Rescuing of wild things, wild places. The brief calls to mind successes and failures. The latter includes a wombat I saw by Threadbo Valley Way. It was standing up, in the heat of summer sun as we drove past for a Christmas Day walk to the summit of Kosciuszko. I knew stopping and checking the animal would traumatise my child, on this, the day when children’s wishes and desires are so readily indulged. So I kidded myself that the poor beast was already dead, like so many other animals I had cycled past over the past few days on that very road. After a day on the top of Australia I wordlessly, anxiously looked for the wombat on our way home and it was still upright. It was only the next morning, in the pre-dawn light that I saw the animal lying down, now definitely dead, and my miscalculation was confirmed. While someone else had struck the animal, I hadn’t saved it either. We were both guilty of this animal’s suffering.

There have been other failures: trees cut down while Council ignored my calls. Small birds in boxes fed by droppers, slowly dying. Failures linger in the mind like uneasy shadows.

But successful rescues; these can fill the heart. Like pulling plastic from the sea during snorkelling expeditions, marine lives saved by a simple gesture. Like small birds and possums, found at the bottom of trees and delivered to wildlife rescuers. Like the time I stood next to a boy of 10 or so, him mindlessly whacking a tree with a stick so that the bark came away. Instead of angrily telling him to stop, I gently pointed out to this stranger’s son that in front of him stood a miracle, tonnes of wood and leaves held in the air by evolution’s engineering, turning his waste carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen. The precious part of trunk that carried the tree’s blood like his arteries and veins, lay just under the bark that he was destroying. He stopped whacking the tree. Sucesses like: letters written to governments, emails to ministers. Please don’t export live animals in hot ships anymore. Please don’t reduce the size of the sanctuary zones of the Great Barrier Reef. Please don’t let people chop down trees during the nesting season. These attempts at rescue: success – varied.

The rescue where I got to be a hero will always be my favourite and like all sea-salted stories it improves with each re-telling. A dark, cloudless night, the moon yet to rise, two families holidaying, walking along a beach after dinner. Sand glowing in the dark, children grasping shells, seaweed, sticks. Running forwards, coming back, staying close. Their different personalities shining in the dark. We turn around after a while to go home. Clambering over a rocky point in the darkness, we arrive at a small beach to turn into the quiet streets of the hamlet where we are staying. Our eyes are caught by something thrashing on the sand near the water, and we see a small shark, perhaps 2 metres long – or bigger, the next time I tell the story. The animal is marooned, and it cannot breathe in the air. Its life will soon be over, perhaps it was forgotten on an outgoing tide or caught and left by local fishermen who had been at the beach an hour earlier on our first passing. It is a shark and I know to fear them. Apex predator, many teeth, cold eyes, nothing lovely. The shark is facing land and the teeth end, the danger end, is near my bare toes. I need to turn it around then move it into the water, if it is to swim to safety. I find a fallen branch of a tree and to the shouts, laughs and unhelpful commentary of my family and friends, I start trying to nudge the animal with hand, foot and stick. It thrashes in a frenzy for its life while I jump away. This happens three, four times, each time it seems more tired and resigned to its fate. Each time I turn it some more. At last the beast is still. I am fearful for my feet, equally fearful that the animal has died. Finally it is facing the water and I am able to push it into the shallows at last.

Now when a mammal is born into the air and we hear the miraculous first breath then wail, we witness our evolution in a microsecond. This is a creature of the water, nurtured in a fluid-filled, warm womb which becomes an air-breathing land animal in an instant. That night I saw the miracle of the shark’s life, the reverse of mammals. The moment the water washed over its gills, it gave two mighty wriggles and disappeared into the breakers. It left the air for the sea, as we leave the water for the air.

Sometimes I think about my shark; I hope it is still alive. I wonder how its shark-mind processed its visit to the land. Its weight suddenly heavy, slowly suffocating. Perhaps it has never thought about it since, but I remember it often.

The role of the human on the planet, physically weak with no teeth, armour or claws, nonetheless capable of so much destruction, but capable of care.
I am human, I am custodian, I am rescuer.

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