Written by Jessica Leck
My name is Jessica Leck, and as I write this, my hometown is on fire. I live on the mid north coast of Australia, and this week has seen an area roughly seven times greater than the Amazon fires burn across my home state. Friends have lost homes and others have lost loved ones, and yet still my community and their government will not speak about the elephant in this room.
But to understand my thoughts as I watch the flames through the window of this evacuation centre, you should know my back story. The mid-north coast has not always been my home. Until earlier this year I was one of the inner-city greenies being criticised by the politicians.
There has never been any deviation for me; I was always going to be a conservation biologist. With a family unable to help and a complete lack of funding in this industry, this need of mine was never going to be easy, but it was always going to be the end result. With the support of a wonderful partner and a work ethic that fortunately placed in me positions with roster control, I was able to work full time to support myself throughout eight years of university; two degrees, a graduate certificate, countless internships and a traineeship… And if you read that and think that may have been overkill, you would be correct, but you also probably have not tried to get a paid graduate position in conservation in Australia. My twenties have not been an easy period of my life, but my never failing drive to do everything I can to preserve the wonder I fell in love with has always been the only motivation I needed to get through a 20 hour day.
That brings us to early 2019; two graduate positions under my belt, I considered myself unbelievably lucky to have gotten a third, as a junior ecologist for a small consulting firm. The 70 hour weeks, hour and a half commutes and 60k salary were supposedly everything I had been working for, and yet there I sat in a high rise, signing off EIA’s for clearing extensions to landfill sites. It was supposed to be the dream, and all my university cohorts were hitting me up for introductions, but clearly my subconscious knew something I wasn’t ready to admit. Two months in, my partner came home to tell me he had gotten a new work placement 3 hours north and had to be there in 3 weeks’ time, and despite this recent fulfilment of the “dream”, there was no hesitation as I sat down to type out my resignation letter.
So three weeks on and there I was, the most highly educated, overly qualified house wife on the mid-north coast. The relief offered by the reduced cost of living meant my income wasn’t necessary, so I spent the next few months fulfilling the dream in more practical ways, my only restriction being the heavily right-wing mentality of my new community. I was resigned to this life, knowing my opportunities were vastly limited, my opinions largely unwelcome and finally convinced of my limited capacity after years of being told I wasn’t good enough by Sydney. So imagine my surprise when I was offered work lecturing at the local university, and then again with a local connection. This community I assumed to be closed minded and archaic had offered me more opportunities to do good then Sydney ever had.
So this was when my tumultuous love affair with this community peaked. A more diluted distribution of conservationists means we have the opportunities and funding to positively contribute, yet much of the community continues to see my only value being in helping them increase the productivity of their over harvested soils. The words carbon and biodiversity have very limited application in their minds, and single species don’t dare merit a mention. But yet still, public lands and the support of the few converted have allowed me to do more good in these three months then I have over 4 years in the industry in Sydney. I have saved countless trees through conversations with farmers, and spent hours standing in front of their children teaching them the interconnected value of ecoliteracy.
And yet I sit here in an evacuation centre while our home burns around us, not listening to discussions of climate scenarios and mitigation. Instead my ears are flooded with the beginnings of terrifying irresponsible ecological demands; clear felling borders and grazing national parks, while further in the distance the anti-greens mentality is being further cemented with misinformation.
I know every tree I have planted and every shrub I have preserved are now charcoal, and hold a deep fear they will be replaced with the security of grazing land. The ecological value I had spent these months communicating to these land holders represents nothing but fire risk to them now. In a region where the far right-wing conservatives run unopposed every term, I am finding there is only room for my ideas when all other variables are able to remain the same. I wonder, is this mentality regression an aspect of the positive feedback cycle missed by some scientists?
So what now? Well, of course, I keep going here in this closed minded community. Where my ideas are unwanted but have the room to grow and inspire. I go to work on Monday and I teach my students about the importance of megafauna in nutrient cycling and then I host my carbon sequestration workshop for farmers that night. Because there never has been and there never will be another option for me, I am a conservation biologist, whether I am employed or not, lonely or in front of an audience; this is the only option for me.
For more of Jessica, check out @a.wild.archive on Instagram