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Embrace your inner nerd

by Angus Trumble, 1 June 2018

Cover, first minute book of the Tasmanian Society of Natural History
Cover, first minute book of the Tasmanian Society of Natural History

The southern winter has arrived. For people in the northern hemisphere (the majority of humanity) the idea of snow and ice, freezing mist and fog in June, potentially continuing through to August and beyond, encapsulates the topsy-turvidom of our southern continent. However, there have been many other tropes since first contact. During the Gold Rush, for example, the sculptor Thomas Woolner confided to his journal:

Nature and Custom are topsy-turvy in this country, the reverse of England; day and springtime here when night and winter [sic] there. Here the trees shed their bark instead of leaves, vegetation stops in mid-summer, and cherries grow their stones outside. The man of labor only buys the luxuries of life, and servants rule their masters who bow down and flatter them. Such is the power of Gold. (31 October 1852)

Thomas Woolner, c. 1865 by an unknown artist

Later, on 18 November, Woolner remarked of the fragrance of a lilac-like flower:

This I thought extraordinary for such an unpoetic country, a land where the birds cannot sing, nor flowers give perfume, scarcely. A land without fruit or vegetable.

Taken together, these two passages are curiously similar to the following remarks in The Australian Sketch Book by James Martin:

Rare conservatory plants were commonplace; the appearance of light-green meadows lured squatters into swamps where their sheep contracted rot, trees retained their leaves and shed their bark instead, the more frequent the trees, the more sterile the soil, the birds did not sing, the swans were black, the eagles white, the bees were stingless [sic], some mammals had pockets, others laid eggs, it was warmest on the hills and coolest in the valleys, even the blackberries [wild raspberries, Rubus hillii] were red, and to crown it all the greatest rogue may be converted into the most useful citizen: such is Terra Australis.

Martin’s travel book was widely regarded as the first book of essays ever published in Australia, and as a piece of travel writing largely modelled on The Sketch Book by Washington Irving (1783–1859), whom Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe had known years earlier through his late uncle the famous architect Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe of Philadelphia (1764–1820), another of Mrs. Bateman’s brothers. In 1834, the younger La Trobe accompanied Irving on one of the expeditions that gave rise to The Sketch Book, and to the later of La Trobe’s own travel books.

Woolner may have been led toward Martin’s The Australian Sketch Book by his Melbourne host Dr. Godfrey Howitt, or even Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe himself. Woolner modelled a portrait medallion of James Martin in Sydney in 1854, but there is no evidence that they met in Melbourne in the last week of October. In any case, the topsy-turvidom of the Australian landscape, its “antipodean perversities,” and in particular the twin tropes of song-less birds and flowers without perfume were by the 1850s firmly embedded in the travel and natural history literature. And they were sometimes contradicted. In 1839, Major Thomas Mitchell mentioned “a charming spot, enlivened by numbers of pigeons, and the songs of little birds, in strange, but very pleasing notes,” while, much later, the Kerrs observed: “The birds of Australia, which by a calumny of travellers have been denied the gift of song as unjustly as her wild flowers have been declared bereft of perfume, are numerous and beautiful…”

For many years I was intrigued (thanks to my colleague David Hansen) by this marvellous drawing of a slightly squashed-looking duck-billed platypus with, looping over it, the neat longhand inscription: “All things are queer and opposite.” This was inscribed on the cover of the first minute book of the Tasmanian Society of Natural History, the direct institutional ancestor, via the Royal Society of Tasmania (1843) of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. At its foundation in 1839, the society chose as its emblem the platypus, originally classified in 1800 as Ornithorhyncus paradoxus by the perplexed Johann Blumenbach, on the basis of a specimen furnished by Sir Joseph Banks—the term was eventually altered to Ornithorhynchus anatinus, which means literally duck-like, bird-snouted creature. (Platypus, from the Greek, means flat-footed.) To this platypus emblem the society added the Latin motto: Quocunque aspicias hic paradoxus erit.

The Tasmanian journal of natural science, agriculture, statistics

For ages I tried to find out where this motto originated, in what if any Classical source, or else adapted from what ancient, medieval, or even Renaissance model. None appears ever to have been proposed, so I made discreet inquiries. My learned colleagues Tristan Taylor and John Dillon, formerly of the Yale University Department of Classics, eventually proffered excellent advice, as follows. Quocunque aspicias hic paradoxus erit is certainly not a Classical quotation. Only Ovid is known to have combined the words “quocunque aspicias” or “quocunque aspiceres,” and he used the phrase twice in describing Tomis, his bleak place of exile in Scythia Minor on the Black Sea (modern Romania): “quocunque aspicio nihil est, nisi Pontus et aer / fluctibus hic tumidus, nubibus ille minax,” that is, “In whatever direction I look, there is nothing except sea and air, one swollen with waves, the other menacing with clouds” (Tristia, 1.2.23–24), and “quocumque aspicias, campi cultore carentes / vastaque quae nemo vindicat arva iacent,” that is, “in whatever direction you look, fields lie lacking cultivation and vast fields no one claims” (Epistulae ex Ponto, 1.3.55–56). If the Tasmanian Society of Natural History composed its motto as a conscious allusion to Ovid—and the Vandiemonian setting might indeed suggest logical, if rather gloomy grounds for alluding to Tomis—they did it very well indeed, because Quocunque aspicias hic paradoxus erit parses in elegiac meter; specifically as the second line of a carefully crafted couplet. The long and short syllables of the motto are: _ _ _ . . _ _ . . _ . . _ (provided we elide the -que with asp-, and treat them as one syllable, specifically the third long one.) This is extremely skilled Latin poetic composition.

