Credit: Russell Shakespeare
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Why did you want to write Optimism?
After I retired in 2012 from the Senate, Paul and I were asked to go to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. I had about eight requests from publishing houses to write an autobiography, and I didn’t want to. Autobiographies are largely about “I did this and then I did that and somebody else was wrong”, and I know about 10% of that book is about reporting on events in Parliament House or in Canberra. Hardie Grant came up to me and said, “how about writing a book of anecdotes?” and showed me Tim Costello’s book called Hope, and I liked it, the format and the book, and I thought, “Ok I’ll do that, and I’ll call mine Optimism”. This was two years ago and here it is!
I just wrote every now and then, and it’s not an autobiography, and it’s not a political history. It’s eclectic. It takes on little incidents right through to the last year, and writing the Foreword as we were off on our trip for three months around Bush Heritage properties in April this year. It was a very easy write. I am very aware that it ebbs and flows in its character.
Your Tasmanian property, Oura Oura, seems to be a bit of a sanctuary where you come back to regularly in your life, and in your book. Would you suggest that everyone needs their sanctuary, and where was your sanctuary before Oura Oura?
Yes, I do think everybody needs to have a place where their heart sits. If it’s not home then it’s somewhere else that gives them sanctuary, where they can either go on their own to enjoy reflecting on life, and on what a thing it is to be alive on this planet – or to go with friends to share picnic conversation and good times.
Before Oura Oura, I think this place for me would have been Shannon Vale, six miles out of Glen Innes where my aunt and uncle live; certainly that was a sanctuary for me as a child. I couldn’t wait to get there on school holidays, and I can remember as a very young child, shedding a tear or two when I had to leave to go back to school (and yes, they wielded the cane in those days).
But I think it is very important, and I think that people who don’t take their children to green places, natural places, stream sides, lake sides, to feed the ducks, or to watch the waves roll in on to the shore are depriving their children of something that all human beings have always had as part of their psychological wellbeing. We should think of ‘Sunday picnics’ for families as part of the national culture. It is so important.
Why is a connection with nature lacking for many of us – is it because we live in cities? How are people growing-up because of this disjunct with nature?
We live in cities, and we live attached to tablets and staring at screens… But there was a survey in Hobart's paper, The Mercury, a few weeks back about how people thought their children should connect with nature, and it mentioned, admirably, about the days in which schools took kids on nature walks, joining clubs, all sorts of things. Never, in this survey of five or six options, did it mention parents taking kids to the bush themselves – it was always someone else’s responsibility. Well it isn’t! Without this, you leave children to be fearful of nature later on, and that’s not how children on this planet have ever been. And it’s good for parents to see their kids in nature.
If people lose their connection to nature, they are threatening their wellbeing. I got involved in the Franklin River campaign because I realised it was a much better thing to be saving this huge resource for human relaxation and enjoyment than to be making more electricity to build more tranquilliser factories. And [in my previous career] as a doctor, over half the people coming to see me were stressed. That’s why they had stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, skin rashes, headaches, and general anxiety, so nature’s the biggest store house for allaying that anxiety that we humans have, because we have evolved with and been created in nature, and we’re bonded to it. There is no substitute for that. But we tend with modern cities and contrivances, to shut ourselves off from nature and it’s a huge mistake. It can do without us, but we can’t do without it.
I think there is a worry about our disconnection with nature, although there is such a strong bond built into the human psyche for nature that we underestimate that as well. For example, a recent opinion poll on whether Tony Abbott was right to be trying to get World Heritage protection off the Tasmanian Forests, home to the tallest flowering forest on Earth, showed that 80% of the people thought he wasn’t right, but when you got to the youngest age group that was surveyed – the 18-24 year old group – 97% said he was wrong.
We have such a strong bond with nature; it’s why we give flowers to each other, rather than chainsaws, when we want to express love or devotion for someone. Our houses, doctors surgery’s, waiting rooms, and businesses, have pictures, paintings, and photographs derived from nature because it relaxes us.