The 21st century will see monumental change. Either the human race will use its knowledge and skills and change the way it interacts with the environment, or the environment will change the way it interacts with its inhabitants.

(C) Julie Boyd 2010                            A (very) Australian Story


The 21st century will see monumental change. Either the human race will use its knowledge and skills and change the way it interacts with the environment, or the environment will change the way it interacts with its inhabitants.


Look at this one Jules. Ain’t she a beauty. Nah, we won’t touch that one. See ‘ow ‘ealthy she is. Look at those leaves, an’ the bark. She’s only a young ‘un just like you. Let’s see who’s living in her. ‘Ave a look at this little fella. Wonder where ‘is mum is? ‘Ave a look but don’t touch – utherwise ‘is mum’ll pick up ya scent and chuck ‘im out. Ya gotta ‘ave ‘respec’.

Yes. Having ‘respec’ was around a long time before rap music and Ali G. It was a concept that I learned very young from the old men of the bush, around whose ankles I played, and who taught me lessons   I’ve never forgotten  about conservation and ecology. My Dad was one of them.

When I was four years old, in the late 1950’s, he would wake me up and help me dress, ready for the day’s adventure. We’d walk hand in hand, both dressed in our work overalls, his covered in oil, mine in mud, through the stacks of timber that filled the paddock behind our house, among which we kids played hide and seek, over to his workshop. There, the petrol tanker he’d had to weld the day before because it was leaking, and no one else would go anywhere near it, would be ready to head out. So would the log truck that had a chain break the day before allowing a massive Mountain Ash log to roll onto a hapless mill worker- crushing his arm and leg. I’d heard my Mum and Dad talking about it with the bush nurse who lived next door to us and was the only medico in the area. She wondered if he’d be able to work again. He was a newbie, and had stood on the wrong side of the truck, a potentially fatal mistake, as he’d discovered to his detriment. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time was often deadly or at least disabling, in those days.

But a log truck couldn’t stand idle as other people’s livelihoods depended on it. The show had to go on. So my Dad had fixed it and was going to drive it up the mountain that day to collect a load. I went as his navigator.

With no seat belts to keep us safe we just had to hang on as we crawled around corners so tight we sometimes had to ‘back and fill’ to make it. My nose would wrinkle at the smorgasbord of smells – oil, diesel, dirt, and honest sweat. I would wriggle in anticipation of the wonders I would see, the stories I would hear, the sounds and smells of the bush. On the way Dad would point out all sorts of birds and animals. We’d often need to stop to allow an echidna to amble across the road in front of us, or to check a dead wombat or roo to make sure there was no baby hiding in a pouch, hidden safely and protected by Mum’s body. Often there was, and we’d arrive home with a baby animal to install in a sock or a pillow case strung on the back on a kitchen chair, in front of the wood stove to keep it warm. We’d then have to take it in turns to get up during the night to feed the baby every four hours with eye droppers. Dot, the local district nurse,  would show us how. She was as experienced with animals as she was with people so there was no need for a local vet, and everyone was a wildlife carer – we didn’t have any special training.  Most of them survived, and they either became pets and bounced around the backyard and schoolyard with us, or we released them back to the wild – those we had carefully nurtured but not humanised. Learning to love and let go was one of the first of many lifelong lessons.

We’d stop halfway up the mountain and have a cuppa with Old Bill, a Chinese man who seemed so old he seemed to have been there since the gold rush. In a town of eccentrics, he was an oddity. He didn’t have a car, so we would drop off his groceries and collect letters he wanted posted. He couldn’t speak a lot of English but always had treasures to show me that he’d made or found. One day a magnificent feather, the next a nest with some baby chicks in it, or a new moss he hadn’t seen before on a dead branch. Then we’d travel on to where we had to collect the day’s logs. Sitting in silence with these men who seemed as ancient as the trees, yet who were probably only in their thirties and forties, taught me the value of contemplation. When it was time to work, we’d wander through the bush putting red ribbons on the trees that were to be felled. You took only the ailing trees or those surrounded by new growth that would replace them. Discernment and careful selection were key. Clear felling in those days meant clearing the way for more growth, not wholesale slaughter.

