Skip to content

Content From Issue: Special Issue: An Endangered Menagerie (April 2021)

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie

Hooded Plover, Bawley Point

by Joshua Lobb

A week after the fire, my brother and I walk to the next headland. We want to see the damage for ourselves. We know we probably shouldn’t stomp over the sandy fragile earth; we go anyway. We scrabble up the rocks and into the wasteland. A large stump is smoldering; overhead, the trees that are still upright creak and wheeze in the smoky air. Their trunks make a sharp black silhouette against the white sky. 

The only image left on the melted sign is the face of the hooded plover.

We shuffle through the ash, past clumps of crew-cutted ferns, scorched banksia husks. We recognise what used to be the campground: there’s a skeleton of the toilet block, there’s a sign, seared orange, saying: REVEGETATION AREA. PLEASE KEEP OFF. The fence is mangled. In the derelict car park, there’s an information stand: a map on one side, peroxided out of existence; on the other, what we guess is a guide to the local wildlife. The plastic has bubbled and remolded itself like a pappadam. Only two sections of the sign remain: in the top right corner, three words: THREATENED SPECIES RATING, and, near the bottom, the face of a bird. It looks like she’s wearing a black cowl over her head, her eyes are red-rimmed, as if smarting from the smoke.

I know this is the face of a hooded plover. I’ve never actually seen one: not on the sand, not scratching in the foothills. On the beach we’ve just trudged along, there is a cordoned-off area where a pair nest: a low string fence pegged in the sand. At Christmas, there’s a pamphlet scrunched into the letterbox of our holiday house: Shorebird Recovery Newsletter: Sharing Our Shoreline. The newsletter tracks the nesting success of endangered birds in the region: little terns and pied oystercatchers and the 23 pairs of ‘hoodies’ in the Shoalhaven, from Culburra to Durras. Sometimes they include photos of the fluffy chicks or speckled eggs. An adult on the beach in the distance, out of focus, scraping about in the seaweed. The newsletter sits on the kitchen bench for a few days, then makes its way into the basket with the newspapers and kindling. 

There’s another sign we always pass on our holidays. It’s on the quartzy path that leads to the beach, on the bend just before you see the bright sand and the big sky. We pass it three or four times a day: scampering down with our towels, clambering back for the sunscreen and aeroguard, searching for lost car keys, scratching our sunburn.

It’s an A4 card, handmade, smudged with dirt and black texta. Someone’s gone crazy with a laminator and covered it with plastic. The sign is fixed to a splintery garden stake, hammered unevenly into the dry earth. The corners are frayed, the paper’s mottled. Once, someone draped on it a pair of sun-starched undies they found discarded on the beach. Often, the dog urinates on it as he lollops home. The kids laugh and leap away; their summertime feet ignoring the sharp pebbles. 

Every breeding season, the texta-smeared message changes. 
Something like:
Eggs laid 1; chicks 1; fledglings 0. Fox predation.

Eggs: 3; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Storm surge.

Eggs: 3; chicks: 0. Ravens suspected. 

No nesting recorded. Erosion. 

One year, they just wrote: 
No eggs. Human intervention.

The Shorebird Recovery Newsletter tells me that hooded plovers are a ‘cryptic species’: their main defence from predators is not to be seen. You could say the same for the tattered sign. It’s there but it isn’t there: it’s fixed to the part of the walk that’s never photographed; the place in between the bodysurfing mornings and the afternoon naps.

The sign is not noticed during the school-holiday getaways, when we pass it overladen with uranium-yellow buckets to fossick for pumice and cuttlefish. It’s overlooked on the lone strolls, as we struggle against the wind in a raincoat and beanie. I’m always more interested in the ragged ocean, or the slate sky forming a sharp line against the horizon.

Eggs: 3; chicks: 1; fledglings: 0. Feral cat. 

We don’t see it on the post-Christmas meanders, reeling from an abundance of wrapping paper and prawn shells, flicking away sandhoppers and blowflies, lumbering away from a sudden frothy wave that rips halfway up the shore.

Eggs: 2; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Bush rat. 

The winter the lagoon burst. We stood there, drenched and mesmerised, watching the flow of casuarina branches and dead eels. When we were finally able to cross the stream, we found half the forebeach had been torn away.

Eggs: 1; chicks: 0. Dune blowout.

That September night, stumbling down in the dark to photograph the stars.
What was it I crunched underfoot?

