National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > ‘Part of the Feast’: The life and legacy of Val Plumwood > transcript

‘Part of the Feast’: The life and legacy of Val Plumwood

Gregg Borschmann, Grahame Webb, George Main, Lorraine Shannon, Deborah Bird Rose, Kate Rigby and Kirsten Wehner, 7 May 2013

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Hello everybody, and thank you for coming along this evening. My name is Kirsten Wehner. I am head curator of the National Museum of Australia’s People and the Environment Program and I have the enjoyable privilege of welcoming you to the Museum tonight and introducing the evening’s entertainment. Thank you first for coming along to participate in this evening’s forum exploring and also celebrating the life and legacy of the late environmental activist, writer and philosopher Val Plumwood.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight. I would also like to pay my respect to their elders past and present and to extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are in the audience today.

This evening’s program, which has been developed in partnership with Gregg Borschmann of ABC Radio National, brings together three of the Museum’s core roles: to develop Australians’ understanding of their inter-relationships with their environments; to research and interpret collections relating to Australia’s history and culture; and also to act as a place that brings people together in conversation about national issues - that is you guys.

The National Museum of Australia was founded with the central theme of ‘The history of man and nature in this continent, their linked roles and their interactions’, a phrase that 40 years later we might now gloss as the history of people’s inter-relationships with their environments. Since that founding statement, this vision has inspired the Museum to explore and interpret how Australian life arises through the intertwined histories of Indigenous Australians, non-Indigenous Australians, and the plants, animals and natural forces of this continent.

Because we are a museum, we approach this history-making through the medium of objects and collections. The National Historical Collection includes a wide variety of materials that record diverse aspects of people’s perceptions and understandings of the non-human world, of their efforts to change it to reflect their beliefs and ambitions, and also of the non-human world’s capacity to demand response, adaptation and affection. Val Plumwood’s canoe, which is on display here tonight and about which we will hear a lot more in a minute, is one fabulous example of these collections that speak to all these trajectories in Australian history.

Val Plumwood’s deeply-thought engagement with and reflection on the place of humans in and as part of the non-human world is a natural focus for the National Museum and particularly for the People and the Environment Program. As we will hear, Val challenged us to rethink assumptions about human separation from and mastery over the rest of the natural world, to develop new stories about how we can perceive, understand and act in more ecologically responsible and sustainable ways. The Museum aims to be a place where those stories can come together to be told and retold. We invite all Australians to engage along with us with Val’s challenge to rethink our future.

Australians currently face crises that I would argue require the radical rethinking of our relationship to the natural world. It is my ambition at least that the Museum’s collections and the knowledge that coheres around them will constitute a significant resource for the kind of historical understanding that can underpin good future thinking and good future choices. This evening represents, at least for me, one little step on that long journey to new kinds of understanding.

This evening’s program is in two parts. In a minute I will hand over to Greg Borschmann, who will lead a conversation with our panel, which includes: National Museum curator George Main; anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose; writer and editor Lorraine Shannon; and crocodile scientist and conservationist Grahame Webb. Gregg will introduce them more fully when he gets going. The first part is a conversation. Then following the panel, I will be very pleased to invite Professor Kate Rigby to come up to introduce and launch The Eye of the Crocodile, the just-published posthumous collection of Val Plumwood’s essays.

I have to tell you, in case you haven’t noticed the cameras, that tonight’s conversation is being recorded and it will in part be developed as a forthcoming Radio National Big Ideas program. Your attendance, whether you like it or not, is considered consent to be recorded. So if you do not want to be recorded, now would be an appropriate time to depart - but please don’t. I will also remind you now to make sure that your mobile phone is turned off or on silent. I will also ask you to hold any questions during the panel conversation. If we have time towards the end of the evening we will come back and have some time for questions and answers.

It is my pleasure now to introduce Gregg. Gregg Borschmann is the environment editor of the Breakfast program of ABC Radio National – that is the one hosted by Fran Kelly. He started his career in the media as a print journalist in 1974 on The Age newspaper under the great newspaperman Graham Perkin and he says that he fell into radio almost by accident 13 years ago. Hopefully the bruises have faded by now. However, Gregg is no stranger to Canberra as he spent much of the 1990s working on The People’s Forest, which was a very big oral history project over at the National Library of Australia. It was through this project that Gregg got to know Val Plumwood. Apparently Val wrote an essay for The People’s Forest on the philosophy of the forests. During the rather challenging editing process, Gregg remembers Val describing him as ‘the worst editor I have ever worked with’, but I am relieved to report that Val forgave him when the book was published in 1999. I do understand also that, like Val, in the mid-1980s, after he finished rafting 90 kilometres down the Daintree River in North Queensland in a rubber ducky with no more than a paddle for protection, Gregg also acquired a crocodile story but I understand that is for another day. With no more ado, please join me in welcoming Gregg and the members of our panel. [applause]

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Good evening Canberra and thank you very much for being here tonight, and thanks especially to the National Museum of Australia for hosting this very special event. Few of us have ever stared into the eyes of a crocodile. Even fewer know what it means to be hunted not the hunter. In 1985 on the East Alligator River in Kakadu National Park, Australian philosopher Val Plumwood learnt the hard way. As she later wrote, it was:

… an experience beyond words of total terror, total helplessness, total certainty, experienced with undivided mind and body, of a terrible death in the swirling depths.

Given all that happened on that day, it is remarkable that Val lived to tell her tale. It changed her life and it deeply challenged her as a philosopher. But no more so than the way Val had long challenged those she saw as the oppressors or the destroyers. She was both activist and academic, philosopher and feminist. She could wage the great intellectual fight for the forests but also be hands-on friends with a wombat.

Val Plumwood died in 2008. We are here tonight at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra to launch a book of Val’s writings The Eye of the Crocodile. To help us better understand Val Plumwood and her legacy, I am joined by four guests: first, one of the world’s leading authorities on crocodiles, Professor Grahame Webb; a curator here at the National Museum of Australia, Dr George Main; writer and book editor, Dr Lorraine Shannon; and anthropologist and writer, Professor Deborah Bird Rose.

I would like to start with a crocodile story from each of you. Not everyone have a crocodile story but I am sure our panellists all do. Grahame Webb, you have been chasing crocodiles since 1970, I know you will have looked directly into the eyes of one or two or you have possibly even wrestled one or two. What is your croc story?

