Episode 42 – Interview with environmentalist and author Andrew Kelly
This week we were so fortunate to talk with Andrew Kelly, environmentalist, convenor of The Waterway Network, and former Yarra Riverkeeper. Among other things, Andrew has worked as an editor, publisher, spokesperson, advocate and author. He played a key role in formulating the formulation the Yarra River Protection (Willip-gin Birrarung murron) Act which was passed unopposed. He has also written a number of books for children including Peregrines in the City, Willam: A Birrarung Story and The Accidental Penguin Hotel. Andrew has lots of fantastic advice to share about how we can share our messages more effectively.
You can follow Andrew and learn more about his work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody, welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. We are so thrilled that you’ve decided to join us. My name is Jen and as always I am joined by my friend and colleague Michael. Good morning Michael.
Good morning, Jen. It is a lovely morning today, isn’t it?
Nice and sunny outside, makes a big difference. So it puts me in the mood for podcasting.
Ooh, me too. I am always in the mood for podcasting with you, especially when we have a guest like we do today, Michael. You and everybody listening is in for a treat.
So it’s really a thrill for me to welcome Andrew Kelly to Let’s Talk SciComm today. Andrew is an author, an environmentalist among many other things. And until just over a year ago he was also the Yarra Riverkeeper.
So for our overseas and interstate listeners, the Yarra is the really very beautiful river that runs through the heart of Melbourne. I am Melbourne born and bred. I know Andrew is Melbourne born and bred.
And I know Andrew like me, you’re incredibly passionate about our city and its history and our beautiful river and I know you have a real passion also for the role of water in the landscape more generally.
And you are the convener of the Waterways Network Community of Practice. So a very warm and watery welcome to you today Andrew. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jen and, and Michael, a delight to be here. And as you say, Michael, just a gorgeous day to be podcasting. I can see the sun shining through my window.
That’s fantastic. And I imagine in your role as Yarra Riverkeeper you got outside a lot and plenty of sunshine. And I actually think it’s great that there is a Yarra Riverkeeper because it’s such an important natural resource, you know, supporting lots of wildlife and the spiritual significance of it as well.
So I just think that’s fantastic. I hadn’t realised that there was a Yarra Riverkeeper until Jen suggested chatting to you on the podcast. So I look forward to talking about it more.
We are definitely going to ask Andrew all about that role but I just want to let you know how I got to meet Andrew and that was in my role as the ambassador for Nature Book Week which is run by the Wilderness Society every year. And for National Threatened Species Day this year I had this incredible pleasure of hosting an event with a group of authors at Readings, our favourite bookshop, Readings in Hawthorn.
And one of those incredible authors was Andrew and we just had this really lovely night. We weren’t sure if many people were going to come because of COVID and we were trying to do an in-person event. And people did come and we had this wonderful conversation about the power of storytelling and particularly the power of storytelling to engage and connect people with nature.
Well it was for me anyway, Andrew might have a different view of the evening because he had to put up with me asking lots of questions but for me it was a wonderful evening.
Wonderful for me too, Jen. It was a treat, to learn.
Oh no, it was, it was indeed. But Andrew, I’d really love to begin by asking you whether you can pinpoint a particular time in your life, or even a particular experience that has led you to become the environmentalist that you are today.
Great question Jen. Let me reflect on this. And kind of certainly for me there was a couple of childhood experiences. So I grew up not far from the Yarra and my friend Phil and I used to go down after school and hang out on the Yarra’s banks.
So that was always pretty special. And of course, the Yarra’s the great green space of Melbourne really or at least the east of Melbourne. I know those on the west would dispute it a little bit more and dispute it vigorously but yeah, I probably think the Yarra is a lot of green for Melbourne.
And it was a real treat to get down there and see things like… I think one of the stunning moments was to see an egret stalking the banks and all that brown mud and the reflection of the white bird on the brown water. And one thing about brown water which is, does not mean the river’s polluted, it just means it’s got a lot of sediment in it, is that it creates absolutely truly fabulous reflections. And so a white bird reflecting from the brown water was just stunning, that polished smooth surface. So that was pretty stunning, that was pretty.
I always love nature and being near the river was a, is a direct reflection of that I think, a kind of experiencing of that love, factualising it. And here I am. I’m in Fitzroy at the moment and the other night we took our dogs for the walk and there was a Tawny frogmouth sitting on one of the telephone wires and then in the park was a Ring-tailed possum and overhead were flying the fruit bats.
So I kind of thought well you know, that’s pretty good for an urban space. You know, there’s a lot of life, a lot of wildlife. So I don’t know whether that’s really answered your question it was a rather rambling reply.
