Lonely Conservationists

Pamela (I fell in love with giant stick insect)

Written by Pamela Greet

A kerosene tin of cane-toads was one of the things my grandfather carried with him from Babinda in Queensland when he moved his young family to the Burdekin to start his own farm in 1920-something. They had to clear flood plains to plant their first crops and for maybe ten years, there were koalas living in the uncleared paddock in front of the little two roomed house my grandfather built from timber milled locally. By the time I was born in 1957 that paddock, too, had been cleared. My parents together with my Mum’s brother and his wife, leased it to grow a crop of tomatoes. On the proceeds, my uncle put a down payment on a motorbike with a sidecar to transport his wife and three young kids (yes, there are photos) and my parents purchased a second hand Morris Major. My cousin and I have forever been dubbed tomato babies as we were both about to pop out when the tomatoes were being picked, washed and packed.

Am I atoning for what we might now dub environmental vandalism? In the days of my grandfather it was what you had to do to survive – too much hind-sight can paralyse.

There was no special revelatory moment between the environment and me. This is a relationship shaped from a lifetime of experiences informing my sense of awe at the wonders of nature.

I am just two when my heavily pregnant mother is bitten on the ankle while weeding the bank at the front of our house, by a slender green snake. She is deadly calm as she scoops up my sister and me, carries us into the kitchen where she sharpens the knife she uses to cut meat, after boiling the kettle and pouring it over the blade of the knife, puts on a tourniquet and cuts her ankle, bandages it, then drives all of us to the hospital. My Dad is coaching a cricket team. We do not have a phone – it is 1960.

I am six. We herd the soldier crabs into armies and set them to battle each other on the beach at Woodgate. I rescue a bee from a spider web in the garden and it thanks me by suicidally stinging me. I fall in love with a giant stick insect I meet climbing a loquat tree in our backyard. To this day if I believed in reincarnation I would know I was formerly a preying mantis.

I grew up in a household without a television in the 1960s and 70s. My parents loved the bush. Every weekend was spent exploring creeks and valleys just for the joy of plunging into the fecundity of the rainforests of north Qld- Mt Spec, Mt Fox, Wallaman or Jourama Falls, camping at Murray Upper, the Boulders, or Mossman Gorge.

Thanks to my Grade 8 English teacher Pam Gilbert I fell in love with the environment again through the poetry of Judith Wright which was populated with trees, the shapes of the landscape, the perfection of birds. A Save the Reef sticker supporting the campaign launched by Judith Wright in 1967 was the only sticker ever allowed on my parents’ car. Not many people are aware now of this first campaign to save the reef, led by a poet. We could all usefully read The Coral Battleground to revisit the issues and to appreciate the politics and how far we have come in terms of the value the public attaches to the environment.

I was about fifteen when I joined a street theatre troop in the cultural desert Townsville, that designed all-singing all-dancing protests against the Mary Kathleen Uranium Mine. Looking back my ignorance at that time now disturbs me greatly. I had no clue where the Mary Kathleen mine was located nor what were to be the longer term impacts of the mine. I don’t believe Mary Kathleen was ‘on the map’ in my Jacaranda school atlas.

My Dad gave me a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for my 16th birthday so I believed this gave me parental permission to join GASP, Group Action to Stop Pollution. Bringing together trade unionists and university students and a couple of precocious high-schoolers, GASP attracted the interest and ire of the local newspaper by organising street marches and clandestine night-time poster campaigns to raise awareness. In my first year of uni I persuaded a boyfriend to drive me out along the highways north and south of Townsville and I climbed onto his shoulders to spray-paint ‘Smoker You Stink’ across the billboards advertising Marlborough and Winfield cigarettes.

In those days I was more against than for things.

My first step to making the world a better place was to study behavioural science when all the cool people at James Cook uni were studying marine biology.  I cannot honestly claim to have pursued a career in conservation. It crept up on me over about 35 years. But now it feels as if the landscape was always there, waiting for me.

After a short spell as a high school teacher I worked in the field of humanitarian aid for almost twenty years and witnessed and tried to mitigate, the large scale displacement of people due to both natural (drought, floods, cyclones in Africa and Asia) and man-made (conflicts over productive land and resources) disasters. I never dreamed of seeing refugees from fire being transported from Australian beaches in naval vessels.

The big picture for me is about how it is all joined up: human problems, environmental problems, social problems and economic concerns. What do we value, what do we really need to survive and to thrive as individuals, as societies and as a population responsible for the future of this planet? How do we live our lives to respect and value the landscape: how do we best manage being human in the places we find ourselves?

In 2016 I waged a personal campaign ‘fiftythings2016’, against the fast fashion industry by containing my wardrobe (undies, shoes, coats and all to just fifty things). Now in 2020 there is a growing consumer awareness about the horrific environmental and social costs of the fast fashion industry and its ’want-it-now’ throw-away values. But in 2016 not too many people were talking up the joy of second-hand minimalism. In the past decade I have had five no-buy years when it comes to clothing and ‘stuff’. So liberating to lighten your footprint.

For the last two years or thereabout I have been working with the Qld Department of Environment and Science in stakeholder engagement – facilitating the exhausting and exhilarating processes of building collaboration between groups that, on the face of it, have competing interests in our natural capital: scientists and researchers, conservationists both lonely and social, governments, landholders, custodians of our lands and seas.

After years of seeing my home state alternately drenched by flooding, and desiccated by drought, after the horror 2019-20 summer of heat and ravaging fires, what keeps me going?

There are two equal parts to my answer. One, is the people: the farmers, the researchers and the custodians, the conservationists, and the tourism operators who care equally in their different ways about looking after habitat because they truly value what it feeds and shelters. We need to do less contestation and more collaboration, in my opinion.

Two is the critters: the iconic and threatened ones I rarely encounter in person but which populate my imagination – the fauna that describes our strange and beautiful Gondwana.  Then there’s the critters I encounter everyday: the spiders that tickle me in the garden, stunning dragon flies, the water dragons and backyard birds – their staccato meditations that tie me to my place.

 For more of Pamela, visit @pamelagreet on Instagram

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