GRAHAME WEBB: If you go back to 1971 when crocodiles were protected they were hardly any left, and those that were left were a few adults well hidden away, extremely wary, you never saw them and some little baby ones. There was nothing in the middle. We had assumed that these big animals were all wary, that they wouldn’t really attack people because they were so frightened of people. To cut a long story short, we developed a radio tracking thing which we put on a big croc that we had managed to catch – about a 4-metre croc. We went down into this swamp of mangroves in Arnhem Land to try to find the animal and we found it on the other side. If you can believe this: there is an Australian, an Irishman and an Englishman up this tree.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: This is sounding like a good story already.

GRAHAME WEBB: They wanted the croc to come over so they could see the transmitter. So I got a stick and splashed it in the water. I was the only one out of this tree that knew anything about crocs. Of course the croc turned around and went down and swam all the way under water and came right up under the tree. With the benefit of hindsight the three of us realised - I was there trying to keep everyone quiet so that croc wouldn’t dive and swim away. But we had all realised that it wasn’t going to dive and swim away and it came launching up this tree. It didn’t get any of us but it came within about this far [indicated] of the Irishman. Everyone had strange stories to tell about it. But it was quite an awakening for me because it was the first time I realised that these were really serious, dangerous predators. Up until then I had thought they were not what they had been posted in the old books to be - but they were. In hindsight, I can say when something like that happens, everyone starts to talk in deep voices. If you really get frightened your voice goes down like this, which is quite a strange thing. I know Val would have gone through when she really looked into the eye of the crocodile that you know is attacking you. It is a quite different thing.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Deborah Bird Rose, you came to Australia in 1980 to live with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory hoping to learn about country and relationships between people and the land and other species - how could that not include crocodiles. What is your croc story?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: My croc story concerns the flood plains out to the south-west of Darwin. When I first started research out there with people, one of the first things we did was go fishing at a billabong that Grahame knows. When we got to the billabong the old lady started calling out, so I said, ‘What is she calling out for?’ They said, ‘She is calling out for the crocs.’ I said, ‘Why is she calling out for the crocs?’ They said, ‘To get them to come up.’ I said, ‘Why do we want the crocs to come up?’ They said, ‘So we will go down to the other end of the billabong and go fishing.’

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Very sensible and very pragmatic. George Main, as curator in the people and the environment section here at the National Museum of Australia, I suspect you haven’t been out the back on Lake Burley Griffin looking for rogue crocs, but I am sure you do have a croc story.

GEORGE MAIN: Yes, mine is quite different and it is a southern tale. I have two daughters and when my second daughter was born, we took our first daughter, who was about three and a half, to a teddy bear shop to buy a teddy bear for our second daughter who was just born. We thought this would help the bonding process. But instead of choosing a cute little fluffy bunny, she chose quite a large fluffy crocodile with a large open mouth and big teeth. She thought that was an appropriate toy to put in the bassinet with the baby. We thought that that probably revealed something of how she was feeling about the new family member. She was very cranky when I told her I was going to tell that story tonight, so I am sorry.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Did the crocodile survive?

GEORGE MAIN: Yes, it is still a treasured member of the family.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Dr Lorraine Shannon, as editor of Val Plumwood’s book The Eye of the Crocodile, you had a similar experience of the toy variety; in fact, you were overwhelmed by a boxload of them. How on earth did that happen?

LORRAINE SHANNON: We were trying to find a suitable cover for the book. We ahd looked at photographs of the eye of a crocodile and Indigenous paintings, but all these possibilities seemed to fall through in one way or another. So I emailed Anne Edwards, who was minding Val’s property, and said, ‘Could you possibly post up to me some of Val’s collection of toy crocodiles,’ which I knew people had given her over years and years. I had seen all these crocodiles around the place.

The next thing this big cardboard box arrived. We unpacked it. It was full of the most bizarre collection of crocodiles. It had great big blue, pale fluffy ones and tiny little painted tin ones, wooden articulated ones and ones that clacked. There was even a hot water bottle in the shape of a crocodile. There were pens and pencil sharpeners - everything you can imagine. We spread them out, and I had a friend taking photographs of them. Nothing worked. They all looked absolutely dreadful as if we were trying to produce a book on collecting toy crocodiles.

There was one rather lovely stylised wooden, carved crocodile, and we put that down on a big red cardboard sheet and photographed it, and that worked well - I think anyway – and it did become the cover of the book. I was very pleased that the cover showed one of Val’s crocodiles along with her text. I thought it was very nice that the cover didn’t come from anywhere else but from her as well.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I am interested in exploring with all of you what these toys - all this fear, fun and fantasy - tell us about the reality of Crocodilus porosis and our relationship with one of the world’s great predators.

Deborah Bird Rose, let’s start with a perspective that is not ours, an Indigenous world view. It is hard to imagine crocodiles not being very important revered and feared creatures in that universe.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Well, that’s right, they are big important figures in real life and in story and in people’s interactions with country. They are special – I am talking about the porosis, not the little freshwater crocs. They are sort of like people, what people would be if people lived in the water. I think it’s probably that predator thing that one predator recognises another predator. There is a lot of respect and a lot of recognition there, a lot of stories about interactions. A meeting with a crocodile is always deemed to have significance. It isn’t just like bumping into a goanna and taking it home for dinner.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: So it’s within a framework, it’s almost like part of a family.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: The reason that that old lady, who has passed away now, could call out to those crocs was because it’s her country and she could address them as countrymen. People didn’t really expect to be taken by crocs as long as they addressed the crocs properly and let them know where they were. There are some ways in which crocodiles, like a lot of creatures actually, are guardians for country and if you are the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time -

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Look out.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Look out, yes.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Grahame Webb, you have spent a lot of time with Indigenous people in country. What have Indigenous people taught you about crocodiles?

GRAHAME WEBB: A lot. What Deborah said is very true. A lot of Aboriginal people, or traditional people at least, see especially in big crocs the body of certain people that have passed on. If a big croc gets killed or drowned or something, it’s a very serious event. There is a lot of wailing and carrying on to lament the loss. They certainly have a way of linking in exactly as you say, but then one group of people have crocodiles in their totem - for want of a better word – and may not be able to eat crocodile meat, but the people next door who don’t can eat crocodile meat, and they can live happily ever after together having completely different views on the value of crocodiles.

