Animals Make Us Human: Fire and Glider

Sarah Jacob in conversation with David Lindenmayer

Animals Make Us Human is a collection of writings by scientists, storytellers and photographers, edited by Leah Kaminsky and Meg Kenneally. It is a reflection on the devastating bushfires of 2019/20 and a celebration of the fascinating and unique wildlife who call our broad continent home. Proceeds from the book support the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. In this two-part series, two of the book’s contributors delve deeper into the book’s subject matter, in conversation with Right Now’s Managing Editor Sarah Jacob. 

David Lindenmayer is a landscape ecologist who has been conducting conservation and biodiversity research across Australia for almost four decades. His essay for Animals Make Us Human was about greater gliders. 

You’ve been working as an ecologist for almost 40 years now. How has your view of the nature of interrelationships between human and other animals in this country changed during that time?

Our political masters have become ferociously anti-environment. The days of really good environment ministers and really well-versed high-level public servants giving frank and fearless advice are [in the past]. The vast majority of Australians are disconnected from their environment, they are more concerned about the cost of a cappuccino than trying to solve some of the serious environmental problems in this country. Sometimes that’s pretty hard to come to terms with. 

But after the 2019/20 bushfires, it’s really changed in many ways, I’ve never seen so many people sending emails asking, “What can we do?” A friend of mine who was managing the Facebook page for Wildcare said they have never seen so many donations. 

Almost three billion animals were killed or displaced in the fires, and I note that you said in an interview with Phillip Adams in January 2020 that you’ve never seen fires like this. Would you be willing to share your personal reaction to that last bushfire season?

That’s true. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like [those fires]. I had the New South Wales fire app going the entire time. I was worried about my staff in Victoria and NSW, we were working earlier in the fire season, and there were days when we decided that the fire risk was too high to go onto people’s property. 

Then one evening I was driving with my wife down to see my brother, who lives in the southern part of Canberra. We came over a little rise to drop down onto the main highway, and my wife just looked at me and said “F***, look at that.” The mountains were on fire. 

We had been living in smoke for weeks and weeks and weeks, I had a chest infection as a result. It was just like we were living in Armageddon. It was just incredible. The scale of the fires became more and more obscene – millions, and then tens of millions of hectares of country. 

My first experience of fire was in 1972, when I was a teenager. The 2009 fires burnt out my parents-in-law’s farm in Victoria and I lost friends in several different places. But this year was just something again. 

What do you hope this book will achieve?

I think this is a brilliant book because you have wonderful people who are writers and scientists, lots of deep and heartfelt experiences from right across Australia. 

My wife is a scientist and also a very successful novelist. When I first wrote my contribution [to the book] my wife said to me, “Jeez you’re a dry old boring scientist – have you got a pulse? Aren’t these special animals, don’t you love them?” And I said, “Yes of course I do.” So I rewrote it a few times. It was a wonderful experience to be forced to think about how animals really do make us human, and why it’s important to forge that link between animals and humans, and to care about the planet. 

Scientists are often expected to stick to the facts and not voice an opinion or show emotion. But you’ve been outspoken about the threats to our natural environments. What have the consequences been for you?

It doesn’t always make you popular. I’ve been torn to pieces in the Murdoch media, but I’m going to continue to speak out about why Australia’s environment is so special and why we should do something about it. 

I think it’s important to show some passion. If I can’t be passionate about a greater glider or an old-growth forest, having worked in these wonderful environments for almost 40 years, then who is going to get excited about it?

Being a scientist is incredibly exciting, you discover extraordinary things. Not everyone gets their rocks off looking at trend curves or simultaneous differential equations, but people do get excited about this notion that you can stand in a field in a red jacket and a male flame robin will come up and get angry with you, because they’re red and you’re red, which is what happens.

My story in the book is about this wonderful animal, the greater glider, it makes a living from one of the most shit diets of all time – eucalypt leaves, like the koala – except it’s tiny, and most animals that only eat leaves are really big. It’s an incredible story of survival and persistence in an incredibly hard environment. Australians need to know more about these animals because they don’t occur anywhere else. 

When my son was first born, my wife and I were working in Tumut, west of Canberra, catching greater gliders and putting radio transmitters on them, because we wanted to know how they moved through these little patches of native forests surrounded by pine plantations, which they can’t live in. So there is this wonderful photo of me with my six-month-old son on one arm, and a greater glider on the other. That’s my two passions – wildlife and family.

You get involved in the environment because you want your kids and other people’s kids to be able to experience it and have a healthy environment to grow up in.

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