Dr Mary White – Paleobotanist

Comments (2) Interviews

When Dr Mary White moved to the Manning Valley back in 2003, the area acquired a true visionary and pioneer in the world of Paleobotany and environmental conservation. Interview by Amy Heague. Dr White has an amazing career that spans over five decades and two southern continents, is an accomplished and award winning palaeobotanist, lecturer and over the last 20 years author of several award winning books on the evolution of the Australian continent and its ecosystems. She is a passionate conservationist, was named a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for service to botany as a researcher through promotion of increased understanding and awareness of the natural world and just a few weeks ago was awarded the Lifetime Conservation Award from Australian Geographic.

> Tell us a little bit about your childhood in South Africa.

I grew up in Southern Rhodesia (the country now known as Zimbabwe), where my father was First Director of Agriculture in Rhodesia and a Professor of Entomology.

My mother was a botanist. At the age of three, I announced to the world that I was going to be a botanist and have lots of kids just like my mother … and that’s just what I did.

> What sparked your interest in the fossil side of Botany?

It was plain luck! When I was at university, a very famous South African scientist Alex Dutorti, one of the pioneers of writing about continental drift and wandering continents, was visiting while I was looking for a subject for my Masters Degree. He said, “Why don’t you look at plant fossils; there is a wonderful Gondwanan flora just waiting to be investigated.”

I said that was all very well and good, but where was I going to get plant fossils from – to which he said, “No problem!”and burrowed into his endless pockets of his ancient coat and pulled out an envelope he had been carrying around for a few years. He said that he was sitting on a splitting shale looking for fossil specimens, and often when you split the shale, remains of the leaf, which by then is just the cuticle – the waxy coating on the leaves – is fossilised, but separately to the shale, and it jumps off.

So as he was stacking the shale, he was slipping the cuticles into the letter, and he handed them to me and said, “Here … you can do a thesis on Thinfeldia cuticles.” So I said thank you, and off I went to write my Paleobotanical Thesis.

> You came to Australia in 1955. Tell us about your first encounter with Australian plant life.

We docked at Fremantle and had three days to wait until we came to Sydney, so we hired a car and went to look at the sand plains and wildflowers. I was amazed at how the composition of the flora was just slightly different from what I had been finding in South Africa.

I had this questioning feeling; how had I travelled thousands of miles across the ocean to get here and yet I could recognise at a family level everything growing around me. It was the same kind of ecosystem I had just come from.

So, I suddenly was confronted with the concept of Gondwana and believed it totally.

> From there you moved to Canberra, where very quickly you found yourself receiving 44 gallon drums of plant fossils from mining companies and even worked as a Research Associate at the Australian Museum, where you documented the scientific collection of over 12,00 plant fossils at the Museum. How did you do this with 5 young children?

Well, fossils, unlike other botanical specimens which wither and die, were perfect for working on while focusing on the job of raising my children. Most of the fossils had been waiting 300 million years to be looked at, so they could wait a bit longer while I dealt with the kids.

> What prompted you to purchase Falls Retreat at Johns River at the base of Middle Brother in 2003?

I wanted somewhere I could covenant the land to maintain biodiversity and develop as an environmental education centre. It is in a wonderful part of the world and well worth protecting. Since we’ve done all the plant, animal, bird, bat and frog lists and what not, we have realised that the biodiversity here is much, much richer than we ever thought it was going to be. We have even found a couple of rare and endangered frogs.

I am now very much into climate change and have a very important message to send, which is hopefully what I have been concentrating on doing and intend to do for the rest of my life. I decided a long time ago I was going to die at a 107, so I have a few good years left in me yet – so be warned!

> What kind of people come here to the retreat, and what do you hope they take away?

Groups of people who come here generally have an interest in the natural environment, but anyone who comes goes away with some background in the environment that they wouldn’t have had before – even if it’s only by mistake! An awful lot of people, if they’ve been into our forest and seen the stuff around the cascade waterfalls, they feel very differently about preserving the environment. Many people can feel so helpless in the face of what is endless bad news, and simply think, what can I do? But if you realise that it is absolutely essential that we control the emissions, because we have damaged so much of the environment that was holding those emissions in check. We need to back the people who are going to have the wisdom to see that it is going to be a green planet. There’s got to be a balance between green and other sort of life; the damage that we’ve done is so serious.

> So on a basic level, what can people do?

Well, they can do all the ordinary things of controlling their electricity consumption. And they can also be very aware of the fact that any destruction of vegetation is dangerous and there should be no more destruction of natural vegetation – anywhere. Absolute protection of the original old growth forests, where you have the biodiversity – everything that we do has an effect. I’m afraid that we have a very little window of opportunity for all this, unless we stop now the rate of the tropical forest destruction, for instance. I don’t despair, because I think the planet is slightly more resilient than we think.

Australia has such a wonderful opportunity to lead in this sort of education. When you realise that everything you do is having an effect on something, and many of the things are having a very negative affect on the things that we badly need to be protecting, it gives you a feeling that there is plenty you can do. Replacing vegetation, choosing a much simpler living standard, decreasing your environmental footprint.

> Thank you Mary.

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