The relationship between people and crocs predates Aboriginals by probably a million years. When the first primitive people climbed out of the first tree and went to the first billabong, they were chased away by a crocodile and it wasn’t too long until they learnt to steal a crocodile’s eggs. This relationship has been going on for possibly millions of years. All I can say is if you get a newborn baby and hold it up to a crocodile’s head on the wall and just hang on to its spine as it turns around, it’s never seen one but it’s hard wired. I think that’s why crocodiles are so good in the media. As soon as a crocodile comes on, people watch it. In Darwin the newspaper every three or four days has a crocodile story on the front page, because it sells 10 per cent more newspapers. But I think that’s not modern man, it’s way back somewhere in the hard wiring.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I am wondering as a scientist, as a researcher, what you learnt from that Indigenous perspective. Did it help inform the way you did your science or the way you understood your science?

GRAHAME WEBB: I worked very closely with Indigenous people, and we worked together doing this work on crocodiles. I was lucky - in that society where I was people had only come out of the bush in the 1950s and 1960s. The men were all hunters and the women were all gatherers and hunters and it was mainly a man-type thing where I was with them all the time. I was trying to do the work and they were helping me - and I learnt a huge amount. The real thing was just coolness - they’re cool, people; they are very cautious; they are very skilled hunters. I used to think I was pretty good in the bush relative to most white people I have ever met. I am sure they used to wonder how I would ever survive. They used to think I was the most incompetent, hopeless person. They would know to go in a billabong that is safe to swim and where is not safe to swim. It is difficult to cotton on to, as I am sure you would have found, what lies beyond that, what we look at as sixth sense. It was an amazing period for me. I have worked with Indigenous people ever since or tried to help protect their rights to have a traditional lifestyle, because a lot of people today want to take it away from them. They think Aboriginal people should be eating McDonald’s and French fries like the rest of us and not out there killing animals. It’s an important link.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: We are going to come to that conservation argument later.

Lorraine Shannon, you edited Val’s book. For most of us surviving a crocodile attack would be a triumph from its own right, but Val used the experience in both a personal and professional way. I am wondering if you have a sense, from all of that reading, how it affected her? It did change her but in what way? I am wondering if you got a personal sense of that change.

LORRAINE SHANNON: When I first met Val, I knew nothing about her. One of the first things she told me was this story about the crocodile, and I was absolutely mesmerised by it, of course. It was very clear to me that this had been a completely life-changing event for her in both a positive and a negative way. There was obviously a very deep amount of consideration in Val to do with death and predation, and this existed alongside what I found so attractive about her, which was her almost child-like delight in the world and her sense of how privileged and honoured she was when she had relationships with animals such as her wombat Birubi - the sense in which so few of us actually ever get the opportunity to have that sort of relationship with a wild animal and yet, when we do, it contributes so much towards our humanity. I think that was fundamental to her way of thinking.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: What was the negative? I found that an interesting thing for you to say. I always imagined that Val used it to challenge herself personal and professionally. What did you sense was the negative for Val?

LORRAINE SHANNON: I remember quite vividly this first conversation that I had with Val when she was talking about it. She just glanced down at one point and said, ‘Yes, there has just been so much death.’ At this time a lot of her hens had been taken by a quoll. She was very disturbed and distressed by this and decided she wasn’t going to keep hens any more. I think that this sense that there was a way in which we always have to seek to try to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we cannot separate ourselves out from killing, that in order to eat we must kill to stay alive. Even if it’s only plants, it is still taking away the life of something else, and this is absolutely unavoidable.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: That is something that most of us can push away almost every day whereas for Val it was obviously right in her face there.

George Main, you have had most to do with the telling of the Val Plumwood story here at the National Museum and especially the display of Val’s canoe which we see before us here tonight, the canoe that Val was paddling that fateful, wet, flooding day in 1985. Val saw what she thought at first was a stick, a stick that curiously developed eyes and then a nose. And remarkably at first Val was un-fazed, thinking it was a small one. She later wrote, ‘I was close to it now but not especially afraid. An encounter that would add interest to the day.’ What happened? How did Val come to tell the story of that attack? It wasn’t in the Northern Territory News but rather a scholarly article Being prey that was published in 1996.

GEORGE MAIN: Yes, it took her a long time before she was prepared and emotionally able to write about the horrific event. It was published in 1996, and the attack happened in 1985. She was up there visiting Kakadu on a holiday. She had been involved in activism work to prevent mining happening in the national park and she knew some people up there. Towards the end of her stay she was staying at the East Alligator Ranger Station where Greg Miles was the ranger. Greg had used this canoe, which is in front of us now, for some years since he had started work there as a ranger. It had been owned by the National Parks Service there.

He had asked Val to go and have a look at a new walking trail that he had marked out. He knew that Val was a very experienced bushwalker and he really valued her experience and her advice. The day seemed to be fine for canoeing. Crocodiles weren’t thought to be a problem. As Grahame was saying earlier, there weren’t many crocodiles around in the 1970s after the generations of hunting. This was a time when crocodiles were increasing in number, but there hadn’t been any attacks in canoes.

So Val set off. Unbeknownst to her and to Greg, there had been a lot of rain up river and the river was rising. Rain was coming in. This was before the days of radars and really reliable weather forecasts. She actually couldn’t find the landmarks that Greg had indicated that she needed to look out for where the start of the trail was. Then the rain was setting in, and she eventually decided to head back. That’s when the rain was quite heavy, the river was rising even more, and she had this unfortunate encounter with a crocodile that started to attack the canoe to hit it with its tail. She decided to leap into a tree and try to escape. At that point the crocodile roared up out of the water and pulled her down into what is called a death roll, which is the method crocodiles use to kill their prey, to wind them and to drown them and stun them, to use all the energy that they have got in that action. Val actually had to experience three of these death rolls before she was able to clamber up a bank very wounded and get away.

I thought I would read a few sentences from her account. As well as being a wonderful philosopher and committed activist, she was an extraordinary writer and this is a few sentences from her account of the death roll:

[It] lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and spluttering, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to find myself still alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs and the water came just up to my chest. As we rested together I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.