Eggs: 3; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Lapwing harassment.

The time we played a game of hide and seek in the trees on the headland. Bark peeling off in strips of bronze and copper; the air heavy with eucalyptus sweat and the shrieking rattle of the cicadas. The dog, bored, sniffing, wandering off. He dawdled home two hours later, shaking the sand out of his fur.

Eggs: 2; chicks: 0. Unknown egg loss.

That New Year’s Day. Trying to play beach cricket in 46 degree heat. Skin-ripping sand, clutching at sarongs. Bands of sunlight streaking the beach. A hat flapping into the dunes: A nephew shrieks: does that count as six and out? 

Eggs: 0. A scrawl of uneven capitals: KEEP YOUR QUADBIKES OFF OUR BEACHES.

That time the ranger spotted all of us: the dogs and kids skittering round the rocks. ‘I’m so sorry’, I lied. ‘I didn’t see the sign’.

My brother and I clamber away from the blackened headland, fumble our way home along the beach. The waves are clogged with black gum leaves. A washed-up log, charred. You can barely see the end of the bay; the surf and the air taste like bacon. There’s a narrow strip of beach between the eroded sand and the frazzled bushes in the dunes. We pass the place where the nest scrape should be. The string fence has frayed away. There’s a frenzy of bird tracks in the grey sand. 

Just before I chuck the newsletter into the kindling basket, I read: ‘The Hooded Plover is not an ‘abundant’ species. It was probably never ‘common’ in NSW, and the natural threats have always been high. But add a suite of new threats and the population disappears’.

Eggs: 0; chicks: 0; fledglings: 0. Habitat depletion. Smoke. Fire. Christmas.
Human intervention.  

The headland at Bawley Point after the fires.
Published: April 2021
Joshua Lobb

is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. His stories have appeared in The Bridport Prize AnthologyBest Australian StoriesAnimal Studies Journal, Griffith ReviewText and Southerly. His ‘novel in stories’ about grief and climate change, The Flight of Birds (Sydney University Press, 2019) was shortlisted for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and the 2020 Mascara Literary Review Avant Garde Awards for Best Fiction. He is also part of the multi-authored project, 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (Open Humanities Press, 2019).​

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie


by Thom van Dooren

As Australia burned during the 2019-2020 bushfire season, many of us struggled to reckon with the scale of the loss. Alongside the immense impacts on human communities—including the loss of life, of property, of income, and of security—we tried to make sense of the devastation faced by the wider community of life: of billions of dead animals and of the vast areas of bushland, millions of acres, that they once inhabited.

This intense period also brought us face to face, in a dramatic and tangible way, with the increasingly significant role that bushfire—and anthropogenic climate change—are now playing in our country’s unfolding extinction crisis. Alongside the deaths of countless individual animals and plants, these fires also pushed a variety of already threatened plant and animal species that much closer towards the edge of oblivion, threatening to strip from the world the immense, intergenerational, evolutionary, projects that their species represent.

Regions of Sorrow by Elizabeth Donoghue is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Anthropogenic extinction, of course, is nothing new in Australia. Right from the outset of colonisation, a steady stream of species began slipping away. Long before the fires of last year, we already had a reputation in this area. Australia holds the unenviable distinction of being the mammalian extinction capital of the world—that is, the place in which the largest number of recorded extinctions of mammals have taken place in recent history: from the hunting bounties that claimed the thylacine to the climate change-induced extinction of the Bramble Cay Melomys, declared just a couple of years ago. This particular distinction is, of course, not to say that our extinction problem is limited to mammals. Alongside their furry number, a host of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and plants—as well as countless invertebrates, many of which have not even been described by science—have also been lost. But now we must also reckon with the acceleration of the destruction in these damaged ecosystems being wrought by a rapidly changing climate.

In the aftermath of last year’s fires, scientists created a ‘priority list’ of over 700 species of plants and animals that had been significantly impacted upon and were in urgent need of conservation attention. Most of these species had seen more than half of their known area of distribution burn—many of them much more.

How are we to make sense of loss and endangerment on this scale? Of the incredible diversity of living beings whose future is being steadily eroded?

This collection of essays is a modest effort to respond to this immense challenge. Our intention is not to offer anything like a comprehensive overview of this situation. Rather, as philosophers and writers, we have sought instead to assemble a motley menagerie of creatures whose lives and deaths are increasingly being shaped at the intersection between bushfire and extinction. Each essay offers a short reflection that seeks to capture, to summon up, a particular plant or animal species and its threatened way of life. In so doing, our hope is that we might create an opportunity to, in some small way, confront and make sense of this space of ongoing and escalating loss.

Published: April 2021
Thom van Dooren

is an environmental philosopher and writer at the University of Sydney and the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds.

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie

Mountain Ash / Eucalyptus Regnans

by Dalia Nassar

The giant of the Tarkine and Styx river valley in Tasmania, the Eucalyptus regnans or mountain ash is a symbol of the struggle between conservationists and loggers in that state. But it is also a symbol of Australia’s fraught relationship with fire. The tree stands at the centre of both the 1939 Black Friday and the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, and its highly flammable character and particular geography are regarded as causes of the devastation that those fires wrought.

And yet, while it poses danger, it is also itself in danger. Once spread across eastern and southern Victoria, the mountain ash has been replaced by farmland, and can only be found in the great divide between Mt Disappointment in the west and the Thomson River in the east. In Tasmania, the mountain ash is the favourite of the timber industry, where it is more widely known as Tasmanian oak. Anyone passing through Tasmania will not fail to recognise the massive trunks stacked on trucks, leaving old growth forests on an almost hourly basis. While the Valley of the Giants is now protected from logging, fires have taken the life of the tallest living member of the species in Tasmania. Standing at 87 meters, the Arve Giant, as it was known, succumbed in 2019.

The mountain ash is by all accounts a magnificent tree. Approaching a mountain ash forest, one is struck by the transition, perhaps from the open space of a recently clear-felled forest, to a lush and vibrant grove teeming with manferns, myrtle beeches, and these enormous trees—majestically towering above everything else. While their grey-green trunks taper as they rise, at the bottom their girth is wide and covered in moss. You sense their age, but also their generosity. In their hollows lie the critically endangered Leadbeater possums. On their branches, which are so high you can barely distinguish them, sit yellow-tailed black cockatoos. You feel like you’ve arrived in an enchanted forest, a magical, wise and ancient place. And you recall how these forests have often been described by visitors as ‘green cathedrals’. Perhaps you feel the need to pray in them—or to them. 

‘The supreme expression of the genus eucalyptus’, as botanist David Asthon put it, the mountain ash is a tree of wonders—and its height may be only the most visible of these wonders.[i]

Not only is the mountain ash the tallest flowering plant in the world, it is also the tallest hardwood in the world and it may have once been the tallest tree in the world. A living Tasmanian tree measured at 99.6 metres and there is a convincing historical record of a Victorian mountain ash that reached 114.3 metres. How can a hardwood achieve such heights? (The tallest recorded California redwoods, which are a softwood, grew to 111 meters.) How can the mountain ash grow so quickly? In just 20 years, it can climb to 40 meters, and in 300 years, it can reach 100 meters. 

But perhaps even more astounding is the way that the mountain ash lives—and dies. Unlike other eucalypts, the mountain ash does not flourish in dry, arid regions, but in cool wet environments, where rainforest species abound. While the mountain ash dominates the overstory, the understory is layered with myrtle beech, southern sassafras and ferns. This cohabitation of eucalypt and rainforest species has perplexed ecologists, so much so that mountain ash forests have been given the name ‘mixed forests’, or wet eucalypt forests.

The mountain ash’s height, some have conjectured, is connected to the wet climate in which it grows. Abundant water and rich soil allow for extreme height without extreme age. And although in its first stage of growth, the mountain ash competes with its rainforest cohabitants, in the middle and later stages—after establishing itself as the forest’s highest tree—it facilitates rainforest generation.

Eucalyptus regnans by Blahovičník Královský is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Like other rainforest dwellers, the mountain ash is very sensitive to fire, and dies from intense fires. And unlike other eucalypts, it has not developed lignotubers under the ground from which it can renew itself. This means that the mountain ash is unusually dependent on seeds for its survival.

And it is here where the story becomes complicated. Although it dies from extreme fires, the mountain ash is also dependent on fire, because it is only through intense fires that its seeds are released from their hard capsules. Without intense fires, which should occur every 400-500 years, the mountain ash cannot survive.

The mountain ash is two to three times more flammable than other eucalyptus and the Woi wurrung and Daung wurrung people who lived near Melbourne’s mountain ash forests knew not to enter these forests in the height of summer. This high flammability might have to do with the tree’s surroundings. If the tree is to catch fire, it must do so with great intensity. And this means that total devastation is the mark of the encounter between tree and fire. What is left are the seeds. During the fire, the seeds are protected by aerial capsules. They are released after they fall to the scorched earth, which the fire has prepared for them with nutrients that encourage germination. This dependence on fire, which might be better described as a collaboration with fire, has been called ‘mass suicide’: a readiness on the part of the tree to sacrifice itself and every one of its kind for the future of the forest.[ii]

In need of both rain and fire, the mountain ash’s existence is structured by exactness and time. It is only a certain kind of fire at the right time that will kill the old trees while also allowing for the seeds to germinate. If the fire is too frequent, as has been the case since European colonisation, the trees do not attain the necessary maturity to produce seeds—and cannot reproduce. If it is too infrequent—the trees also die.

The combination of logging and increasing fire frequency has put the mountain ash population at severe risk. In 2017, conservationists appealed to the Victorian government to classify the mountain ash as an endangered species, but the appeal was rejected. More recently, ecologists have argued that the mountain ash ecosystem is collapsing.[iii] 

The consequences of this collapse are enormous: for the birds, possums and other animals that depend on these magnificent giants, and for us. Mountain ash forests are the most carbon-dense forests on earth. And they play a crucial role in hydrological cycles, with much of the water for the city of Melbourne coming from water catchments dominated by mountain ash forests.

We must protect these magnificent beings. Not only because of the so-called ecosystem services they provide us or the complex ecologies that they support, but also because of their simple sublimity. This means that we must transform—transform the way we think about life, death and fire. If anything, what the mountain ash shows is how these three are deeply interrelated, and our task is not to fight fire, but to learn to work with fire: just as the mountain ash does.

A tree that flourishes only in rainforests, but is also fire dependent, that dies in order to live on: the mountain ash unsettles our categories and the ways we think about and imagine danger. Fire, the mountain ash tells us, is only a danger if we fail to work with it. And so long as we continue to misunderstand it, we will be unable to protect these magnificent fire-dependent trees, and all the animals and plants that rely on them. 


[i] Ashton, David. 1981. “Tall-open forest.” In Australian Vegetation, ed. R. H. Groves, 121-151. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[ii] Griffiths, Tom and Christine Hansen. 2012. Living with Fire: People, Nature and History in Steels Creek. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing.

[iii] Lindenmayer, David B. and Chloe Sato. 2018. “Hidden collapse is driven by fire and logging in a socioecological forest ecosystem,” PNAS 115 (20) 5181-5186.

Published: April 2021
Dalia Nassar

is a philosopher at the University of Sydney. Her work is at the intersection of the history of philosophy, the history of science, environmental philosophy and aesthetics. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the role of art, and artistic tools and devices, in the emergence of ecological thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie

Smoke and Song: On the Unravelling of Regent Honeyeater Life

by Thom van Dooren

One of my strongest memories of last summer in the Blue Mountains, through long days thick with smoke, weighed down by a dry baking heat, was the palpable presence of an absence, a silence of birds. To be sure, there were many new sounds to take their place: helicopters and sirens, sometimes howling winds, and for those unlucky enough to be at the fire front, the roaring of flames. But a little further from the action, in still moments, I remember the eerie silence. In this part of the world, though rarely seen or heard even at the best of times, one of the birds now missing in this new way was the regent honeyeater. Having only recently become aware of these incredible, threatened, neighbours, I watched on with a growing sense of dread as the fires moved through some of their last remaining breeding sites, at the height of what should have been their breeding season.

The regent honeyeater is a bird with more than a little of the majestic about it. While its feathers are predominantly black in colour, most of those found on its body and upper wings are edged with white or yellow, giving the impression of a bird strikingly embroidered. In years gone by, these birds were widely distributed across eastern Australia, from Adelaide all the way up to southern Queensland. Their nomadic flocks ranged widely, occupying different areas each year based on the availability of nectar and insects.

When the first population estimates were made for the regent honeyeater in the late 1980s, their numbers had already plummeted, down to around 1,500 birds. That trend has continued since, with the most recent estimates suggesting that there are now only about 300 birds left.

Like so many other species in this part of the world, the decline of the regent honeyeater is intimately tied to the destruction of the box-ironbark and other Eucalypt forests they once called home. On an unbelievable scale, these forests have been cleared, fragmented, and degraded. In recent decades, the impacts of climate change have been added to this lethal mix.

In the 2019-2020 bushfire season, almost half of the regent honeyeater’s known breeding sites were impacted, along with an untold, vast, area of their wider habitat. But fires do much more than kill adult birds, their nestlings, and their eggs. They also transform the remaining forest. Especially where fire intervals are too frequent, they reduce flowering events and the maturation of trees, altering the distribution, timing, and abundance of the flowers that honeyeaters are so dependent on.[i]

As the population dwindles, it is increasingly facing new challenges to its survival. It seems, that the highly dispersed, nomadic, way of life of the regent honeyeater is one that only really works at certain densities, with a critical mass of birds moving around this vast landscape, able to encounter one another, to learn from one another, to reproduce with one another. Once numbers drop below that level, as they now have, the species enters into something like a death spiral in which its whole way of life, with its richly social fabric, starts to come undone.

Regent Honeyeater by Kevin Trotman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

We don’t know an awful lot about the specific form of this social life. But regent honeyeaters once spent much of their time in nomadic flocks. At night, they roosted communally, sometimes in groups of over 100 birds. When they nested, each pair maintained a territory, but multiple pairs together formed loose aggregations.

It is this now absent or frayed social context that male regent honeyeaters seem to need to learn their song. As with many songbirds, male singing in this species plays a vital role: it is used to attract a mate and to claim a breeding territory (or rather, as Vinciane Despret has argued, perhaps territory is itself a “pretext to sing”).[ii] Young birds are thought to learn their songs from a variety of older males, listening, copying, practicing, and improvising their own particular melodies. This song would have been unique to the individual, but it would pick up elements of the social cohort to such an extent that scientists describe evolving song ‘dialects’. Regent honeyeaters that grew up in different parts of the country had specific regional variations.

These days, when those few regent honeyeaters still hatched in the forest are old enough to leave their parents’ territory—at about 40 days of age—they’re lucky to find any other birds to learn from during that critical, sensitive, period in their first months when they develop much of what will be their song. Or, more accurately, they’re unlikely to encounter any other regent honeyeaters. And so, instead, many young birds now seem to be learning the songs of other species, of wattlebirds and friarbirds, of currawongs and rosellas; one bird has even been observed imitating the long, mournful, call of the bush stone curlew.

This change in regent honeyeater song cultures, we can only assume, will further hasten the decline of the species, undermining the potential for birds to find one another and cement the relationship needed to bring the next generation into the world. Here we see that extinction does not arrive all at once; it is an unravelling, an undoing, of ways of life, of intricately entwined social and ecological relationships. An organism’s way of being in the world—in this case its distinctive song culture—can be, and often is, lost long before that final death. Lost in a way that not only foretells, but in its own way helps also to bring about, that ultimate loss that is an extinction. In this way, the song of the regent honeyeater is woven into a larger story of forest decline, of wanton land clearing and escalating drought and bushfire; processes that are remaking, undoing, eradicating, both life forms and their precious, evolving, forms of life.

[i] Woinarski, JCZ, and HF Recher. “Impact and Response: A Review of the Effects of Fire on the Australian Avifauna.” Pacific Conservation Biology 3 (1997): 183–205.

[ii] Despret, V, “Phonocene: Bird-singing in a multispecies world.” Paper presented at RIBOCA2, September 2020.

Published: April 2021
Thom van Dooren

is an environmental philosopher and writer at the University of Sydney and the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds.

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie

Ode to the Gilbert’s Potoroo

by Sophie Chao

Endemic to the south coast of Western Australia and now classified as Critically Endangered, the Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertiiis) is the rarest mammal species in Australia and the rarest marsupial in the world.

Potoroo, potoroo
Your long, slim brown tail moves fast in the grass
Your slender curved snout trails ground, rock, and bark
You smell, then you spring, they you sense, stop, and start
As you forage for fungi under cover of dark
In a vast moonlit country
Across bushland and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks

Potoroo, potoroo
You are birthed in small colonies throughout most of the year
You live all of seven, no more and at best
Beneath sedges and mosses you go to find rest
In shallow depressions lined with roots and leaf litter 
Small and elusive, a timid bush critter
Sharing your nest with three to eight others
The males, the children, and always the mothers
Until darkness falls and movement is borne
As you forage the forest from nightfall till dawn

Potoroo, potoroo 
With your long hindfeet you hop
Your long curved claws you dig
Your elongated snout you sniff
For berries, seed pods, and insects
An index finger’s depth-worth of soil is all you need
To unearth the 44 different fungi upon which you feed

Like other dwellers of the bush
The Woylies, Bettongs, and Quenda
You engineer the ecosystem
Churning earth, spreading spore
In the silence of the night
You rework the soil and sediments
As you burrow, ingest, defecate, and migrate 
Moving seeds, nourishing plants
Shifting dirt, cycling nutrients, 
And so moving the earth, and so earthing the forest

Potoroo, potoroo
Upon you has been bestowed many a name 
To some you are grul-gyte
To others you are ngilkat
To some you are nailoit
To others you are garlgyte

But since 1841 you are Gilbert’s potoroo
Named by the zoologist who collected your kin
Down by King George Sound and Margaret River 
Among other rare birds, bush plants, and mammals
Who, like you, were kept and displayed overseas
In collections and cases
And volumes and books
Housed in the British Museum of Natural History
From the skin and skull of a single young female
Your description and name were conjured and claimed

Potoroo, potoroo,
How much more the Black Summer took from you 
Your land and your life
Your burrows and kin
Your shelter and shade
And so, so much more
That we humans ignore

Your landscapes were ravaged, your forests were shorn,
Along with everything else that in, with, and through you is born
The trees and the truffles
The insects and litter
The berries and seed pods
Leaving behind only ashes and dust
Your beige-brown fur now singed dark red and rust

But potoroo, potoroo
You have seen this before
From Albany to Margaret River you once roamed
Silent and furtive since the lost days of yore
And then you were lost to both science and sight
Considered extinct for some sixty odd years
You faded away in the annals of history
The cause of your waning remaining a mystery
Only to resurface some forty years later
On a morning of May in the year 94
During a survey for quokkas, you were found once more
Your native range now reduced to Two Peoples Bay 
Less than one hundred, they say
Not a single more

Potoroo, potoroo,
You have seen this before
Lost half a century
To all human worlds
But all along, in the bushland
You continued to world
Spreading the seeds and nourishing plants
Shifting the soil and so moving the earth, and so earthing the forest
And so you are known as a ‘Lazarus’ species—
Once thought extinct, and then once more reborn 

Potoroo, potoroo,
From the ashes, too, you have risen before 
2015 was your summer of gore
A bushfire killed all but five of your kin
Leaving behind but a tenth of your forest
Through some 1200 hectares in Two Peoples Bay
The flames licked and leapt turning lands and skies grey
The first major blaze in some fifty odd years
The land there won’t hold you for at least twenty more

Your whole kind would have perished 
Were it not for a few 
Who survived from being moved
To a place far and new
The haven of Bald Island located somewhere offshore

Today, fewer than 40 of you survive in the wild
Haunted by dangers, both ancient and new
Fires will singe you, scar you, and starve you
As climate change grips on place, time, and species
The fires will worsen, the droughts they will lengthen, your futures they threaten
The risk of extinction every year draws yet closer 
For a species whose survival requires shrublands and woodlands
By fires unscathed for a decade thrice over

As the forest gives way to sparse open land 
The trees, shrubs, and plants turn withered and dry
Afflicted by “dieback,” they shrivel and die
Threatening your food source, the underground fungi
Exposed to the predators, on land and up high
From feral cats and foxes to the blotched carpet python
Will you find ways to live on and beyond?

If evolution holds true
Then the odds are against you
New populations have dwindled
Bodies and burrows in the bush are found mangled
Genetic bottlenecks now have you throttled
How long will the landscape hold you, your nests and your kin and your fur and snout mottled?

Potoroo, potoroo,
So little we know of the worlds you have worlded
The soils you have healed and that heal you
The climates that grow, nourish, and kill you
The underground fungi and fodder that feed you
Conservation and breeding, they have barely sustained you
Artificial insemination and cross-fostering, they sought to save you
But your offspring were weak, their last breath expired in a year, maybe two

Potoroo, potoroo,
The Black Summer fires ate half of your land
Against fire and flame and climate we race
With cameras and trackers we search for your trace 
Around you have flourished the campaigns and calls
With bait stations we attract those who survived through the flames
We struggle to sight you, lure you, and feed you
With glistening treats we hope to entice you
Peanut butter, dried oats, golden syrup and truffle oil, to name but a few

Potoroo, potoroo
You have seen this before
Found, near-extinct, and once more reborn
Lazarus you were, but may be no more 
Reduced you may be to the lost stuff of lore

But somewhere still in this vast moonlit country
There holds in the soil your still-living memory
A long, slim brown tail that moves fast in the grass
A slender curved snout that trails ground, rock, and bark
Across rivers and woodlands and bushlands and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks

Published: April 2021
Sophie Chao

is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, and capitalism in the Pacific. For more information, please visit

Back to issue
Special N.03 – An Endangered Menagerie

The Giant Dragonfly: A Fire Allegory before The Eternal Rest

by Peter Minter

“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Eternal rest grant them, O Lord)

On the extinction of the Australian Gondwana remnants, witnessed through the compound eyes of Petalura gigantea, the Giant Dragonfly, or South-eastern Petaltail.

It happened one night in the middle of the fires, around midnight. The air was thick with smoke but a very light and graceful breeze made things bearable, finally, a little easier to breathe. At last I could open up the doors to let in some air from outside. It wasn’t fresh, but it was cooler. Night trees hung absorbed in a mucilaginous haze, the luminous milky caul of smoke infused by moonlight percolating down from the pristine abyss way above the wasted atmosphere. The sky and the horizon to the north radiated orange. A great war had come and gone today, a million wild acres had been laid to waste. But the breeze had begun to fool some smoke away, the helicopters had fallen silent, and for the first time in many days the air was free of the endless pall of grey ash and twirling black flakes of leaves. It was in the middle of the fires, in the eye of the storm, around midnight. I had about me sheets of white paper on my desks and the floor. I had a shoebox filled with dead embers that had fallen from the sky, short black sticks, the charred, skeletal ghosts of leaves, perhaps the charcoal bones of birds who’d flown too late, too close. A box of black bones and shells I took out one by one and crushed across the paper with my thumbs and fingers. Thumb prints, hand prints, lines of charcoal drawn and smudged by my fingers into blurry streaks, billowing plumes, contours of grey and black furrows diffusely emanating at my arms reach as if my fingertips were scattering a negative fire. A rill of lank warm air from outside flittered in through the papers. Charcoal lines turned to wrinkles, scars, a woven script that spoke of burned webs, burned spiders, burned moths, the burned frames of insects, burned millipedes, the tongue of a burned skink, burned crow’s feet, the burned tail of a lyrebird. Then came the dragonfly, also burning. First its compound eyes emerged from the paper when I pushed down in equal measure with the heels of my palms. We were face-on, as if the page were a burrow from which it looked out into the real, the hole I’d burned with the cold black embers as I crushed them, around midnight, in the middle of the fires. Then, bit by bit, it slowly crawled from the charcoal shadow, Petalura gigantea, first the face and the thorax, a giant dragonfly, legs and wings, one by one segments of abdomen ending in a flower, a South-eastern Petaltail. It sprang into the leaden air, flew about and rested lengthwise along the top edge of my screen, an ebony synecdoche gasping, vibrating for life. At my feet all the papers began to burn along my charcoal lines. They made a kind of map that started at the hole in the paper and met with a network of burrows in the black mud of a nearby dried out swamp, hundreds of giant dragonfly larvae pushed out writhing in the flames. The furnace obliterated time. I walked down through the flames onto the surface of Gondwana, ridgelines and contours shaped like a dragonfly, shoals of proteaceae, banksia and grevillea, Wollemi Pines, all exploding into the holocaust of the human present, a family of Blue Mountains Water Skinks x-rayed into boulders and stones by the heat. Then there was nothing left, the map itself was burned to ash, there was no way back. Gondwana was gone forever. It was then I looked up, and all the world around me had crumbled into bleak figures of twisted black branches and cairns of ash, dry and brittle as exuvia. The dragonfly was gone.

William Leach 1815 Zoological Miscellany, Figure 95. (p. 99)

This piece was imagined and developed on Darug and Gundungurra Country in the upper Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I acknowledge the traditional owners of Darug and Gundungurra Country, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Published: April 2021
Peter Minter

is a poet, poetry editor and writer on poetry and poetics. His books include Rhythm in a Dorsal FinEmpty Texas, blue grass and In the Serious Light of Nothing. He was a founding editor of Cordite poetry magazine, poetry editor for leading Australian journals Meanjin and Overland, and has co-edited anthologies such as Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets and the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. He teaches at the University of Sydney in Indigenous Studies and Creative Writing.

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.