The Propagator

Self portrait of Naomie Sunner in her newly planted garden.

Have you ever walked past a rundown park or an abandoned stretch of creek and thought ‘Someone should do something about that,’ and then brushed the thought aside and kept walking? Luckily not everyone avoids acting on such thoughts.

Writing a story about Westgate Park recently, I met Naomie Sunner and learnt how she inspired the transformation of a neglected wasteland into a thriving inner-city park. 

I grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Blackburn North. My mum and dad were both librarians, so we had lots of books. Mum’s parents are Hungarian and my grandparents on the other side were Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant. All of my grandparents were gardeners. They talked about back home which wasn’t a country I had ever visited. We were here now and what was that? I felt confused and wondered, ‘What is our identity in Australia?’

When I was 21, I needed a life changing experience, so I walked for seven days from the mouth of the Yarra to just past Warrandyte. We all need a time to consolidate and review who we are. I was doing my third year of photography at the Victorian College of the Arts and had to do a project. I’d just read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks and was very inspired by that. It was a very intense experience; I realised the only thing I was scared of on the walk is people.

I wanted to start at the mouth of the Yarra, so I got a taxi at 5am to Westgate Park. I was under the Westgate Bridge and thought, ‘What is this place?’ There was very little vegetation, just weird hills and a big expanse amongst an industrial landscape. It was really interesting to me that this is a big touchstone in history but it’s a neglected wasteland.

I kept going back to the park and wanted to do something. I helped Friends Groups and volunteered with the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery because I knew nothing about local plants.  After organising some plantings with Parks Victoria, I started a Friends Group because I thought you can’t just plant a little bit and walk off, this park is massive.

 All I had was sheer determination. I was really naïve. There were occasional successes, but it would always pitter out. I was unemployed and got put on the Work for the Dole program. The supervisor didn’t rock up for three hours and then I didn’t get asked to do anything. I thought, ‘I could run a better program, I’ve got something to do that’s real work people can feel proud of.’ So, at 22, I started supervising a Work for the Dole program at Westgate park. I met some really incredible people through that and developed a lot of skills.

Growing the Friends Group was slow. I did wonder a number of times if I could keep going. It took me two years to really have the start of a proper group and it only gathered momentum when other people got involved. I think what’s really important is how many people have had something to do with that park and put their energy, passion and thoughtfulness into it. That is a really important and precious thing.

When I left the Friends Group eight years ago after 13 years, the park looked very different. There were a lot of birds, diverse vegetation, insects, fungi and a lot more people enjoying it. Today it’s very different still because those older plantings are still growing and there are lots and lots of water birds in the southern wetland which is lovely.

This is the land that I live in and I want to feel part of it. Being the granddaughter of migrants, indigenous plants are really important to me. I feel there’s a lot in Australia that gets dismissed by my grandparents and many other people, the ecologies and the people, as being lesser than the things from the countries we came from. I now work as a Propagation and Volunteer Co-Ordinator at the Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op.

There’s something magic in sowing a seed and watching it germinate. All the fascinating textures and colors and parts they play in the ecosystem. If you ever get a hand lenses and look at plants closely, they are just gorgeous. They are the basis for all life. Without plants, none of us would be alive.

People ask me why I’m a good gardener and I say because two out of every three plants I plant die. Not everything is going to work, it’s a learning process. Just take baby steps, do what you can and what you feel comfortable with, and don’t be disheartened by anything that’s failed because it’s an opportunity to learn and try again.

There are so many things you just learn as you live. I think I learnt in a non-traditional way. That’s why I’m at Melbourne Uni now doing a Masters of Environment to fill in the gaps. I’m ready for another challenge in a year or two. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think that challenge and I are going to seek each other out and meet halfway.

Visit Westgate Biodiversity: Bili Nursery & Landcare and Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2020


The Riverkeeper

Every day I walk my dog to one of the parks along the Yarra. These short bursts of nature create a sense of calm and escape from the city.  But we can’t take the river for granted. Dramatic increases in population, overdevelopment and climate change threaten the things that make our river special. It is good to learn Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly is leading community voices to ensure the Yarra remains a vibrant, iconic river for generations to come.

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly 

As a child, the river was always a place of excitement and drama. I grew up in South Yarra in Domain Road with the Yarra just below us. We’d roam along the banks after school and on weekends. As a 10-year old, I used to think that the homeless men who lived under the mirror bushes on banks of the river had a great life, perpetually camped out. Once my friend Phil and I crossed the river illegally on the railway bridge to Cremorne and that was exciting.

Becoming a publisher really suited my butterfly like approach to knowledge. I could flutter around here and there, learning a little bit about this and that. When my wife and I sold Black Dog Books to Walker Books, I had time my hands. I had always been interested in the environment and decided I wanted to learn about water and rivers in depth. The Murray Darling Basin was too big. Cape York’s too far away. The only place I was ever likely to come to grips with was the one I would cross every day which was the Yarra.

