Going the Distance

An Interview with Cam Walker
Coordinator of Friends of the Earth

Cam Walker has dedicated his life to FoE and in this interview Cam talks about how he has managed to ëgo the distanceí as a frontline activist. He says it is that spirit of place and spirit of community that keeps him enthused. What is also important is to take time out, to go into the bush, in order to sustain his activism and his strength.

The main thing you notice about Cam is the great level of understanding and commitment he has to continue to make a difference.

My concern for the environment dates back to my childhood when my family would go for picnics in the bush. It wasn't anywhere remarkable, we might just go to a creek in the hills but they are the memories that have stayed with me. I think if people are exposed to nature from an early age in a non-threatening way, it becomes part of your daily life. Then, in my teenage years my strongest nature connections came from trips to wilderness areas. Being exposed to back country experiences was especially important: itís what took me out of normal life into experiences that were profoundly spiritual.

I grew up in the outer east of Melbourne, on the edge of the urban-rural fringe, in a suburb which was still half forest when I was growing up. It was a place of wonder to me. But it gradually began to disappear under the push for suburban development. I had a sense of being witness to its destruction, watching it going down before my very eyes and not quite understanding why, or what was going on but feeling perturbed by it. I still have strong memories of that childhood place.

When I was about ten or eleven years old I used to get books out from the library and try to find out what the plants were in that area. Then one day, in a little reserve of bush, I bumped into a man who was probably in his sixties or seventies and who was a field naturalist. We talked for a while and I remember him being amazed that there was a young person who was interested in nature, and me being amazed that there was someone else who was also interested in this place.

That experience introduced me to the importance of finding a community where it is normal to be interested in the place where you live, where it is normal to know what plants are there, to know where your water comes from, where the creeks are, to know what animals live there, and what their seasonal signs are. But we are so out of step with the natural world that we donít know or donít even think that is useful or normal to know that information.

My home place is now covered by suburbs, with a few pockets of bush and open space, but it has its own spirit and it was an important lesson for me to understand this.

Wild Nature

I also need the "wilderness" too. I need to be out in wild nature in order to feel restored and renewed.

To keep going as an environmental activist, I believe you have to have time out in the bush. I find I have to have two back country trips a year, whether thatís walking, skiing or climbing, something like that and if I donít do that, I find that I canít sustain myself throughout the year.

Itís important to get away to retain a sense of optimism too, to continue to feel like you are doing something to help save the earth. Sometimes I feel like weíre banging our head against a brick wall and that can be really frustrating.

Connecting to Place

Having a connection to place is very important. But it has taken me a while to connect to this place in the inner city. I have done it through learning about vegetation, and through spending time exploring the area round where I live. Itís flat and over-developed, the creeks are trashed, the air is bad, and itís a long way from the mountains.

But gradually I realised there was much more to it than meets the eye. It is on the edge of the basalt plains, once one of the largest ëprairiesí in the world. The Melbourne plains are subject to their own wind and weather patterns, the river systems that snake through the area still have some form of power or presence. I used to treat it more like a friend, like we were a couple of mates. But then I had to re-appraise my view about the inner city and learn to see it as a person who is fundamental to my life.

I now feel very fed by the inner city. I can walk down to the Yarra River or the Merri Creek and have a really good day. I might not get up to very much, perhaps just sit down under a tree and read a book, and I feel like I am being fed by that landscape. The more you interact with a place, and the more you cultivate a sense of respect, the stronger it gets. The sight of a handful of Poa grass or some silver wattle in bloom can make my heart jump. Iíve learnt to love my homeplace as much as I love the mountains. I have this sense of appreciation and connection to the land, especially the vegetation and landform, regardless of where I am.

Place and Spirit

I believe you have to have some kind of spiritual belief to see you through. Whether you use those words or not, or talk about God, or nature-based spirituality. I think thatís been borne out by my experience. The angriest people that I knew fifteen years ago are now gone from the environmental movement. Very few of them are still activists. Mainly it has been the loudest people who have gone, who have disappeared back into the mainstream, and it has been the kind of quiet, steady and tenacious people who have some kind of internal spiritual life, or have a faith in something beyond themselves, who have gone the distance.

But at the same time I have also been very cautious about being painted as spiritual in any way. I know that I have quite a strong spiritual belief but I would never consider imposing that on other people. If people ask me about my beliefs then Iíll tell them but I am very cautious about that. I think there is a lot of evangelical behaviour in the movement which can rub me up the wrong way, so I try to be very careful about how I act. Anyway, evangelism generally doesnít work, particularly with people who are likely to be inspired by environmental issues, so I think it is actually counter-productive.

To survive as an activist you have to take a long-term view. I think that as well as a community of place and community of people, there is also a community of time, that sense of being part of a longer and much larger process. I do think that time comes into it. So itís about place, human community, and time out in the big, wild nature community but also, thereís a sense of moving through time, as a kind of connecting link that is a reminder that we also stand on the shoulders of others who came before. Learning who my elders are, both living and dead, people close to me and others Iíve only read or heard of, gives a richness and perspective to what I do.

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