As I mentioned, there was a third before she found a way to escape the crocodile by climbing up the bank and forcing her thumbs into the wall of the bank. I think it’s testament to her ferocity of character and strength of character that she was one of the few people ever to survive a crocodile attack like that.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: That’s a remarkable story. Grahame Webb, you were in Darwin at the time. Was the attack a surprise to you?

GRAHAME WEBB: At the time that attack came there were two elements: one, actually using canoes in crocodile country is extremely dangerous. In fact I had a letter from the government about using canoes in Kakadu and had written back maybe six months before Val got taken saying it was a very dangerous practice and you shouldn’t do it. But as often happens in bureaucracies. There is a lot of history of people being taken out of canoes by salt water crocodiles through the rain. That is one side that it should never really have happened.

Two, at the time it happened, the crocs were just starting to recover in the north. They had been protected in 1971. There were no champions for crocodiles at that time. There were only the hunters really who had run out of crocodiles that were concerned. There were no real conservation groups at that time. Nobody minded saying, ‘Let’s protect the crocodiles,’ because it was like saying, ‘Let’s protect the unicorns,’ or something. There was none around so it didn’t matter.

But as they started to recover by the end of 1979 and in 1980 and we had four attacks with two fatalities in the space of 12 months, the public started to become really concerned. When Val got attacked, one of the things that was incredibly important at that time that I was always very grateful to her for was that, she as soon as she could speak from the hospital, she came out very strongly not wanting people to take it out on the crocodiles. At that time it was a very touch and go thing the way the public was going with crocs, and her calming of the waters was a very important thing in the north at that time.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I wanted to ask you about that because we all know what happened to Val but do you know what happened to that croc? Was it shot? Because you are right that was one of Val’s very main concerns for the croc - she didn’t want it shot. What happened to the croc?

GRAHAME WEBB: I don’t know. I don’t know whether – there is someone in the audience that might know. I don’t think it was shot – it wasn’t. Maybe they couldn’t find it. In a flooded week with water pouring down, trying to find the croc is pretty problematic. With a lot of water running down those creeks into the East Alligator, very difficult.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I would like to get a sense from all of you - Grahame just mentioned the unicorn that it is okay to protect the unicorn because there is none around, but the question I would like to pose is: can a leopard change its spots? We hear a lot about the terrible predator man. Yet as Grahame has already told us twice, in 1971 we made a conscious conservation decision, hunting crocodiles ended and the intent was to give these ancient animals a chance to recover.

I would like to get a reflection from you and perhaps let’s start with you, Deborah, on: doesn’t that show that we are connected with nature, that we are capable of the greatest altruism towards nature and other species, however cute, because the crocodile didn’t have a lot going for it. It wasn’t a panda or a koala.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Well, we are certainly capable of a lot of wonderful things but we are also capable of a lot of terrible things. We are not taking care of pandas, no matter how cute they are. We are not doing a good job with them. We are not taking care of koalas. We are not doing a good job with them. We are not taking care of forests very well. I think Grahame’s unicorn argument is actually quite inspired. I would imagine it just wasn’t a paying operation any more. Would that be right? We are very good at taking care of things that are central to our interests; we are not so good at taking care of things in a way that would require us to stand back and actually put some limits on the human. We are happy to limit almost anything except ourselves, unfortunately. It is one of the lessons that Val wanted everybody to start getting - that humans have to manage themselves as well as think about what’s going on with the rest of the world.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Grahame, have you got a reflection on that one?

GRAHAME WEBB: When crocodile hunting restarted or serious crocodile hunting started, it was in 1945-46 and there had just been 60 million people killed in World War II conservatively, and there was nobody who cared about crocodiles worldwide. They ate people; they’re awful predators. Val in fact describes them perfectly well. There is no compassion with the crocodile; it was just a predator that would tear you to pieces if given the chance.

It just so happened their skin was a good skin and a valuable skin, so the hunting of crocodiles proceeded with something for nothing so nobody cared about it. It continued and continued because they are big predators instead of being stopped, as it was with our little freshwater crocodile. So by 1971 the only people that were really jumping up and down were the relatively few serious hunters, including Ray Petherick from down in that Wagyi (?) area, and that was it. That was the sum total of the people that were interested.

They didn’t disrespect crocs. Aboriginal people were involved in the whole hunting all the way through, there was no disrespect for crocodiles. It was just the ‘enlightened’ side that is there today wasn’t there. I guess for most people around the world the conservation of predators is the biggest challenge there is. It’s easy to conserve something like koalas or possums or something that runs around, but when you start trying to conserve things like lions, leopards, tigers and crocodiles that eat people, that eat your kids - it’s a big challenge to ask other people to look after them. I can sit here in Canberra and in bed at night sleeping more soundly because I know someone else is living with the tigers - very difficult. The sort of approach we have taken in the north I think has worked. We have brought the crocodiles back from very low numbers - 20 times in abundance and 100 times in biomass. We have them back to where they were historically, which is unheard of with big predators, and we have done it in an unconventional way - but it’s worked.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I would like to follow that through with you, Grahame, because you are not upset by the idea of crocs being farmed. I am wondering if you see that as the engine room for this conservation outcome that we have had. For example, Crocodylus Park, which you own and manage, harvests 2,000 crocs a year. It’s factory farming. How does it work? Where do the eggs come from? And what happens to all that meat and hide at the end of the process?

GRAHAME WEBB: If I go back to where I was before, when the crocs started to really recover and eat people again, everyone had realised that, when you protect crocs, you protect them to increase the number of crocodiles without thinking about what are you going to do when you increase the number of crocodiles, which is exactly what is happening with great white sharks in Western Australia. What are you going to do when you fill the rivers with predators again? We found that we had a huge problem with the public perception of crocodiles. So at the time it was quite bold. We said, ‘The only possible way we are going to win this is if we make crocodiles so valuable to people that they will see them as an asset rather than as a liability.’ You can have intrinsic values or you can have utility values.

To get everyone to love crocodiles or love wildlife, for example like Val would propose, it might take 100 years or 200 years before it’s going to work. Money values work instantly just like this [clicks fingers], so we decided to invest in sustainable use. Our landowners were the first - that was hard because [under] the legislation at the time all wildlife belonged to the crown. This whole idea of paying landowners for eggs - this was a major hurdle to get over - but I wouldn’t move unless the landowners got first payment.