Oh no, not at all. It’s just this sense of connection with place and reflecting I think on how fortunate we are to live in what’s actually quite a big city.
Melbourne is a, is quite a big city but it does have these beautiful green spaces and quite extraordinary wildlife.
I think that totally answers my question.
I can imagine being there when you describe it. And it just makes complete sense that there should be a Riverkeeper looking after this important resource.
And there’s so many things I want to ask you about that. I’m not really sure what the best question is. But can you maybe just tell us a little bit more about what is the responsibility of the Yarra Riverkeeper?
The Yarra Riverkeeper is the community voice for the river. The keeper or keepers, it’s always a bit of a debate, distills what the community feels about the river is the way I look at it and tells the story of the river.
So often people feel disempowered to talk about things that are local to them that are nearbybut the Yarra Riverkeeper is very much about talking about your local place and giving people an opportunity to say how much they love it and how much they want to protect it, which I think the Yarra River Keepers did pretty effectively with getting the Yarra River Protection Act passed. Wilip-gin Birrarung murron, to give it its Woiwurrung title.
And to also alter the planning controls along the river because I think we often get lost in the economic narrative but somehow we all need another big flat screen TV. And really what people want is to be able to get out and walk along the river and didn’t COVID prove that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People were so thankful, I think for that urban space. Yeah. No, that’s that’s fascinating.
So how do you protect the river? I mean, you mentioned a couple of things there, the Yarra River Protection Act. But what does it practically look like to protect the river?
My thought is, is it’s very much about the river corridor. So the river is very much a river of green and that’s how many people experience it by driving across the bridge and seeing, looking left or looking right and you get this whole sweep of that classic eucalypt green running upstream.
So it’s very much about protecting that corridor and stopping development infringing. This is really about the urban length of the river I’m thinking. Because you have an urban length, you have a rural length and you have then the upper river which is completely protected.
And it’s important that we continue to protect that and exclude people from going in with their motorbikes and their four wheel drives and things that would pollute our water supply or even to log it or to put mountain bikes through it, all of which some people [are] desiring to do but at a greater expense to the rest of us.
There is a Yarra Strategic Plan at the moment which came out of the Yarra River Protection Act but that remains pretty much unfunded by this government. So what we desperately need is funding for the Yarra Strategic Plan. We need to ensure that the Act is made into a living document because what I’ve discovered is that legislation [will] be passed and then it becomes dead and dusty and put on a shelf somewhere.
One thing I’d say about environmental legislation if I may is, is that we do often have good legislation, it’s just not applied. And that is a real shock to me. I mean we have, we’re supposed to have threatened species plans both at a state level and at a federal level and we don’t have them.
It’s a kind of nice to have from many politicians point of view. And what we need is it’s a must to have and this is an expenditure that is absolutely valued. But it’s quite tough I think given the kind of economic narrative that we live under, to get the environment up there.
And that was one of the jobs of the Yarra Riverkeeper I think is to get that up there, to get that, to speak out but I think we grossly underestimate how much people value their waterways and the parklands that go along it.
So again, I’ve wandered completely off topic Michael and Jen so you’d better pull me back.
No, no, that’s a good… I mean it just makes me reflect on the fact that communication as we always say is just absolutely central to this because you can tick boxes and all the lip service around “Yes, yes we do care”. But unless there’s action to back up that care, that results in meaningful outcomes, then it doesn’t matter what legislation you pass.
And so clearly having people in these roles, whether it’s a riverkeeper role or an equivalent to keep saying “No, actually this is essential. It’s a false economy to think that money comes ahead of the environment because without a healthy environment we’ve got nothing.” I just think it’s absolutely essential.
So Andrew, I first came across you because of your writing. The first book I became aware of, of yours was Wilum: A Birrarung Story, which is essentially a story of a day in the life of the Yarra which I know you wrote with Indigenous elder Aunty Joy Murphy.
And I’m really interested in… Well firstly congratulations because it’s just a stunningly beautiful book. But I’m interested in for you that process of writing the book and helping to communicate really ancient, absolutely precious Indigenous knowledge about Birrarung, the Yarra as a white person. Can you tell us about that process? That communication process I guess?
That’s a yeah, it’s a, it’s a good question to, to ponder Jen. I mean, it was a fairly organic process. We talked, I wrote, we talked, I wrote. I probably did more of the putting of words on paper, but that doesn’t mean I was the author of the story.
I was just putting the words down that we were talking about and thinking about, and it was yeah, an organic process of going back and forth, going back and forth.
