Look at Me: in conversation with Benjamin Law

Look at Me: in conversation with Benjamin Law

So we’ve all heard about kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, koalas… but what about the weird and wonderful creatures that lurk off our coastlines, live under our deserts and lope about our plains?

Supported by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Look at Me is an original six-part Guardian Australia podcast series which finally gives some of Australia’s under-appreciated native species the attention they deserve. In each episode, Remember The Wild’s own Chris McCormack takes famed writer Benjamin Law on a journey through Australia’s wilderness.

After the success of Look at Me so far, we decided to chat with co-host Benjamin Law about his reasons for getting involved in the project and why this new podcast is a unique and entertaining way to raise awareness for Australian conservation.

Why should people listen to Look at Me?

Look at Me is ostensibly a podcast about Australian wildlife and I think we all love Australian wildlife. But I think there’s two reasons why we should all listen to Look at Me. I mean, first of all, it’s about discovering Australian wildlife that we just don’t know much about. We’re one of the most fascinatingly biodiverse continents on the planet and there are just so many animals that I was unfamiliar with until I did this podcast.

And secondly, it’s not just about animals, in a way; it’s about the environments in which we live, it’s about human relationships, it’s about what animals can tell us about our world and about ourselves.

I know that might sound a bit abstract, or a bit lofty, but I think the first episode speaks for itself… we’re ostensibly learning about these large incredible cuttlefish, but the way that cuttlefish mate and die, and the way that one particular person, a scuba diver, learns about cuttlefish and learns about herself and the fact that she herself is dying and her relationship to the cuttlefish, is just monumentally moving… I’ve kind of lost count of the number of people who have contacted us through the podcast and said, ‘Wow, I did not expect a podcast about a cuttlefish to make me cry.’

We all have emotional attachment to animals. That’s why we have pets, why we love seeing animals in the wild, why we go to zoos, why people are obsessed with birdwatching. And I think a lot of that is what we project onto animals – what they teach us about ourselves.

When Guardian Australia approached you about hosting this podcast, what made you want to get involved?

Well I love everything that the Guardian does, I think they’re a great and important media outlet for the Australian landscape.

And I guess anything to do with conservation is very important to me. I was born and grew up in the country and like anyone else I’ve got a soft spot for native Australian fauna but I’m also really concerned about the rates at which we wipe out our very unique fauna that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet.

I’m concerned that even some of the best known and most loved Australian animals are under threat in their own ways and so if I could help facilitate people becoming more invested in our natural landscape and the creatures that live within it, I was all for it.

Benjamin Law, of The Family Law fame, brings his infectious energy and unique brand of humour to Look at Me. Image: Guardian Australia

Why do you think it’s important for people to learn about Australian native animals that they didn’t necessarily know about before?

Well, for one thing I think they’re just batshit insane. Like, even when you think about the animals that we really are familiar with, you know, mammals that lay eggs – that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.

Mammals that carry their young around in, like, pockets, in their body – I mean, what is that about? I mean, even the ones we do know anything about are incredible. Mammals that do cube-shaped shits, mammals that have six openings on their penis.

I just love anything that’s slightly crazy and deranged anyway so I already love Australian animals and then you take it a bit further and you’re going to find like giant earthworms under the ground, you’re going to find cuttlefish that engage in orgies, you’re going to find these quasi-mole things that live under the ground and are virtually blind and communicate to each other in ways we don’t even begin to understand.

We’ve basically got a whole ecosystem of things that belong in the realm of fantasy and science fiction and that’s something that, as a storyteller, really fascinates me.

What was something you learned from the podcast that really blew you away?

I think part of it is that so much of Australia’s wildlife we can’t necessarily see very easily – I mean you’d have to scuba dive to see some of this stuff; you’d have to kind of burrow yourself under the earth to find other creatures. And it makes me think we are just so arrogant to think that we know so much, when so much is mysterious. Even if we invest in proper research into animals and in a lot of these cases we already have, there are things that we might never understand.

I think that’s incredibly humbling, for our species to keep in mind that there are so many things about this planet that we’ll never understand, and that we share this realm with other things that sometimes we’re cognisant of and sometimes we’re not. And I think if we remember that we are co-inhabitants, not the sole occupants, of this planet, we might shift the way we treat it for the sake of our neighbours.

If you could be reincarnated as any Australian native animals, what would it be and why?

Probably the Blue-ringed Octopus. It’s not an animal we cover in this podcast but as we learn in the podcast and from what we already know, cephalopods are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet so I’d like, still be wise… and I’d also just love to be able to kill people.

I mean, not that I’m murderous in and of myself, but if you’re an octopus you are kind of a vulnerable species – you’re easy to eat, you’re easy to kill, but nobody fucks with a Blue-ringed Octopus… I think all species, including humans, are vulnerable in their own way and I think the Blue-ringed Octopus is too, but it’s got a pretty good advantage over a lot of other animals out there.

Look at Me is an original six-part Guardian Australia podcast series which finally gives some of Australia’s under-appreciated native species the attention they deserve. Image: Guardian Australia

Has doing this podcast changed anything for you about the way that you interact with your environment?

I think it’s taught me to be curious but also to be respectful. I found myself on the south coast of New South Wales earlier this year with friends staying at their family home and when I’m there I swim laps in the sea – it’s kind of a beautiful bay and we swim kilometres back and forth and swimming with my goggles, just seeing how much wildlife was down there, was a majestic thing.

But also I think doing this podcast has reminded me just to give everyone their own space as well. Things lurk in the ocean, things are burrowing underground, for a reason. And so while I was out there I saw this massive ray – I can’t remember whether it was a manta or sting ray because I’m so terrible at telling them apart – but to be aware of these creatures and where they are so that we don’t intrude and harm them.

I think that’s something that comes up again and again in the podcast: to be able to acknowledge where these creatures are and to be able to give them a chance to live, essentially.

And we’re not a great species at doing that. We don’t have a great track record.

Listen to Look at Me online here or subscribe via your preferred podcast provider so you can catch every episode. And make sure you check out Ben’s TV series, The Family Law, on SBS On Demand. Season 3 is out now.

Banner image courtesy of Guardian Australia.

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