Loving nature to death
Immersing people in nature inspires them to protect it, says QUENTIN CHESTER, but we must be careful not to love it to death.
I GREW UP IN A PATCH of Australian ‘scruburbia’. All the homes on our ridgetop street in the Adelaide Hills backed onto bush-filled gullies. As kids we lived a running, shrieking, scabby-kneed life. We dammed creeks and busted saplings to build forts. We did stuff to lizards and insects. It wasn’t always pretty, but my mates and I grew to relish the freedom. We scrapped our way to a sense of belonging with nature.
For all the environmental challenges Australians now face, I still marvel at the half-century of change I’ve lived through in our regard for the natural world. The fresh insights into species and habitats. The passion to defend forests and reefs. The newfound appreciation for our tropical frontiers. Most of all, that ever-growing band of nomads – young and many of shades grey – rolling through the outback to bear witness to nature unbridled.
As a writer I’m guided by a belief that people will only protect what experience has helped them know and treasure, yet this extra attention brings wear and tear. The fact that immersing ourselves in nature can also be quite harmful to those environments makes this interaction complicated and calls for some consideration.
In the case of our busiest sites, it’s the age-old dilemma of loving them to death. Indeed, every day out bush presents a string of choices about how to live a proper life with nature. How to get around? Where to make camp? What about interacting with animals? Is it okay to build a campfire? Or walk off-track? Or drive on the beach? Or swim in a waterhole?
It’s no surprise we now have to find our way to nature through a jumble of ideas and protocols. In the old ‘untouched by man’ notion of wilderness, such areas were remote, pristine and seemingly self-contained. For some people the bush was not just a wondrous place, but a realm of worship accessible only to a pious few.
Yet this ideal ignores an emphatic 60,000-year history of human influence in every corner of the continent. Plus the truth that change – be it surging temperatures or the havoc of feral species – pays no heed to park boundaries or country borders. Nature is not some quarantined exhibit but a rollicking reality inseparable from us and everything we do. As such, it’s a world deserving of our best stewardship – for its own sake as much as for our own survival.
Nothing brings this duty of care into crisper focus more so than our dealings with wildlife. All manner of state and federal legislation exists to safeguard native species. However, the laws say little about the nuances of sharing wild spaces with our fellow creatures. The key principle is observation not interaction. In practice that means keeping your distance; avoiding nesting, resting and breeding sites; and not feeding native animals. Far from being a chore, recognising the needs of individual species enriches the thrill of viewing their behaviour and habitats. Conservation agencies around the nation, and groups such as Wildlife Tourism Australia, promote practical guidelines for observing everything from dolphins and dingoes to wallabies and whale sharks.
Our least-disturbed landscapes
– and those creatures most at risk – warrant an extra level of consideration. Nevertheless, on an island as big and boisterous as ours, the ragged force of nature is never far away. And we’re blessed with places aplenty where we can still trailblaze, climb trees, paddle a river, collect shells, have a campfire and be startled and transfixed by wildlife doing its thing.
Ultimately this is a space free from apps, rules and experts. As creatures of the Earth we need this grounding – country where we gulp lungfuls of air, are screeched at by cockatoos and get the whiff of wattle blossom up our nose. Mind you, it’s grubby out there; be prepared to return a changed person. At the very least you’ll have a better sense of the reality we should never ignore – that is to say, our own smelly, muddling, animal selves.
I’ve always cherished these scrappy moments of DIY communion. The times of ‘gone bush’, when we are humbled, fearful and euphoric. Yet, no matter how close the embrace, we know too much to remain at one with nature for long. Our curious fate is to sense we are both within nature and outside it all at once. It’s a bi-focal vision that places the gift of the future firmly in our hands.