Story Written by Nathan Leanne 

Pinpointing an exact time or reason I’m drawn to conservation is quite impossible; I honestly believe that it really is just an extension of who I am.

I was born and raised in rural northern Victoria, the youngest of three boys. from a low-income family living in public housing that was located in a not so desirable part of town. We had ups and downs but in all, we had a great childhood; we were boys, we fought, got in trouble in every conceivable way, tested mum continuously and all pushed to make our dad proud.

It was at this early age that I began to realise that I was very different from my older brothers, even though we were only two and four years apart. They were both boisterous, loved football, cricket, fishing, and all manner of pursuits that dad was keen to push them through. I, on the other hand, receded. I grew quiet and spent many adventures in the solace of our amazing red heeler, who first exposed me to the wonders of love, connection, mateship, understanding, and unbroken bond.

As my brothers grew and became great at most things, I was often chastised and picked on for being a wimp or mummy’s boy, and instead of one brother ensuring the other never picked on the youngest, I was regularly picked on by both. This, of course, didn’t help me gain any confidence and only made me delve further into solitude and hours alone playing and daydreaming of what more the world had to offer.

I guess this is one reason why I took an interest in plants and animals, I’d spend time chasing butterflies, digging worms, growing moss, and loving how slaters (Pillbugs, woodlice, Roley Poleys) operated. On our regular boys-only fishing trips, I’d spend most of the time exploring, climbing logs, and catching frogs.

Once a year, we would make a trip to visit my dad’s parents on their small farm several hours away up in the hills. As usual, my brothers would disappear on their bikes telling me to stay behind, so without my trusty red sidekick, I’d harass the abundance of lizards and sometimes brown snakes that I could find.

Halfway through grade five, my parents made the decision to move us to an even smaller town. I had some good friends at primary school – some indigenous boys from my neighbourhood whom I had a lot in common with. I was sad to go but the move suited my family just right. My brothers received a warm welcome to the local football and cricket clubs and soon stamped their mark, both winning several club and one league best and fairest.

I, on the other hand, struggled to make friends, or really find my way, I eventually made one good mate, his family owned a farm out of town and oh did we have some fun! The adventures were endless and most would have put our parents in an early grave (lol). Sadly, we no longer talk and he will never know how much he helped me. My dad was a heavy drinker and I often had to deal with family violence in the form of verbal abuse. To top it off, at twelve, I was abused by one of my dad’s mates. I kept it all quiet for years, but at thirteen I began to drink. As the culture in the town at the time enabled it, I spiralled out of control. Then my best mate and healer of my heart had to be put to sleep due to cancer. I also found out that one of my indigenous friends from primary school and one of the kindest people I’ve known passed on at the way too young age of fourteen. By eighteen, I had been in more fights than I can remember. But on a strange note, at that time it was one way that I was able to make my dad proud. He had always pushed us to stand up for ourselves and never back down; I may just have enjoyed it too much and taken it all too far.

I lacked confidence and direction and recall me and my mate both expressing interest in becoming land managers but both saying how we could never become such a thing. I continued on a downward path, somehow finishing year twelve and very nearly joining the military in 2002. I left school and worked as a rural fencer for over a year. It was great but it was just a job. So with all but my love of pets, I’d completely given up on nature and the notion of becoming a conservationist. The culture I was in just didn’t support that idea – it was totally a foreign concept to my family or anyone around.

The family again moved, this time to a large city on the Victorian border, which was great for me as I’d need the move – having just barely escaped a lengthy prison sentence. I will never blame anyone but myself for how far I fell but I can assure you culture plays a big part in our lives. At this point, I was 22 and had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was on the dole, had no friends, and a bad mark on my name to boot. But eventually, I started to settle down – with some minor ups and downs – but I began to realise I was out of the bubble; I was old enough to make life what I wanted.

Culture need not be on my shoulders as I could see opportunities that I had not been able to see before. I got my full licence and a good job, but most importantly a good woman. She had kids and I was sure as hell that I was to never continue the culture that I was brought up in. Several years passed with bliss. I’d grown and matured a lot (catching up, I guess) and at this time, I had a growing urge inside me. Conservation Land management – an organization/job that I once said I could never obtain – and I was going to pursue it, so at the age of 29, I enrolled in TAFE. Wow; certificate three in Conservation & Land Management; 12 months of awesome influence and passion with like-minded individuals and I was in my element. Who would have thought that my experiences, times with my mate catching pest animals and the rural fencing job would benefit me so much.

Having finished my cert three and newly single, I moved again – but this time to study further. Unfortunately, (yet fortunately) study got cancelled for a year, but out of luck I guess, my old fencing boss contacted me and I was off for nine months constructing two large, ten-hectare cat and fox-proof enclosures to protect bush stone curlews for a prominent nature conservation organisation. That year, I also started volunteering for the very organisation I wanted to work for. I proceeded to do this – three summer holidays over three years.

So, after fencing, the next year I began to study again – in a duel certificate four/diploma of Conservation & Land Management. And again wow! I’m a natural, (lol) and certainly excelled in the more advanced, technical side of things. I also started volunteering every Monday with a local prominent op shop in order to maintain my mental health from the weight of the study I was undertaking. This was very rewarding, not to mention I gained my second distinct reference by doing so.

In 2017, as I was in the very last week of my studies – knowing that I had done exceptionally well – you can say that the cherry (ballart) got put on top as I was offered a job in that (*land manager) position that I once believed unattainable. I was elated and so was my family; finally, my conservation path had come full circle. Or has it? I now have bigger and brighter aspirations and again had been exposed to not so desirable culture. But I understand that culture is what we make it and I am now confident and willing to change it for the better.

I understand this is a long and frank story but it’s hard to write your own story and convey it in a way that people can understand why you shared it. Culture is a powerful thing; we are all exposed to it in many different forms, but ultimately, we choose how we want to approach it, and what impact it has on us. And you should see how proud my dad is now as my mum explains to me how he tells everyone his son is a land manager and a conservationist.

My advice is to do what you feel is right, take steps you can see are positive and put other people’s doubts behind you. Take a leaf from my book and chase your dreams (before all the darkness), volunteer, get experiences, and look to the culture that we see now  – such as Lonely Conservationists – and all these young inspiring school kids that have the courage I wish I had at their age to stand up for what is right.

For more of Nathan, follow him @native_vic_aus