Giles Watson

Giles Watson

Posted on 06/26/2014

Photo taken on June 26, 2014

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Australian wildlife
Port Jackson Painter

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Spotted Opossum

Spotted Opossum
Spotted Opossum

I learned milit’ry discipline for this:
mucking out the Gov’nor’s fowls –
but I ain’t complaining: ‘tis better
than wielding the cat, stringing up
the noose, standing by while lines
of felons flog their guts out breaking
stones. There’ll be a right blow-up
when I tells ‘im two of his finest
‘ave been taken, though – I kid not –
that big white pullet as allus lays
eggs wi’ double yolks, an’ ‘is proudest
struttin’ capon. I caught them
long spotted weasels at it, diggin’
in with their bare noses, flashin’
grim little rows of gnashers, an’
rammin’ their heads in giblets
well past th’ whiskers. One was
dark as chocolate, t’other tanned,
both white-blotched an’ patched
an’ verminous. I got a long stare
at ‘em on account o’their pluck:
they jes’ ferreted back at me wi’
eyes like buttons o’ Whitby jet,
stringin’ out intestines, snickin’
at ‘em wi’ their toothy gobs,
slobberin’. I went pell-mell
for a rifle, an’ t’dark one took
advantage, whipped round
fast as John White’s scissors,
snipped another’s throat – then
both bolted. Aye, it’s no joke –
th’ gov’nor will be wantin’ blood.

Thar’s nowt for it but to scrape
me pencil an’ set to sketchin’,
make ‘em convincin’ enough
fer t’ gov’nor’s book – else,
I swear, ‘e’ll cut me rum-ration,
or summat even worse. An’
‘ere’s me thinkin’ all these
kanguroos an’ ‘possums was
grass-eaters. ‘Ope ‘e don’t notice
th’ vicious little twin lines o’
toothmarks in ‘is chicken dinner.

Poem by Giles Watson, 2014. Illustration: Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine; or, Compleat Cabinet of the Curiosities and Beauties of Nature, Volume 6. Based on a painting by the ‘Port-Jackson Painter’, an anonymous colonist, or possibly several individuals, who used watercolours to document animals, plants and daily life in Sydney from 1788 and into the 1790s. There was much confusion over the identity and biology of marsupials, particularly in the case of the Quolls or Native Cats, which were variously identified as polecats and martins until it was realised that they raised their young in pouches. In the documentary evidence of the period, the larger Quolls are also confused with the much smaller Phascogales, so that the “Spotted Opossum” was described by the surgeon, John White, as being the size of a rat, and given the aboriginal name for the Phascogale, Tapoa Tafa, whilst others testified that it was fifteen inches from head to tail. Unlike possums, Quolls are voracious hunters, filling an ecological niche similar to that of the European fox, albeit with the additional advantage of being expert climbers. The Port-Jackson Painter’s picture, in the form of the engraving shown below, depicts two quolls in the act of eating one of Governor Philip’s chickens.

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Giles Watson
Giles Watson
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4 years ago.