Written by David De Angelis
The word ‘obsession’ gets thrown around a bit, but maybe understandably, true obsession seems to frighten most people. Conscious of the other (impostor) syndrome that many lonely conservationists have talked about, I still feel the need to point out the difference between having an obsession with natural history, and necessarily having expertise in ecology or wildlife conservation!
Few people seem to have clear memories of their time in kindergarten, but some of mine are still vivid. Social introversion and an OCD-like repulsion of human ‘mess’ kept me from regularly interacting with more than a couple of the other children. Yet I was the only one who constantly begged to play with the pet rabbits and guinea pigs. A lot of my time was also happily spent in the company of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Eastern Long-necked Turtle. Visits to a child psychologist ended soon after I told him that soil in the water was the reason why I coloured a drawing of the lower Yarra River brown rather than blue!
Despite my challenging childhood obsession with nature, I was never taken on anything more than day trips within a couple of hours’ drive from Melbourne. Camping and holidays weren’t on the family agenda, so most of my early natural history learning came from books. Apart from the Gould League and Steve Parish, most of my available reading was on northern hemisphere fauna, resulting in familiarity with the North American Copperhead (a species of pit viper) years before learning that we have copperheads belonging to an entirely different family of snakes in Australia.
It also led to a constant turnover of unusual pets. Dogs scared me, so over time I maintained the company of a cockatiel, budgies, finches, quail, geckos, blue-tongue lizards, bearded dragons, frogs, axolotls, fish, hermit crabs, snails, ants, spiders and stick insects.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the secondary school I went to had a voluntary student environment group, offered a middle school environmental management subject and had an area of bushland adjoining a creek. The usual teenage distractions of sport, clubbing and gaming never got a look-in. Maybe unsurprisingly, I spent many lunchtimes and some of my other spare time either volunteering in the school’s environment centre or down in the bush. This led to my first job, working with an environmental land management company at the end of my final year.
Despite struggling with maths and other analytical subjects, enrolling in biological science at university seemed inevitable. Although I found completing my undergraduate degree far from easy, it gave me an irreversible appreciation for experimental design, critical thinking and undertaking objective research. Even so, when scoping potential projects for an honours year with one of my lecturers, he commented that I should have probably been born 20 years earlier. I thought 200 years would have been more appropriate!
Even in my final year at university when I was studying the ecology of burrowing skinks in semi-arid South Australia, opportunities to volunteer on other projects distracted me from what I should have been focused on. Nevertheless, I entered the ecological consulting industry straight after graduating.
I have remained in the same job since, although wonder about returning to study at some stage. Regardless, I have never had the usual lifetime desires of owning a home or anything more than a basic car, simply because I would much rather invest most of my time and other resources indulging in wildlife conservation and natural history.
While the few of us who truly have an obsession will never really change, our challenge is to make sure it can be used constructively for the benefit of conservation, and not as an excuse to impact undesirably on the people around us.
I’m indebted to a number of colleagues, family members and like-minded friends who have not only been incredibly tolerant, but supportive of my journey so far. As the words ‘lonely conservationists’ suggest though, many of us could probably do with a little more social interaction. Some of us who are based in Victoria and have contributed to the blog occasionally catch up at environmental seminars, conferences and other events by coincidence. Maybe there could also be room for annual if not more regular social events under the banner of Lonely Conservationists?