Harry Butler CBE OA, a former Australian of the Year, and one the country’s foremost naturalists and conservationists, died earlier this week. If you do not have memories of him, you might care to look at this YouTube video clip from In the Wild, his enormously popular TV series from the 1970s.
Although very short, the clip displays much of the essence of the man, especially his love of and respect for nature, the extraordinary depth of his knowledge about the natural world and his great effectiveness as a communicator.
Behind his bushman’s earthiness, there was a very sharp scientific mind and an ability to engage with all sorts of people including politicians, media personalities and captains of industry. Disrupted formal schooling did not stop him becoming a renowned teacher of natural science in colleges and universities.
Although passionate about the wellbeing of the natural world, he regarded himself as a builder of bridges between conservation and development. One of his proudest achievements was ensuring the protection of Barrow Island, a nature reserve that is home to hundreds of rare plant and animal species, during its development as an oil field. He quarantined the island against introduced plants and animals, banned guns and introduced other measures to protect wildlife and preserve habitat. The practice he developed of using cleared vegetation as both a cover for oil pipelines and a restored habitat for animals is now used around the world.
His insistence that, under most circumstances, conservation and development could proceed together was not welcomed in some quarters. Some conservationists said that Harry had sold out on his values. But the “either-or, but not both” way of thinking about conservation and development ignores the reality that humanity’s successful and sustainable co-existence with nature has to balance our pro-nature sentiments, actions and values – love, attraction, intellectual understanding, religious celebration and symbolic expression – with the need to exploit nature to some degree and exert some power over it.
Harry achieved that balance in his own life and modelled it for others. I am sure his TV series helped many discover, re-kindle or deepen their connection with nature. As Australia’s home-grown David Attenborough, he truly brought nature into our lounge rooms, attracting regularly a 20% share of the TV viewing audience.
We need many more in the mould of Harry Butler and David Attenborough – people, who through books, film and electronic images, can infect others with their enthusiasm for nature.
The power of media to connect our hearts and minds with the natural world should not be underestimated. Countless studies have shown that representations of nature in photos and paintings and on film and videos can elicit affection, attraction, interest and indeed all of our biophilic responses. Environmental biologist, Orion McCarthy, whose blog, Conserve, I heartily commend, traces his emotional and intellectual passion for nature not from his direct experience of it as a child but from
…the nature documentaries, the trips to the zoo, and the amazing pictures in National Geographic that taught me the importance of nature, the challenges facing the natural world, and why so many species deserve saving.
With buying Christmas gifts currently on the agenda for many of us, why not consider nature books and DVDs? They could just turn out to be gifts that truly “give on giving”. For suggestions, just Google “Nature DVDs”, “Nature DVDs for toddlers”, “Nature Picture Books”.
Have a happy Christmas.