In memory of Dr Mary White

Dr Mary White when she spoke at a Climate Change Forum at Falls Forest Retreat, Johns River in 2005. Her daughter is accused of her murder. Photo: Newcastle Herald.

Dr Mary White when she spoke at a Climate Change Forum at Falls Forest Retreat, Johns River in 2005. Her daughter is accused of her murder. Photo: Newcastle Herald.

Dr Mary White was an extraordinary woman and the terrible headlines of her ‘newsworthy’ death should not detract from what she achieved in her lifetime and her contribution to environmental issues in this region.

Mary White worked in Australia as a paleobotanist, but wrote across several disciplines. Her best known books are The Greening of Gondwana, an account of how Australia became the driest vegetated continent; After the Greening, The Browning of Australia, concerning the increasing aridification; Listen ... Our Land is Crying, which focused on the Australian environment and how its geological history together with European-style land use have caused so many problems.

She also wrote Running Down – Water in a Changing Land, which was about our ancient river systems and her last book, Earth Alive, From Microbes to a Living Planet, is the story of the bacterial origins of life. Together, these works offer a comprehensive account of this continent and its ecosystems, and the many pressures it faces today. 

Dr Mary White was not only an academic, she put her concerns about the ongoing catastrophe of land-clearing and habitat loss into action.

She sold up in Sydney and created the Falls Forest Retreat at John’s River – a Gondwana sanctuary for rainforest conservation and nature appreciation. She reluctantly left the retreat due to old age.

It is a beautiful area and I always enjoyed visiting her and her two rescued birds. 

Over the past eight years the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre has been the venue for the annual Mary White Address, as part of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival (BRWF) since the inaugural festival in 2011 when Mary White gave her ‘Writing the Environment’ talk.

Kathryn Wood, the recent manager and myself, as BRWF representative, organised this unique series. We have both been away and have just learnt of her death.

Writers who have given this notable address over the years are:

  • 2011 Mary White;
  • 2012 Deborah Bird Rose;
  • 2013 Bill Gammage;
  • 2014 Dr Hayden Washington;
  • 2015 Peter Macinnis;
  • 2016 Janet Richardson;
  • 2017 (no festival); and
  • 2018 Dr Tim Cadman.

In 2010 Dr Mary White was awarded the Australia Geographic Lifetime of Conservation Award. Her great talent was her ability to take sometimes very weighty scientific papers about the Australian environment and the impacts of land use on this ancient continent and turn them into very readable books that made this knowledge far more accessible to the wider public.

We are sure that she will be fondly remembered by all those who have read her books and attended the talks inspired by her. 

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