In praise of big thinkers

I owe much to the wide-ranging, fearless thinking of two Tasmanians. [26 August 2014 | Peter Boyer]

“Breezin’ Along”: The world as John Evans saw it in 2012.

“Breezin’ Along”: The world as John Evans saw it in 2012.

About seven years ago I got a telephone call from someone introducing himself as “Evans from Premaydena”. He asked if we could chat a while. I enjoy a good conversation so I took him on.

The idea of prosperity for all, he said, was a recipe for disaster. The second law of thermodynamics told us we were living beyond our means, that there just wasn’t enough energy on the planet.

The discussion continued in this vein for half an hour or so. He must have thought it worth something because he called again a few days later with fresh thoughts about our bleak future. And so on, sometimes a couple of calls in a day, for years.

He visited me in his rusty old Datsun ute with his ageing blue heeler, Molly, and lent me his original 1970s Whole Earth Catalogue. Once I joined a friendly breakfast party on his old boat on the Derwent estuary. In the process I found out quite a bit about him.

On leaving Hobart High School (where his red hair earned him his lifelong nickname, Blue) he became a government clerk, but he craved the outdoors and eventually took up professional fishing.

Fishing people are never ordinary. It takes courage to go regularly out into the open sea on a smallish boat. Being out there is to be reminded frequently of the raw, magnificent, terrifying power of wild nature. Over the years John soaked it all up, and pondered.

As fishermen do, he thought about the survival of species. After retiring from lobster fishing and taking up oyster farming, he hooked himself up to the internet and spent long hours reading what others said about energy, oil and the future of humanity.

At seminars about energy and sustainable living he soaked up information and chatted with like-minded souls. He had one or two other telephone confidants besides me; each of us grew used to hearing his world views, sprinkled with expletives and earthy jokes.

John sometimes struggled to express himself verbally, but found an ideal vehicle for his passion in watercolour painting. I would get a Christmas card each year graphically depicting Earth on the brink, victim of human greed and vanity.

Many found John hard to like, especially those unfortunate government agents who had to confront him over his casual attitude to marine and building regulations. For him these were matters of no consequence. I’m inclined to agree. The future of humanity is much more important.

At first glance you wouldn’t get a more dissimilar pair than John and another friend and mentor of mine, Tom Errey. But Tom, too, has a deep concern about the health of Planet Earth, and like John he’s spent a lot of time communicating that concern to me.

Tom is now well into his nineties. In his handwritten letters to me I see no sign of advancing years, but a sharp, clear mind, a ruthless logic and an enviable talent with the written word.

Last week he enclosed a letter from his daughter, Vivian Martin, describing her work as a school teacher in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner-west.

Not one to confine herself to classroom teaching, Vivian is heavily engaged with her diverse community, fostering parents’ active participation in their children’s education and setting up multilingual workshops, film festivals and art events.

The scope and ambition of her thinking tells me she’s a chip off the old block. For years Tom has shared with me, via clippings sent by mail or personal delivery, his copious reading of climate and energy topics in newspapers and magazines. With each package has come a letter.

Each of these gems carries the accumulated wisdom of over eight decades. Tom’s long life spans the Great Depression, World War II (at the end of which he was an Australian army soldier in occupied Japan) and everything that’s happened since.

His erudition is formidable, as is his dedication to digging out the truth of the matter. I’d guess that nothing he encountered over all those years escaped his critical attention. Some may have found that hard to take, but I value it.

When I wrote in a recent piece of being “down here in the Roaring Forties”, Tom politely berated me for encouraging a European prejudice that people living on our side of the world were beneath others, “down under”. I take his point: repeating a prejudice just reinforces it.

Underlying it all is Tom’s fierce devotion to the natural world, the cradle of human evolution. Sometimes he gives the impression that he wouldn’t care if humans vacated the scene and left Earth to other species, but his obvious pride in his daughter’s work tells me he’s no misanthrope.

Tom was still with us at last check, but he tells me I should expect a departure any time. He has bequeathed his body to medical science. John, having moved to Dunalley in 2009, died suddenly a month before wildfire consumed the town in January 2013.

Approaching spring reminds me of my father in his last weeks, painstakingly writing of birds at their business outside his nursing home window. Like Tom and John he was a big thinker. Like them he saw his life as a privilege bestowed by a bountiful Earth, for which he was always grateful.

• The national March Australia campaign seeks a voice for the Australia we really want. It will happen in Hobart on Sunday with a walk to Parliament House, starting at Princes Park at 11.30 am.

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