(I'm just back from a week at a meditation retreat at Vijayaloka, a Buddhist retreat center in the bush just outside Minto in Sydney's southwest. It was great, thanks, and I should have at least a couple of blog items from it.)
One afternoon, I opted out of the 4:00 PM sitting, feeling an urgent need to be outdoors, to lie in the grass in the slanted sun and feel a sense of being on holiday. I found a good patch of grass, with the sun behind me, and gazed randomly into middle distance at the top of a Eucalyptus punctata, where something was moving.
I assumed it was bird action hidden in the leaves, but it was too far away to resolve. Not really needing to know, I slid into a meditation of sorts, just resting my eye lightly on the motion in the leaves, as though it were an abstract colorful image that kept transforming, as in a kaleidoscope.
A pleasant eternity later, my identifying brain, which had been tapping ever so politely, finally got a sliver of my attention. Gently it pointed out, just as an offhand observation, that this rustling motion really didn’t look very avian. Birds would have come and gone by now, surely, rather than dwelling here, and they usually move abruptly. But this image – shifting patterns of green and gray with an occasional slicing flash of reflected sunlight – its flow suggested a slower, more shuffling presence that lacked the means to just dash away. It had to be a mammal.
A cat? For a while I liked that explanation, and slid back into meditation with it. I haven’t seen feral cats here, but they must be about. They certainly do climb trees, and one might be up there. In meditation, I held this idea while simply enjoying the patterns of mammalian movement – feline movement, I lightly supposed – but at some point the obvious bubbled up. A cat wouldn’t be moving in such a shuffling, languid way, up in a tree. It would only be there to stalk birds, and to do that it would be dead still, or moving with slow linear intent.
The word “koala” came only after nothing else made sense. A koala had been sighted and photographed here a few weeks back; in that case, the people had surprised it on a path while it was crawling from one tree to another, and it dashed (a koala dash, which looks more like a firm saunter) up into the first tree available. Since that tree turned out not to be the kind it likes, it sat on a low branch waiting for the humans to go away, and thus was easy to photograph. This is not that photo, but might as well have been.
So I knew they’d been sighted here, but they are so few, and so reclusive, that I assumed there was a minute chance of seeing one. But as they say: when you dismiss all the other possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
It was still very far away, but with the koala named I started seeing koalaness in the moving shapes. The clearest was the round gray body, pretty much spherical in its hanging lower half. It was firmly attached to one or more branches, which seemed to be in front of it, so that the face was never clear. But now those wisps that could have been patches of white sky were clearly part of the tufted ears, and once or twice I thought I saw a square patch of black that is the nose, and a beady black eye.
A foraging koala in the distance makes a fine object of meditation in the sidelight of a languid late afternoon. It was too far away to reveal a personality, some character that would arouse my inner dramatist to give its life meaning and structure, as inevitably happens when we watch tame ones up close in zoos. Instead, it remained in abstract koalaness, very high up and far away, pressed into my space just enough to permit a belated identification. Solitary, moving gradually, mostly shuffling in place, and often still for a long stretch, it was the essence of herbivorous tranquility. One cannot accuse koalas of thinking too much, or losing touch with their bodies. Carnivores, who must have the intelligence to project possible near-futures, are much more prone to that.
the koala has become
Koalas also excel in this role because they spend most of their time in a rather humanoid posture, using their forelimbs as hands. They are usually upright in trees, clinging to a vertical branch with both legs and one “hand” while using the other hand to pull foliage to their mouths. It’s very much the position that a human body would take if it were doing the same thing. It’s easy to forget how unrelated we are.Which is all to say that yes, they are intensely cute. Viewed close-up in a zoo, it's an almost radioactive cuteness that can cause small mental burns, like those spots you get in your closed eyes when you've been looking at the sun. Far better to see them far away, way up in a tree, in the reverie of a sunny afternoon.