Nature’s Gifts – Series Introduction

Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, has weathered much criticism over the years. That unfashionable phrase, girt by sea, has had many detractors, and in 2020, the word young was replaced with one to make the anthem more inclusive, especially for First Australians.

The late Graeme Worboys questioned the words our land abounds in nature’s gifts.  Nature may have ‘abounded’ in 1878 when Peter Dodds McCormick penned the song, however, is it an accurate reflection of Australia’s nature now?

In June, 2020, Graeme was advised there were no further treatments for the cancer he had lived with for six years. During this time, he and Deirdre Slattery co-authored the magnificent book Kosciuszko, A Great National Park.

In typical Graeme fashion, he then decided to write a series of articles around the theme of nature’s gifts and asked me if I would co-author the series. 

Graeme passed away on 28 September 2020, shortly after the articles were completed, and a few days after he had received an Order of Australia for his outstanding contribution to nature conservation in Australia. 

This was his final project.

Nature’s Gifts Part 1

Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM, is a former Honorary Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University & Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

This article is the first in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts.

Does our national anthem accurately reflect the nature of Australia? 

Scottish-born composer, Peter Dodds McCormick, wrote Advance Australia Fair* in 1878, the lively lyrics replacing the funereal God Save the Queen as our national anthem in 1984.  Our anthem is an important part of many wonderful occasions and is sung with gusto (at least the first verse!) at community celebrations such as citizenship ceremonies and sporting events like the Olympic Games and football finals.

Recent changes have made the anthem more inclusive, particularly for First Australians, though there is still discussion over unfashionable text such as girt by sea. 

We are now suggesting the words, our land abounds in nature’s gifts which reflect a vision of a boundless and special legacy, no longer represent today’s Australia.

So, what are our nature’s gifts, do they still abound, and how do we protect and defend them? This is the substance of this series of articles. 

We take George Seddon’s (1997) lead by acknowledging humans as being part of nature, as well a regulator and manager of it, though with an appreciation of our natural heritage and the need to defend it. 

It is instructive to reflect on how Australia’s nature has changed since European settlement, just 234 years ago. Until then, in 1788, First Australians were more than a ‘part of nature’, they were ‘indivisible’ from it; for 60,000 years, it was their home, and intrinsic to their cultural beliefs. Nature sustained our First Australians and they knew the complex skills needed to live with its many challenges.  

With settlement came the imposition of a new society with different knowledge and values. A process began that continues today of a gradual attrition of nature, in some places including NSW, still facilitated by government legislation.

While humans are part of nature, today many of us seem removed from it and tend to think of their natural heritage as ‘the bush’, those areas which appear largely intact since 1788, or have regenerated from destructive activities such as land clearing. However, much of the ‘the bush’ has been degraded, as feral animals, noxious weeds and modified fire regimes have damaged most Australian habitats. There is little pristine nature remaining. 

With that caveat, today’s nature includes special phenomena such as geological features, broad landscapes and catchments, diverse habitats from rainforests to arid lands, and coastlines to alpine areas, and the flora and fauna that live in them.

Nature also provides other values and experiences. Many of us find a spiritual connection in ‘going bush’, marvelling at cloud-piercing eucalypts, wandering through a light-dappled rainforest, or sitting atop an arid mesa, an experience we may feel more real and relevant than attending a church service.

Others find a cultural dimension in nature. The ambience of a place and its combination of special aesthetics, deep history and social setting in combination, can be powerful for humans. First Australians expressed these spiritual and cultural beliefs in their Dreamtime stories of creation, their songlines and their cave and stone art.

The gift, in nature’s gifts, can be interpreted to mean something special, important and useful, though for different outcomes. As a gift to society for the enjoyment of all Australians, nature could be seen as something to cherish, and to defend for its intrinsic worth, for its many benefits, and for the enjoyment of future generations. Gifts may also be seen by others as opportunities for exploitation and wealth generation. This can create a use versus protection tension and how this is resolved can determine the abundance (abounds) of species and their conservation status.

Peter McCormick’s reference to abounds, was prescient, as Australia has since been recognised as one of the most biologically diverse nations on Earth, as determined by the variety of plants and animals that occur here. Being custodian of so much of the world’s nature is an honour and a privilege, but also a responsibility: how well Australia is protecting these treasures is a subject we discuss through these articles.

Most Australians are proud of this magnificent heritage. For farmers and graziers, it is part of everyday life as they move around their properties. For urban dwellers, it may well be a bushwalk, a beach visit or a family picnic that involves a brush with nature. For grey nomads Australia is a place to explore, to learn and to experience these wondrous gifts after a lifetime of work. For most of us there is an implicit assumption that our nature’s gifts will continue to abound through time.

But who is defending this natural heritage? Across our country there is a myriad of efforts, from farmers restoring watercourses; local communities replanting bushland; Landcare and Greening Australia projects; and Indigenous communities Caring for Country. Private organisations are purchasing land to protect this inheritance, though it is state, territory, and federal governments who create and manage most protected areas and enact companion legislation, who play the most critical role.

In addition to this on-ground activity hundreds of conservation NGO’s – national organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and Wilderness Society; state and territory national parks’ associations and conservation councils; and hundreds of local groups – play a crucial role in giving voice to the many thousands of their supporters, raising awareness, lobbying governments and calling out bad policy and decision-making. 

Despite this all this positive activity much of our natural legacy is still vulnerable. Australia has too many endangered species, too much critical habitat has been lost, our protected area system is inadequate and its management poorly resourced. 

Protected areas such as national parks are the cornerstone of a national conservation strategy. We focus on our parks and reserves in our next article.

*Australia’s national anthem (first verse)

“Australians all let us rejoice

For we are one and free

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil

Our home is girt by sea

Our land abounds in nature’s gifts

Of beauty, rich and rare

In history’s page let every stage

Advance Australia fair

In joyful strains then let us sing

Advance Australia fair”

Seddon, G. (1997) Landprints: Reflections on place and landscape, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p10

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