Out There: The Platypus Prophecy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1998

Out There: The Platypus Prophecy

Stumbling through the Australian night and, God help him, straight into the Meaning of Life
By Tim Cahill

Here is the wily platypus hunter, stalking the forests of the night. He steps carefully into the pulsing darkness, feeling for the trail with his foot. He breathes. Steps again. He doesn't want to use his light yet, so he is moving slowly, slowly. The great eucalyptus trees all about soar 200 feet and more into an inky blue-black sky, but the canopy itself is unseen above, a grand weight of leafy life vaguely delineated by the unfamiliar stars of the Australian sky. He steps again, and there is a muffled thud, which, he deduces from long experience, is the sound of his body colliding with the trunk of a tree. It doesn't even hurt. Not that much, anyway. The bark is peeling off the tree in great long strips: a stringy bark tree.

In less than four hours, the Platypus Hunter will be another year older. He feels the seasons of his life slowly flapping in front of his face like the beating of some great dark wing. You're born, he thinks; you live, you die, and to what end?

Is our journey through life a quest? For enlightenment, perhaps? For nirvana? For a Union with the One? This is why the wily Platypus Hunter is out walking into trees in the middle of the night. He's pretty much clueless in the what-does-it-all mean department, but figures that a series of small highly defined quests — see a platypus in the wild, for instance — will one day accumulate into a critical mass and then there will be a blinding light like the collision of suns. In that radiant moment, the Platypus Hunter believes, he will be able to see into the Very Core of the Universe.

I was about 50 miles north of Melbourne, on the far southern reaches of the Great Dividing Range, near the headwaters of the Yea River, where the platypus, so I imagined, frolicked. The sun had set some time ago. The moon had not yet risen, and the Hour of the Platypus was rapidly approaching.

There wasn't much that could hurt me in this forest. I suppose that wild pigs, feral for generations, might leave me bleeding from a myriad of six-inch half-moon-shaped cuts, the scimitar tusks and upper teeth gnashing together like scissors in a cacophony of snorts and grunts. Local tiger snakes are venomous and potentially deadly, as are most Australian snakes, but I'd yet to see one in two weeks of prowling the parklands above Melbourne. What they had here were koalas dozing in the trees, shy swamp wallabies — a kind of junior-size kangaroo — as well as lyrebirds, cockatoos, and burrowing wombats, an animal that can weigh up to 75 pounds and that looks a bit like a cross between a tiny bear cub and a Sherman tank.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness, my confidence expanded, and I began taking two and three steps at a crack. Which was when I stepped on the tiger snake.

Everything happened very quickly. I was somewhere two or three feet above the trail, suddenly and involuntarily airborne. Gravity had no dominion over me. The tiger had twisted under my foot, and the rest of its body thrashed in the foliage to my left. Big snake, I thought urgently, five or six feet long. Lotta venom.

In the fullness of time, I found myself some distance away, dropped effortlessly into a gunfighter's crouch on the mute forest floor, right arm extended. The trigger seemed to pull itself, and the night exploded into light.

And what the beam of the spotlight I carried revealed was not, in fact, a tiger snake. It was a wide, seven-foot-long strand of stringy bark shed by one of the eucalyptus trees. Had the big rechargeable halogen spotlight been a gun, I would have fired blindly into the night. The realization was a form of enlightenment I didn't care to contemplate.

Even worse: Had anyone seen me blow away the menacing strip of tree bark?

I raked the forest with my spotlight. All the night things that crept and crawled below, that darted or soared above, were staring directly at me, in my solitary embarrassment. Their eyes, in the scalding beam of light, seemed vaguely demonic, as if the creatures in this forest were burning up from within, all their hearts on fire. Dozens of pairs of radiant eyes were focused on me, some of them red like glowing coals, others shining a pale, poisonous-looking yellow, and still others gleaming a cool and luminescent green. When I snapped off the light after about 20 seconds, the eyes in the forest faded into a darkness that was more impenetrable than before, more absolute. It would take 20 minutes or more for my own eyes to readjust. For the moment, I couldn't see my hands in front of my face. I stood alone and still and silent. Listening.

