Professor Iain McCalman weaved a rich tapestry of history, science, culture and environment to explore the various identities of the Great Barrier Reef at a Sydney Writers’ Festival talk on Monday night.
The terror, nurture and wonder of what has been described as the “biggest organic wonder of the world” is the framework to his book The Reef: A Passionate History.
Speaking at the Macleay Museum, Professor McCalman said that the reef is “not just a place”, but it is intrinsic to Australia’s human as well as natural history.
The Reef is the untold story of how humans past and present have shaped this global icon. Professor McCalman achieves this by mapping the reef, starting with Cook and what he saw as a “labyrinth of terror”, to a scientific wonder, a nurturing mother, and finally to what it is now, fragile and vulnerable.
A blend of 12 key encounters between people and the reef, from Cook to castaways, to marine biologists and eco-activists, he translates the untold story of a human history with the Great Barrier Reef.
The social history of the reef is incredibly rich and he chooses his cast of 12 and recounts their personal relationship with this natural wonder. As Professor McCalman asserts “it not a biography of these 12 people, it is their encounter with the reef, and the reefs encounter with them”.
Narcisse Pelletier is one of his examples that frequently come up in his discussion. Pelletier born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendee was a castaway who was discovered and rescued by an Aboriginal family and went to live with the Uutaalganu speakers for the next 17 years. He was later discovered by the crew of the John Bell and forcibly taken back to France. His biography contains details of the social organization, language, beliefs, treatment and rituals of the Uutaalganu speakers.
Then there is Eliza Fraser, a Scottish woman whose ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland and who was captured by Aborigines. William Saville-Kent, an English marine biologist, Barbara Crawford Thompson, a castaway who lived with the Kaurareg people for five years, Judith Wright who was instrumental in saving the reef, and Charlie Veron the world’s greatest coral scientist. Their ideas and feelings about the greatest marine environment this planet has ever known are the foundation for McCalman’s passionate history.
During the hour-long talks it becomes clear that he has a great affiliation, both personal and spiritual, with this natural wonder. He explores the multitude of identities of the reef through the eyes of his twelve characters. He is passionate not only about the scientific and human history of the reef, but also its conservation.
His passion is contagious and every member of the audience nods in agreement as he asserts that we need to save this natural wonder. Iain McCalman’s reef interconnects the personal, the natural and the scientific. It is a part of history that has been ignored and now is reemerging: the social and human history of the greatest organic wonder of the world.