The Yarra is unique in that it brings the country so far into the city. That’s what we are defending. When the City of Melbourne created their river strategy, they found 97% of people valued the river for its role in creating a natural environment in the city. The great thing about the Yarra is there is rural life very close to the centre of the city, with vineyards in Kew and cattle around Rosanna Golf Club.

The Riverkeeper role is about engaging with the community and being a channel for community views. I speak for the river. I am the community voice for the river, and I am also the spokesperson for a group of citizen advocates. We give talks, make submissions to government, run public events and write carefully researched, well-respected reports. We have an advantage in that, unlike government, we don’t have to ask someone ‘is it alright if we say this?’ We can freelance as independent citizens. Community needs to be involved because it’s our river.

What I do is tell stories. That’s where my publishing background comes in. I take things that are difficult to express and distil them down to something that is easy to understand. The river has many stories, so there’s a plenitude to choose from. One of the stories that intrigues me is how do we manage our relationship with the natural world? How do you make understandable the story that the wearing away of our car tyres is contributing to the deterioration of the health of waterways? It seems a long bow to draw from worn-out tyres to a lack of fish. As tyres wear away, a residue of copper and other heavy metals is left on our roads. The residue washes into our waterways when it rains. Then you start learning from scientists about copepods, tiny little micro invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain that live in the mouths of our rivers. If you put copper into the water, you start to kill them off and then there’s nothing for the fish larvae to eat and no fish means a much-depleted river.

I feel privileged to be out there telling stories about how we have transformed parts of Melbourne in the past 50 years. Herring Island, Westgate Park, Merri Creek, Darebin Creek. Herring Island was built up by soil dredged up from the river. I remember going past on the way to school and the dredge would be at work dragging up sediment full of toxic nasties from the factories further up the river. The mud would be dumped on the island. Now the Friends of Herring Island have turned it in to an exquisite sanctuary with 60 or 70 different types of birds.

I am excited about the Yarra Strategic Plan; we have to deliver on that. Melbourne Water are working with the Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri Woi wurrung people, and 15 other agencies such as councils to come up with a plan to manage the Yarra as one living entity. It’s never been done before and we need to acknowledge it’s special and we are doing something transformative, but we won’t pull it off unless everyone pulls together and brings the community behind it.

There are a lot of pressures on the Yarra, but of all the places in the world, I think Melbourne is one of best places to do something about rivers. We have been really fortunate here to have a spacious landscape that faces plenty of challenges, but we have the prosperity to do something about those challenges and a willingness to recognise we need to do better.

Visit to learn more about the Yarra Riverkeeper Association.

© Matilda Bowra 2019


Carolyn Ingvarson is a climate activist

Carolyn Ingvarson in her kitchen with her microscope                 Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I feel so frustrated that politicians don’t take the science of climate change seriously that I joined a local Climate Action Group called Lighter Footprints. Their Convenor is Carolyn Ingvarson, a 75-year-old woman who eschewed a relaxing retirement to spend the last 13 years cultivating change in her local community and at all levels of government.

My journey began with my mother who was a scientist and zoologist. I got my first glimpse of the world through my mum’s microscope and saw things that were mind blowing. The sense of belonging to this wonderful earth came to me through her. She taught me to look at things and appreciate and love them. My brother, Peter Newman, is also a strong influence. He is the director of a sustainability institute and has a really powerful view of the world that is full of hope. I am the eldest of five and I love my siblings more than most people I know.

I loved being a biology teacher. It was such a gift to be able to talk about what is around you and open kids’ eyes to what they were seeing and science. I miss it to this day. I have a microscope in my kitchen, just like my mum did. The grandkids say, what’s this Grandma? And I’ll say let’s have a closer look at that. An amazing thing that comes out of biology is you understand how all the things link together. You knock one bit out and the whole lot tumbles.

I finished working as a biology teacher in the mid 80s and then worked in the public service for 20 years. I was offered a job with the Office of the Director General as the Coordinator for the Elimination of Sexism in schools as a secondment. When it finished, instead of going back into the school, I went into the public service. I didn’t realise I was making a dramatic career shift. I ended up being a public servant in state government and that taught me a huge amount about how to work with disparate groups, much of which I use in the work I do now.

I retired at 60 and started a new life. I embraced the opportunity to do something different and did the professional writing and editing course at RMIT. When I was invited to see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient truth in 2006, I thought I do not want to see this, it is going to be political bullshit. But I watched the film and afterwards, a group of us had a cup of coffee together. We bumped into a friend of mine who said you are doing a writing course, write me a piece about Al Gore to put in the local news. This was the first time I felt this was something I didn’t want to write about, but when I sat down to do it, the words came.