Now what happens is all the landowners, a lot of traditional people in Arnhem Land, every year now over $1 million goes out to the landowners for the collection of eggs. Those eggs come in. There is a farming industry that has started that buys the eggs and incubates the eggs, raises the animals and sells the animals on. The whole chain keeps surviving.

Now there is a lot of people employed in the north through crocodiles directly and indirectly. The landowners all make money from crocodiles. If they have a patch of swamp that has 10 nests a year, they might make $10,000 or $20,000 out of that, so they keep the swamp or they will even fence it off to stop the cattle coming in - all because it’s money.

For me, I like crocs. The value system for me is I just like crocs. I like their aesthetic and the intrinsic value of them, but it is not necessarily the value that is going to work pragmatically to save the crocs. I think that is the part people have trouble with. Yes, sure, the more people that have crocodile skin wallets, have crocodile skin belts, crocodile skin shoes and crocodile skin handbags, the more conservation will be successful. If people don’t have any, there is no two ways about it: nobody is going to put up with them. Who would put up with them in Lake Burley Griffin? No-one will. That is the problem. Unless you can project the sort of philosophies that Val advanced with such skill, unless you can show how you are going to implement those in the whole of society amongst the people who are living with crocs in a quick time – I don’t think you can do it.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Deborah Bird Rose, are you comfortable with this argument that the only way we can be trusted to save the species is to exploit it? That is a very Aboriginal attitude, isn’t it?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: I don’t really care for the use of the term ‘exploit’ as an Aboriginal attitude or value. I think living with others does mean exchanges of energy and exchanges of metabolism, and that is what Val was trying to say in talking about being part of the feast that we give and we take. How that works in international commodity chains, I think, is quite another argument.

I was sitting here and listening to you, Grahame, and thinking Val would be into you tooth and claw. I am sorry that I am not the philosopher she is to be able to do that. I recognise the pragmatism of what you are saying exactly. But at the same time what Val was arguing for - not arguing against but arguing for - was a change in how we humans think, how we behave, how we understand ourselves, how we interact with the world around us, how we interact with each other and how we actually do the hard work that would let us become a kind of creature that is a benefit to the earth rather than a plague upon it, which is what we seem to be for the most part these days.

If commodification buys us time, maybe that is what it takes. But if commodification is seen as the answer rather than a gap measure, if it’s the answer, then we are back on the same treadmill that is the treadmill we are trying to get off. That, I think, in my crude, ineffective way is the kind of thing that Val would probably be saying here.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Lorraine, would you agree? Would Val feel slightly uncomfortable with that use it or lose it argument?

LORRAINE SHANNON: I think quite possibly, yes. I think maybe she would be much more in favour of things that have happened, say, in the United States with the reintroduction of wolves that has been so successful in national parks there where you have an animal, which is seen as a natural predator, that is essential in a whole ecological system and that once those top predators are removed, the entire system starts to disintegrate. It is very important that we start to address the issues of big predators, despite the fact that they do eat us.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: It begs the question that, if we remove ourselves from the eco-system, would it collapse?

I would like to explore the early days of Val Plumwood’s legacy. Deborah Bird Rose, I come to you because Val first carved a name for herself in 1973 about the publication of Fight for the Forests. It was a brave book because it took on the forest establishment of Australia at that time when forestry had not been challenged intellectually and when there were still echoes of timber cutting being a metaphor for manliness if not godliness. Surprisingly for a budding philosopher, the book aimed squarely at the soft underbelly of the forest profession - the economics - and Val was outraged that a native forest had no value until it was knocked over and converted into a plantation. What does the story of Fight for the Forests tell us about Val Plumwood, the person and the philosopher?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Well, Val and Richard did that together -

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Richard was her husband, Richard Routley.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Richard Routley, who later became Richard Sylvan. They did that together. One of the things that awes me about it is the incredible intelligence that the two of them had in the way they worked together. They were philosophers and they had to learn to understand economics in order to actually analyse and assess whether the economic arguments that the Forestry Commission was putting forward actually held up or not. They had to do a lot of work with maps; they had to become geographers; they had to become biologists; they had to try to understand what was going on in a forest; and, of course, they had to continue to be philosophers.

I think part of what drove that and drove some of their early work - early environmental philosophy work - was that Western philosophy did not seem to be able at that time to provide a coherent argument as to why you would not chop down a forest. They had the sense that there is something wrong with our philosophy if it cannot do that and that therefore it needs philosophers to work with that question and try to work out what the answers to that question would be. Environmental philosophers have been asking those questions and exploring those questions ever since: What are the values of others? What is the cultural context that holds up an idea that it’s okay to – you know, if it moves, shoot it; if it doesn’t move, chop it down? What makes that seem like it might have been a reasonable way to approach the natural world?

The love of forests and the love of the natural world drove these intellectual quests, and it also drove the activism of being out at the front-line at protests and stuff. They didn’t divorce the different parts of their lives. They kept holding it together and they kept asking these hard questions. I think the fact that there were two of them must have helped a lot.

Val’s contribution then was really the feminist one to show how the disregard of nature is linked to the disregard of women is linked to the disregard of Indigenous people is linked to the disregard of – well, we could go on and on, mind versus matter - all those kinds of things. She showed how they worked together and actually supported each other, reinforced each other.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Did she get the credit that she deserved for that book? It was ironic because even 30 or 40 years later it is an incredibly dense read but it was a bestseller. It was quite incredible.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Well that is good.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: It had a huge impact.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Yes. That is the good side of the story, for sure.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: What is the downside, the bad side?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: The downside is that various prominent people in the forestry industry and academia tried to get the book quashed. With Val’s generally not-so-happy relationship with the ANU, because that was published by ANU Press, I think she bore the brunt of a lot of that anger. Thirty years later when John Dargavel organised the ‘Win, Lose or Draw: the Fight for the Forests?’ symposium, some of the old forestry guys who got up and spoke were still shaking with anger, not shaking with age but shaking with anger. Val was there in the audience. It was maybe the first time they had a chance to address her, and they were still very angry. She bore and wore a lot of the anger around that.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: And tells you she would fight a very effective bazooka.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Yes, she was hardly a defenceless creature in those situations. I think people tend to forget that, because Val was so feisty and could do such a good argument and enjoyed a good argument, she was also human. When people were truly unkind to her, it hurt her feelings. She had a very tender side and a fun-loving side, as Lorraine was saying. These things hurt her as well.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Lorraine Shannon, I would like to come to you, because everyone thought that Val was working on a book before she died, a book about cross crocodiles and philosophy. In 2008 when Val did die, you offered to take over the editing of the manuscript. You got her computer. What did you find? I think it was a far more difficult job than you thought you were putting your hand up for.