Frogs along the riverbank grunted out their lust in an irregular bass beat that croaked along in counterpoint with the high-pitched chirping of bats. Owls — there were several of them — worked the horn section, hooting out short, soft calls that seemed to arouse a kind of rage in various species of possum, which traded off in a series of angry solos: High in the trees, I heard the strange, strangled gurgling of a possum called the yellow-bellied glider, and then the piercing bark of a sugar glider.

Above and unseen, there was an air war in progress, owls and possums in combat. A "flying" possum such as the greater glider can soar the length of a football field on a wing called a patagium, a flap of skin that extends from the wrist to the ankle. Flexing at the elbows, with the forepaws tucked under its chin, the possum spreads its wings and leaps from a perch high in the trees, falling into a gradually descending glide path and sometimes swerving off at right angles to its direction of flight. Greater gliders are pursued, and sometimes even taken in mid-air, by what's called the powerful owl. The possum terminates its flight as a hang glider might, turning back upward into the night sky and using gravity as a brake. It lands on all fours against the trunk of a tree.

There were greater gliders in the trees above, feeding on the eucalyptus leaves. I'd seen them earlier in my light, marking them by their eyeshine, which was a brilliant whitish yellow. They were known to turn away from direct light. The brushtailed possums stared directly into the spot, and theirs were the bright red horror-film eyes.

Most animals native to Australia are nocturnal, and as it has with all nocturnal creatures, evolution has engineered their eyes to collect and concentrate available light. The retinas of night-adapted vertebrates are backed with a reflecting layer of cells called the tapetum lucidum, the bright carpet. What light there is enters through the pupil and is partially absorbed by the retina, the inside back wall of the eyeball. Light that is not absorbed by the retina is reflected back into the eye by the tapetum lucidum, effectively giving the animal a second chance to see the image.

I decided that the platypus would be my totem animal partially because of our mutual tendency to spend the day sleeping and the night frolicking about and eating.

When a bright artificial light is directed into such an eye, it will seem to glow, as if from within. The phenomenon is called eyeshine. Various droplets of colored oil in the cells of the eyes of different species give each a distinct eyeshine. Cats' eyes seem to glow green, rabbits' are yellowish, deer's are a pale yellow, and wolves' are greenish gold. The West Indian tree boa's eyes are red-orange, and the Nile crocodile's are bright red, as are the eyes of alligators and caimans.

I once believed that the eyes of all nocturnal predators shone red. This, until very recently, was a matter of lifelong misperception. At night, in the wild, I did not want to catch the red eye, and more to the point, I did not want the red eye to catch me. In my mind, the association of predators and glowing red eyes had been reinforced by any number of flash photographs I've taken in which my friends' true and blood-ridden souls seem to flash out of bright red pinpoints in their eyes. Humans are predators, these photographs seem to say, and you can see it in our eyes.

The physics of the situation are not so damning. A flash is used in low-light situations, when the pupil is open wide so that the full force of blinding light enters the eyeball and reflects back out the still-open pupil at the same angle. What we see in those satanic red orbs staring back at us out of the latest batch of snapshots is not the predatory nature of the human soul. It is the reflection of the blood vessels in the back of the eye. Still, the camera companies have developed anti-red-eye technology in the hope, I suppose, that we will, in our photos, seem to be maturing into a kinder and gentler race.

It took nearly a century for Western scientists to conclude that an egg-laying creature could, in fact, be a mammal. Because the platypus is such a biological oddity — web-footed, fur-bearing, and duck-billed — I had assumed it was rare and endangered. In fact, the most conservative estimate is that there are tens of thousands of them inhabiting rivers and streams along the eastern seaboard of Australia, all the way from Melbourne to Queensland.

Platypuses spend their nights swimming and their days curled up in burrows dug deep into riverbanks anywhere from a foot to ten feet above the water. They dine on freshwater crayfish and worms, but the bulk of their diet consists of caddis fly larvae sunk in the mud at the bottom of the river. Diving with its eyes closed, the platypus roots around in the mud, looking for the larvae with its sensitive bill, which is soft and wet, blue-black in color, and more like a dog's muzzle than a duck's bill.