I was terrified by the film and thought there must be other people who feel like this and don’t know what to do either. In the article, I said maybe if you feel like I do, and you think together we might be able to do something we can’t do on our own, call me. I got 12 phone calls. I said come and have a drink and we got together and had some champagne and celebrated the fact that within two hours we had formed this group called Lighter Footprints.

It’s grown over time, but most of the original group are still there 13 years later. We initially met as a small group in my house and talked about how we could lighten our own footprints. Then we went into a local guide hall where we invited experts to come and chat with us. We started to understand this impact was impinged by bigger issues, so we decided we’d get individual speakers to come on a regular basis and as we did that, numbers picked up. You wouldn’t believe the range of topics we have covered. From permaculture to lobbying, electricity, energy, batteries, psychology and how to deal with deniers. Now, we often can’t fit everyone in the hall and when we invite high-profile speakers, we hire the local town hall and we fill it.

For 13 years we’ve been a voice and while our group is only small, its influence is quite strong. Part of the reason we punch above our weight is we are dogged and persistent in talking to people at two levels. One is friends and neighbours and the other is politicians at local, state and federal levels. And not only do we talk, we write letters. Writing letters has become a thing we do, and we get hundreds of letters into papers each year. It gives people a sense of belonging and it’s a way of eliciting change that’s really hard to measure because it’s a mood thing. The Herald Sun used to never publish stuff we write, and now it does all the time.

Recently, there’s been a change in mood. Now climate has become such a big issue politically, we are probably standing at a point of this becoming a common interest instead of a peripheral issue. We want people to realise this is really important to you, not just the greenies on the side. It’s impacting on you, the way you work, the way you live, what’s going to be here for your families. I hope we can raise the profile of climate change so people understand how important it is to get strong action as the basis on which we elect our representatives. If it were possible to think my time with Lighter Footprints has made a difference to how we can address climate change, I’ll feel like my life has been worth it.

Visit Lighter Footprints for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2019

Meneka Premkumar is living her values

Meneka and her daughter Indira at The Common Good Store                                  Photo by Robin Bowra

When Meneka Premkumar and her husband John Currey opened an organic grocery store around the corner from my house five years ago, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. I remember a neighbour saying to me, “That store won’t last.”

Five years on, The Common Good is an integral part of the local community. I love the fact I can wander in, pick something up, and Meneka will be able to tell me where it comes from and who makes or grows it. I also like the way the store and everything in it invites you to consider the impact of our consumption choices.

 Over a pot of tea, Meneka explained how her passion for ethical living turned from an interest into a way of life.

My journey – personally and professionally – is the intersection of the ethics in food, consumption, lifestyle and living. I don’t believe there are these perfect silos in our lives. I think it just becomes how you live and the conviction of what you believe in, more than a business idea or a passion.

It started when I was about 21 and I had my first experience with a naturopath.I used to suffer from eczema on my hands and had seen lots of GPs and tried different treatments. I thought, I’ll give the naturopath a go. She gave me a whole host of different creams and it stopped. I thought, there’s some validity in that. That experience started me on alternative medicine and from there, that’s where the interest in food began.

That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the correlation between food and health. With an inquiring mind, I started thinking, where am I getting my food? What’s in it? What is organic? I realised that making better food choices is about ethics and the willingness to understand how has your food got there? Who was hurt or not hurt in getting this food in front of me? That translates to the clothes I’m wearing, the car I’m driving, where I bank and my superannuation. But it’s not overnight, it’s a journey to arrive there.

When John and I decided to put our ethics where our mouth is, we had already started breaking up with supermarkets. We were procuring most of our food from farmers markets, independent stores or IGAs.  We lived in Richmond at the time and didn’t have any independent stores in our community, so I had to drive to other suburbs to shop. One day, I was driving to Fairfield, and Indira, who was only eight months old, was having a crying fit in the back. I was stressed, and I remember thinking, why can’t I walk to a shop and get what I need? It was a light bulb moment. I thought, I’m going to look into seeing why there’s no organic grocery store in my own community.

Our business and the nature of it is an extension of us, which is why it’s in our own community. It’s the least amount of money I have earned, but the most fulfilled we’ve been. It’s been a slow burn. There’s a generation of people who are used to supermarkets, these hyper maniac places with bright lights where there’s isles and isles of things, and you are made to believe it’s really cheap and you need more of the same thing because ten is cheaper. I think they influence people very negatively, and changing that trajectory is really challenging.

 When I opened my store, the people who first came in and really supported me were the university kids who lived across the road. My parents’ generation romanticised supermarkets, but people who are in their late teens, early 20s, don’t have those positive and romantic notions about supermarkets. There’s a lot that can be improved in young people who are 18 to 25, but what you can’t fault them on is their level of empathy and awareness, and that makes them different and far more mobilised to change things.

 I’ve learned having a business model isn’t enough. I think the authenticity of our store is why its lasted.  While 80% of what we sell can be got elsewhere, what you won’t get is the transparency of what I’m doing with the money you are giving me to buy those products, the back story and the genuine sense of community, because it’s my own neighbourhood.