LORRAINE SHANNON: I think Val’s computer files were probably at least as chaotic as my own, and she obviously never envisaged somebody else having access to them. We had assumed that there was a manuscript that was more or less complete. What was the actual truth was that there were three chapters: two in very good shape and the third not in quite such good shape. So we had a dilemma on our hands as to what to do. There was obviously not enough to publish as a book, yet it seemed a terrible pity not to bring something out to honour this woman that we all had known and felt so strongly about.

We decided that a collection of previous writings that were related in various sorts of ways to the chapters on the crocodile would probably work out quite well. So I chose previous writings that I thought fitted with the theme of predation, with ways of attempting to communicate with non-human animals and also with anthropocentrism, which was very much part of what Val was writing about as well. The book was then divided up into three sections, the first being the crocodile chapters, and then two subsequent sections each on human and animal relations in various ways.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: We have heard a lot about crocodiles tonight. What did the chapter about Birubi, the wombat, tell you about Val and about wombats?

LORRAINE SHANNON: It was the very first piece of writing of Val’s that I read, so I have a particular fondness of it. One of the great strengths of this piece of writing is that it is so very engaging. It’s humorous and ironic where she tells stories of Birubi wanting to get into bed with her at night, practising his mating rituals with her cushions, playing wombat games with her and, of course, discovering that human ankles aren’t quite as tough as wombat ankles are. But along with this light-hearted sort of humour there is a very deep philosophical argument about how we might communicate with something that is so very different from us, and how the wombat in fact initiated this contact and was able to move very easily between the two different worlds of the house and the bush - something which we find incredibly difficult to do. All of these stories that are in the Birubi piece speak of Val as somebody very open to the animal other and very respectful of it, but also having to cope with a whole lot of difficulties around it. This was not an easy animal to share a dwelling with, by any means.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Or a bed with.

LORRAINE SHANNON: No.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: George Main, Val was a philosopher, but she was also first and foremost an environmentalist. In her writings you see someone trying to explore the cultural foundations of the ecological crisis that we are in: the failure of modern society to adequately respond to the sixth great extinction event that we are now living, the first caused by humans. What sense did you get of Val and her environmental concerns?

GEORGE MAIN: In relation to the work that we do here, her and other environmental philosophers in the way they have so usefully critiqued Western traditions of understanding about human beings and the natural world and materiality, I think Val very usefully articulated how the material world and the ecological world have relentlessly been devalued by Western modern culture. And that in many ways gives us insight into perhaps why our governments and institutions aren’t responding in the way that scientists are very loudly telling us we need to respond in terms of scale to the climate crisis and the ecological crisis. Increasingly, there are calls for civil disobedience. I think Val’s work really helps to understand why there might be this failure within our modern society to respond adequately. Once we have that understanding that she and other environmental philosophers offer, it does empower us perhaps to dismantle some of those cultural processes.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Is that why you see this canoe as subversive? You told me that it tells the story but in another way it is quite subversive.

GEORGE MAIN: In some ways museums are subversive in terms of subverting the quite entrenched stance within modern society towards materiality because we of course collect things like this wonderful canoe in front of us. The material characteristics are valued by museums and are seen as actually holding stories and they can communicate something to us. The very matter of the objects is valued and seen as having that capacity to tell stories. With this canoe that is in front of us today, if we think of it in the East Alligator River as the flood waters were rising, as the crocodiles were increasing in number and collective power in that place, and as the storms were rolling in, we see quite a fragile object in front of us made only of fibreglass and a bit of plywood. Within that story it tells us something about human vulnerability in a place -

GREGG BORSCHMANN: A metaphor for humanity.

GEORGE MAIN: That is right, and that is very much how Val came to understand and respond to that ecological event that she experienced within this canoe. At that moment in time she realised that she had felt invulnerable, but in reality she was vulnerable to the powerful natural forces of that place. She drew on that realisation to offer a critique of modern society and our sense that we are somehow removed from the ecological order and invulnerable. I think what climate change and the scientists are telling us is that we are utterly dependent on natural systems and on the capacity of land to produce food for us, and that is beginning to unravel. I think Val’s body of work is offering something very useful at this moment in time.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: So here in microcosm we hold the world in our hand.

GEORGE MAIN: Yes.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Grahame Webb, let’s get practical again. Since 2004 you have been chair of the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] crocodile specialist group. It’s probably the most powerful body in the world determining the conservation future of crocodiles and alligators. You have told us an Australian story about how well we are doing here, but what’s the global story? We have just heard a story about ecological crisis. How are the crocs and the alligators doing in that wider world, and what is their biggest threat? Is it simply habitat loss, and for that you can blame us?

GRAHAME WEBB: There are 23 species of crocs around the world and they are in about 99 different countries, so there is a diversity of issues. There are some situations like China where the Chinese alligator is down to 100 animals. They are putting a lot of effort to doing something, but it’s way down very low. Others are like Brazil with an estimated 16 million black Caimans. They have black Caimans coming from everywhere. The question there with the black Caimans is: How do you get people to live with these? They are quite a big animal. Some cases are cases where you need protection and you are not likely to have a big population - at best you might end up with a token population. Thailand is a very good example. They have 600,000 Siamese crocodiles in crocodile farms and about three left in the wild. On the farming side, it’s like a domestic animal and people use them as garbage disposal units. If you are the guy in the village who kills chickens, you feed it to your crocs and then you sell the hatchlings on. That side is very successful. But it is not the side that helps conservation.

Captive breeding is never the way to help conservation. With conservation, you have to try to use the wild population to put value on the wild population. I think the points that Deborah were making before are quite different. My key view is conservation. Why people want to conserve something, I couldn’t care. If they want to conserve elephants because they sleep better at night with elephants, if they want to conserve elephants because they like eating elephant meat or they want their piano made out [of ivory], it doesn’t worry me why as long as they want to conserve them, and you can get them to take action.

