Spot the most dangerous animal in the world.

Books, On the Run

Dangerous Americans

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic are in the midst of a US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment ROBERT GOTT muses on plague-bearing squirrels and Joan Crawford’s eyebrows.

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Australia is a place in the American imagination where lives are imperilled every day by a gallimaufry of creatures bent on killing its citizens. It is true that there are signs up north that warn of salt water crocodiles, sharks and Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish and snakes, and that these aren’t separate signs; they’re all together helpfully on the one sign.

Famously, of course, the animal that kills more people in Australia each year than any other is the horse. Yes, we have, gram for gram, the world’s most venomous snake – the fierce snake or inland taipan, (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), and the world’s most venomous spider – the Sydney funnel web (Atrax robustus).

The most terrifying animal warning sign I’ve ever seen was at the Grand Canyon. ‘Don’t feed the squirrels,’ it said. ‘Squirrels may carry plague.’

This gives us all a little spike of patriotic pride, which is the kind of patriotism that makes sense. Despite the menace, casualties are few. The toxins injected by the blue-ringed octopus and the cone shell are horrifyingly awful, but most people know to stand clear. We are taught to have a healthy wariness around these animals. This wariness can become ill-informed hysteria. Gird your loins for a brief rant in favour of a spider. The white-tailed spider needs rescuing from the vilification of people too lazy to look it up on Google. I can hear screams of protest from here.

‘My sister’s arm fell off after being bitten by a white-tailed spider.’

‘I know someone whose leg rotted from the knee down.’

No you don’t.

The sight of a white-tailed spider forces whole families to huddle in a corner while the bravest member, having said goodbye to his or her loved ones, drowns the small creature in the entire contents of a can of Pea Beau.

If I seem to be venting, it might be because I’m venting. The disappointing news is that white-tailed spiders are harmless. I’m sorry if this doesn’t conform to the family stories of necrosis-ravaged aunts.

It might be time for America to own the fact that it harbours the world’s most dangerous animal – the squirrel.

I raise the issue of non-elected toxic Australians because the most terrifying animal warning sign I’ve ever seen was at the Grand Canyon. ‘Don’t feed the squirrels,’ it said. ‘Squirrels may carry plague.’ I’m sorry, they carry WHAT? THE PLAGUE! Unless I’ve been looking in the wrong place I’ve never seen a sign in Australia that casually suggests plague might be unleashed if you pat the cute, furry animal. THE PLAGUE. Excuse me, that just keeps popping out of the end of my pen.

Let’s do a casualty list:

  1. The inland taipan. There have been no recorded deaths since the specific anti-venom was developed.
  2. The funnel web spider. There have been only 13 recorded deaths.
  3. The plague. It is reckoned there have been between 75 and 200 million deaths.

It might be time for America to own the fact that it harbours the world’s most dangerous animal – the squirrel.

Having escaped the threat of plague at the Grand Canyon – at least I’m assuming I haven’t caught it; I need to Google how quickly symptoms appear – we drove to Sedona. We managed this only because Tom and Karen gave us a whole day of their time and drove us for eight hours. They also bought us lunch and dinner. Where are the ugly Americans? We haven’t met them yet, unless you count the squirrels.

Sedona was largely unknown to me, except as the place where Joan Crawford threw Mercedes McCambridge’s clothes into the street in a fit of diva rage. This was during the filming of that garish Western Johnny Guitar, much loved, inexplicably, by the French New Wave. That was in 1953. The clothes have been removed. I checked. The town sits amid great, glowing, red pinnacles of rock, and struggles not to compete. Despite building regulations, however, it can’t escape the vulgarising hand of tourism. How many shops selling crystals to the gullible can one small town sustain?

Sedona

Sedona is crystal central because the spiritual narcissists of the late 20th century hitched a ride on a Native American legend that the Earth’s energy is concentrated in the landscape around here. These sites are called vortexes (‘vortices’ is never used). To avoid the disappointment of wandering around and failing to plug into a vortex, the Sedona Tourist Authority conveniently offers four vortex sites where depending on your sensitivity, or medication, you may feel the flow of energy coming up from the earth or spiralling down into it.

I wonder if the fact that each vortex is located at an impossibly beautiful place might unhinge the easily unhinged. The inexpressibility of glorious landscapes alarms those who need to shrink them into a manageable, solipsistic response. Here is the Grand Canyon. Here is Sedona. How can I make this about me? The shysters and phoney ‘healing practitioners’ circle these sites like slavering coyotes, ready to take people’s wonder, declare it inadequate, and sell it back to them, dressed up in the dismal motley of self-actualization.

According to local lore the idea of vortexes really took off in 1987 when something called the Harmonic Convergence took place.

According to local lore the idea of vortexes really took off in 1987 when something called the Harmonic Convergence took place. As many as 5000 people turned up in Sedona, and at various other places in the world, because the Mayan calendar had allegedly predicted that the Earth was going to spin off its axis and go hurtling into space (‘allegedly’ matters here because the Mayan calendar has been subject to many interpretations that misrepresent Mayan history and culture).

I presume that at least some of these people genuinely believed that holding hands and meditating in Sedona secured the Earth’s orbit. Were these the same people who believed that the world was going to end on December 21, 2012 in accordance again with the Mayan calendar?  Was there an awkward conversation among believers the following day?

“So I guess I still owe you that 5000 bucks. I was sort of counting on oblivion.”

When I get home one of the first things I’m going to do is watch Johnny Guitar. I’m fairly confident that the only vortex in that film is the space between Joan Crawford’s eyebrows.

For the rest of this series click here.

One response to “Dangerous Americans

  1. Johnny Guitar is a glorious movie that gave rise to one of my favourite Hollywood quotes. Allegedly, Sterling Hayden, who played the eponymous Johnny, said after making this movie, ‘There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another film with Joan Crawford. And I like money.’

    But hey, Sedona is so damn beautiful.

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