One of the motivations of the store has been to inspire other people to open identical stores in their own communities. John and I would like to open another store, but we don’t want to franchise it or own many. I have always said to others, if this is something you want to do, come and talk to us and we will open whatever doors we can. I hope what the business says, more than anything else, is that it’s possible to replicate this and inject a sense of community into your own neighbourhood.

 To learn more, visit or Instragram thecommongoodstore.

© Matilda Bowra 2018

Jo Murray is connecting her community


Jo Murray welcoming people to the Surf Coast Repair Cafe                        photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Jo through my old friend Sue Guinness. Jo and Sue got together about 20 years ago and since then, I’ve followed their personal journeys with interest.  Both left jobs in Melbourne, embarked on a sea-change and are very active in their local community at Fairhaven on Victoria’s Surf Coast.

Living by the sea has created opportunities for my environmentally conscious friends to be involved in conservation initiatives. Jo cultivates an enormous vegetable patch, is a member of the Community Garden and volunteers at the Tip Shop. With Sue’s support, she recently started a Repair Café.  I spoke with Jo about why she focuses on building awareness and practical initiatives in her community.

I love the outdoors. I was born in Launceston and spent the first nine years there and was lucky enough to have all of my grandparents in Launceston. We had, and still have, a block of land 18 miles out of Launceston that my grandparents bought.  It is a very tranquil, peaceful place on a river. We used to go there a lot on weekends. When we moved to Melbourne, I used to go there every Christmas and school holidays. I still go there to this day at least once or twice a year. I love the fact it’s a simple cottage and there’s not a lot to do; you just slow down, read and relax and spend time with family.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. People were choosing to be nurses and teachers, or lawyers and doctors. We were all really sporty and someone said, ‘I’m going to do Physical Education’ and I thought, That’s a good idea. I taught for eight years and always organised all the sporting events and teams. Then I started organising the interschool sports and camps and found what I really enjoyed was organising events. I decided to do a Graduate Diploma in Business at Deakin University in Sport Management. I studied for two years with the aim of leaving teaching and getting into the event management industry.

Through my work, I learnt the value of volunteers. My first job after teaching was with a national sporting organisation. Then I joined a sports management company that ran events and managed athletes. I ended up at the Grand Prix and was there for the first six formula one events. That’s where I learnt how sport depends so much on volunteers. If all the sporting events had to pay people do to all the jobs that needed to be done, they wouldn’t exist.

I have always had great role models. Dad always volunteered at golf and school fairs, my grandmother was very involved in her bowls club and my mum’s parents were founding members of the National Trust in Tasmania. At school, I coached and umpired hockey and continued this at club level for many years. I also joined committees at my tennis club. These days, my sport volunteering is focussed around golf and local events.

I think building community is really important. A couple of our Repair Café volunteers are new to the area and they see this as a way of meeting people. When you see someone down the street who has repaired something for you, that creates connections. That’s the whole reason I joined the Community Garden about six and a half years ago. From the minute they had a stand at the local market, I wanted to be involved. I didn’t want a plot, because we have a huge garden at home. I wanted to get involved because it is a great way of connecting people and building community.

 Movements like Repair Cafes and Community Gardens have relied on people seeing the ideas and saying, ‘Let’s start these up in our own community.’ We can’t go on filling up landfill and digging more resources out of the ground. I think the best way to change that thinking is to bring national projects like Community Gardens, Plastic Free July or Repair Cafes to a local level. With something like the plastic bag free moment, it’s not something the shire can say ‘We want to make the shire plastic bag free,’ the whole community has to get on board. It’s about people going out to the rest of the community and saying, ‘We’d like to do this, what do you think?’ and getting other people involved. It’s got to be from the grass roots.

The Repair Café is about sharing skills and empowering people. These days, people don’t know how to fix things. Our hedge trimmer broke down. It only cost $79 and it was three years old, so even if I could have found somewhere to have it repaired, it would not have been worth the expense. We ended up taking it to the Melbourne Repair Café (Inner West) in Yarraville where we met this lovely volunteer, James. He unscrewed the plastic casing, straightened the cord out and jiggled a couple of levers, plugged it into the power and it worked. He got me to put it back together again so next time it stops working, I’ll be confident to repair it myself.

It’s about leading by example and educating others. My next thing is to focus on advocating for sustainable actions, starting small via our Community Garden with about 100 members. If we can raise awareness on one action each month, just focus on one thing and get that working, then work on another and then another, hopefully we can bring about permanent changes. Once others see how easy it is, then hopefully they will start making some of the changes too.

Visit Surf Coast Repair Café for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Russell Shields is seeking justice

Food glorious food. We’ve never had such abundance or been more anxious about what we put in our mouths. When I’m wondering what to cook for my meat loving husband and my daughters who are vegetarian and vegan, I wonder, ‘How did it get this complicated?’

