Tell me a story is a phrase that has been passed down from my mother to me. We yearn for that tale of life lesson inspiring adventure, however we never get much of that from whomever we ask. It was not until I moved out of home and settled down with my partner that I realised how similar I was to my mother, having believed throughout my whole life that we were complete opposites. To tell my own story, it must be said that I get my emotive flare from my mother and my sense of logic and rational from my father, and looking back on the decisions I have made throughout my life, you can see that both of these forces strongly govern the choices I have made.
I grew up surrounding myself with my own set of rules as a substitute for the freedom to learn and play and grow that my parents lovingly provided. I have always been tough on myself and have imagined the pressure that others have thrust upon me in the confines of my mind, but never in reality. It could be argued that I took life way too seriously from the get go; I pushed my brother back and forth in his pram, trying to calm him down for my busy mother when I was only a couple of years older than him. I taught my sister to read and later I taught her fractions and binomial nomenclature. When I was five years old I sat my mother down on the couch and confessed to her that I hated being five, and could not wait to turn six just weeks later because nobody takes a five year old seriously, and I meant serious business.
When I was sixteen, I felt I was finally at the age to start doing real things, making real change for this world. I used to volunteer my time to conservation and wildlife organisations, march my friends and family around the local zoo and recall long lists of facts about every animal I saw as well as taking every opportunity to defended my values religiously to the naysayers. My whole life I have been on a mission, blinkers on, heading toward the future I wanted. Looking back, peers never pressured me because the pressure I put on myself to save the world was far greater than any pressure they could conjure in aid of common teenage vices. The only posters on my wall were of gorillas and zebras, not of pop stars and teenage icons.
In university I finally took a risk and did something that lead to consequences larger than I could have envisioned. Angry at a documentary on cloning the Tasmanian Tiger, I asked the question:
“Why the hell isn’t anyone doing anything to protect the wildlife we have, instead of spending millions of dollars to bring back the dead?”
And in that moment I was faced with the rude awakening that I was anyone and it would be hypocritical of me to ask this question without doing anything myself. In that moment I channelled my anger into a petition which went viral and sooner than I knew, my job was on the line, company cars were escorting me out of uni to head offices and just in time for exams. Scared out of my mind, I rang my father who I always ring in times of need and he said:
“Jessie, you have wanted to fight for what you believe in your whole life. This is your chance to do so, or this is your chance to let it go. I will support you either way, but this is your decision to make.”
With my dad’s support, I committed and saw it through. This was the first time I risked something for what I believed in, and from this beginning, a little pocket of fearlessness grew within me.
Some people have been cursed with challenging upbringings, but I always say I have imposed these life challenges on myself. In light of a loving family, good friends and a strong education I decided to follow up university by spending six months living on a tropical island, sleeping on the ground, frogs living in the drinking water and beans and rice for every meal, every day. I was one of the youngest people on the island and I had applied for a staff role as an assistant research officer which meant I was the same age or younger than my peers but was pressured with a responsibility over them which demanded a level of respect. During this time, I thought I would learn how to be a good field scientist, but actually I learnt that everyone else’s opinions are not gospel and that above all, I needed to believe in myself and protect myself in order to survive. The world isn’t at all fair, there are no gold stars, but if there were, I was an adult now so I could damn well hand them out to myself. Now looking back on the experience, I give past Jessie a gold star for getting through it all and getting stronger instead of getting defeated.
The next year I was in the middle of another forest, with Indonesian men I couldn’t understand and who couldn’t understand me, but over time I could start to understand them and they could start to understand me. Spending too much time in the forest, I found a passion for elephants and decided to be the first person to study them in North Sumatra. By the end of the month, I had evolved from a isolated white woman into a friend and some of those memories are my dearest of all. I thought I would learn about what I would study in the following year, but I actually learnt that huge barriers both cultural and language based are easily dissolved in time and company.
Back again the year after, I was now a student and an employee of my field colleagues from the year before. I had worked hard to improve my language and they were surprised at our ease of conversation when I met them back in the forest in a brand new cabin from the one in my previous stay. The second time round, I was one of them. I taught them English, I talked with the men in the village when no women were allowed and I lead foreign visitors through the forest and spoke about it as if it was my child. A school student from England declared:
“We need to do something about this! We are the future!”
And it was one of the proudest moments of my life, to have instilled this hope and fire into him about something I cared so deeply about. From then on, I spoke about my work at festivals and conferences and in Singapore a woman overheard me talking at dinner and interrupted:
“Hold on, so you care this much about Sumatran elephants and you have only ever seen their poop?”
Apparently my love for elephant poop was enough to win a student award at this conference and get offered to work in her elephant project in Sri Lanka. I thought I would complete my honours project that year, but I actually established myself as a proper scientist and began to finally value my own work as equal to that of others and continue to be proud of my passions, even if my passions were mostly faecal matter and what they mean for Sumatran forests.
The next year I found myself in Sri Lanka, faced with the fear of isolation once again after my stint in the North Sumatran cities. When I found out there wouldn’t be field work for most of the month and that I would be cooped up in a room, unable to understand anyone again, I made a decision for my mental health to stay with my Sri Lankan friend and people I knew. The effects of isolation had been crippling my psyche ever since Indonesia and I could not go through it again, even if it meant there were more chances to see elephants. During this time I managed to put my mental health first without searing bridges with the organisation who offered my stay with them and I was proud of myself for foreshadowing hardship and avoiding subjecting myself to it again. My whole life I had always put my conservation career first and this was the first time I had sacrificed an opportunity in order to put myself first which was an important milestone in my life.
I decided to stay in Australia from then on to establish myself in my home country, gain local contacts and rekindle with the land that I kept leaving behind. After trying and trying endlessly to establish a career, I found an opportunity in New South Wales, in a small country town. I thought I was going to learn about sustainable and ethical tourism but what I actually learnt was that I am done learning. I had years of experience, I had lived through years of tough conditions and I was done. The isolation and severity of the living situation broke me down more than having relentless gastric problems on a Madagascan beach, finding a builder in my bed in North Sumatra or even running from a tiger in a muddy Malaysian forest. I realised, I had experienced enough. I wanted my own life, a paid job and some kind of security. I ended up fleeing in the middle of the night through the winding hills and sleeping in the same bed as the man I loved.
Now, I am on his journey, or our journey together. His pursuit of a career lead him to Victoria and I decided that I didn’t care where I was anymore as long as I was with him. In an interview, a woman said to me:
“Wow, I have had a look at your resume and I am impressed by how much you have done!”
To which I said,
“Or how much I have failed at, which is why I keep having to start again.”
Looking back, it seems as if I have embarked on many life journeys which have somehow morphed into one. I don’t truly believe that I have failed, because through all of these experiences I have learnt more about myself than I could ever imagine, and more about my industry and life in general than is palatable. The other day I was walking through the scrub, looking at birds when I realised three things.
- I have come all this way to do the same thing that I started off doing as a kid, I have come full circle
- I no longer want to save the whole world. If the trees that I plant have a positive impact on even a single ant, bird or butterfly, then I should be happy. If the people I talk to are inspired to see the world differently, contribute to conservation or even to learn a bit more about how they impact the planet, I should be happy. If doing these things brings me joy and and happiness, I have won, what more can you want?!
- I don’t have to go through life kicking and screaming alone. Having a team mate makes life 1000% more achievable and enjoyable none the less.
My story doesn’t end here, but it ends here for now. I still can’t help but take life seriously, but I think I am seriously happy with how far I have come and how much I have believed in myself and that is something I can be proud of. In the end I can say, if the wilderness has taught me anything, it has taught me everything.
And that is my story.