Last Sunday a large group gathered in the butterfly garden at Loder’s Creek, Southport, to farewell one of the nicest men I have ever known – the amazing Doug White.
It was, of course, a sad occasion. Sad to watch Doug’s wife and partner-in-all-things Jeannie as she valiantly battled her tears to oversee the memorial service. Sad to see his two big, strong sons Damian and Corey paying tribute to their father in words that moved us all. And yet, the sadness fell away as we shared our memories of a truly remarkable man who was renowned, among other things, for his cheerful demeanor. The idea that eyes “twinkle” is a sentimental cliche – but actually Doug’s eyes really did seem to do just that.
I’ve known a lot of people in my life. In my media days I mixed it with the famous (and infamous!). In my years in the horticultural and rainforest industries I spent many a happy hour out bush with skilled and knowledgeable natural scientists of all kinds. And I can say, without any doubt, that Doug White was not only one of the nicest of men he was also one of the most knowledgeable – the best naturalist I have ever met!
He knew his mammals and his reptiles and his insects and the plants on which so many of these relied for food and shelter. He was pretty good on birds, too, and on the connectivity that linked one living thing with another. He was the go-to person when it came to species identification for many of us engaged in conservation and the natural world in this region. Many a time I have emailed him a photo (often blurred!) of a moth or a mushroom, to receive a prompt and cheerful reply identifying it for me.
It was a surprise, therefore, to learn from Jeannie as she spoke to us about Doug’s life that much of his knowledge had been acquired in the field, and was, following his formal education in horticulture, largely self-taught. And that there were so many other aspects of his life we had never known – who would have guessed he once played in a rock band around the scene in Christchurch, or had worked for the quarantine service, had owned a shop and run a lawn mowing business! To name just a few of the jobs with which the young Doug (Jeannie ever at his side) had supported himself while acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural sciences which (I learned from his sister) had begun when he was a child in New Zealand, son of a father who also loved the bush and all things in it.
I first met Doug nearly 20 years ago when he was the paid consultant to the Escarpment Committee on Tamborine Mountain (which was subsequently reformed into the local Landcare group). We worked together on surveys and various land-mending environmental projects. I watched him set traps and shared the thrill of finding some small creature in one of these traps – perhaps one of his beloved Antichinuses – and observed how tenderly he treated each creature before it could be duly weighed and measured and observed and recorded and then released. The wildlife of Tamborine Mountain is under threat, as it is in so much of this region, and a major part of Doug’s work, as an environmental consultant, was to ensure that its existence – and thus its importance – was understood and acknowledged by local authorities and land developers. Here his “ordinary bloke”, non-judgmental, pragmatic approach served him well.
Doug White was himself a notable figure in the landscape. Sturdy, rotund of belly, stocky and strong of leg, bushy of beard, you could pick him out a kilometre away. One of a kind! I smiled, as did many others, when last Sunday Jeannie referred to Doug’s sartorial shortcomings. He always wore the same worn tee shirt, baggy shorts and stout boots wherever he went – I never saw him dressed any other way. I remember once, when he and Jeannie were going on one of their several trips to the US of A, Doug grumbling because Jeannie was trying to make him pack some decent clobber. “Are you telling me that you would walk through New York dressed as you are now?”, I asked incredulously, gazing at Doug in all his bushbashing glory. “Of course?”, he replied, looking puzzled.
And I pictured Doug stomping sturdily down Fifth Avenue in his boots and baggy shorts or, worse still, in Las Vegas. “What happens when you go to a show in Las Vegas?” I asked. “Oh Jeannie and the others do that,” he said dismissively. “I head into the desert!”.
As former Tamborine Mountains head National Parks ranger Will Buch said in his graceful tribute to his friend of 20 years or so, Doug White was a man thoroughly comfortable in his own skin. (And while I’m picturing Doug in New York, I’m reminded of how he loved Central Park and told me it was a great spot for birdwatching).
Doug was always such good company and with a robust sense of humour, well able to take my typically Aussie gibes about Kiwis and chuck ’em back at me. (“Is it true they now have cars in New Zealand?” I asked him once. “Yes,” he retorted, “And unlike Australians they know how to drive them properly, too”). I also used to tease him about his Latin pronunciation…”You Kiwis are even worse than the Aussies when it comes to mispronouncing the botanical names of plants”, I told him many times, smug in the fact that where I come from we start learning Latin at age 10 and it’s the pure Cambridge stuff too! “It’s Araucaria bidwillEE EE not bidwilli EYE“, I would complain, as just one example. “How do you know?” he once replied, “Were you around when the Romans were speaking?”
We all have our fond memories of Doug and thus his memorial service was just that…a chance for those attending to share memories. And for those of us who had known him only in his Australian years it was lovely – and sometimes surprising – to get a glimpse of the younger Douglas whom we were never lucky enough to meet. Thanks to the excellent pictorial tribute put together by Corey.
For Jeannie and family this is a hard, hard time. For Doug’s friends and those who worked with him in all areas environmental, it is difficult to come to grips with the fact that this seemingly indestructible man is with us no more.
But I consoled myself by thinking, as I sat there listening to the Grey Butcherbirds calling in the trees along Loder’s Creek, that this wonderfully restored greenspace in the urban heart of the frenetic Gold Coast is a vital part of Doug White’s gift to us all. And how many others of us, I wonder, will behind leave so precious a legacy when we, too, finally become one with Nature.
On a final personal note – Doug’s son Damian carries on the family’s environmental consultancy with wife Narelle, an entomologist. Some years ago my daughter Cathy was interested in this type of work and I asked Doug’s advice. “Tell her she needs to get a degree”, said, “As Damian is doing”. And so she did, and is now in charge of Koala conservation with the Redland City Council, and the author of several papers in international science journals. Doug never failed to ask how she was doing and took a great interest in her work with road ecology. “We need more urban ecologists” he used to tell me, “It’s all very well and romantic going out into the bush and doing research in remote areas but it’s the urban interface where the really essential environmental conservation work is being done.”
PS And I just know somebody is going to ask what “Thanks for all the fish…” means. Those of my generation – and Doug’s – will know that this comes from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which was an iconic book back in our day. It’s humour, like Doug’s memory, lives on.