What do you do if you’re in the rottenest place there is? A veritable rat’s nest? An isolated place, a real penal colony?
Smile. Because you can’t do anything else.
And eat a leaf.
You’re a quokka, after all.
A quoi? Que? Do I mean a duck, a quacker? No, and I don’t mean a quagga either. Quaggas are extinct and being phenotypically resurrected. But they’re also zebras. A quokka is not extinct, nor is it a zebra. It is a small marsupial, a fuzzy microkangaroo, a wanna-be wallaby. And it is, to all appearances, quite content. Laid-back, even. Have a look:
It is, at least to look at, the Arthur Weasley of the animal world (though it doesn’t look very weaselly). Nature, evolution, and human perceptual schemata have endowed it with a face of perpetual friendly amusement, and the beneficence of its environs and general lack of local predators have given it a gentle contentment (well, mostly gentle) and a fearless quest for food. It is the sort of animal that gets more or less the same cheery guitar-strumming soundtrack on quite a few of the videos about it you can find on YouTube.
Where does this word come from, this quokka, /kwɑ kə/, that is laid back in the mouth, the tongue touching only at the back, the vowels back and middle, with the lips only blowing a Marilyn kiss at the beginning? It’s from a local language, Nyungar: kwaka. It just happens to have been introduced to the English language at a time when /kw/ was spelled qu as a matter of course.
And where is this animal from? You know it’s a marsupial, so yes, it’s from Australia. But not all over. Just the western tip, near Perth. But especially on a little island that’s just 19 km off the West Australian coast, a ferry trip from Perth: Rottnest Island.
Rottnest? That doesn’t sound encouraging. You may be relieved to know that earlier forms were Rottenest… and Rotte Nest. Which makes it clear that it hadn’t to do with rottenness. No, it had to do with rats. At the very end of 1696, Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island. He found it lovely, fecund, temperate: “a paradise on earth.” So, naturally, he named it, in Dutch, Rat’s Nest. Why? Because of the quokkas. They’re all over the place (though especially so after dusk; when the earth casts its shadow to hide the overbearing sun, these happy lesser lights emerge).
De Vlamingh thought the quokkas were rats. Big hairy ones. But, I guess, very friendly ones that were prone to springing around. At any rate, they didn’t make him think poorly of the island.
And what do you do with a lovely little island like that? Hmm, how about put a penal colony on it? Or a reform school? Yes, in 1838, a penal colony for Aborigines was established there. And in 1881 a reform school for boys was built. Both were closed in the early years of the 1900s. But it was used for internment camps for enemy aliens during both World Wars, and there was a military base there too.
And all through that time the quokkas were there. And after the prisoners left and the prisons closed, the quokkas were still there. Now people come by boat to bike around, enjoy the scenery, and take selfies with the smiling little marsupials.
People who live in heavily touristed areas sometimes get sick of the tourists. The quokkas seem fine with tourists. How happy to be a quokka!
Laurie Anderson once sang, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” For quokkas, this seems not to be true. The second part isn’t, anyway; the first is right on. Their name could as well be taken from the French quoique, pronounced the same as quokka with a French accent, and meaning ‘although’. Quoique les prisonniers sont venus et partis, et les touristes venues, les quokkas sont heureux. Although the prisoners have come and gone, and the tourists have come, the quokkas are happy. Ils ne sont ni des rats ni des souris, mais ils sourient. They are neither rats nor mice, but they smile. Or at least they seem to our eyes to smile. They are none the less for all that; for all that, they are nonetheless. Quoique. Quokka.
Here’s a little more quokka video exploration for you, complete with cheery guitar music.