Waterskinks, your new fatherly substitute

Growing up near a gorge, I spent many hours sitting on large flat rocks in the middle of the flowing stream, watching the waterskinks bask on rocky inclines in the small cracks of sunlight left by the shadows of the trees. I once took a boy I was not sure about down to the gorge to test his love and or resilience to nature. We sat on a big rock together and I was delighted at how the waterskinks came out to play, showing territorial behaviour and running around, too many of them to bask peacefully. I grinned while watching them, trying to suppress a giggle at the home range show downs I was paying witness to, until out the corner of my eye, I notice the boy getting more and more uncomfortable. He slid back as far as he could on the rock and sitting on his haunches, appearing trapped between a hoard of reptiles and a moat of flowing stream.

I couldn’t helped but become even more entertained as the war was now not just confined to the lizards but now also involved a very scared boy. I was aghast at how this “man” could be so terrified at creatures the length of his hand, however each to their own. The terror crept across his face as a skink slithered onto the rock we were sitting on, braving the human presence. The space left on the rock for him to sit, after considering the distance he was comfortable leaving between himself and the skink was just the rim. Instead of doing the polite thing and offering to walk away from the situation, I cautiously waited to see what would unfold, never having had reptiles come so close to me on their own accord before and enjoying their company, I was eager to see who would rein supreme in this epic battle for rock space.

While lost in these thoughts, I hear a scream and see him leap up in the air before running off the rock and back onto the stream bank. I could’t help but let the laughter roll out of me again and again as he just stood there pointing at the lizard and exclaiming:
“HE RAN UP MY SHORTS!”

I guess the best man won.

As the relationship faded a year later, I always thought back to this day. The best judge of a man’s character is his relationship with waterskinks, and what they tell you about a man, is probably always true.

As I watched a new group of waterskinks today from a different state, I remember their wise judgement and snarky behaviour as they bobbed heads to each other as a warning. They warn each other to back off, and if you introduce them to the wrong man, they will warn him to back off out of your life too.

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Be like a caterpillar

Today was one of those days where I needed inspiration for resilience through tough times. Surprisingly, the animal I thought of wasn’t a tough big mammal like a bear or a rhino, or even a big fish like a great white shark, but actually my mind wandered to the humble caterpillar. A caterpillar may seem like a strange icon for resilience, as it’s later life after metamorphosis is more often celebrated then its pre-pupaic stage. However, I believe some species of caterpillar are some of the most resilient creatures in the whole entire world, let me explain to you why.

There is one David Attenborough sequence I will never ever forget of the woolly bear caterpillar trying so hard to turn into a woolly bear moth. I always sit in awe of this caterpillar as every single year, winter comes before the moth has a chance to eat enough food to be able to start its moth transformation. Again and again, every single year, the caterpillar freezes itself to death in the winter and miraculously comes back to life in the spring to eat as much as it can over summer to hopefully start its moth transformation again before the next winter arrives. The sequence showed the woolly bear moth starting again at least three springs in a row before it had successfully managed to consume enough energy to undergo its metamorphosis process into mothhood.

I thought of that caterpillar today and how it took him three years to be the moth he knew he could be. I thought of the disappointment of having to go through yet another winter after winter and being temporarily frozen to death three separate times. But then I thought of how eventually, the caterpillar did eat enough, it did go through metamorphosis and it did start its new life as a woolly bear moth, and began the new struggles of his new life, whatever they may be. Because of this tiring process, woolly caterpillars live to be the oldest caterpillars in the world, more wise and superior to those who never faced these hardships

Just because you are struggling, and you feel like you are failing year after year, doesn’t mean that you aren’t on the right track. Just remember that these hurdles are just passing winters and one day a spring will come that will change your life forever. You can never get to the spring though, without going through all of the winters first, almost killing yourself at least three times. I hope that in times of trial and tribulation, you can also remember the story of the woolly caterpillar and find the resistance within to become the woolly moth you always dreamed you could be.

 

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My body is a wonderland

There is a reason everyone talks about poop on their holidays and that is because poop is a life altering phenomenon that needs to be closely monitored as your surroundings change. Spending year after year  inhabiting new environmental regions with different climates, diseases and cultures, I have come to see my body react to a vast number of conditions, climates, foods and environmental pressures.