In science you have to line up the problem and the solution at the right level of resolution. If you decide we are going to turn everyone’s value system upside down before we can solve the problem, then it’s never going to work because you have a problem on a timescale of maybe 10 years and a solution on a timescale of perhaps centuries. I have no problem at all with people advancing the value systems in what they should be, as Val was very forward in doing, but it is not necessarily the answer to today’s conservation problem.

Do you see where I am coming from there? I would rather not sacrifice conservation because who is going to kill all the cane toads. It is no good giving me someone that is opposed to killing anything. Who is going to kill all the cats and the foxes that are killing billions of units of wildlife? For conservation, if you have someone that is opposed to the act of killing animals, it is like putting someone in the 100-metre dash that is in a wheelchair with their hands tied to the wheel. They can’t do it because conservation requires killing - that’s the problem. I don’t have a problem with the development of the higher order thinking about how we should maybe - and how we perhaps will in 100 years time or 200 years time – all think that way. That is legitimate thinking material, but it is not pragmatic conservation.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Deborah, over to you. Can I preface with a question because I suspect you might go there and Grahame was alluding to it there: This sense that Val was on about the essence of the problem being a cultural thing for us. I wonder if there is a clue in how you were talking earlier about that Indigenous sense of having a framework where these other creatures rightfully belonged. It was pragmatic but there is also a sense that it’s included in a wider world, a spiritual sense of not just us but something beyond us.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: One of the most interesting things to me that Val was working on at the time of her death was what she was calling ‘philosophical animism’. We had a lot of conversations about Indigenous animism. ‘Animism’ is the view of the world that says that other creatures are sentient beings, that they have personality, they are persons, they have a self, they make choices, they act with intentionality. As such, it is a world that is appropriately engaged through forms of respect rather than through forms of domination and disregard.

What Val was interested in doing - and it’s very similar to what she and Richard did in regard to the forests where they wanted to find a philosophical answer to the question what’s wrong with chopping down a forest – was rather than just pinch, appropriate and adapt Indigenous animism, she wanted to trawl the Western philosophy and develop a philosophical animism. So an animism that was defensible within Western philosophy and that could be our animism.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Did she get there?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: She didn’t get as far as she would have gone. She has written about it, and I think there was a lot more yet to come. It is one of the things I really regret in losing her. She knew where she was going. As Lorraine was saying, she was also getting the sense that - she could do analytical philosophy to perfection but she was very aware that your average person doesn’t read it and wouldn’t enjoy reading it even if it were on offer -

GREGG BORSCHMANN: And, as Grahame says, there has to be a pragmatic outcome - or practical outcome.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Yes, if you would like your writing to reach people and influence them, then you have to put it into forms that people will enjoy reading. So she was moving more towards storytelling, more towards the kinds of engagements that Lorraine was talking about. She had been writing some really interesting essays that were exploring aspects of animism. She has one about stones: what would it mean to think of a stone as something that actually acts with a certain amount of intention in the world? Really challenging philosophical questions dealt with in ways that are quite accessible. Where would she have gone with that? I think she would have had a new incarnation as some kind of philosophical shaman, but that is my vision of the Val that I miss so much.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: I am going to wrap this up with asking all of you for a final reflection on Val’s legacy. Deborah, perhaps I will start with you. Was Val an outcast in her own land? Did we not recognise and value her enough?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Well, I think that is very true and I know that Val thought it was true. The most telling story - that she told me anyhow - was just saying that when she gave a talk at a conference overseas, and this happened numerous times, she would be introduced as the person who had survived the crocodile attack and was in the death roll three times and had extricated herself and written about it, everybody would stand up and applaud. And when this happened at places we have been here in Australia - when she mentioned as a person who had been attacked by a crocodile in Australia, everybody laughed, and it really hurt her. You have heard George describe, using her words, the description of that thing - it’s not a laughable event, not in a million years. I think she felt that the people who should be having the most regard for her philosophy because it’s absolutely embedded in this continent, this wildlife, these places, these experiences, these animals - this is exactly the place where she was least listened to. But she does have a lot of friends who are quite committed, like the Museum, to making sure that she is not forgotten and that she is understood better.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Lorraine Shannon, for you, what is Val’s legacy? Is it the writing; is it the fighting; or simply that Plumwood Mountain and a wombat or two are still there?

LORRAINE SHANNON: What this discussion brings to mind for me is an image that I have kept in my mind from Val’s funeral when I took a moment and wandered away from everybody else into Val’s vegetable garden, which I was well acquainted with because every time I visited there was a list of jobs for me to do in the vegetable garden of dubious pleasure, like emptying the compost bin for her. But I discovered Val had somehow got her hands on a job lot of bird cages which were dotted all around the garden protecting precious things. I was very taken with this image, which seemed to me a perfect metaphor for Val’s sense of the need to theorise, write and think according to her whole understanding of how we should dwell on this earth. Here were these cages - of course a bird cage is made of wire so it isn’t a solid boundary. There is interchange that goes on between what Val was protecting inside rather than keeping captured, and all that was dangerous was outside the cage but always this sense of a possibility of communication and dialogue across this boundary. And also all these crazy bird cages were the most whimsical sort of image, so evocative of Val’s creative ability in life. When I think of her, I think of these mad bird cages and all that they signify really.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: George Main, how do you see Val Plumwood’s contribution to an Australian environmental ethic?

GEORGE MAIN: I think her contribution is an extremely contemporary one. I think the mounting climatic and ecological crisis that we face makes her body of work in Australia and beyond these shores extremely relevant and useful and empowering. If we can grapple with and grasp an understanding of those dynamics that are driving the problems we are facing then, as I said before, we are empowered to do something about it - I think that is an extraordinary legacy.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Grahame Webb, has Val Plumwood helped the cause of the croc? She probably saw herself as a warrior on their behalf. Did she succeed?

GRAHAME WEBB: I think she has. When I think of Val, firstly she should never have actually been in a canoe there and that was out of her hands. There shouldn’t have been a canoe in the whole of Kakadu, so she was a victim of someone else’s lack of foresight. When she did get attacked and came out with a strong philosophical position for crocodiles, at that time it was terribly important. Had she done the opposite and come out and demanded vengeance or something, it could well have changed the way things went at that time because it was a very sensitive issue in the north.

