The Drifting Continent

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Black Mountain. Summer. All those years ago,
As though no further back than, say, last week,
That meeting of mammal with monotreme comes to mind.
The mountain above us, the parched plain below,
We sat in the dry gully of a dry creek;
I, picnicking with a female of my kind;

Two recent mammals, perhaps the last of all,
The strangest and most generalised, at least,
We shared our sandwich lunch, poured out our wine;
The air was shrill with locusts, I recall;
Ants and the pestering bush-flies joined our feast;
She sat and held her hairless paw in mine.

The ancient land enfolded us; our talk
Turned to its arid earth, the history
Of its archaic inhabitants adrift
On its pre-Cambrian shield and later rock,
Of their long isolation on the sea,
Progressing by that imperceptible shift,

Two centimetres a year, or so they say,
Mounted upon the great tectonic plate
On which it floats upon the mantle below,
And of ourselves, frail creatures of a day,
Yet the sole animal to contemplate
The irony of its own fierce urge to know.

‘What other mammal recalls its past,’ I said,
‘But man and can remember all others too?’
She laughed and said: ‘The Geophysical Year
Made possible that dialogue with the dead.
As for our place upon this drifting zoo,
Remember we are interlopers here.

‘Placental mammals on marsupial ground,
We are trespassers on their continental raft
Inching its way up from the pole,’ said she;
‘But, though no fossil record has been found,
There was an older crew aboard this craft
Before those first marsupials put to sea.

‘Before it set out from Gondwanaland,
Perhaps two hundred million years ago,
The earliest of mammals, or the last
Of links with bird and reptile held command
And this was monotreme country then, although
They vanished leaving no trace upon the past.

‘But two of them survive, the only two,
To help us guess what once they must have been.
One is the duck-billed platypus and one’.
The spiny anteater…’ As if on cue,
As she broke off, far down the dry ravine
A creature moved from shadow into sun;

And at its shuffling pace the echidna came
Towards us from the immemorial past
(We watched and held ourselves as still as death),
Pausing to lick up ants and such small game.
‘Here comes a member of your crew, at last,’
I muttered to my friend below my breath.

She did not speak or nod, but watched it quest
Slowly along the dry creek’s sandy bed.
It seemed to waddle upon its powerful claws,
Here lifting a stone, scouring a meat-ant’s nest
Turning from side to side its bird-like head.
Yet, though it seemed so often to loiter and pause,

It shambled level with us before we knew,
Halted and peered about with purblind eyes,
And seemed to sense, although it could not see,
The creatures on the bank. It sniffed my shoe
And snuffled; we saw the momentary rise
Of quills along its back; then quietly

Out of the pipe-like mouth a worm of tongue
Flickered and tasted all along the welt
And, as though puzzled, it stood there deep in thought
Till, having considered, it went its way along
The creek and round a bend. It must have felt
A tremor through the subsoil of some sort

Or heard me as I leapt to follow, for
Fast as I turned the corner, it was gone.
And yet how could it? The ravine ahead
Was bare and clear for fifteen yards or more.
I looked for hole or burrow: there was none.
Then my companion following laughed and said:

‘Try looking by your feet!’ And when I did
The sandy floor before me was astir
With points of spines: echidna had dug in
So fast that in five seconds it was hid.
‘Best leave him to himself,’ I said to her,
‘At least we have seen the race of mammals begin.’

She answered: ‘But it could have been a dream.
We are too ephemeral to comprehend
Such motion as your continental drift.
Perhaps this meeting, for the monotreme,
Was no beginning, but presaged the end.
Man’s landing on their raft was dire and swift.

‘How many of its old crew have vanished, say,
As this one in the sand before your feet?
How many species since seventeen eighty-eight,
When we first came aboard this transport, may
Already count their massacre complete
(Outside the central deserts, at any rate)?’

‘Man looks before and after,’ I replied,
‘I wonder where this curious ark is bound
And who, of all its internecine crew,
Will man it when, borne on the magmal tide,
On a more massive raft it runs aground,
As sister India is said to do?

‘My bet’s on the echidna, before man.
Man is too greedy to survive for long,
Needs too many gadgets to succeed;
Echidna needs no more than ants and can
Get by with no technology but its tongue.
When man has perished, with all that served his greed,

‘I see our drifting continent arrive,
Echidna and ants alone on board.
— Some of man’s ruins, perhaps, for what they’re worth.’
‘Or if he wins, perhaps no creature alive
May make that landfall when, not fire and sword,
But effluents and his filth have killed the earth.

‘Should life renew itself in time to come,
Some new intelligence may find it moored
Against a young uplifted mountain crest,
Or still adrift, and wonder at the doom
That overtook its crew; like those aboard
That sea-enigma, the Mary Celeste.’

‘Mary of Heaven, great mammary mamma,
Star of the Sea, to whom all mammals pray,
Will she protect us yet?’ I asked. We laughed
Questioning, should we invoke an older star,
A more archaic saint, who in their day
Blessed monotremes and piloted their craft.

We laughed, but with a deep and growing unease.
We had lost our human assurance of thought and speech.
The elemental silence deprived our breath;
Lost in the tale of all those centuries,
We were no longer persons, each to each,
But ciphers in a species bound for death.

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