Looking at myself in the mirror the other day I could see how my body has been shaped from my travels and work in many diverse natural environments. My calfs bulge with strong muscles from years of walking in varied terrain for long hours every day. My hair is streaked with sun bleached strands from all the hours I spend outdoors in the sunshine. My feet are always calloused and dirty from walking outside barefoot and my arms are at least 5 shades darker than my belly. They say that what you look like is a combination of your genetics and your environment and I can see that as I look at the person staring back at me in the mirror, with freckles splattering my nose from years of being outside in the sunshine.

For women everywhere, daily struggles with body image are a problem that can do as much damage as ending lives across the globe. I feel like spending time in nature has allowed me to see past a number on the scales as I know where my muscle is and that it weighs three times as much as fat. I know how my body changes and slims down when I move to the tropics and face high content chilli diets, hot humid weather and dehydration and I know how my body feels sluggish in winter as I set into eating more and sleeping more mode. Most importantly though, I know how my legs are strong enough to carry me up mountains, across valleys and through forests. I know my immune system is strong enough to carry me through sub par drinking water and unhygienic environments. I also know that my brain has grown from the challenges I have faced and the constant learning has left me mentally stronger to tackle any emotional mountain I may face.

When I look in the mirror, I do not compare myself to models or other women I see in the media, however I look at myself and wonder how much further my body will take me on all my still awaited journeys and if it has the capacity to survive all the challenges I will put it through. I am so thankful for the ways the environment has shaped me and I am glad that it has made me realise that being adaptable and resilient is way better than being just plain old skinny.

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Slowly slowly like the tortoise

“I don’t want you to burn yourself out”

My new boss says to me, already knowing me well enough that just after two weeks he can tell I start to get ansty when I am stationary…not that I have had time to be idle yet since I’ve been here. I have never been able to tolerate being slow and steady throughout any era of life and sometimes I feel as if I am rushing through to some sort of finish line as my productivity never seems enough for myself, yet too much for others. After two weeks he has already sat me down and told me to chill out, not to rush ahead with my thinking and to immerse myself in the now, really making use of the time I am living in, arguably the most important time of all.

Nature has always rewarded me for rest, for I think you can only truly appreciate nature in a rested state. The birds never stay long when you are moving around, and the rare species always find you when you are lost in thought, sitting on a bench for hours just being still. Never has a butterfly landed on a skittish dog as he ran about frantically, but rather, nature comes when it feels safe and peaceful, which is why a butterfly may land on you when you are standing like a statue. Luckily, nature evokes restful feelings within me, and it is easy to calm myself in a garden full of lovely trees, flowers and ponds as a willing reciprocate for all that will grace me if I still my body and my mind.

Sitting outside on the grass between lectures in my undergrad, I have had a rainbow Lorikeet sit on me as I basked in the sunshine, and another time a Willie Wagtail landed on me while sitting near the beach. Catching butterflies is easy if you hold your hand in the jar still enough for them to climb on to and they stay on longer once the jar is removed, the stiller you stand. Sometimes when nature is present around me in a spectacular way, for instance witnessing basking Ruffed Lemurs above me in the sunshine, I find I am holding my breath without knowing, just in aid of being as still as possible.

In many languages there is the same saying:

“Slowly slowly like the tortoise”

Which I have heard hundreds of times in tricky terrain, forests, rocky ledges and mountain hikes. In nature, it is safer to be slow, it is safer to watch step by step where you are going, noticing what is around you and finding solace in your exact stance.

My boss told me to slow down, but nature has been telling me for years. If you slow down, you will be safe, you will see more and you will experience the wonderful magic of the environment you would have never seen if you ran through disturbing everything around you. Slowly slowly goes the tortoise, and slowly slowly so should I.

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Climbing up mountains

It was the middle of the night and I was lying in bed mid way through a busy week of wildlife, climate change awareness and assisting with running an eco-lodge. My boss has been working 15 hour days, motivated by the positive response of years of his hard work, and about to add three more awards to his vast collection. Suddenly a wild thought came soaring into my head. Last year I was lying in another bed across the world, still in the comfort of my blankets while my boss worked 15 hour days, thriving off of the positive response of the years of his hard work and dedication. It was then that I had to think

“Why was it that I have been working with so many dedicated, award winning people in my field rather than dedicating myself to work and winning awards for my own life long projects?”

***

My whole life I wanted to change the world. Throughout my schooling, people would always ask what I wanted to do when I left school. My answer was always:

“I want to save the world”

In my young, invincible brain, this seemed like an easy task to achieve. I just work hard, never give up and I will save the world right? Simple.

