We recognise the continuous and deep connection to Country, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this nation. In this way we respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this land, sea, the waters and sky. We pay tribute to the Elders past and present as we also respect the collective ancestry that has brought us all here today.
AUTHOR: BRIONI BALE
My first full time job was working for the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) collecting Australian tree seed for sale, and for research to increase timber quality traits for plantation timbers and other uses in Australia and internationally. There were 40-odd team members, a handful of them women and three of us who worked in the field. I spent months away every year in the bush shooting or climbing trees to bring down branches containing tree seed, collecting it in big canvas sheets, lugging them through the bush back to the car or our camp, laying them out in the sun to dry and then sieving off the leaf debris to be left with the tiny seeds.
On my first field trip a branch came down on top of a pile of felled logs. I climbed up to collect the seed only to fall, landing on my ribs. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I struggled through the next few days before going home to be diagnosed with broken ribs. I learned a lot about myself on this first field trip.
I worked with Aboriginal communities in the NT and WA to establish bush tucker-suitable species trials to see what would grow and where. It was hard work, building irrigation systems, planting thousands of seedlings and mapping each trial design for future performance measurement. Winter nights were freezing (literally) sleeping in a swag in the desert and in summer temperatures got close to 50ºC and I would spend the heat of the day dragging my swag in the shade.
I travelled to some of the most incredible parts of the country. I remember driving out and passing Uluru and Kata Tjuta and on to the Gunbarrel Highway and being surprised by the grass tree oasis’ that appeared sporadically in the desert. Working in Far North QLD, I spotted koalas and tree kangaroos in the tree-tops, on the south coast of NSW we found a huge spotted gum that was estimated to be 400 years old and in VIC I drove our 4WD (OKA) truck through plantations, navigating barely drivable roads to collect timber cores samples to better understand growth patterns.
Later in my career I became an expert in vegetative propagation – growing seedlings through cuttings (clones) to maintain the superior traits or through grafting to decrease the breeding cycle time. I worked in nurseries across the Australian east coast and in PNG teaching others the techniques I had developed so they too could tap into Australian species that produced higher wood qualities in lower rainfall climates.
I also found myself in some interesting situations. Sleeping on the roof rack in the desert when there was evidence of camels so not to get trampled, being left on the side of the Stuart Highway when our vehicle broke down to ‘keep our gear safe’ only weeks after Peter Falconio (a British tourist) had been kidnapped and murdered in the same area, and changing punctured tyres when we ran out of spares, including learning how to break the bead to replace the inner tube (an activity I later learned was done inside a cage for safety purposes).
One of my favourite (and scariest) field trips was when I travelled to a very remote community in Central Province, PNG to teach them how to take sandalwood cuttings in an attempt to repopulate the declining numbers in the hope of building a local sandalwood industry. During the five-hour drive by vehicle and then two hours by boat, I’d asked one of my PNG colleagues how to say hello in local language. I climbed out of the boat and went to greet the kids only to find them running away from me. When I asked what had happened, I was told that the kids had not seen a white woman in the community before.
I feel so lucky to have had these opportunities and when I reflect back, to see how much they helped shape me and my career to date. My ability to solve problems, to think analytically and to make decisions under pressure all stem from these experiences. I also learned that working with an amazing team makes going to work everyday so much better.