Lonely Conservationists

Phil (From refuge to responsibility)

Written by Phil McNamara

It’s interesting to me that, as a child, I came to love spending time in nature as a way to avoid conflict at home and that the same love I have for nature is now forcing me to face my fear of conflict because conflict is everywhere in our efforts as lonely conservationists.

When I was very young, my family spent three years in an outback mining town in central-west Queensland. I have wonderful memories of the feel of the remote natural places we visited in our regular travels out of town. The photographs we have of this time are of a happy and connected family but when we returned to South Australia without my father we were all broken. I don’t think my mother, sisters and brothers would mind me saying that the event of my mother leaving our father forced a wedge between us. Conflict seemed to be everywhere for me during those years and I’d often be found alone in our shed or heading out on foot to remote natural places in the Adelaide Hills. They were my places of refuge. And I never had a bad experience out there – going into the wild. I still get that same feeling today when I’m alone in the forests and woodlands around home, or the mallee at work, where my mind and body just relax and all my worries vanish.

I’m not sure if it was the circumstances of my growing up or if it was simply in my disposition but I emerged from my childhood with four things: a love of natural environments, a strong sense of environmental and social justice, a desire to fix wrongs but also, and unfortunately for these other characteristics, a fear of conflict. Given this last characteristic, it might seem unusual that my first ‘career’ was as a police officer. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I needed to get out of that line of work and in my spare time I started a science degree in conservation and parks management. This was one of the best things that I could have done because it led me to working with some of the kindest and most passionate people I have met.

Something else that was formative for me as a young adult was that I started reading books by Charles Darwin. In particular, I loved The origin of species and Voyage of the Beagle. I say they were formative because growing up I didn’t feel like I had any kind of belief system instilled in me, and I had so many questions about life. When I read The origin of species it made sense of the world to me and became my belief system.

It was not until I started my degree that I began to really understand the impacts that humans have, and are having, on our climate and biodiversity. One of the most important realisations I had was the speed at which humans are now changing this planet, quicker than any other time in human history. This makes me sad. True to one of my characteristics, a desire to fix wrongs, I finished my degree and from there my work as a conservationist spiraled fantastically out of control. At first it was not in an advocacy sense; fear of conflict got in the way of that. My first job out of policing was as a Green Corps supervisor, working with a team of young adults on re-vegetation projects that created habitat for threatened species like the glossy-black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami). From there, I volunteered in bushland management all over the place and have worked as an urban conservationist, bushland manager with the National Trust of South Australia and project officer in natural resources management across the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin.

During my time with the National Trust, another formative event happened in my life: my daughter was born. It made me realise, for her sake, that I had to be more outspoken about how we treat this planet of ours. It also made me want to instil a love of nature in my daughter so that she, herself, could be an advocate for change. In hindsight, this was a selfish expectation that deflected my own responsibilities to be outspoken. When she was born, I wrote this poem to her, which is a good reflection of my thinking at the time:

Legacy to Darcey

I often think about when I die,

what I leave to you:

two cars, a house, some money, a debt,

three cutlery sets, books and files,

crooked sky and oily seas,

raped earth and plastic fill.

But of beauty, change and substance,

my legacy is you.

It was about the time I wrote this poem that I decided to write a novel as my way of being outspoken. Engaging in conversation with a climate change denier or someone proposing to clear bushland was not something I did very well. I didn’t have the confidence to be calm and articulate on those occasions. I get the sweats just thinking about it. Conflict. So writing enabled me to be articulate and formulate an argument in my own time. It’s another one of the best things I could have ever done. I’m currently in the process of self-publishing my first novel, Red reflection, which is essentially about habitat destruction and how quickly we have changed the world. It’s also about what it feels like to sit on the outside of popular belief. It starts and ends on a sad note but my sequel, Red hope, which I’ve started drafting, has a more positive beginning and end. This one is about climate change, and I can only hope that the ending reflects what we can do over the next decade for the sake of our children and their children’s children.

My latest ventures are plogging and a small business called, “The Third Fuse Project”. Fuse is a contronym, which is a word that has two opposite or contradictory meanings. Fuse can be a device to detonate an explosive charge (Fuse #1: climate change; and Fuse #2: habitat loss) or it can mean to unite or blend into a whole (Fuse #3: people and nature coming together). The Third Fuse Project is essentially me being a writer for the environment, focusing on writing about three major Fuse #3 principles: living a modest life (living sustainably and lowering our carbon footprint), communicating environmental science through art, and respecting nature in everything we do and everywhere we go. The other venture, plogging, is where joggers pick up rubbish along the way for the sake of the environment. I do lots of trail running and allocate one run a week to plogging and am currently at plog #63, which is a lot of rubbish off our streets and out of our creeks and parks.

I am proud of what I have done as a conservationist but feel like I need to take another step forward and be more willing to have face to face discussions with my family and others about our two biggest world emergencies (or fuses): climate change and habitat loss. It’s great to be part of Lonely Conservationists because it makes me feel like I’m not alone in those difficult conversations.

For more of Phil, check out his website and upcoming book here!


  • Lance

    Thanks for sharing Phil – loved the poem. Can empathise with you concerning your daughter. Used to share my love of nature with her and read her poems at bed time. We were even talking about how sad it was that poems were being removed from the curriculum only yesterday. And she’s now frightened of anything smaller than a cat! But, she’s grown into a feisty young person who deeply cares and hates injustice – job done! Keep loving her and she’ll amaze you. As for avoiding conflict, personally, I stayed in law enforcement and was luck enough to spend 20 years focusing on dealing with endangered species – still going. Plus, after losing my sight in one eye at 29, it led to counselling which helped with the conflict issues (was always a defender and a goalkeeper in sport) – the trick is to just gradually change your inner language with positive affirmations and to accept that you, like everyone else, deserves the love around you – rather than feel undeserving of it. Sounds like your past that stage though. Again – thanks for sharing Phil.

  • Stephanie Hansen

    I feel proud and humbled to know you. Ill definitely purchase your books when they are ready and give to my son Jethro who thinks deeply up on such issues .
    Stephanie Hansen x

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.