The problems began when I entered the real world post-schooling where I discovered very soon how vast the corruption, hate and greed spans on a terrifyingly global scale. When I was 18, I saw a very legitimate and successful wildlife sanctuary raided by the DNP, where hundreds of rehabilitated animals were brutally hurt, confiscated to horrible conditions or murdered. When I was 19, I saw people make decisions based on their personal feelings and conditions, rather than based on what the animals in their facility needed and so hundreds more animals were stripped of a life they deserved because of human social issues. When I was 21, I saw forests stripped bare and diminish gradually over a 6 month period. I saw over-fished waters and a hammerhead shark head float helplessly in a boating dock. At 22, I saw the drought, the dust and the sadness caused by oil palm plantations. I saw 40 dead elephants on the news in the neighbouring province because a farmer had poisoned their water supply to prevent animals from eating their harvest. At 23, I saw that I was only respected due to my “masculine qualities” and that I could never be accepted as a woman in science, but rather I had to be compared to a man just to be respected in a community. I saw top scientists in their field releasing animals based on what the media wanted, and I sat in sorrow as these animals died in a drought stricken forest. At 24, I saw elephants dead in landfill as they congregated there to feed. I saw tourists go to see them and think it was the most wonderful time of their lives.

At this point I had become too jaded to be invincible anymore.

In just 24 years of trying to understand the world, the environmental processes and all that inhabits this blue planet, I have fallen deeply in love with what I have seen, but deeply saddened at the rate of it’s demise. I have paid witness to millions of people on social media supporting people and institutions I now know are causing much pain for wildlife and ecosystems all over the world just because nobody knows what is happening in the real, scary, ugly world, and I don’t think anybody wants to. I feel like I keep climbing mountain after mountain and getting to the top and realising that the view is no better here than it was on the ground, but standing there, I just feel exhausted and defeated from the hike up.

I think for now, I can take solace in the fact that there are genuinely good people out there in the world, people who are honestly making great decisions for the fate of species and ecosystems everywhere, not because of external factors, but because they are honest and right. I am young, and I am still learning, and I don’t want to work for 15 hours a day because I still want to be able to enjoy the wildlife I am working so hard to protect. If you take just one walk in nature, see one bird, one butterfly or one lizard, you may step out of your closed minded focus for two seconds and understand that you need to not sacrifice yourself, your sanity, your family for something that is not totally in your control.

I cannot save the world myself and neither can either of my two bosses, past or present. But with our combined energy, passions and small smidgens of belief that we have left, maybe we can each make the world a better place in our own niche ways. In the end nature has taught me that it will find a way, if trees can grow in pure rock, I can find the view at the top of the mountain. You never can tell if one journey is ending, or another voyage of discovery is only just beginning.

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Child of Mother Earth

I had a lot of time to think to myself while walking three hours through the countryside this morning. I smiled as I passed cows as they stared me down for walking along their pasture, then again as I passed two horses as they happily grazed fresh green grass together, all the while noticing all the beautiful birds that fluttered around. Galahs, Ravens, Willie Wagtails, Fairy Wrens, Kookaburras, Magpies and Pacific Ducks were just a few friends that accompanied me on my morning stroll. As I walked, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of serenity fall over me like a warm blanket as I thought about how thankful I was that my passion for conservation has brought me to yet again, another incredible destination.

My mind wandered to all of the people I have met along my conservation journey and to all the families I have found myself being an important member of over the years. I thought about how weird it is that I am so many people’s daughter and so many other people’s sister. Sometimes I think about how conservation has been a method of transport for me, a vessel to take me to so many different places and to become a part of so many different lives that I otherwise wouldn’t have been if I was instead a carpenter or an accountant or really passionate about model trains.

As I walked along the dusty gravel path through the valley, looking at the mountains either side of me, I thought about all the times I have truly felt accepted and at home. I thought about eating rice with my hands at the dinner table in Sri Lanka with the family and gossiping with Auntie over tea in the mornings before anyone else was awake. I thought about drinking iced tea with the village men in North Sumatra and despite being a woman, being accepted as part of their male harem. I remembered cuddling my boss’s daughter as we went on long family road trips together away from Medan, and making her giggle until she fell asleep in my lap. I thought about teaching people I loved English so they could talk to me in my language, I thought about laughing over dumb TV shows with people, I thought about playing cards late into the night and most importantly how a whole village gathered in a pub to watch Eurovision with me, just because they knew how much I liked it.