Then in the end her contribution, as we struggle with how we relate to the natural world and as we look at the way various peoples do and don’t deal with success and with failure, there is a role for people to bury into the philosophy of what we are doing. I don’t think it is necessarily going to solve the pragmatic problems of how we conserve what we have, but it’s the right way to be advancing. Her contribution in that field where she is very highly regarded is clearly something of national and international value.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I would like a rousing Canberra thank you for Grahame Webb, George Main, Lorraine Shannon and Deborah Bird Rose who have all been fantastic panellists tonight - the eye of the crocodile for Radio National’s Big Ideas. Thank you. [applause] That was sweet applause. We love it when we get that on tape, we just put it on loop. Thank you very much for coming out on a Tuesday night in Canberra. I don’t know about you but I enjoyed myself immensely. I learnt a hell of a lot. I really appreciate our four guests for putting themselves out and coming out tonight. Thank you. [applause]

KIRSTEN WEHNER: I would also like to add our thanks to Gregg for doing a fabulous job facilitating the discussion and for being involved tonight. Thank you, Gregg. [applause] We still didn’t hear that crocodile story though.

GREGG BORSCHMANN: Not in public.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: At the drinks afterwards maybe.

We are a bit pressed for time so we will just move ahead to the actual launch of The Eye of the Crocodile. But we will perhaps have time after the formal proceedings - if people have questions we can have an informal discussion over our refreshments.

Before we get to that part of the evening, I have great pleasure in introducing Professor Kate Rigby who is going to launch The Eye of the Crocodile. Kate is foundation professor in environmental humanities in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash University. She is a scholar of an astonishingly broad background. She has worked in German studies, in European philosophy, in literature and religion, and in culture and ecology. She is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

It is fair to say that Kate has played a very important role, together with other of our panellists, in developing the field of the ecological humanities in Australia, an area of scholarship that builds strongly on Val Plumwood’s work. I am not going to list all her publications and contributions. That is what Google is for. But it is important to point out that Kate also has a longer association with the National Museum of Australia as she was a visiting fellow in our Research Centre here back in 2008. Please join me in welcoming Kate to launch the book. [applause]

KATE RIGBY: Thank you. I have to say thank you very much to Gregg and the panel. It was really marvellous. I am so pleased, Lorraine, that you mentioned Val’s whimsy and sense of humour. I can perhaps add to that one of my favourite memories of times spent with Val was when we collected cicada shells and made cicada shell necklaces, and the idea was that we would go to a disco wearing cicada shell necklaces, which we never got around to doing, sadly.

It’s a great honour to be launching this beautiful book The Eye of the Crocodile, but I must say I do it with mixed feelings because it does rather bring home to me the shock of Val’s death. We weren’t expecting it. It was premature. And also the grief of losing a dear friend and a fabulous mentor, sometimes a challenging mentor, somebody who would always make you think and think again and think again.

That grief was also compounded by the disappointment that Lorraine also mentioned when we discovered how much more work Val had to do on this book, which was so important to her. It was probably never going to be an intellectually ground-breaking book such as her first monograph Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, but it was very important to her and I am sure very important for her readers throughout the world - and also a book through which she hoped to reach many more readers, a wider audience. I very much hope that this book does, even though it’s not the one that she had been wrestling with. Goodness knows how long she had been prefiguring this book, perhaps from the time she was convalescing in hospital having had her world and her world view, her life, turned upside down by that crocodile whom she viewed as her mentor, as her teacher, in many ways. But it was one that she had great difficulty writing. She really was wrestling with this book as she had wrestled with the crocodile, so perhaps it is not surprising that she didn’t get further than she did.

It was also a book in which she was, as Debbie mentioned, exploring a new way of writing. She had started writing about literary language – ‘a radical green writing project’, as she framed it on one occasion - of using prose narrative, of using lyrical language in a way to restore agency and intentionality to what she called the silenced ones, to restore communicative capacity and moral significance to our earth others, as she referred to them - not only animals, not only plants but even, and perhaps especially, stone, as we have heard. If you read this book, you will discover that stone, a particular rock, played a very important part in the experience that she had on the river that day. I am not going to tell you about it because I want you to go and read it.

It is not the book that she had intended but it is far more than we feared, and that is thanks to Lorraine. In addition to the three chapters that Lorraine managed to find amongst her files, there are four other wonderful essays that Lorraine has selected and edited. These are preceded by an introduction that was co-authored by myself and Debbie [Bird Rose] and philosopher Freya Mathews, who sadly couldn’t be here tonight. Freya has, I think, inherited the mantle of being Australia’s pre-eminent environmental philosopher since Val’s death.

We have written a little introduction, which includes a little bit of biography. We thought a great deal about how much to say and what to say. It’s a poor substitute for the memoir which we are all very sad Val never wrote herself. But we wanted to give a little bit of a glimpse, a little bit of a sense of the way in which her thought was embedded and embodied in her life - in a life that was fraught with tragedy, loss and grief but which didn’t leave her in any way embittered, and a life that was incredibly well-lived if sadly too short.

Incidentally, Dominic Hyde has just brought out an intellectual biography of Val and Richard, her second husband. So if you get interested, you might want to have a look at that as well. I want to thank Debbie and Freya for their significant contribution to this book and to honouring and building on Val’s legacy. It’s a personal thanks, too, because they are two of my other great mentors.

I want to also thank Val’s executor Jeremy Russell-Smith for strongly supporting this project and for all the work that he is doing as her executor. I also want to thank Anne Edwards, who has already been mentioned, who has been taking care of Val’s home, her land and her non-human companions, and for helping to make Val’s computer available to us and so on.

I would like to thank ANU E Press for taking on the publishing of the book, and of course the National Museum of Australia for hosting this event and allowing us to launch the book here.

But above all I want to thank and also congratulate Lorraine on the fabulous job that she has done in editing this book. I just want to close by commending it to you. You can buy a beautiful hard copy from the bookshop in the Museum. You can also get it from the ANU E Press. I do hope that you will read it and tell others about it, that the words will fly forth into the world and contribute to doing the work of cultural transformation that Val dedicated her life to. Thank you very much for being here. [applause]

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Thanks, Kate. That is just about all we have for you tonight. I can let you know that video and audio of tonight’s program will be available on the Museum website in the near future, as well as the Big Ideas program that will be forthcoming.

Date published: 15 July 2013