One of the most basic pleasures of the Australian landscape, to me, is the complex sensation of being watched by a kangaroo.
Complex, of course, only in the way that a plain white canvas, encountered in a museum, can be a complex sensation. The complexity is entirely in my mind. The kangaroo is just watching.
In any expanse of grassland around Canberra, in the last few hours of daylight, kangaroo encounters are guaranteed. The unnatural abundance of these herbivores is the result of human interventions: clearing of forest for pasture, the planting of urban parks and lawns, and the removal of their main predator, the dingo. Debates flare now and then about culling them.
One of my first formative experiences of Australia, more than a decade ago, was driving out of Namagdi National Park at dusk, after a day's hiking, and noticing, where the road entered a grassy valley, the sudden attention of about 600 eyes. They were dotted all over the hillsides, and as my car appeared they all looked up at once. As my car was the only thing moving in the silent valley, their gazes all followed it. Once I got used to it, it felt good, as though I were being accompanied, witnessed in my progress through their space.
After a recent day of Canberra meetings I went out to Namadgi for a summer evening's stroll in a grassy valley. As I expected, they were everywhere, dotted across the hillsides, watching me.
Logically, this should be a fear-induced gaze. To a kangaroo, humans aren't food or shelter or sex, but we might be danger. A smaller animal would just run away, as the frantic, weedy rabbits do. A deer will look at you in a focused way for a moment, but then it makes a calculation, moves away or goes back to grazing. Kangaroos seem to perceive less urgency, and are in no rush to move on. They can watch you for five minutes while you do absolutely nothing.
Why is this gaze so pleasant? If they feel they're at a safe distance, their gaze has no hint of anxiety. I'd like to believe there's a curiosity in it, but on reflection I don't need that. Perhaps it's just the sensation that kangaroos have time, and that while they're watching me, so do I.
I'd been hiking in this valley for an hour or so when I heard a car. It turned out there was a road up on one side of the valley. The car appeared and then crawled slowly across the hillsides, taking perhaps 10 minutes to cross my field of view. Without thinking, I knelt in the grass and just rested my eyes on it. The car aroused none of my usual emotions about cars, no distress at the interruption of my idyll. It was just there, alone, small and neutral, crawling across the hill-face, making an insect-like buzzing noise. My mind went wonderfully blank as I just rested my eyes on it, letting it pull my gaze across the hill. Finally it vanished, and in vanishing seemed to return my gaze to me, as though it were a tool that it had borrowed. Perhaps, in that, is a hint of what kangaroos see.