Lonely Conservationists

Matthew (Becoming visible)

Written by Matthew Lefoe

I wanted to submit a blog to see if it would have some sort of cathartic effect on me as I’ve been feeling quite disheartened about my career progression amidst the craziness of COVID-19. In this industry we are conditioned to be constantly networking/up-skilling/career building in order to be competitive for jobs. Our job pool has always been small, that’s why we feel a constant need to make ourselves the most employable candidate. Those jobs have since dwindled further in response to the economic effect of this global pandemic. But do I regret choosing this career path though? Absolutely not. If I didn’t embark on this journey I wouldn’t have been respecting who I truly am. So let’s see if putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) about my conservation journey can provide the therapeutic outlet that I’m seeking.

I grew up in Bobinawarrah, Victoria. To call it a town is a bit of a stretch, it’s basically an area with a dozen or so farming families living in it. From our veranda you could see Mount Buffalo and in winter we could see when it was capped with snow. We were on the cusp of the floodplains, a vast network of rivers and creeks dotted with ancient river red gums and strongly perfumed silver wattle. Dry open eucalypt woodlands dominated the networks of foothills skirting our property. I literally spent entire school holidays/weekends exploring this diversity of habitats, both alone and with my siblings. I’d spend hours yabbying in the creeks, scouting for wedge-tailed eagle nests and tracking goannas through the forest. This was my home and my escape, where I felt free to be who I wanted.

I had a pretty great life growing up and for that privilege I am incredibly grateful. I’m from a split family (but who isn’t these days) so you know, there was a somewhat complicated family dynamic that unravelled over my childhood. But all in all, I had an incredibly supportive mum and step dad who both nurtured my passion (shout out to Dad for building me a bird hide down at the dam). I also had a great time with my sisters and younger brother; I can barely remember a time when we’d all be inside.

My younger brother has Prader-Willi Syndrome, which came with its own set of extra responsibilities as one of his older siblings. In a nutshell, it’s a genetic condition that results in developmental, behavioural and sometimes psychological issues. The main characteristic is an intense hunger drive, which can be one of the most difficult aspects for families to manage. Research has indicated that families with a child with PWS experience higher divorce rates and siblings often exhibit moderate to high levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Don’t get me wrong; my brother is also incredibly funny and infectious to be around. That doesn’t negate the pressure that his associative needs place on us as a family. Living in this situation imprinted early that community is a crucial resource for support.

When I reached my teens realised that I was gay. The confusing realisation came about because I was starting to find the same sex attractive, but also because other kids were picking up on it and the bullying had begun. Small/rural towns can be pretty cruel places when you sit outside of the cookie cutter of what’s expected of you. After being called a “f***ot” a few too many times, I made the silent decision that I was in fact not gay (as if that’s a choice you can even make, right?). This marked the beginning of my years denying who I truly was. As an adult I now realise that that is an incredibly daft thing to do. If you lie to yourself and others about who you are, that lie is going to completely warp your sense of self and in turn skew the decisions you begin making? You can’t possibly make the right choices if that’s what you’re doing.

The reason that I bring up these aspects of my childhood/teenage years is because they were significant drivers for me finding peace in nature. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you go for a barefooted walk through a forest, how do you feel? The voices/concerns inside your head fade very quickly and are replaced with a chorus of rustling leaves, screaming galahs and white-winged choughs chatting away. I still close my eyes when I hear the bird calls of species from where I grew up. It’s incredible how these noises stimulate a different part of your brain and help to ground you in moments where you feel the complete opposite.

I moved to Melbourne after graduating high school to study animal & veterinary biosciences. Leaving the country behind was difficult but I really felt like I needed to experience new things and meet new people. Although I was living in the big smoke, my views about sexuality had ingrained pretty deeply from my rural upbringing and I maintained the lie of “not being gay”. I ended up having a pretty volatile relationship with study at this point and scraped through with a “P’s get degrees” attitude. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, where I wanted to take my life, who I was or what I was capable of, and felt pretty darn lost to be honest.

Then came the big light bulb moment and I came out at 22. I’d just finished my first degree (which was of no use to me) and my life was about to start taking some major turns. My family was and still is super supportive. I don’t know why I ever doubted that, they’re amazing people. I think that when you live in an area where there’s no LGBTQIA+ representation and you only hear negatives, you just assume that everyone thinks like that. But even if your family hasn’t had much to do with that community, they often become part of it as your ally.

Following this milestone, I realised that I wanted to work in ecology/conservation! Why did it take me this long to realise?! The answer has been there since the beginning. But again, you really don’t start making the right life choices until you’re being completely honest with yourself. This marked the beginning of my journey in the environmental industry.

I thrived in my new degree, a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife & Conservation Biology). I was hitting high grades, making great new friends who shared my passion, travelled to Peru for a conservation project and had begun long journey of endless volunteering to build my career profile. I ended up extending my studies an extra year to do honours. My project aimed to determine the impact that landscape disturbance (specifically logging and wildfire) has on the yellow-bellied glider. I was conducting bioacoustic surveys throughout the Central Highlands to determine where the gliders were occurring. If you haven’t heard a YBG call yet, I strongly recommend looking it up as it’s pretty unique for a mammal! This was a great opportunity to take control of my own research project and show myself how far my capabilities had come.

I finished up my project at the end of 2019 and planned to start the job hunt in early 2020. I knew it was going to take a while to land something based on the information I was getting from other early career ecologists/conservationists. Nonetheless, I had hope that the work I had put in (several years of volunteering, a well executed honours project and two years working in vegetation management) was going to be enough to get something at some point. But who could’ve predicted a global pandemic?!

As I watched the job pool shrink like a dam in a drought, I began extending my search beyond the safety net of capital cities. I’ve even applied for a couple of positions back in my home region. In doing this it really got me thinking, how do I feel about heading back to a place (or a place like it) where I felt like an outcast? To be honest I’m apprehensive but I believe it will be different this time. I know who I am and how important it is to realise my worth. I’m now confident in who I am and I know that I wont let potentially negative opinions impact the view that I have of myself.

I think it’s important that I remain visible and don’t shrink into the crowd like I did when I was younger. That visibility is crucial in signalling to other queer people that I’m there alongside them. There is still an apparent lack of LGBTQIA+ representation in the environmental industry in Australia, alongside representation of varying races, ethnicities, genders and disabilities (I won’t speak for the experiences of the latter four because I haven’t lived those experiences and that’s someone else’s voice to be heard). If you sit somewhere on the spectrum outside of the industry “norm”, trying to find a workplace that champions diversity/inclusivity can further limit a job search. When looking at a job I can’t help but consider if I might experience something negative based on that difference, and if so whether I will receive the necessary support from my employer if I do. These themes are important for us all to consider, especially given it’s Pride Month at the moment. What privilege do you have and how does that impact/advance your employment prospective? I’m still a white straightish appearing male (the straight passing thing sounds weird but it plays a role), so regardless of me being gay I still benefit from a lot of privilege. That’s why it’s crucial that I act as an alley for others.

Although my job search isn’t going as planned right now, I’m still excited for the future! I have no doubt that I’ll get something more ecology based at some point. In the meantime I am going to keep my friends close, continue to up skill where I can and most importantly I’m going to be kinder to myself. These times are unprecedented and I need to make sure the expectations that I have for myself reflect that.

Thank you for sitting through my post, it’s been relatively difficult to write a personal piece when I’m so accustomed to scientific writing.

Ps. if there are any queer folks working/studying in environmental science based in Melbourne, shoot me a message if you’d like to join a social group!

For more of Matthew, check out @mjlefoe on Instagram

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