In Queensland we grow up with a conditioned disgust for cane toads. It’s a telling concern: they’re not from here. They first came across the seas to eat the cane beetles, sugarcane being one of the primary crops of local agriculture. But the beetles are high up in the cane and the cane toads can’t reach them, failing their first objective. From the few specimens brought over in a suitcase, cane toads have been spreading down the east coast and west across the top of Australia ever since.
The natural world – apart from being vital in all its complexity for sustaining human life – also gives us a rich frame of reference. Environmental anxiety is a central concern of contemporary writing. It’s moved from the lecture theatres where ‘ecocriticism’ is discussed to the news headlines, which infuse the slow-moving catastrophe with a sense of grief: ‘Climate crisis and a betrayed generation.’ ‘Insect collapse: we are destroying our life support systems.’ ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970.’ And so forth.
Two recent Australia novels – Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things – use animal imagery extensively. For Mills, it’s disappearing cuttlefish as a prelude to a privatised dystopia, with suburban Australians turned climate refugees. For Wood, it’s women learning to thrive off hunting rabbits on a five-minutes-in-the-future sexist horror.
However, my favourite piece of nature writing-as-criticism is Delia Falconer’s ‘The Opposite of Glamour’ from the Sydney Review of Books. Falconer examines the inevitable bias in our perspective, as we cannot reliably reference phenomena from outside our own lives. She writes about the errors that lie within the span of human life as frame of reference.
Cane toads were introduced in 1935. My grandmother was four years old at the time, so they’re a part of the literal physical landscape and the memory of everyone I’ve ever met here in Queensland. There’s no imagining of the place for us without them. The abrupt changes to the environment wrought by introduced crops and livestock are signs of the short memory of modern Australia compared to the world’s oldest living culture.
In Falconer’s essay, this premise is constructed by drawing from literary fiction, naturalist writing from the invasion of Australia, science and statistics. Falconer uses memory to articulate the problems of the Anthropocene. We are lonely. We use figures from the natural world as ciphers for understanding one another, and ourselves. But this frame of reference is shrinking as humans’ impact on the planet becomes more extreme.
The referent is beginning to fall apart. Take the expression ‘swarming like bats.’ The bats don’t swarm around the station at sunset where I grew up like they used to. As I’ve gotten older their numbers have declined. It’s visible even to my inexpert eyes. Equally, a ‘plague of insects’ has begun to sound like a reference to the alarming decline in their population, rather than a warning about their ruinous excess. This observation of change is limited by the span of my life. It’s impossible from any one person’s subjective experience to appreciate exactly how much has been lost, how much has changed.
The two features on cane toads produced by Australian documentarian Mark Lewis – Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988) and Cane Toads: The Conquest (2011) – are both educational and bizarre, the kind of thing you might see at school on a rainy afternoon. Lewis says one of his techniques is to film from the eye-level of the subject, so there are a lot of shots from the point of view of the toad. Both films are essentially a series of anecdotes. There’s footage of utes swerving to squash the toads, and of a toad trying to mate with half a squashed toad on the road. The cane toads can be taken as a reflection on otherness. People’s responses to them are unpredictable, varied. There’s a lot of affection which makes me see my own hatred as what it is – learned. There are the people who welcome them, leaving out dishes of biscuits. There is the kid with the enormous toad she tickles like a beloved pet. There is the vocoded voice of the toad toxin user. On the other hand, there are the mayor who advocates bombing the advancing cane toad front, and the volunteers who bag them and gas them in the thousands. Most poignant of all is the elderly old man who says: ‘The cane toad doesn’t know he’s wrong.’
How we discuss the environment reveals where we see our place in it, whether as conquerors or stewards. There’s a dissonance to conservation plans like the culling of brumbies in the Kosciuszko National Park. Heroically masculine Aussie poetry like ‘The Man From Snowy River’ valorises introduced species as part of the landscape. Culture can change how we construct the ‘natural’, not always for the better. Cane toads incite the desire to conserve what we perceive as natural, from the framework of the culture we’ve grown up in. To conserve it by destroying them, armed with salt, Dettol, golf clubs, sticks.
What we choose to conserve (and at whose expense) reflects a cultural predisposition of Australian society. A donation box at the supermarket for struggling dairy farmers helps to prop up an industry fundamentally unsuited to the landscape, as grazing animals and water-intensive crops pollute the water and erode the soil. Meanwhile, mining multinationals air ads about Queensland employment opportunities. We persevere in service of the idea of the white Aussie farmer, of resource-extracting jobs – and we don’t know we’re wrong.
At Christmas dinner with my family, there are rhinoceros beetles everywhere. One flies into the side of my head. There’s three clinging to the outside sofa. About six lying on the deck, upturned, hissing. Everyone flicks them into the garden. I haven’t seen any cane toads on the lawn but they’re in the garden bed. The rhinoceros beetles lumber towards them. The cane toads don’t even have to try.
Image: ‘The cane toad was a failure’ meme.