There was no unnecessary talking, nor unnecessary taking. This was their cathedral, and my library. I learned that This one ‘ere is on the way out. We’ll take ‘im but not the one next door. First though we ‘ave to check to make sure ‘e’s not anyone’s ‘ome. Then, after a close inspection to make sure no-one was in residence and we wouldn’t be destroying someone’s home, the next discussion would be about how to fell the tree.

I WISH I WAS A TREE   POEM: Author Jack Aged 6

A tree is a person

Sap is its blood

And the roots are its legs

It has so many hands

Because they are its leaves

It has quite a number of arms

Which are the branches and

Inside the trunk is the body.

It drinks from the rain and

Gets energy from the sun

I wish I was a tree.

A cuppa before we started was always the order of the day. I had my special little stump to sit on so I could watch and listen while I drank my milk. A plan would be constructed and we would all silently commune with the tree before they felled it expertly. Precise angles would be calculated by these men who’d never experienced a physics class in their lives. Their formal education, if they’d had any at all, would have finished at year 6, at latest, but George could tell you could tell you exactly how many cubic metres of wood were in a tree just from looking at it, and Old Lindsay could fell a tree with a cross-saw so that it would fall exactly where he said it would. You sit over here little ‘un. She’s gonna land between those two mountain ash. We won’t touch ‘em, they’re only young ‘uns like you. We havta miss those branches, don’t want to damage anything else. I would sit and watch in absolute awe as he did exactly that. Connoisseurship, discernment, environmental partnership and sensitivity became the basis of my personal value system.


These values are inherent in living systems/learning communities. They require a new way of thinking about and acting in a world whose fundamental characteristic is relationship and connectedness. This involves a shift in thinking.

From interdependence to interdependence  independence???

From competition to cooperation

From quantity to quality

From expansion to conservation

From domination to partnership

You learn the wisdom of the elders very young in the country. Lessons city kids often seem to miss. The science and spirituality which pervade my adult life was first shaped by these old men, and the bush. I never saw them in church, but to sit in silence with them, watching clouds float overhead that often contained magical stories, surrounded by animals going quietly about their business, the overpowering smell of eucalyptus and the rough touch of bark on bare legs as we sipped our morning cuppas was my first introduction to real spirituality. Thoughtfully assessing the readiness, or willingness, of a tree to cease being the shelter for animals and birds and form human shelter instead was a lesson in peaceful collaboration.

They taught me the bush is to be respected. Nature is to be revered. You work with her, as they referred to her, long before Gaia became the name given to mother earth, not against her. Like all women, never take her for granted. Never try to ‘conquer’ as she’ll always win. James Lovelock, developer of the Gaia metaphor, in his book “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” describes Gaia not as a kind and gentle mother, but as a powerful, overbearing figure who knows how to put her children in their place. This is exactly as the old men of the bush used to see her.

Cooperation is the key. Take only what you need. Give thanks for what you do take, and make sure it’s replaced wherever possible.

But the old men gradually died, and with them their skill and bushcraft, to be replaced by efficient machines. These relentless monsters grew bigger and bigger, seemingly more bloated with each tree consumed as they ate their way, ‘War of the Worlds’  – style – across the landscape, consuming everything in their path. Sustainable logging became replaced by the environmental rape of machine clear-felling, I started to become ill and commenced a lifelong search to re-find the health and joy of my own childhood, and ways of helping others learn similar lessons through delving into earth-centred cultures and environmental principles. These were to be found in later work with education, developed in alliances with wonderful mentors, and through life with indigenous communities around the world, where I found congruence in values and rituals which celebrated human beings as an integral part of the macro-ecosystems, and showed we are capable of making life better, or far worse, for other species.

