When I was five years old, my father went to Australia on a business trip. He was gone forever, it seemed, but he returned at last – perhaps after a week or two. My sister and I hovered about as he unpacked his suitcase, not wanting to make it too obvious (or so we imagined) that we were waiting to see what he’d brought for us. Then I saw a patch of fur, and my heart leapt as I imagined it to be a kitten, or puppy, or guinea pig, it didn’t matter. As long as it was alive.
He took it out and said, this is for you.
I looked at the curious creature in his hands. It was square of body, with soft rubber claws on its four corners, small round ears, and a large black rubber nose, oval-shaped with long nostrils. Two small bright eyes winked at me.
What is it? I asked
It’s a koala bear, he said.
It was a toy, of course, and not animate. But in the way of loved things it soon came to life. I can still feel it, the soft fur, the tufted ears, the firm coolness of the nose against my neck
I called it Koala. It didn’t need another name. Koala was exotic enough. Each night he lay on my pillow beside me, his glassy eyes gazing out, and whispered secrets about his life in the blue gum forests of Australia. His potency lay in this: He had not left Australia to be my bear. He was not some toy my father bought at an airport store. He was a real live bear living a the mysterious faraway land, who had sent his doppelganger, this square fur creature with the rubber oval nose, to be his proxy in my life. I never doubted that my Koala was still living his life with his koala family, for he conveyed the richness of this life through the stories he whispered into my ears every night. How lucky I was that he’d sent his symbolic self into my father’s suitcase, that he’d chosen me to share his stories, that I could stroke his soft fur and press his square body against me, when the night was dark and lonely or haunted by fearful dreams.
Once I had a dog called Angus, a black and white spaniel who grew into a fox terrier, whom no one really loved but me. He was my constant companion. When my mother’s dog (a real spaniel) had puppies, Angus was desperate to love them, but the mother wouldn’t let him near. On going to bed one night I could not find Koala. And there he was in Angus’s basket, adopted as Angus’ puppy, sodden from being licked and licked. I knew why my dog had chosen him from all the soft toys. Because Koala was different. Koala was alive.
In time, Koala grew bald patches on his fur. Being a toy from the early 60’s, he (like the kangaroo my father gave my sister) was constructed from a real kangaroo pelt rather than faux fur, although I only figured this out much later. Creepy, perhaps, but it gave him authenticity. In time, a family dog (not Angus) nibbled off his claws, another chewed his ears. But Koala continued to be my faithful dream companion well into my teens.
My memories of my childhood koala came back to me vividly today, when I was reading about the bushfires in Australia. I have been watching this disaster unfold with horror, rage and despair; just as I have watched the withering of my own country from drought, the devastation of lives in nearby Mozambique from floods, the fires in the Congo basin and the Amazon, and all the other unravelling of the fabric of the world. In recent weeks my eyes have skated over the appalling images of kangaroos fleeing the inferno, of a small joey trapped by a fence and mummified by fire, of people shell shocked and despairing watching their lives implode.
Today I watched a video of a woman rescuing a koala bear burnt by the flames. I watched it first in silence, and then I replayed it with the sound on.
I will never forget the sound it made. I sat there in my lounge, sobbing. Not just tears, but heaving, snotty paroxysms of grief. Because somehow, in that singular, inchoate wail, in that lament of sorrow and pain and fear, the koala expressed the sorrow, pain and fear of all the koalas, of all the humans, of all the kangaroos and birds and insects and ants and snakes and lizards and wombats. Of all who have lost homes, who have lost children, siblings, life-partners, parents; who have faced the terror of a traumatised planet turning against itself.
It was as if that inconceivable agony had run past me, and flicked me with its tail. As if that tiny keening koala framed on my phone was the envoy for all its fellow koalas and all the dwellers of the fire forests. Just as my koala had been an envoy for the vibrant living Australian forest of my imagination. But what a different narrative each koala told.
The koala was rescued from a burning tree. He was taken to an animal hospital, which named him Lewis. After assessing and treating his injuries, they made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize him.
My childhood koala was meaningful for me because of the living koalas it represented. It offered me a connection to life, to other life forms, to other, non-human lives in a forest on the other side of the world. It reassured me that we were not alone, but shared our earth home with a huge diverse family. And I knew, as I lay listening to Koala’s night time tales, that my life was enriched by these other lives, that they rendered it more significant, more mysterious and complex. Koala was different from the wooden dodo on my mother’s dresser. Because that dodo did not connect to life, it connected to the absence of life, to lives snuffed out by extinction. It held a sadness where my Koala held joy.
But Lewis the crying Koala could not hold the joy of a thriving creature in his natural home. That joy, that home was gone. He could hold only the pain of a species not yet dead but dying. Of innumerable lives shattered by the immense, cascading, and entirely preventable tragedy of Anthropogenic Climate Change.
Koala’s have been declared ‘functionally extinct’ by the Australian Koala Foundation – their numbers too low and habitat too destroyed to be able to recover. Can we imagine a world where the only elephants-giraffes-lions-rhinos-koalas-kangaroos are the toys of children? Can we imagine a world where even the children are gone, the toys no longer signifying life or love but just lumps of plastic or wool spinning on a lifeless planet? That world is coming, and every day that not enough is done to address the climate crisis, that world moves towards us faster.
The connection offered by my childhood Koala was my birthright. That connection is the birthright of all humans, of all living creatures, of all of us sharing this infinitely complex, infinitely beautiful miracle of life. That birthright is being stolen to prop up the profit of one hundred companies, to enrich a handful of billionaires who already have more than they could spend in a lifetime, to placate lily-livered or narcissistic politicians and executives with no vision beyond their own obsession with power, to fool those still gullible enough to be fooled. No wonder that fleeting apprehension of that pain left me sobbing and gasping for breath.
My childhood Koala has gone now, lost in one of the multiple moves between my childhood home and my present one. And Lewis has gone, free at last of pain. But his cry will never leave me. It has pierced my heart, and stitched itself to my flesh. The only way I can live with it is to do join the millions of others in fighting for earth; to turn my grief into action and do everything I can with every day I have to stop the coal-driven ecocide and genocide, and help to birth a kinder, less destructive way to be human.
To paraphrase from a well known movie, we can choose life or fossil fuels. How is that even a debate?
Listen to Lewis. Choose life.
To watch the video of Lewis, if you can bear it, go to