And and the whole book, story very much evolved over time. And it was a much longer book when we began and it got shorter and shorter and shorter and, and that’s a good thing I think for most books.
Absolutely, a short book is a good book.
Things become stronger in the editing. So… and, and one transformative time was when we started to put the Woiwurrung into the text, because that’s suddenly transformed the whole story. You know, that was a great pleasure to work with Auntie Joy on that.
It sounds like such a great process to go through. And presumably you know, you came into that process having a little bit of you know, a lot of knowledge about the river. But I would imagine that maybe going through this process gave you renewed insight.
Would that be fair to say? Did you did it kind of give you a new perspective on the river? And I guess, what did you really learn from that process?
Yeah, I learnt a huge amount and I’m still on that journey of learning. And it’s… I guess it was transformative for me writing that book or being part of the process of writing that book.
And you know learning to start thinking about you know, listening to country, hearing country, land and water country, land and sea country, thinking about just what does that mean for somebody who’s non-indigenous, how do you kind of step through that door and look at the landscape entirely differently.
As I guess landscape that was never ceded, that remains indigenous, that remains traditional owner. You know, the terms are always awkward I think.
And somebody once said to me their understanding from talking to traditional owners was that they would one day absorb us, that we, our thinking, their thinking would become our thinking in time. And I see that process I think happening around me. I mean maybe it’s a small thing using language but I think it’s a powerful thing?
Absolutely. I think language is a way we, we truly can be inclusive and respectful.
Yeah. But also the way it changes our thinking I think. You know, it just is, it is different if it’s… I mean I like… maybe this is too controversial but I like Moreland becoming Merri-bek.
It’s very different to I don’t know his real story, Moreland as a slave owner or a plantation owner. But suddenly when I drive across the boundary into Merri-bek, I think differently is the way I feel about it.
Yeah, I can relate the species of animal that I worked on for my PhD and for a number of years before that has an Anglo name and an indigenous name. And I just can’t ever use the English name. It just seems like a totally different animal to me if I use that name versus what I’ve always called it which is you know, which is an indigenous name.
And I have to admit I don’t know the truth, the long story of where the indigenous name came from but that’s yeah, I can totally relate. You just think about something differently if you call it by what you feel it should be called.
Yeah definitely. I know you’ve written other books as well Andrew, kid’s books, The Accidental Penguin Hotel and most recently Peregrines in the City which I think are great. You know, two topics that I guess are very unique to, to Melbourne.
And I think most of our listeners might be familiar with that but some of our listeners may not be familiar with the penguin colony down at St Kilda and the family of peregrine falcons in the city where there’s a webcam pointing at them. So you can kind of check in and monitor their process. It’s a really kind of Melbourne thing, something that’s really unique to Melbourne.
So yeah, just curious to hear about what drives you to write for children as opposed to adults.
As I reflect on this question Michael I… I’m a passionate reader as a child. I was slow to read. It took me a while to learn to read. And then once I figured out what those black marks on white paper meant I took off and I read relentlessly.
So I think I’ve carried that with me throughout my life, that sense of joy in story. And in some ways I think doing children’s books is also like, a little like writing haiku in the sense that you’re reducing things down to essentials. You’re stripping back, stripping back until you’re just saying the meaning. Or maybe more like yeah like poetry perhaps more generally although it’s not strictly poetry I don’t think.
And Andrew do you think it’s hard to communicate scientific or environmental ideas to children in a way that keeps their interest and gets them excited? You know, we hear so much sort of I don’t know, negativity these days about all kids ever do, they just want to be on their screens and they you know, they don’t want to play outside.
And back in my day, we used to spend our days on our bikes and now kids don’t. And I do think a lot of people working in science do have this perception that kids are a really hard audience to engage in kind of wholesome goodness like books about a river.
Do you agree with that or do you think that a lot of that’s just people I don’t know, making stuff up?
Let me think this one through, Jen. I mean there is something special about a book and I absolutely… particularly with kid’s books and picture books you know, you can’t really do it on a screen. It’s a very different experience. Screens are I think are much more tiring in a way. You’re driven by the screen. You’re not driving the screen. But with a book you get to turn the pages or who’s ever reading the book gets to turn the pages. So it’s much more paced and reflective in that sense.
I mean… Yeah it’s interesting. I mean we, when I was growing up we were allowed to take more risks. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing now. I don’t think I allowed my children to take as many risks as my parents did but thinking of my kids they do a lot of, a lot of sport.
You know, the outdoor activity was there but it was much more managed and choreographed. You know I do think free play, reflectivity, getting out, playing with mud, getting outside is terrific. How we quite fit that into the way we live today is interesting.