In Australia, the platypus is protected throughout its range, but it's threatened by pollution, riverbank erosion, and predation by foxes. I'd seen a few platypuses at the Healesville Sanctuary, northeast of Melbourne. It's a place where injured animals — wallabies, wombats, the whole panoply of southern Australian wildlife — are brought for rehabilitation. Platypuses, whose diet is not significantly different from that of trout, are sometimes accidentally caught on a fisherman's fly line. Some few, trapped in the stream that flows through the sanctuary, are on display in a nocturnal aquarium situation, where lights are dimmed and fragmented, like moonlight falling through foliage. There the platypuses seemed to frolic, rather like otters, and they were much smaller than I'd imagined: A large adult male is about two feet long and weighs just over four pounds. The tail is broad and flat, like a beaver's, and is used as a rudder.

At Healesville, I spoke with the platypus keeper, a man who calls himself Fisk. Just Fisk. Handling a male platypus, he said, is problematic: It is the world's only venomous mammal. There are two horny spurs on the hind legs, which are connected to venom-secreting glands. Males tend to use the spurs during breeding-season altercations, which can be deadly to one or both competing platypuses. The poison is not fatal to humans, but it is painful. People stung on the hand won't be playing the guitar for several months.

In Fisk's experience, platypuses like to be stroked on the bill. They recognize individual humans and like to play. Fisk fondly recalled a platypus that would prop its little elbows on the rim of the enclosure and stare at him sitting at his desk. It's hard to get work done, he told me, when a platypus wants to party.

I had decided that, in Australia, the platypus would be my totem animal partially because of our mutual tendency to spend most of the day sleeping and most of the night frolicking about and eating. More to the point, there was something quintessentially "high school" about the creature, something endearing and adolescent and immediately accessible. Who didn't feel like a platypus in sophomore English: so strange, so different from the rest, so inherently dorky as to be unclassifiable by science. Platypus boys and platypus girls confined to Platypus High, mammals all, and some of us filled with venom.

So the platypus hunt was a personal exploration into what I'd been and what I'd become. To that end, I had scouted the Yea River during the day, looking for likely platypus habitat. The river flowed through a forest of mountain ash eucalyptus, the tallest hardwood trees in the world. Some were well over 300 feet high, and the leaves were concentrated at the tops of the trees, so that a good deal of light fell on the forest floor, which was consequently covered with chest-high grasses and prehistoric-looking tree ferns.

The Yea was very narrow, only five feet across and four feet deep where it burbled through its narrows. As it wound through the forest, it created cut banks five and six feet high, and these were places where a platypus might dig a burrow, which can be 100 feet long.

Fallen trees, in various stages of mossy disintegration, spanned the Yea, and the river was a muddy golden color, its waters essentially a strong tea made of eucalyptus leaves. Shafts of sunlight fell on the water, and in those places the Yea looked like a golden mirror. Caddis flies were hatching out of the sun-dappled river.

These were the places I marked in my mind's map, the places I'd spotlight well after full dark.

And so, in the Hour of the Platypus, and for reasons that seemed obscure even at the time, I chose to drop to my belly and crawl through the night toward the river. No lights. At one of my intended observation sites, just off the trail that paralleled the river, a newly fallen tree formed a bridge across the Yea. I knew I was in the right spot when I found myself entangled in the exposed root system. Crawling through a big muddy root ball in the dark is an annoying and time-consuming task. It took 15 minutes to find a position on the trunk, over the river. I took a deep breath, held it, and hit the trigger on my spot.

And, by God, there he was. The very first time I spotted the river: a platypus! Or at least something furry, swimming. A dark swirl and it was gone. The creature might have been a water rat, I suppose, but water rats don't sport beaver-like tails. At another site only two hours later, I saw another platypus.

The great dark wing has flapped once again, and here's the wily Platypus Hunter returning from the river, yet another year older and perhaps one quest wiser. Suns have not precisely collided in an explosion of white-hot light. In point of fact, the rechargeable spotlight carried by the Hunter is rapidly running out of juice. Its beam has become feeble and yellow, totally inadequate for the task at hand. Presently the damn thing simply sputters weakly and dies.

This makes walking difficult, and the tallest hardwood trees on earth assault the Hunter at every step. Stringy bark snakes litter his path.

He resolves that, in the future, he will carry two sources of light into the forest at night. And that's it, he thinks. That's the extent of the evening's epiphany, Lesson Number One out of Platypus High: Anyone who aspires to see into the Very Core of the Universe Itself is advised to bring along two sources of light.

Illustration by Blair Drawson

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