On the flight home to Canberra from Rottnest Island, I sat next to an octogenarian, who’d just popped over to Rottnest while on the way home to England from Antarctica. While our conversation began around woodcuts of the 15th century, I soon found out that this man and I had natural history in common. In 1967, as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, he had participated in the The British Joint Services’ Expedition to West Central Australia as a plant collector. He told me the specimens they collected were lodged in collections across Australia, including at CSIRO, which means they now form part of the genomic resource that powers the Environomics FSP.
While collecting plants in outback WA, the Expedition members were questioned on several occasions by search parties who were tracking Indigenous Australians, intending to remove them from their lands and place them in missions. They denied seeing any Indigenous people at all, but this was untrue. One man they had met had seemed to want company and had camped with them for several days.
My companion on the flight to Canberra told me that one night this man had roused him from his tent in an excited state, “Come quickly, my ancestors are here.” They ran together through the landscape to a place where the desert oaks whispered in the silence of the outback and the sky was painted with stars in a way that none of us living near cities ever sees.
The man stopped and pointed up at the sky. “Those are my ancestors,” he said. “And listen, they are talking to each other.”
As they looked up at the sky they knew that the stars were giant balls of gas an immense distance away and the voices were the wind in the desert oaks. But more than that they knew the greater truth that it was the story of the ancestors that mattered, that this was more authentic and more real. And he told me how sorry he was as an English man for what his people had done and continued to do.
I have used up more than my word count to show you the enduring power and importance of stories, which incidentally was the topic of the talk I gave on Rottnest. Should I tell you that a bunch of Environomics postdocs met on Rottnest and reveal exactly what they got up to? [For this information, you can visit our Environomics website and read their project descriptions.] Or can I just say this: next time you meet with your colleagues, don’t torture yourselves sitting in a windowless meeting room with a ream of butcher’s paper. Go somewhere like Rottnest, somewhere with history and natural beauty. Go outside. Tell each other about your work and how amazing it is, because it couldn’t be more extraordinary than working at the edge of what humans know and can achieve. Ride a bike together and swim at a beach. Go bird watching, find fossils, look at boats bobbing on a harbour. Lose bits of your pizza to a peacock. Get excited about quokkas . . . and science!
Watch our Environomics video for an introduction to our work.