I think we do need to make more of an effort to get kids off screens and into the mud. I think we’re getting very reduced in our sort of sensory experience of the world. It’s becoming much more visual.
I think that was true of me compared to my friend Leigh grew up on the Keilor River and collected bird’s eggs and swam in the river and had that sort of Huck Fin type childhood. And he still sees birds faster than I do. You know, he’s just a tune and we’ve lost that and hasn’t all gone.
My son has a pet snake. Does that count?
Yeah, absolutely. I think we should encourage that.
And are the kids you know, you know, thinking about the penguins that live down in St Kilda and you know, the Peregrine Falcons that live at the top of a skyrise building in the city?
Are the kids interested in those stories for the same reasons that adults are or for different reasons because I think you know, as an adult you know, learning about that for me, It’s penguins in Australia. What? And Peregrine Falcons? You know, living at the top of a sky rise?
Just don’t associate that as kind of being I guess part of their habitat. Not that I know anything. I’m not qualified to know anything about what the habitat of a Peregrine Falcon is but I just think it’s really interesting that they live happily or do they live happily at the top of these sky rises?
But those are the things I guess that interest me in those topics but are kids interested in the same kind of things or is it something different that interests kids?
I think they’re interested in that Michael. I think that brings them out of themselves. You know, they kind of… Rather than seeing the city just as a place where people are, they begin to look at it a bit differently and seeing it as a place where there are other things.
And kids adore animals. You know, they just love animals. They love penguins. And certainly in writing those books we were looking for the emotion in it. Not putting emotion in the animals that didn’t exist but you know that, that emotion element of risk and drama and being together as the birds are, whether they’re penguins or peregrines seeking connection.
And certainly with the peregrines, that whole experience of growing up, you know the, the… And I mean, I think the peregrines are such a fantastic thing to look at because, because you can look at them. They’re, they’re on your computer screen and you can follow their progress.
And that is extraordinary. You know, to be able to see as, as somebody who’s growing up, to be able to see another creature growing up. And I think that’s part of the pleasure.
But I think also with picture books, you always have an adult element. You know, you’re often mediating that book for the child. And so you’re telling them Michael about why you like it, and they learn from that.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. And just for the listeners if you haven’t checked the peregrines out. When is a good time of year to uh, hop onto the webcam and have a look at them?
I think they start sort of July, August. They come in. They’re not there all year round. So the webcam doesn’t run the whole time.
It’s been a fairly exciting year this year because the male from last year returned with another female which was pretty scandalous for younger, a younger bird.
Yeah, the drama.
The drama and then there is more dynasty to come. A younger male came along and kicked him out.
And raised his eggs as his own.
Wow, that’s, that’s really interesting and dramatic. But I guess that is the, the life of you know, peregrine falcons out there. But just listening to you describe that Andrew, it’s clear that you’re a very skilled communicator.
And I think your colleagues think that as well. I read an article about your decision to step down as the, the Riverkeeper after seven years. And I think one of your colleagues commented there that one of the reasons you’d been so brilliant in that role is because of your communication skills.
So yeah, just curious to ask you about that. You know, we’ve got…. I think a lot of listeners are interested in how to be a more effective communicator. What do you think effective communication is about?
Storytelling. Everything is a story. Everything needs to be thought of as a story from the simplest to the most complicated stories.
And that’s just the nature of things. You, but if you’re a bit more conscious about it, I think it helps you communicate, to think in those terms,
I mean, the story, you’re never telling everything all at once. You know, language is limited by its nature. Language is selection. You’re making choices. The minute you open your mouth or put your pen to paper or your fingers onto a keyboard.
And so you just have to be a bit more self-conscious about that. You know, what story do I want to say? You know, what’s, you know, to me, I think one of the questions comes to me as a writer, “What, what is my voice? How do I want to sound? How do I want people to hear me?”
You’re telling a story, but you’re telling a story for someone. How are they going to react to this?
Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I think the default is to think about, you know, you and focus on how you’re talking about your science.
But really the information is for other people, as you say. So, you know, you’re absolutely right and I think it’s great that you have this career where you’re storytelling and you know, you’re, you’ve been out in nature a lot.
It just, it really sounds like a fulfilling career that you’ve had. So I’m just curious to ask for, for our listeners, early career researchers who, who are thinking you know, How, how do I have a fulfilling career? What advice would you have for us?
No, no pressure, no pressure.
Ooh, that’s a tough one. You’ve got to find what really drives you. And often I think those drivers go back to childhood, it certainly did for me. You know, I’ve constantly had that sense of what inspired me as a child, that sense of wonder, which I suspect is very common to scientists to have that sense of wonder.
