Down the Bilby Burrow: Emotional Legacies of Australian History

easter_bilby_DL_1
Darrell Lea Milk Chocolate Easter Bilby. Sourced from The Australian Bilby Appreciation Society. 

By Susan Broomhall, The University of Western Australia

In recent years, shoppers cannot fail to have observed the introduction of a new species on supermarket shelves at Easter: the chocolate bilby. The burrowing bilby, from the Yuwaalaraay language of northern New South Wales, or dalgyte in the Noongar language of south-western Australia,[1] whose Latin name macrotis lagotis highlights its large, long ears, seems – visually – to be a logical substitute for the rabbit, whose widely acknowledged destruction of native Australian flora and fauna is an unlikely symbol of joy for many Australians.

The Easter bilby represents a heady complex of powerful emotions for contemporary Australian consumers, and if the increasing sales data of 2014 and 2015 are to be believed,[2] a compelling business case. Yet the bilby, however aesthetically pleasing, is no match for the rabbit’s reputation of prolific breeding that explains the long-held inclusion of the leporine in Christian European rituals of Easter as a symbol of fertility and new life, and with it hope and optimism for the future.

So what does the Easter bilby capture in Australian hearts and minds? It seems to offer an opportunity to participate in one of the more ‘enjoyable’ parts of the Western consumerist Christian tradition while assuaging mixed feelings of guilt, grief and sorrow, variously informed by a spectrum of challenges from over-indulgence in chocolate to awareness of European settler damage to native ecosystems.

The latter has been explored in detail by the anthropologist Nicholas Smith, who considers the contemporary trend for the Easter bilby as reflective of a particular settler Australian desire to participate in what he terms ‘redemptive ecology’.[3] His analysis highlights a wide range of emotions that govern the current naturework of settler Australians in this choice – from guilt to pride and hope for change by consuming the bilby over the rabbit and financially supporting the recovery of the indigenous species.

Macrotis_lagotis_Gould
John Gould, Mammals of Australia, Volume I (1863), plate 7. Courtesy of Museums Victoria.

The destruction of this native rabbit-bandicoot by a European leporine invasion stands as a totemic narrative in Australian history, for settler populations at least. Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby once recounted witnessing the final words of anthropologist T. G. H. Strehlow, who studied the Arrernte people, in 1978:

He began to say that the bandicoot was no more, the bandicoot had been driven out of the Australian Centre by the rabbit introduced by the white man. And the metaphor was very vivid; it was the bandicoot who were the original Aboriginal people; the rabbit was the invading white man … and as he said ‘ingkaia’, he seemed to collapse and it was as if it was gurgling out of him; ‘ingkaia’ he said, which was the word I later found for the bandicoot, and with that he simply expired.[4]

Twenty years on, John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s allegorical visual and textual exploration of colonisation in The Rabbits echoes the same dramatic force of the titled European invaders and the relative powerlessness of the indigene (in this case numbats) to resist.[5]

Seen through such narratives, eating chocolate replicas of indigenous fauna may well seem a form of participation in a moral community, constructing an ecologically aware identity, enacted through ‘doing something’. This is, Smith argues, a long-held Australian settler tradition, in which national identity is defined through how we interact with the land, whether by exploiting its resources or seeking to conserve or reconstruct it to its ‘native’ state. Scholars of emotion understand affective and emotional practices as performative acts that construct self and identity – in this case, consumer decisions to eat bilbies or bunnies give new meaning to the old saying ‘you are what you eat’.

Of course rabbits enjoy status as both victims and saviours in other Australian narratives. Their proliferation helped to sustain many a poor household in tough times. Rabbit trapping and eradication provided food, jobs and forms of clothing and hats that are now widely perceived as archetypically ‘outback’, and created heroes of Australian science.

The bilby may be the iconic example of a far wider narrative of destruction, but could its paschal chocolate form also participate in the creation of new narratives of hope and optimism – if not of leporine fertility, then of resilience and survival, of indigenous country, in its full cultural, biophysical sense?

 

Macrotis_lagotis_-_bandicut_conejo[1]
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A key step in this journey is surely to copy the characteristic behaviour of the bilby, to burrow down deep into the extensive network of indigenous and non-indigenous emotions that create contemporary Australia society, to recognise the long and complex emotional histories of this land, its flora, fauna and peoples.

Susan Broomhall was a Foundation Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She worked in the Shaping the Modern Program at The University of Western Australia.  Susan’s projects analysed medieval and early modern objects and emotions, particularly as they are presented in modern museum, heritage and tourism environments

[1] Ian Abbott, ‘Historical Perspectives of the Ecology of Some Conspicuous Vertebrate Species in South-West Western Australia’, Conservation Science Western Australia 6. 3 (2008), 38–39. Available online at

https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/images/documents/about/science/cswa/articles/25.pdf.

[2] ‘This year Easter bilby chocolate sales from Pink Lady Chocolates increased 20% to raise just under $33,500’. Indicated at http://www.savethebilbyfund.com.

[3] Nicholas Smith, ‘Thank Your Mother for the Rabbits: Bilbies, Bunnies and Redemptive Ecology’, Australian Zoologist 33.3 (2006), 369–78. Available at

http://publications.rzsnsw.org.au/doi/pdf/10.7882/AZ.2006.010.

[4] Cited in Hart Cohen, ‘Film as Cultural Memory: The Struggle for Repatriation and Restitution of Cultural Property in Central Australia’, in Cultural Memories of Nonviolent Struggles: Powerful Times, ed. A. Reading and T. Katriel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 91–110.

[5] Brooke Collins-Gearing and Dianne Osland, ‘Who Will Save us from the Rabbits?: Rewriting the Past Allegorically’, The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature 14.2 (2010). Available online at https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/227/225.

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