Indigenous spiritual principles such as:

Connection to Force beyond Self

Individual Working for Common Good


Passion, Energy, Spirit

Balance and Harmony

Worth in All


Reconciling Paradox and Dualism

Not thinking, but wisdom; not knowing ,but intuition and creativity;

wakefulness; compassion, beauty

Inspiration–fill with energy, spirit

Working with Aboriginal communities in Australia where western education seemed at odds with the needs of their young people to live in, and be part of, the bush, led to a meeting Dr. Greg Cajete. A Native American Pueblo elder, Greg was the first indigenous person to achieve his PhD through demonstrating the traditional learning techniques of his people. He introduced me to the ‘Four Fold way’ – a perspective of the native American medicine wheel which,  in various interpretations, provides the pivotal and fundamental element which provides the simple framework to explain all we need to consider to live well. The wisdom of the elders is balanced by the enthusiasm and need for detail of the youth of our society. Vision is balanced by introspection, male by female. In all incarnations it reminds us of the paradoxes which dominate our lives, and the need to balance and surpass them for our systems to survive and thrive. And what happens when we fail.

Greg Cajete’s seminal work ‘Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education’ described the beginning of the Great Disconnect where the French saw their task as creating a new society, half indigenous, half-European. So while they educated Indian children in the ways of the church, they also encouraged their leading families to send their children to Indian villages to live as part of a chief’s family and absorb Indian ways. Whereas the English, from whom educational efforts have always been derived, sought only to provide Indians with sufficient familiarity with their economic system so that educated Indians would fit into the rural Protestant agricultural milieu. Gradually the philosophical basis of learning moved away from seeing the world as an intimate relationship of living things, towards the world as an inanimate mass of matter arranged by chance into a set of shapes and energy patterns and a Cartesian-based belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge.

Native American Principles for Living

Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect,

Remain close to the Great Spirit,

Show great respect for your fellow beings,

Work together for the benefit of all mankind,

Give assistance and kindness whenever needed,

Do what you know is right,

Look after the well-being of mind and body,

Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good,

Be truthful and honest at all times,

Take full responsibility for your actions.

And so the societal journey through disconnection began, where we all gradually moved through a series of educational eras where the purpose of schooling kept changing – e.g. the Agricultural Era where schools promoted common culture and citizenship, to the Industrial Era (‘Americanise/Australianise’ immigrants and prepare them for factory work), to the Social Era (social reform with a hospital perspective) and finally to the Electronic/Ecological Era where one would hope that the wheel may finally turn again so that community building and ecological principles may become the norm. Along the way young people gradually disconnected from the natural world and their families as their environments changed and technology enabled them to access broader and broader networks which expand their access and eased their need for physical work, but not necessarily their improved their self worth or their personal capabilities.

Now, I look at young people growing up now, plugged into PDAs (what is a PDA?) and earphones through which ear-splitting music blasts as they simultaneously text their mates, tweet their thoughts and post comments on the message boards of ‘friends’ they’ve never met. Intimate relationships have been replaced by the need to accumulate people and material stuff. I despair at the disconnect many of them appear to experience with their surroundings – both human and environmental, unless their Facebook friends tell them there is a ‘cause’ they should become involved in. The principles of living systems that informed ancient cultures seem to have become lost in the consumeristic game to invent the next intriguing gadget that will enable you to connect with everyone, but at arms’ or computers’ distance.

While I appreciate the flexibility and reach afforded by advancing technologies, I also wonder whether our ‘Adaptive Mutation’ as humans is being adversely affected, particularly the brain and intelligence development in young people which is becoming skewed.

Understanding that building resiliency in young people to overcome this sense of disconnectedness requires that they are supported to build relationship with self, others and the environment, led me into the fields of systems thinking, environmental literacy and ecopsychology where the focus is restoration of balance, and the wonders of natural capitalism, sustainable development, and Biomimicry are suddenly entering the popular lexicon as we struggle to address climate change concerns both of our own making, and Gaia’s response.

The question now is what do we need to do to ensure the survival of the human race on earth, or, as luminaries such as James Lovelock, Tim Flannery and Clive Hamilton have written recently, are we already past the Tipping Point.

