We all connect to great stories. They have the power to transport us to another place, time or perspective. They enrich our lives and provide inspiration for our own journeys. Here is a collection of stories that have left an indelible mark on me and fostered a deep respect and value for the natural world.
Life and Adventures of William Buckley - Tim Flannery, John Morgan and William Buckley
Have you ever used the phrase ‘you’ve got Buckley’s chance’ and wondered who Buckley was and why they had so little chance? The Life and Adventures of William Buckley is a captivating story of survival and clashing cultures that every Australian should read. William Buckley was an English convict who escaped from a settlement in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, and spent the next 32 years living amongst an Aboriginal community west of modern-day Melbourne. While his name may be common in our vernacular, not too many people know the tale of William Buckley.
I was so lucky to grow up on the Surf Coast of Victoria, a place of incredible natural beauty and diversity. The coastal environments provided ample opportunity to explore and wonder why things and places were as they were. At school I didn’t learn much about the indigenous cultural significance of the land in which I grew up. However, my high school outdoor education teacher once told me the story of William Buckley. From that quick synopsis in the classroom I instantly needed to know more. John Morgan’s account of Buckley’s life transported me back to a foreign time but familiar places: the wetlands of the Barwon River, the cliffs that dominate the iconic coastline, the majestic forests of the Otway Ranges and the open grassy volcanic plains west of Melbourne.
Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
Christopher McCandless’ tale of adventure has become a symbol of a generation trying to find their way in the modern world while remaining connected to an ever-diminishing natural world. Whether you admire or loath McCandless’ exploits, Krakauer’s book (which came well before the movie) is a powerful and compelling story of a young man embarking on a search for the wild.
As a young fella I loved being in nature. It was hard to keep me within four walls; I much preferred climbing trees, swimming in rivers and exploring the local bush. It wasn’t until late in my schooling life that the classroom clicked for me, thanks to some incredible teachers who tapped into my curiosity and love of nature.
I read this book in 2007 as I was completing the last year of my Environmental Science degree. I was about to embark on a career that I was passionate about and I was energised by Christopher McCandless’ search for meaning as he navigated a world that he found completely at odds with the simplicity and harmony of nature. As Thoreau so perfectly expressed in his timeless novel ‘Walden’, ‘we need the tonic of wildness’ to feel alive and nourish a deep connection to nature. Love or hate McCandless, he’s story has become key piece of modern philosophic thought.
Making Nature: six walks in the bush – Peter Timms
As a trained ecologist I was taught how to hypothesise, make objective observations and question things. Making Nature by Peter Timms is a perfect example of how powerful it is when storytellers master the art of observation. Peter’s carefully crafted short stories take you on a journey of discovery and explores the interconnected world in which we live. He poses a powerful question though the book which makes you question it for yourself. What does nature mean to you?
I read extracts of this book while I was at university, but little did I know that life would reconnect me with it many years later. I enjoy reading books of other observations and lived experiences of the natural world, with a dash of ecology. I find overly scientific literature a hard slog as it doesn’t really connect to the experience-based learning that was so much a part of the foundation of my appreciation of nature. Peter’s account of six walks in the bush taught me a critical lesson as an enthusiastic young ecologist. And that was to slow down, pay attention and observe everything from the ground to the sky.
Years later, I moved to Tasmania to work as an ecologist for the Tasmanian Land Conservancy. It was a dream come true to help people protect their land for conservation. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and working with landholders all over Tasmania. They taught me more about the ecology of this unique island than anything I read in a book. From the ancient rainforests of Trowutta to the diverse heathlands of Bruny Island, it was an ecologist’s dream. Then one day I visited a property on the Prosser River, one of the last I surveyed in that position. I went for a walk with the landholder and made a series of observations about forest types, rare plants and critical habitats. Little did I know then that I was on my own walk in the bush with Peter Timms.
James Hattam in his element by Heath Holden
Annapurna - Maurice Herzog
‘I tried to explain to him the appalling sensation of nothingness’ - Maurice Herzog. This famous piece of mountaineering literature is another often forgotten story. Herzog’s account of the first conquest of an 8000m peak will send shivers down your spine and have you gasping for breath. Herzog was a hero and, in many arenas, always will be. Annapurna has sold over 11 million copies and is thought to be the best-selling mountaineering title in history.
I have always been enticed to explore new places, cultures and to push my limits through adventure. I’ve never bagged an 8000m peak or rafted the length of a wild river. But I have scared myself on more than a few occasions. None more so than my first trip to the Himalayas. I read this book while I walked for two months through countless valleys and high mountain passes of Nepal in my early 20s. Perhaps I was on my own McCandless’ esc journey. I have always been drawn to mountains and I can appreciate the pull of the tallest in the world. While I have no appetite to climb them, I am in awe of those who do - especially the early pioneers who did it all without GPS, Goretex or down jackets. Annapurna is not as well-known as Everest, but Herzog’s expedition was a crucial moment in mountaineering history. The commitment, dedication and endeavour of this arduous journey is truly something to applaud if you have an adventurous spirit.
The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen
This famous piece of literature is my favourite book of all time. Matthiessen travelled to Nepal in 1973 in search of the snow leopard. While his objective was scientific, the story behind his time there is deeply personal and reflective. The Snow Leopard is about a changing world, an often opposing world in the connections we have with each other and the natural world. While the snow leopard remains elusive and to my mind’s eye is a symbol of the loss, we as a society have caused. This at times sober and reflective piece challenged me on many fronts.
This story has it all: nature, conservation, science, adventure, exploration and the strength of the human spirit. As a conservationist, I dream of the snow leopard, a species detached from humans that can thrive for its own intrinsic worth beyond any commercial or economic argument. Nature for nature’s sake. Do we need to see it to value it or can we feel a sense of comfort in the knowledge that we’re allowing this majestic species to persist without any human interference?
Thank you to Josh and KTW for allowing me the indulgence of delving back into the stories and places that have shaped the person I am today. After all, the story is the most powerful expression of the word in which we live and the lens in which we experience it. Stories connect us to place, foster our curiosity and challenge us to new ways of thinking and different perspectives. In doing so, they can influence our relationships with ourselves, each other and the natural world.
James is a conservation ecologist with over ten years’ experience working in the conservation sector, with government and not-for-profit organisations in Victoria and Tasmania. His passion is centred on people and connecting people to the natural world through shared experiences, storytelling and community involvement. James is an active contributor to the conservation community locally, nationally and internationally. James is also a board member of the quarterly journal Island Magazine and a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, one of the six expert Commissions of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Oceania regional focal point.