While many of us are deeply absorbed with what and how much we eat, there are people in our community going hungry.  I want to hear about positive food initiatives and was delighted when Russell Shields agreed to meet.

Russell helped found food rescue organisation SecondBite and, more recently, set up The Community Grocer to supply fresh food to people living in public housing estates in inner city Melbourne.  He also manages the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre’s (ASRC) Food Justice Truck (FJT). Over a tour of the ASRC and the FJT, I learned how Russell is harnessing community, collaboration and social enterprise to address food insecurity for vulnerable populations.

Russell Shields in front of the Food Justice Truck       Photo by Charlotte Bowra

Seeing my parents working in a service industry had a big impact on me. My parents have always had food businesses. Seeing them as business owners, creating enterprises and working for themselves all their lives certainly had an influence on my career.  During primary school, I grew up in regional Victoria in a very small town called Mangalore on the old Hume Hwy.  My parents owned a road house – that was my first foray into food as a business. We moved to the city when I was in grade six and bought a milk bar in Camberwell. I remember stocking fridges, squashing boxes and doing whatever needed to be done. A lot of my life was around customer service. You are always thinking of other people and looking at how you can provide the best service.

Owning my own restaurant didn’t fulfil me. I spent a lot of years working in restaurants and cafes, particularly in fine dining in Australia and overseas. Owning your own restaurant is a kind of end goal for a lot of people working in hospitality, and when I came back to Australia with my English partner Katy, we bought a little café bar in Bourke Street, but it wasn’t satisfying. After that I was a little bit stuck about what the next path would be. I ended up teaching hospitality at Swinburne University. I really enjoyed that, even though it was short lived. While I was there, I saw the job for SecondBite and ended up working with Katy there as their second employee. It was a time in my life when I went against all the advice of friends and colleagues – it just felt right.

I made the decision to do something I believe in that had more purpose. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done through what I have been able to learn, how I’ve been able to grow in a professional capacity, and the individuals and communities that I have been fortunate enough to meet. I have never looked back. It felt natural and the right thing to do when we have so many challenges in our food system.

In Australia, we produce enough food to feed 60 million people, three times what we need, but we throw out a third of everything we produce. We have the food, but not everybody has access to it. I still can’t come to terms with how running alongside this amazing food culture in Melbourne is this incredible missing out. We have dozens of soup vans that go out every night and thousands of people across Melbourne who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who are living side by side with people who are obsessed and overindulged with food. So how do we ensure every person has access to this wonderful produce we grow in Australia?

Food is a central, powerful theme for positive connection and positive social change. When I left SecondBite, I thought ‘How can we directly access individuals in need and do it through a model that can be self-sustaining financially?’ That’s when I set up The Community Grocer and we had our first market in Carlton in late 2014. Then I saw the FJT job . I had read all the evidence and was aware that ninety percent of people seeking asylum ran out of food last year and were unable to buy more. It made sense having just set up The Community Grocer, that I could transfer those skills and help the ARSC meet the challenge of helping more people.

The key barriers to a healthy, affordable and accessible diet are financial and physical access to food. For all food choices, finance is the number one driver. For people seeking asylum, we offer a significant 75% discount so that breaks down the financial access. The physical access issue is broken by taking locally sourced, fresh food into the communities we exist to serve. It is open and accessible to everyone. Our customers like the fact that we are promoting a strong social message; simply by shopping at the truck, you are supporting us to offer people seeking asylum access to the same food that you have.

Food is dignity. As a community, we have a responsibility to provide healthy food for the most vulnerable people, particularly people seeking asylum. If the government is taking away their choice to be able to provide for themselves, then we as a community have to ensure the choices we provide them are healthy, nutritious and dignified. It’s about everybody having that basic human right of access to the food that provides them with their cultural and dietary preferences.

I can jump on my high horse all I like and try and do things, but collectively we can achieve so much more. Collaboration can be a real challenge. Often people have the same end goal, but very different methods for getting there. Surely if you have the same goal, you can work together, leave your ego at the door and be open to other people’s opinions and listen. I know I don’t have all the answers to a better food system. I know the community I aim to support have the answers, and if they are empowered and provided the opportunity, then the answers will come.

Visit the Food Justice Truck  to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Arabella Douglass is illuminating Australian history



Arabella Douglass at Centennial Park in Sydney                       Photo by Jeff McAllister

One of the projects I am working on is Stories of Indigenous Engineering for non-profit organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The project has facilitated fascinating conversations with Aboriginal people and cast light on the need to listen to Indigenous perspectives in our quest for a more sustainable and inclusive future.

