“YOU’D have been the kind of kid who took tadpoles to kinder,” I say to Moragh McKay.
She laughs. “I used to collect tadpoles from puddles in the street,” she confesses. Moragh’s dad was a Springvale stockfeed supplier. The family lived on the edge of Melbourne, suburbs one side, market gardens and bush on the other ─ the kind of place that allowed a kid to march to a different drum. Her mother took her along to Brownies one evening. The nine-year-old took one look at the circle of little girls neatly knitting at the feet of a bossy Brown Owl, said “Naah” and went home. She preferred to get on her pony and ride – “just me and my pony and my dog – and not come back till 6 or 7 at night”.
A Landcare officer in the Bass Coast region for 15 years, Moragh McKay has always been an observer. Primary school taught her how easy it was to sell your soul to the popular kids, changing yourself to fit the way others want you to be. “The thing is, it never satisfies them,” she says. Recently, a conversation about bullying with her son Tarkyn brought back a memory of a long-ago decisive moment. She recalls the deliberate act of turning her back and walking away ─ and then starting up other friendships. She’d discovered the power of being true to herself.
She’s always railed against injustice. She used to feel outraged by the privileges extended to boys. At her primary school the oval was boy territory. Girls were restricted to the netball court and climbing equipment. One lunchtime, young Moragh marched onto the oval in the middle of a game of cricket and demanded the right to play. “This is rubbish!” she cried, gesturing at the disdainful enclave
gathered round her. A boy grabbed her arm, swung her round in a circle and landed her on her shoulder. These days a chronic shoulder injury reminds her that political activism comes with costs.
But it seems that warrior woman was built into her DNA. From her mother came the belief that women can do anything they want and the conviction that there’s a way round every obstacle. Her father’s mother enjoyed a ferocious determination to do things her own way ... “And married a man who was willing to accept women that way,” Moragh adds. Her father is an engineer. “He taught me to build things.”
After completing year 11 she went to Brazil as an exchange student, an experience that changed her life. She went steeped in the principles of social equity, an appreciator of volunteering and participation. “The inequity of social opportunity in San Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world, just blew my mind,” she says. “If I picked my clothes up off the floor I would get into trouble, not just from my hosts but from the maids as well. They rejected my attempts to show I cared about them. They thought I was undermining their job security.”
For months she was deeply confused and homesick. Her hosts found her wayward and wanted to send her home. Then, 16-year-old Moragh got on a bus to a poorer suburb and found a job teaching English. “It was a bit risky returning after dark but it helped me feel better about what I was doing there.”
But it was language that made the real difference. After six months she began to dream in Portuguese. She could have real conversations. The difference was, she says, “you could be understood for who you were.” It was a massive turning point. “It taught me that if you can find something good within an undesirable situation, you can find some peace and happiness within that.”
One year on, when she returned to her private girls’ school to do her final year, she lasted two days. “Basically I ran away”. Somehow or other she ended up completing her final year at Huntingdale Tech doing a film, TV and radio studies course. She loved the freer school structure, its collaborative approach. She started connecting the dots between her observations of human behaviour and ways of communicating. “It was one of the best years of my life,” she says.
In 1984 Moragh deferred her uni studies to travel round Australia and found herself at Roxby Downs uranium mine. There she had personal experience of communication failure. On a consciousness-raising mission, the anti-uranium protesters sat in on a meeting of Andamooka residents and, fired with goodwill, explained why uranium wasn’t good for the town or the planet. The locals gave them a two-day deadline to vacate the district and, in the interim, set themselves up around the protesters’ camp taking pot shots at beer cans. Moragh was arrested three days before her sister’s wedding. Her Super8 film showing police corralling protesters into police cars was shown on national TV and the wedding went on without her.
Bloodied but unbowed, she became a full-time political activist. “I was incensed by all the lies,” she says. “The things that are supposed to be in the interests of the global economy at the expense of the health of people and the environment. I was determined to expose it all.” Over time, the question of what would be the best way for her to make a long-term difference was resolved. She did a degree in native vegetation, wildlife and catchment management at Charles Sturt Uni and eventually came to Landcare and the Bass Coast.
For all her innate concern for social equity, out in the field there was so much she had to unlearn. “Like all young idealistic university graduates, you think you’ve got a lot to teach people,” Moragh says ruefully. In the 15 years she has been working with people in Landcare, her understanding has steadily deepened. “I’ve learnt so much from farmers,” she says.
Sustainable Landcare practices, the Landcare goal, seems simple enough. But over time she’s come to better understand why it’s so hard to achieve.
On the ground, they say, are those who own and work the land, the farmers who know their particular conditions and problems intimately, who learn better from each other than anyone else, who resent being spoken down to and whose respect and co-operation has to be earned.
Above them in the hierarchy are government and its bureaucracies, the remote policy makers with the ‘legitimate’ knowledge, a one-size-fits-all attitude to land management – and whose respect and co-operation also has to be earned.
Different knowledge, different language, different values. At its worst, a recipe for frustration, cynicism and wasted funds and energy.
The Western Port Land Stewardship Program is a response to that challenge. A joint project between community and government in which local and regional partners work together and trial changes, it consists of three Landcare networks, two government departments and Melbourne Water. “It’s an incredibly dynamic group,” says Moragh.The program design means it can respond to different local conditions and still allow partners to achieve their own goals. The contribution of farmers underpins the program. Farmers talk in discussion groups, do courses and receive help from experts as required, trial changes, collect data and exchange what they’ve learnt. Revegetating, managing pastures and soils, weed control, water planning, dung beetles , chook poo all get talked about, studied, measured.
“Basically it’s about farmer knowledge, about them learning from their own trials,” says Moragh.
Shared trials have two big benefits: they lead to greater interaction between local and regional partners, and they result in policy that reflects local action. Future directions are more open to inquiry rather than imposed from above. Information is exchanged, standards agreed on, checklists created. Ways of communicating proliferate.
Most satisfyingly for Moragh, this program, which embodies a lifetime’s learning, “requires the critical involvement of people in things that affect their lives and allows people to behave in ways that are closer to their principles”.
From where she stands at the moment, Moragh McKay might agree it’s a long way back to that little girl crouched over a puddle in the road. But the connections are there. Tadpoles too have their role in the scheme of things. And a language to be understood, a voice to be heard.