the book begins with a discussion of nuances in the Barngarla language. Australia's first naturalists, Indigenous nations, knew better than any interloper how to fit the rat into both their daily diet and the grand scheme of things.
Bonyhady is a trained and skilled scientist, but his curiosity is more than just scientific. He has an eye for an enlivening detail or an entertaining character. That is, if you like, the historical-scientific analogue to a travel writer's dependence on running across exotic, eccentric characters. Bush naturalists consistently attract his sympathetic attention. Ching Foo, chef at the Winton hotel, is given his due, as is the town's Never-Never Amateur Jockey Club. Bonyhady records Ludwig Becker, painting away despite scorching heat in the outback as flies sucked the colours from his brushes and the ink from his quills.
He makes space for a "tuck-out" at Buttoo Downs, when a European visitor rejected a helping of snake (because "it looked dirty") but wolfed down possum, lizard and rat. Bonyhady also advises the reader that, if Burke and Wills had been less squeamish and snobby about not eating long-haired rats, they might have survived. He addresses the question any discerning reader would want answered: does rat, like everything else, taste like chicken? Apparently it does, except for those who detect hints of partridge. Although Bonyhady's sub-title advertises his book as "a rodent's history of Australia", his work is both less and more than that. This is not a long-haired rat's version of a worm's eye view of history. Rather than the story of Australia, we are offered a wide-ranging, well-told stream of anecdotes focused on the times when the rats did indeed stream in an enveloping, terrifying mass.
- The Enchantment of the Long-Haired Rat, by Tim Bonyhady. Text Publishing. $32.99.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer.