Thursday, January 22, 2015


Many of you will be familiar with Bill Bryson's delightful book about Australia already.  (ISBN = 978-0767903868.)  In A Sunburned Country is funny and entertaining, like all of his travel books, but there's a special flavor to this one.  Here's the reason:  Australia, chartered under the astrological sign Libra, is thus is ruled by Eris, the tiny iceball out beyond Pluto that creates so much controversy and keeps things interesting for us.  Even as a little kid in school I was taught about Australia primarily in terms of how odd and contentious it is:

>> Australia is the only continent that is also an island.

>> Australia is the only continent that is also a country.

>> Everywhere else in the world, marsupials -- which essentially give birth to live embryos who crawl from the womb into an external pouch where they grow until they become recognizable members of their species and can shift for themselves -- have been pushed to a pretty marginal status by other species.  But many of the really important keystone species in Australia -- like the Quolls pictured above -- are marsupials.

>> The native Australian animals that are not marsupials tend to be much odder than that.  Take the Platypus -- a venomous, duck-billed, furry, beaverish aquatic animal that reproduces by laying eggs. 

>> Bryson comments on the fact that it seems that every tiny creature in and around Australia is out to kill you.  Nobody has ever really accounted for the fact that an enormous proportion of the local fauna are deadly poisonous and ready to show it.  ALL of the snakes found there are among the top ten deadliest on earth.  Any pretty shell you pick up on the beach is likely to nail you with a venomous spine and put you in the hospital.  All spiders are poisonous to some extent, but in Australia any of them can easily kill you.  There are no harmless house spiders of the sort that people everywhere else take for granted.  For crying out loud, even the sea life is dripping poison -- the itty-bitty Blue-Ringed Octopus and the filmy, petite Box Jellyfish being especially lethal and agonizing.   How's that for an Erisian corner of the world? 

>> Even more Erisian is the fact that living happily among these staggeringly dangerous animals is a variety of native Scorpions.  This is an animal that strikes terror around of the world because so many of them can kill you.  They all sting in Australia, and it always hurts, but there is not a single case on record of anyone there dying of the poison.  You have to like that.  A website I found recommends Aussie Scorpions as pets for anyone over 12.  Hee hee!

>> Oh, and the people?  Ever heard of "Australian rules" football?  Aussies can't get enough of it, and it's not like the soccer games you are used to in the USA, where nobody is allowed to use their hands, and prima donna players put all their energy into showing off their balletic on-field moves.  In the schoolyard, nobody keeps score anymore because that's too, you know, competitive, and anyone who shows up is sent home with a trophy.  Australian Rules football, on the other hand, allows players to move the ball using anything short of a bazooka; they are allowed to tackle and generally clobber each other, although injuring other players is "discouraged" with penalties; and the last player standing wins.  You had better believe they are keeping score, too.

>> In this passage on page 100 of my edition, Bryson sums up their political process thusly:

"...It is an exhausting process to witness, and you do rather come away with two interlinked impressions -- that Australians love to argue for argument's sake..."
If that's not the perfect Erisian system of government in a nutshell, well, I'd like to see better.


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