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.

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

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.

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