I choose to think not. I continually search for ways to reverse the ‘damage of civilisation’ and take heart in contributions such as the Minke Whale Project, where university researchers who couldn’t get funding have paired with ecotourism operators in creative ways; in the ‘Real Avatar’ call where thousands from around the world lobbied the Indian Government recently to stop a British company from mining the Niyamgiri Hill worshipped by the remote Kutia and Dongria Kondh indigenous tribes who have no access to modern technology; and  I take heart in moves by the Victorian Government in establishing a Sustainability Commission to address at least one of the Principles of Ecology on a systemic basis.


Interdependence                                      sustainability                        ecological cycles

energy flow                                               partnership                            flexibility

diversity                                                     co-evolution

I also choose to live at the beach! Here, my daily, health giving walks are constantly interrupted to gaze at the skies as a newly released baby wedge-tailed eagle learns to ride the air currents, with no parent to teach her. Or where a sea eagle pair engage in a provocative courtship dance out over an incoming tide. Where an osprey has built her nest on top of a specially provided pole, far out of the reach of any human related mischief, but when a young one peeps tentatively over the side before a first flight, locals gather excitedly to watch.

I glory in the feel of the wind on my face as I watch whales protectively shielding their babies as they cruise purposefully, but slowly, past on their way to summer feeding grounds. I experience the wonder of dancing with dolphins, first discovered on beaches in Florida and Western Australia, who do come in when they are called, to circle around my legs and then with a flick of their powerful bodies leap back into an oncoming wave.

My beach-walking memories are also of being introduced to salmon fishing in Michigan, where the magnificent creatures are caught and prepared in grateful ceremony by the Ojibwe people; and of Monterey – where the local people care so much for the Monarch butterflies which migrate there each spring, that they not only voted to pay an extra tax to build a sanctuary, but they staff the sanctuary and encourage police to pin $1000 fines on anyone disturbing the butterflies. And I give thanks to the friends in Pacific Grove who first introduced me to sea otters – to me the most endearing of creatures. Venturing outside, I simply walked down to the beach, past wild deer grazing on berries along the path, to craggy rocks from which you can see otters frolicking. These delightful little creatures have a highly practical habit of rolling themselves in kelp to sleep or eat, belly up, often with a very cute baby lying on top. The mums also roll their babies in kelp to keep them secure while mum is off finding shellfish for dinner. They are also great parents and watching otters teaching their babies is one of the best time-wasting pleasures I’ve ever experienced.

The sound of waves is accompanied by the knock, knock of the stones they hold in their paws to break open molluscs on their stomachs, behaviour Jane Goodall compared to her observations of the tool-using Gombe chimpanzees, and I send silent thanks to Margaret Wentworth Owens and her colleagues in their conservation work to save these most playful of creatures from extinction. The same day I was introduced to the sea otters I stayed the night and watched the sun sink into the golden ocean, listened to the plaintive calls of the seabirds, the haunting barks of the seals, the slapping and sighing of the waves breaking on the rocks below.

As the conscience of conservation shifts from the dim memories of yesterday to the uncertainties of tomorrow, cannot we hold in our heart the shining hour of today?’                                                Margaret Wentworth Owings 1998

As the young teenagers call out ‘Hi’ as they run past with their surfboards tucked securely under their arms, or in a carrier attached to their bikes, or stop to chat about the latest battles we’re having with bureaucracy to ensure the biodiversity of the area through restricting unsustainable development, I give silent thanks to those old men of the bush who first opened my eyes, heart and soul to my personal place in the ecosystem, and I renew my vow to continue to do whatever I can to ensure that my brand new grand-daughter, and all of her friends, can survive and thrive through a legacy of my generation’s stewardship and my on-going work with Eco-Literacy.

We are all united in a common cause

It is a proud cause, which we may serve

Secure in the knowledge that the earth will be

Better for our effort. It is a cause that has no end.

The closing words of Rachel Carson;s acceptance speech after receiving the National Audobon Society’s Gold Medal, 3.12. 1966


Ecoliteracy as content

Ecological principles

Ecological values

Ecoliteracy as process

Systems thinking

Systems change


  1. That’s not just the best answer. It’s the betsset answer!