One of the most passionate people I have spoken with is Arabella Douglass who started her career as a Senior Development and Environmental lawyer, and is now a Government Advisor, Strategic Consultant and EWB Board Member. During my discussion with Arabella, she challenged common miss-conceptions about Australian history and invited us to celebrate our ancient heritage.  I loved her forthright style, big picture thinking and unbridled enthusiasm to collaboratively find a better way forward.

I am a Minyunbal woman from Fingal Head. My country straddles South East Queensland and Far North New South Wales. I was brought up as part of a collection of children and that taught me a different perspective about genuine happiness. Growing up, I was part of two other families. One had eight children and the other had six. They were like brothers and sisters to me. I learned happiness is not an individualistic kind of notion; that if your siblings are happy, there’s more happiness in the household. I think that’s a very clear distinction between how Indigenous people understand their sense of happiness, how they operate, and how non-Indigenous people operate.

I believe it’s important to be connected to things bigger than yourself. It’s humbling.  If narcissism and individualism are so fantastic, extremely wealthy people would be very, very happy and they’re not. Lots of volunteers have a sense of drive and purpose and fulfillment that’s far greater than a financial reward. If you can be of service, it does something for you. There’s something about the giving which is fundamental to Indigenous values.

My main role model growing up was my great-grandmother, Jane Currie. She was an extraordinary woman, I was lucky to know her. She engaged with the missionaries, but didn’t just retreat into agreeing, she found a way to balance it. She used to say, “The Earth is my mother and God is my father.” She spoke three Aboriginal languages and learnt to speak English, her fourth language, by reading the Bible. I could never achieve what she achieved; keeping her family together, keeping her language and her cultural underpinnings intact, as well as managing the complexity of brutal missionizing.

When I went to school, I wasn’t told about the magnificence of Aboriginal culture.  People think there was nothing here before Captain Cook arrived. In fact, we were successful at living for 60,000 years. There were 400 nations co-existing without exploitation. They didn’t harm or hurt each other. You know why? Because fundamentally it’s about Indigenous values. Every nation has enough. Every little place has enough water, enough food and enough space for you to exist. The world is amazing. It provides everything you need wherever you are.

How unfortunate it is that people are stuck with truly believing that Indigenous people didn’t participate? When I was growing up, I learned about Burke and Wills. I thought they must have been the first people to cross the continent. I was shocked to realize a few years later what a joke that was.  Indigenous people were guiding most of the expeditions. They also guided most of the land use and where the resources were for white people. White people didn’t discover anything. They were shown something in a gracious attempt to say, “This is how we live,” like “What do you bring? What can we bring, how can we cooperate?”

I come from a culture that is complex, highly sophisticated and intelligent. They had structures. They had nations, boundaries, order, law systems, water and food systems. They had everything you could want. It wasn’t a vagueness. They had their own languages, and their own trading routes across the continent. Young Indigenous students should have that confidence to know that science and engineering is in your blood. You come from a very lush cultural historical base that has managed problems with astoundingly creative, excellent solutions that sustained human populations.

I’ve yet to meet an architect or an engineer who has told me anything about an Indigenous engineering feat in this continent. That needs to change. We need to reposition the history of 60,000 years and understand how people used land in a cooperative way. We need to embrace our history so that people talk about Indigenous brilliance with the same affection they talk about Ancient Rome and Greece and the Aztec nations. We have a historical, vibrant, powerful history of engineering here. If we utilize the traditional engineering practices of this continent and bring it alive and combine historical and modern components, you’re going to get creativity and innovation, especially in relation to sustainability.

A film interview with Arabella Douglass will be added to Engineers Without Borders Stories of Indigenous Engineering webpage when the next round of stories is published shortly.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Dave Martin is reimagining the way we live



Dave Martin    Photo by Franky Walker

Humans crave connection, but we habitually retreat to our homes where we are separated from the outside world.

Dave Martin, a builder and entrepreneur, is challenging us to consider new, sustainable ways of living that foster bonds with nature, people and communities.

Dave lives at Cape Paterson, in south eastern Victoria, in a carbon positive house which he designed and built. His latest venture, The Sociable Weaver, aims to transform our urban environment and mainstream carbon positive, eco-homes that create a sense of belonging and connection.

I live in a Victorian house with a 1980s renovation and am always questioning how I can live sustainably. Talking with Dave opened a window into a world of possibilities.

A key moment happened when I was in year 10 working through a building and construction course. It was a new course and instead of building a TV cabinet, you were able to build something useful. We had to build horse stables for the agricultural department. I remember I was up a ladder nailing rafters in place, and I had an epiphany. I thought, “This is amazing, I love it!” I realised I was creating a purposeful structure and felt I was accomplishing something meaningful. My mum wanted me to pursue tertiary studies, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I chose a building apprenticeship instead. I started digging holes and sweeping floors and ended up directing sites.

