Monday, December 8, 2008

In a Lonely Place (I)

Suppose you’re alone, but for your dog, in a secluded, more or less wild place. Let’s suppose your intentions are innocent and you’re there just to enjoy the scenery, the quiet—the hint of desolation.

Then as chance would have it, supposing you believe in chance, you come upon some people. Two people. A male and a female. They’re not aware of you, but you become forcefully aware of them, because they’re having sex in the bushes. Hard, rough sex. They’re fucking like animals.

What do you do—beyond restraining your dog?

Do you turn and hurry away?

Do you reach for your camera if you have it with you?

How can you be sure that what you’re seeing is consensual sex between lovers—and not a rape?

What would you do if it were a rape?

I recently confronted these questions in a very unacademic and totally concrete context while wandering with my dog in a park near my home in rural Australia.

Ironically, I was on the lookout for monsters, or at least the ghosts of monsters, for we were on the edge of the Lancefield Swamp, famous for being a rich burial ground of Australian megafauna (a word I’ve always loved). Fossil remains have been found of Macropus titan, a giant kangaroo—an immense flightless bird whose name I’ve forgotten, and the largest marsupial on record, the Diprotodon, a wombat the size of a rhinoceros or a Toyota Landcruiser, which many believe inspired the Aboriginal legends of the cryptozoological Bunyip.

I’d purposely ambled off with my dog to get a more remote sense of the area and I was apparently not alone in this idea.

Perhaps because the light was low and flat and the eeriness of the landscape was heightened. Perhaps because I was imagining the strange colossal animals sinking in marsh or drowning in sudden flooding. Or the Wurundjeri people coming to quarry out the stone for their axes. Or perhaps because…

What seemed like an Ice Age ago I’d worked as a security guard in Berkeley at Herrick Hospital, which is now part of Alta Bates, the hospital where I was born. My job was escorting nurses to their cars after dark, because a man had hidden beneath one, waited for a nurse to open the door, then grabbed her, knocked her out and taken her up to Grizzly Peak and raped her before setting her alight. Each night in the sodium lit dark I patrolled that parking lot, sweeping the beam of my long flashlight with the knurled aluminum handle that could be used like a baseball bat if required.

Now all these years later how could I be sure what was happening in the bushes on the edge of a swamp where so many other animals died was not an erotic thrill, but a crime?

I will leave you in the mire of that question for a moment. But try to see it before you as if you were there instead of me. Ancient marsh, quarry, bone bed. A weird, soft gray sky. The sounds coming from the bushes. The partially visible bodies. The sounds. The violence…