I will… I guess if I had a piece of advice would be to tap back into that sense of wonder all the time. It’s, it’s there. It’s probably what got you going in the first place. And, and, and it, it never, it’s not like it’s a fixed thing in my experience.
It, you learn more about that sense of wonder that you had as you go through your life. And it deepens and enriches. And hold onto that and be ready to share, I guess. Share what you know. It’s hugely satisfying to share what you know.
Hmm. Yeah, and I guess by doing that you can reconnect with the wonder because maybe part of the reason why we can lose the sense of wonder as we just become I don’t know, too familiar with the topic or we take it for granted. And when we explain it to other people, I can see how that really can help us reconnect. So yeah, that’s that’s great advice. And we’ve been asking you some pretty big questions, Andrew. Some, some hard hitting philosophical questions here.
So we’ve come to the time of the podcast where we’re actually going to shift gears a little bit and we got some lighthearted questions that we’d just like to ask you at the end, some rapid fire questions. So, short questions, short answers.
The first one that I would like to ask is if you have to pick an alternative career to what you’ve described, what would that alternative career be?
Or maybe the other way of phrasing that is what will your next career be?
‘Cause we absolutely know your career is still very much in progress.
Thank you for that, Jen. Zoologist. That was what I wanted to be as a child. My maths was not strong enough, so I ended up chasing words, which is probably more in my comfort zone. But yeah, I would have loved to have been a zoologist.
All, all the cool people are zoologists. So welcome, Andrew.
I’m not a zoologist…
Well, you have to think about what, what I just said and what it means for you then, Michael. I just said all the cool people are zoologists. Or, or maybe all the cool people either are a zoologist, or would like to be zoologists?
I’m having an existential crisis here on the podcast. But I’m not a zoologist yet.
Exactly, that was my point. That was my point.
OK Andrew, next question, which was meant to be quick question.
What is your proudest professional moment?
Hmm. We lied when we said these were easy questions by the way.
Yeah, I’d, I’d say two things which is cheating. One was seeing the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act passed in the State Parliament with the Wurundjeri Elders on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. Pretty sound, pompous sounding. But I was in the gallery, that was pretty special.
It actually gives me goosebumps. It actually gives me goosebumps you even say that ’cause I have some image of, of what it would have taken for that to happen.
It was pretty amazing and that was a real acknowledgement I think of Traditional Owners in this state, to have them on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. It was unusual to have unelected people on the floor, almost unknown.
And the other one that which is, I guess a personal thrill, was when the… And I’m bragging here… Oops.
We encourage bragging. Bragging is absolutely allowed.
So the Wall Street Journal said and I like this ’cause it’s kind of the economic narrative that I often speak against. Coming from, you know, the primary journal of that, the Wall Street Journal said that Wilam, A Birrarung Story was one of the best for picture books of, I think it was 2020. But anyhow, that was a real surprise and…
And… Thank you and Lisa Kennedy’s illustrations are just truly stunning.
We’d like to know what your favorite science related movie or book or joke is.
Don’t look up.
Hmm… We’ve had that before. We all agree that it’s wonderful, yet horribly depressing.
We’ve had that before.
Yes. God, isn’t that people all over?
Yes, yes. How’s your life? Oh, wonderful, but terribly depressing.
Yeah, no, there’s a lot of ways of analysing the communication, I guess, science communication from that movie.
We should probably, we could do a lecture on it, Jen. Maybe that could be an idea for the future.
Yeah, yeah, let’s do it.
But speaking of science communication Andrew.
For the last question, I’ve got the very difficult task for you to pick your top tip for effective science communication.
Tell a story.
That was easy. Perfect.
Yes, that was easy. Not as hard as… didn’t I?
I had a hunch that you were going to say that, Andrew.
Did you Jen, really?
I’m glad you did.
Ah you read me. I’m an open book.
Oh Andrew, thank you so much for making time for us today. And I’m very confident that we could speak for a very long time because I know you’ve only touched on a few aspects of your career with us today, a career that is very much in, in progress.
But for us to hear about some of the advocacy work you’ve done as Riverkeeper and these beautiful stories that you’ve shared, it’s really great for us to think more broadly I think about what the communication of scientific ideas can look like.
So I’m really very, very chuffed that you made time for us today. Thank you.
Absolute pleasure, Jen. Thank you.
Thank you, Michael.
Thank you both. It’s been fun.
Thank you so much, Andrew. It’s been, it’s been a very thoughtful conversation and very valuable I think as well. So thank you so much.
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