As for the translation, paradoxus is masculine, so it must refer to the platypus itself because a paradox in Latin is otherwise neuter, i.e. paradoxum. It follows, then, that the word hic is not an adverb meaning “here” but a masculine singular demonstrative pronoun, “this (creature),” referring to the platypus, agreeing thus with paradoxus. Literally, then, the motto translates as “Whichever way you look [at it], this [creature] is baffling,” that is, from the front or from the back. Smoothing out the awkward English, and taking into account the fact that the Classical Latin adjective paradoxus means something closer to baffling, strange, or surprising than literally paradoxical, a neater translation might be: “Whichever way you look at him, this fellow will surprise.” So who on earth in Hobart Town was the composer of this fragment of Latin elegy, and possibly a clever pasticheur of Ovid as well? One should never underestimate the sophistication of nineteenth-century British colonists’ Latin.

Two stray references in the Vandiemonian press from the 1830s cast a ray of light upon the imminence of Ovid in colonial letters—and may suggest contexts in which to place the Latin motto of the Tasmanian Society of Natural History, “Quocunque aspicias hic paradoxus erit,” and its choice of emblem, the curious platypus. The first occurs towards the end of a long article entitled “Van Diemen’s Land, Viewed as a Penal Colony,” that was published in the Hobart Town Courier on Saturday, June 26, 1830. That article sought to correct the false impression circulating at home in England according to which a sentence of Transportation was apparently regarded as more of a blessing than a punishment. As a corrective, the author sketched in considerable detail the conditions of life endured by convicts, concluding thus:

If he forgets himself at the close of day and is absent but for a few minutes, he is put in a dark cell and tried for the omission next morning before the magistrate. But if by some means he is able to indulge in the vicious appetite for drink, under the pretence of driving from his memory the incessant recurrence of former days, of cooling for a season the yearnings after those that are absent, in the fumes of inebriation, he is forthwith visited with punishment commensurate with his crime. But if he fall into the habit of drinking, (for it wants but a beginning) in addition to the slow but sure and fatal effect of the internal poison, he has to endure the repeated infliction of corporeal pain, and the exaction of toil when his wasted and diseased frame is least able to bear its fatigue. Let no one believe that this picture is exaggerated or unreal. Since the most remote times it has been the failing of weak minds in distress to fly to stimulants for relief. Ovid in the beautifully plaintive elegies which he wrote during his banishment, describes himself, even with his enlightened mind, as falling into the same error, and drinking whenever he could obtain the means of indulging in it, at the cost even of his life, to drown the recollection of home:— ‘Hos ego qui patriae faciant oblivia, succos / Parte meae vitae, si modo denture, emam’ [Epistulae ex Ponto, IV.10.19–20]. How wretched then must he be, who purchases a momentary forgetfulness of his condition at so dear a price, and however well deserved no one who reflects upon it will deny, that to him at least transportation to Van Diemen’s Land is indeed a punishment.

Enough people knew their Ovid—backwards—not to need to identify the quotation here. Today, that is mighty humbling. Though the temperance standpoint is striking, this and the rest of the account is not without compassion, and it is striking therefore that the author explicitly refers to the Epistulae ex Ponto, as indeed the compositor of “Quocunque aspicias hic paradoxus erit” seems to allude to the Tristia.

The second reference is more garrulous, but no less intriguing. It is contained in an announcement by James Ross of Paraclete, Knocklofty (1786–1838), of the publication of his Hobart Town Almanack and Van Diemen’s Land Annual for 1835 (Hobart Town Courier, Friday, January 30, 1835):

I consider it my duty to explain the lines I have extracted in my title page, from my esteemed friend Ovid (I like to esteem my friends, and to have friends to esteem), I mean as a poet—‘Judge favourably,’ he says, (that is I say) ‘of my unassuming labours, which I have been induced to undertake, not for the sake of fame or reputation, but in order to be useful, and as a duty I owe to my countrymen.’ The same author has well described the colonist Janus [Fasti, I]—the tutelar saint of January—as having two faces, one looking on the past, and the other on the future, and he might, I think, with equal propriety, have gone on to fill up the lineaments of the one with joy, and of the other with sorrow, for who is not touched by these mingled emotions at the commencement of a new year, contiguous as it is with the blessed nativity, full of joy and poignant commiseration? The lapse of time is ever a serious thought, while we rejoice at the opportunity it affords us to begin a new and reformed era. Good and evil are mixed with every thing mortal—we must pass over the one as lightly as possible, while we dwell upon and make the most of the advantages of the other. And this is exactly the case with the following pages—the candid reader will overlook their imperfections, availing himself of whatever information or amusement they, at the same time contain.

Ross’s reference to Ovid’s Janus/January at the beginning of the Fasti is a conceit tied primarily to the calendar, but it is tempting to point to its push-me-pull-you quality, its front-and-back, past-and-future dualities of conditions in Van Diemen’s Land as neatly congruent with the lingering puzzlement over the physical attributes of what was still known as Ornithorhyncus paradoxus. And, sure enough, there he is, dangling intriguingly at the very end of the table of contents that follows Mr. Ross’s chatty advertorial: an article about the self-same platypus.

In any event, in my gradually accumulating experience, all things definitely do tend to be queer and opposite, if not at first then eventually!