My teenage years were also when I developed a connection with nature, which stemmed from my parents. When I was a teenager, they trucked us around doing a lot of bushwalking, camping and cycling. They took us to Tasmania,  Cradle Mountain, then the South West Track when I was about 14. We flew in by Cessna, landed on the beach and walked out. It took two weeks. I wasn’t at the age to appreciate it how I would now. They also took us up to central Australia and Indonesia for a couple of months along with similar trips that now I realise helped develop my understanding and connection to the world.

 I believe our path is fated. If we wander too far off that path of our purpose, we get slapped to say “Mate, get back on the path.” I was married when I was 22. Jen and I were childhood sweethearts. We had two kids, a boy and a girl and we built our own house. My plan was to retire when I was 30 and live a good life, travel, surf and have a family. That was it. I was totally naïve and something in the universe just went slap!

I felt my whole life was ruined.  Jen met another guy, Leigh. I thought I’d lose my kids because he’ll become their new father. It was really tough at the time, but it woke me up and allowed me to look at life. My perception of the world changed. It was like a switch was flicked and I looked at life in a completely different, bigger picture kind of way. Then 12 months after we went through all the legal and financial stuff, things became easier.  I approached Jen and Leigh and said, “Let’s concentrate on these beautiful kids, let’s show them love and respect.” It took some time and looking deep inside, but now Jen, Leigh, myself and my parents are one super tight unit. Leigh is like my brother; we hug every time we meet. He has an eight year old Mia who I say is one of mine as well. It’s so messed up, but so beautiful, and it works. We call it a beautiful mess.

 I feel it’s our responsibility to live in coherence with the planet and to educate the next generation about what’s important and meaningful in life. I’ve been given skills in building, people, inspiration and energy to create teams and businesses. The idea is to educate people about how we can live in harmony and create positive change for the world, that’s what drives me. I think it all goes back to love and connection. We all want and need love and connection.

I see my purpose as creating positive change to humanity, animals and the planet. We need as much nature around us as possible. It has a calming, positive affect on our wellbeing, even if we are not conscious of it.  On an unconscious level there’s something that happens with having plants and animals around us. We need to blend the home with the natural environment. If we can connect people with nature, it has this unconscious effect of calming and soothing like a Zen garden.

I want to inspire and motivate people to do something different and better. We can strategically build places or configure existing places to influence community interaction through buildings. The way we live now, we are fenced off from each other and there’s no integration with the streetscape. If we take the barriers away, open up the streetscapes and create spaces with nature, food, art and music, people will be attracted and feed off each other and create a thriving community.

Visit for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016





















Damien Mander is on a mission to protect animals



Damien Mander with an orphaned nyala                       Photo by Andrew Craig

 We all come to forks in the road. What matters is what we do when we reach them.

Damien Mander has worked in the navy, toured Iraq 12 times as a private military contractor and travelled the world, but the biggest journey he has taken is inside himself.  After travelling to Africa and witnessing the effects of poaching, Damien decided he couldn’t return to his previous life. He took a different path, one which led him to setting up and running the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF).

I was intrigued to find out why Damien chose a difficult route. What I found was a man disarmingly honest about his life choices, his motivations for change and his journey from mercenary to a vegan animal activist.

I’ve got salt water running through my veins. I grew up initially in the Northern Beaches in NSW. Dad ran the Mona Vale Hotel so I lived there for the first nine years of my life, then we moved down to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. We were always on the beach.  I used to get up early and ride my bike down to the pier. I’d go free diving and collect all the fishing lures and the squid jigs that had been lost overnight by the fishermen and sell them back to them. I started diving off piers when I was 13. I’d be down there rain, hail or shine trying to make a dollar. I used the money to pay for my own scuba diving equipment and got right into scuba diving, which gave me the ambition to join the navy as a clearance diver.

Until I started doing what I’m doing now, I was a selfish person. I didn’t join the military to serve my country, I joined the military because it was a challenging job. I was also very self-conscious of image growing up. I don’t know why, just a testosterone fuelled teenager always interested in trying to impress other people. It was the same when I went across from the navy to the army to special operations. It wasn’t because I wanted to be part of a national response team to terrorists on home soil, it was because it was the next challenge, and again it was about me and nothing else. I suppose I was trying to create this image of being a touch guy, being a person in control, being a person who is not scared of anything. I went to Africa with the same mindset.

When I saw what the rangers in Southern Africa had to go through and realised I was trying to have an adventure on the back of their hard work and dedication, that was probably the lowest point in my life. I went over there to spend six months running around in the bush doing something I thought would be cool. I saw rangers who were living away from their families for up to 11 months of the year for a minimal salary, risking their lives every day to protect animals. I don’t know why, but seeing what happens to these animals affected me in a way that was worse than what I’d experienced in Iraq.

 I called bullshit on myself: “You are full-of-shit as a person, everything you do is about yourself and nothing else,” and put my money where my moral mouth is. I decided to give up a comfortable life of travel and holidays. I didn’t have to work again for the foreseeable future. I had money and a property portfolio and a certain skillset that is unfortunately required to look after animals. So I was left with a choice, “Do I turn my back on this? Or am I actually going to do something about it?”

