November 14, 2021
One in a series of posts — curated by Matthew Battles — the ultimate goal of which is a high-lowbrow bestiary.
Millions of platypuses, diving down. Eyes closed, leathery bills leading the plunge, their webbed feet tucked by their sleek sides. Gathering in pockets, in tip jars, in cash drawers. Sturdy coins, an inch across, not enough in itself to buy anything, but often there in my handful of change, and my favourite. On it the platypus dives through ribbons of silver texture that approximate ripples, its body curved to fit the circle.
For many people this coin is their principal platypus encounter. The platypus is elusive in life and in representation, much less present in the Australian bestiary of commercial representations than the koala or the kangaroo. Its reclusive character and unusual traits make it less readily converted to the simple symbolism of mascots. The only platypus mascot you might come across in a thrift store is ‘Syd’, the supercharged platypus mascot from the 2000 Olympics.
As for the platypus itself, these ancient animals of the river country of eastern-Australia have been a totemic animal for Aboriginal clans for tens of thousands of years. Their enmeshment in cycles of place and time was not understood by the British colonists, who called the animal the ‘platypus’ (flat-foot), and initially thought it to be a hoax creature. The platypus story often told is how the first preserved animal that was sent to London was thought to be a fake, a modified or composite construction like a jenny hanniver or a jackalope. What mammal could have a bill like a duck, webbed feet and a tail like a beaver, and what’s more, lay eggs?
As a child, on visits to the zoo, I would enter the nocturnal enclosure that housed the platypuses in a state of high anticipation, hoping to see one. Stepping into the dark room, the inversion of day and night was a ready form of magic. At the entrance I passed by the sign that said “The platypus is a shy animal”, and felt an accord: I too understood myself that way. I approached the illuminated cabinet, where a habitat of rocks and tree branches were sunk under the level of the water, which came halfway up the glass. Every time I hoped it would be one of the times I would see the sleek brown and silver platypus swimming in the artificial night.
It would be decades until I saw one in the wild, in the mountainous Gundungarra country west of Sydney. Walking by the side of a lake, I looked down to see the swiftly-twisting shape of a platypus under the surface, near the branches of a submerged fallen tree. Shrugging off my disbelief I stood watching as the platypus swum up to take a breath, floating just below the surface, her bill and glossy back above the waterline. Then she twisted, diving down again with a flash of her silvery belly, out of sight.
INTRODUCTION by Matthew Battles: Animals come to us “as messengers and promises.” Of what? | Matthew Battles on RHINO: Today’s map of the rhinoceros is broken. | Josh Glenn on OWL: Why are we overawed by the owl? | Stephanie Burt on SEA ANEMONE: Unable to settle down more than once. | James Hannaham on CINDER WORM: They’re prey; that puts them on our side. | Matthew Battles on PENGUIN: They come from over the horizon. | Mandy Keifetz on FLEA: Nobler than highest of angels. | Adrienne Crew on GOAT: Is it any wonder that they’re G.O.A.T. ? | Lucy Sante on CAPYBARA: Let us gather under their banner. | Annie Nocenti on CROW: Mostly, they give me the side-eye. | Alix Lambert on ANIMAL: Spirit animal of a generation. | Jessamyn West on HYRAX: The original shoegaze mammal. | Josh Glenn on BEAVER: Busy as a beaver ~ Eager beaver ~ Beaver patrol. | Adam McGovern on FIREFLY: I would know it was my birthday / when…. | Heather Kapplow on SHREW: You cannot tame us. | Chris Spurgeon on ALBATROSS: No such thing as a lesser one. | Charlie Mitchell on JACKALOPE: This is no coney. | Vanessa Berry on PLATYPUS: Leathery bills leading the plunge. | Tom Nealon on PANDA: An icon’s inner carnivore reawakens. | Josh Glenn on FROG: Bumptious ~ Rapscallion ~ Free spirit ~ Palimpsest. | Josh Glenn on MOUSE.
ALSO SEE: John Hilgart (ed.)’s HERMENAUTIC TAROT series | Josh Glenn’s VIRUS VIGILANTE series | & old-school HILOBROW series like BICYCLE KICK | CECI EST UNE PIPE | CHESS MATCH | EGGHEAD | FILE X | HILOBROW COVERS | LATF HIPSTER | HI-LO AMERICANA | PHRENOLOGY | PLUPERFECT PDA | SKRULLICISM.