Sometimes I think I am like a family parasite. I just insert myself into people’s families and make them my home for a while until it is time to move on. Sometimes I think I trick the host into making them think I am their blood relative, their real true daughter, their real true sibling. Sometimes I think I am the best version of myself when I am surrounded by a close-knit community, one where I can contribute and be a part of something magical.

Today I thought that I never really felt at home in my childhood house, and that I have felt at home in a hundred different other places. I thought that this home, this new home, even though temporary, is a good home. I will be happy and I will do something special and unique with my time and I will be something special and unique as well. I was taught from a young age that school cannot teach me everything I need to know, and I think that’s why I have this insatiable urge to meet many different people and go many different places and truly live like them and understand the way they think. The more I learn, the more I can do to appreciate and protect the natural world I live in.

I suppressed the tears of gratitude I knew were wanting to escape. I thanked the hills and the trees and the birds and the cows for all being so wonderful and fascinating to me that they have taken me on such a grand adventure that I would not be the same person without.  Without conservation, I would not have so many families, I would not have so many homes, and that is something carpentry and accounting just cannot compete with.22139775_10211917815993475_1154134925_o

 

Dancing through oceans

Once upon a time I placed my palm to my face as my friend announced that she thought there was only one type of whale.

“And which type might that be?”

I asked, surprised at the thought of this concept.

“You know, the whaley type.”

She responded, content with her answer.

Maybe she was thinking of the biggest animal known to man, the blue whale, who’s heart is the size of a small car. The whale that marks the benchmark for awe inspiring mass amongst the animal kingdom while somehow simultaneously achieving  such incredible levels of grace and beauty in its movements.

Or maybe she was thinking of the Beluga whale, such a unique looking specimen which is so pale grey it almost appears to be white in the right levels of sunlight. Its bulbous forehead housing a rather intelligent brain, with aquarium workers claiming to hear the Belugas speak to them through the glass panels.

What if she was thinking of the Sperm whale, known for its giggle-inducing name, which appear to me to look like big long rocks with tails. Maybe she was thinking about how they sleep vertically in a circular group to resemble pillars of ancient ruins in order to be protected against loitering predators.

In my brain, there are too many whales to name. Toothed whales, baleen whales, smaller whales and gigantic whales. Lonely whales who call long distances to find somebody, anybody to share their lives with, whales in family groups migrating long distances together and whales who have succumbed to the whaling villages who use their meat for food and their hide for their homes. I wonder how a person can believe there is only one species of whale in amongst all of the vast diversity.

Personally, I never grasped the true awe of whales until I was acquainted by many mother Humpbacks, teaching their calves to breach in order to rid their backs of parasites. I watched intently as the mothers jumped first, heaving their huge and weighty bodies out of the ocean, somehow defying the laws of physics, flipping over and slamming themselves back into the ocean causing an enormous splash. The calves followed, they were babies by name but hardly by size. They heaved their smaller bodies out of the water and following mum, awkwardly fell back into the ocean from which they came.

Seeing them up close was only reaffirming what I saw in National Geographic photographs and David Attenborough documentaries. The bumps on their head gave them a unique texture along with the straight ridges that they sported on the underside of their bodies. The smooth skin on their backs and dorsal fins were marked and nicked from a rough ocean life of predators, rocks and communication with other whales, as if they were covered in graffiti like common street mammals. Their dorsal fin was the most peculiar of all however, as its small bulbous point was hardly the angular fin that most cetaceans possess. They were absolutely stunning, and happy to show off their tails and flippers to us mere humans while we were ogling at them from the boat.

Watching these beauties I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with the feeling that these creatures were real and alive in front of me, in a way that led me to believe I formerly regarded them as fictional and magical beasts. It is one thing to accept that whales exist from watching them in documentaries and seeing them in photos but it is another thing to sit in wonderment as they dance through the ocean around you. To add one last slice of magic, their song reverberated through the boat and filled our ears with the most wonderful sultry melody. They truly were the best performers of that slice of ocean.

It is a shame that whales are hunted so dramatically all over the world, especially in Nordic countries, and more so, it is a shame that something so vast and magnificent is confined to a life behind glass for human entertainment. Seeing whales in the wild is a truly amazing experience and I urge you to add them to your bucket list of animals to see. I was planning on swimming with the Humpbacks, however due to the young calves being present, we didn’t come between the mums and their babies within their safe haven and put ourselves in potential danger. Whales taught me a long time ago that seeing animals perform their song and dance for you in the wild on their own, is a far more breathtaking experience than knowing a human orchestrated their behaviour. The world is magical without our interference, and whales are definite proof of that.

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