 After what I’d been through in Iraq and my time in Africa I realised what real courage is and that is being honest with yourself. Every person has their own switch, for me it was seeing what was going on over there and acknowledging the truth. That’s not just in regard to setting up the IAPF, but also in terms of my veganism and the way I choose to speak out on behalf of all animals. We have sub-categorised animals into sexy ones and ones that are convenient for us to ignore. The suffering of a rhino is no different to the suffering of a cow, the only difference is the difference we allow ourselves to accept in our own minds because it’s more convenient for our conscience. There’s no ethical way to kill something that doesn’t want to die. If people want to eat meat, then they need to to understand the suffering that animal has been through to reach your dinner table.

 There are tens of thousands of animals in reserves that we look after, but it’s not just about protecting elephant and rhino, but everything those animals represent. We train local people, make sure they are well equipped to go out and risk their lives and give them a better chance of survival. I am now feel hopeful for the future. As our organisation has grown and the success we are having with our projects, that feeling of despair, has drifted away. Thanks to the support of our donors around the world, we are seeing very positive results on the front lines.

I want to be part of the last generation that has a negative impact on earth. I don’t know what our generation is going to have on our headstone, but I want to continue to be part of something that is positive. For me, helping animals and protecting nature is the greatest opportunity I’ve had.

Visit International Anti Poaching Foundation for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

Juliet Le Feuvre is a water warrior


Juliet relaxing in her backyard with her dog Tessa                                      Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Juliet Le Feuvre, Healthy Rivers Campaigner Manager for Environment Victoria, a few years ago and was stuck by her depth of knowledge and deep commitment to improving natural resource management. 

After initially meeting Juliet in the city, I was surprised to bump into her walking her dog in a local park. We discovered we live round the corner from each other and both like walking our dogs early in the morning. This created opportunities for unplanned, highly enjoyable chats which have kept me up-to-date with the happenings at Environment Victoria. But I’ve always wanted to know why she choose to dedicate nearly 30 years of her life to the environment movement? I was delighted when she agreed to share her story.

Nature is what feeds me and replenishes me. I have always loved nature and being outdoors, particularly near water. Water is the start of life, it’s really precious stuff, particularly somewhere like Australia which is a very dry place. I find the contrast between the dry landscapes and beautiful aquatic environments astonishing. I find it truly amazing we have wetlands at all.

The thing that struck me when I moved from Britain to Australia in my 30s was how much untouched bush there was. It was amazing to see you had areas that were not protected that could be protected. There were opportunities which were not available in Europe where there were hardly any wild places left. It was the late 80s and it was a very exciting time in the environment movement. The Hawke Government was doing a lot of world heritage work, there was a feeling conservation was possible. I’d never experienced that before.

My interest in Australian rivers was triggered by a camping trip when the youngest of my three children was two years old.  We went to Hattah Lakes up near Mildura for our first family camping holiday. Our campsite was on the lake shore in a beautiful spot under the red gums. The water in the lake kept rising. We had this row of sticks which we moved every day as the water came higher. The campground was gradually going under water and it was not raining, there was no flooding in Victoria and I wondered, “What’s going on here?” Eventually I realized the water was coming down from a flood event hundreds of kilometres away in NSW. This was a pretty unfamiliar type of river system. In Europe, rivers don’t work like that.

I never imagined I would build a career as a rivers campaigner in my 50s. I’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. After I studied zoology at Cambridge, I had all sorts of jobs from teaching to working on a farm and home decorating. When I arrived in Australia, I started volunteering for environment organisations. While I was volunteering at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), I got involved in the campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It was a full on period with blockade buses going up and people getting arrested. It was all new to me. I hung around as a volunteer at ACF, made myself indispensable and eventually they gave me a job.

The most difficult part of my current role is persuading people that just because a river has water in it, doesn’t mean it’s in good health. In Australia, without man-made intervention, our rivers would either be in flood or virtually dried up, there is not a lot of in between. What we’ve done with all the dams is make a lot of in between. People don’t understand, they think if it’s got water in it, it’s fine.  If it weren’t for the dams, the Murray River would be dry right now and there wouldn’t be anything the matter with that.

I find the crunch I’ve identified between climate change and population growth truly scary.  There is less water coming in to our rivers and more demand for water going out. You have two really strong pressures colliding and the jam in the sandwich is the natural environment. I am really concerned, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. If we are smart enough and we care enough and we put a bit more money into it, we can come up with the solutions.

Businesses are now facing community pressure to make positive change and this is creating opportunities. The traditional environment movement path is to jump up and down and say “You are damaging the environment,” until something changes, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. You need more elements in the mix so we are forging new and different partnerships to create change and build a level of support for the environment the politicians can’t ignore.

Visit Environment Victoria for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016