Looking up, lying on my back, the Firmament is a bottomless well where infinite height turns to infinite depth and the worst kind of vertigo. The kind that derives from, our insignificance.
But the Milky Way casts like a net across the sky and there is comfort in that. Most days the wetted air of Long Island Sound makes it impossible to see. And the constellations also are preternaturally bright: Orion’s Belt rising as if from the ocean; Ursa Major named for a Bear and shaped like a cup; the Pleiades, those seven sisters candling the night, light years from here; the Great Magellanic Cloud.
Angled low it splinters like a struck match exploding into parts. It leaves behind a pale green afterglow… And now instead of being present as I was I am thinking about the red dessert heart of Australia, and the middle, of the middle, of nowhere…
On a day that turned into an evening just like this, I strolled across the landscape of Henbury where a piece of the sky fell down 4,400 years ago. The dryness of the approaching night makes the desert air turn cold and I was shivering. From that, and from the thought of what it must have been like when some nameless thing broke free crashing through the upper atmosphere, and seven huge fragments arrived in a storm of fire. The craters left behind, no less apparent than the craters of the moon are Memory brought into the present from the distance and the past.
Down to earth, I turned to go. There on the other side of the gravel road, also as if dropped from the sky, a herd of camels. Eleven of them.
Watching me, as if I was the alien one despite the 70- or 80-thousand years by which humanity preceded their presence. Here, for once, it is the camels, not human beings, who are the newcomers.
They don’t belong yet have succeeded, some would say, too well. This despite they were brought without their consent, and when no longer profitable thrown out, like rags.
Without water. In that heat. And no food. On foot. Unwillingly, into the silent desolation of Henbury neither you nor I would last a week, wouldn't last the day.
Maybe, this is what who belongs and who does not really means.
The dromedary (single-humped) camels of Australia have the distinction of being wild, a condition duplicated for their species nowhere else on earth. About 300,000 wild camels remain in Australia, an order of magnitude less than previously claimed.
Camels are also of much lower fecundity than originally assumed. True, they can foul watering holes especially in drought, but they are manageable at moderate population meaning one to two camels per kilometer square and in point of fact it is a density they seldom obtain. They seem to keep their numbers in check on their own.
Traditional desert peoples of Australia needed from 120 to more than 500 square kilometers per person to survive depending on how far into the desert they ranged. Two orders of magnitude above the requirements of a camel. In the desert it can be a long time (as much as a decade) from one rain to the next in any particular local. Plant growth follows rain and since hunter-gatherers were in reality gatherers who occasionally hunted, water and edible vegetation (and its rate of regeneration) were hard limits.
Camels, and for that matter kangaroos (whom the farmers and ranchers also hate) become a footnote when compared to what cattle and sheep extract from this fragile land.
Back of Burke (a reference to Burke and Wills who starved to death after their great traverse of the Australian continent), the cattle are grazed at a density of two to almost 30 animals per square kilometer and a single pound of consumable beef requires 440 to just under 600 liters of water to produce – or better than 10,000 liters a head. Yet Australia is the third-largest meat exporter in the world, producing an estimated 1,385,000 metric tons of beef. And Australia is altogether running out of water.
The great fires now sweeping the outback with increasing frequency are only the most apparent effect of a great drying up. Eliminate wild camels, Australia is still going to run out of water. And it is still going to burn.
Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork and travel are arranged exclusively through Destination: Wildlife TM. If you would like to visit the places Mark has been, you can contact them at www.DestinationWildlfe.com
Lender is the author of the illustrated children’s book, Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story, www.Smeagull.com