The English natural philosopher and novelist C.S. Lewis wrote that we all yearn to know other bloods, the other creatures of the world, and that this is a singular and definitive characteristic of our species. Coming as I do from a family in which this yearning was encouraged, I was in complete agreement with Lewis long before I ever read him. I grew up in a household that always included other bloods—dogs, cats, mules, cows, mice, newts, raccoons, crows, bears, badgers—and I had parents and other adult kin who were hell-bent on pursuing a great variety of zoological interests, practical and theoretical, recreational and vocational. Observations, speculation and arguments about the ways of animals, birds, fish and so forth were as frequent and taken as seriously in our house as discussions of politics, sports or economics are in other families.
Some 45 years ago my father gave me a good reference book on the mammals of the world. Within a year or so I had practically committed it to memory, and while doing so, I became acquainted with the Tasmanian devil. Sitting in the boglands of southern Michigan, I fixed this odd, oddly named creature in my mind as the symbol of the zoologically exotic and mysterious. In much the same way, the animal's native haunt, the island of Tasmania, came to represent for me the absolute in foreign geography. Yearning after the sight of this beast and its island did not, I think, become an obsession or the ultimate ambition of my life. Nonetheless, the notion persisted that if things worked out right, someday I would cross the world to Tasmania, search for the devil and, if lucky, look upon one. Things did work out right, and I recently made my way to Tasmania, accompanied by my friend Sam Wolmer.
Tasmania is the most southerly state of Australia and very nearly the southernmost outpost of the inhabited world. Because there's nothing much south of the island except penguins and students of ice, residents of Tasmania assume, reasonably enough, that anyone who finds his way there has specific reasons for doing so and hasn't stopped by casually on the way to someplace else. In consequence, Tasmanians, while polite, are persistently curious about the motives of travelers, particularly one who was a bit reluctant to admit he had come some 10,000 miles merely to look at an oddly named animal.
Jean Taranto is more or less professionally curious about visitors. She works variously as a wholesale travel agent, a publicist and a marketing specialist for tourist enterprises. A former BOAC stewardess, she settled in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, because, she says, "there's no place nicer." Her forte, as she puts it, is "organizing things"—parties, dinners, meetings between people who should know each other. "The American consulate uses me a bit for things of that nature," she says. It was because of this and an introduction from a mutual friend at the U.S. embassy in Canberra, Australia's capital, that our paths crossed. In a seafood bar overlooking Hobart harbor she asked Sam and me what our business was and how she might advance it.
"Well, it's a kind of a free-form expedition," I replied. "Sam here is an apple grower in Pennsylvania, and he wants to do some research on your orchards."
The large, hairy young bloke in question was at that moment vigorously researching a sizable pile of Tasmanian crayfish. By temperament Sam is loud, iconoclastic, disrespectful, disputatious, observant and curious, all of which makes him a stimulating traveling companion. His occupation permits him occasionally to go off on eccentric quests to improbable places. Most important, because of his physique and a lot of rigorous on-the-job training, he's conditioned to pick up and lug very heavy things that his seniors find tedious and undignified to carry.
Tasmania is known as Apple Island because it used to produce most of Australia's apples and still grows about 25% of them. Therefore, though she hadn't previously met one, Jean didn't find a visiting pomologist implausible and didn't think organizing a tour of local orchards would be difficult.
"And yourself, Bil," she asked, getting on with it. "I'm told you're a journalist. Are you working on this trip?"
"Tell Ms. Taranto about it," Sam suggested maliciously, surfacing from a midden of crayfish parts. Because of my discomfiture in recent experiences with Australian consular, customs and immigration officials concerning "reason for visit," Sam was anticipating being entertained by the rest of the conversation.
"Well, quite often I write about natural history," I said, scrambling. "Tasmania is very interesting in that way—so many endemic species, parallel evolution and so forth...."