There is a woman on Norfolk Island who lives and breathes the sentiment behind the Greek philosopher’s quote. Margaret (known as Marg) Christian’s love affair with nature began at a young age when she and her family would spend weekends and holidays in a beach house along the New South Wales’ Central Coast. The bird lover, naturalist and published author described her childhood as rich with joy and learning, both of the natural world and the culture of that era. While her father encouraged her outdoor curiosity, her mother introduced her to the classics. Matinees and live theatre increased the young child’s cultural awareness while simultaneously allowing her to enjoy precious one-on-one time with her mother during memorable outings, including ballet performances by Margot Fonteyn and Shakespeare readings by Sir John Geilgud. Speaking of her early, outdoor experiences Marg shared a fond memory that, unbeknownst to her at that tender age, birthed a passion she would follow for the rest of her life.
“I remember at the end of a day spent exploring by the water, how I would climb up onto my father’s lap for warmth in the cool of the evening and show him the various things I’d found washed up along the seashore. He would open up a well-known reference we had, Dakin’s Australian Seashores (William John Dakin & Isobel Bennett) and together we would search the pages to find out about my little marine collection. That reference provided all the information I needed to satisfy my curiosity, and I remember that time with great affection.”
Researching the life of co-author of Australian Seashores, Isobel Bennett (1909-2008) led me to an interesting fact; one that linked the two women in parallel ways, albeit at different times. Bennett was a researcher, marine biologist and conservationist whose career began during the Depression in the most serendipitous way. Her employer had gone out of business and Bennett’s job as a secretary came to an end. She decided to go on a cruise with her sister to, of all places, Norfolk Island. William John Dakin (1883-1950) professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney happened to be in the next cabin with his wife and was impressed with young Bennett, so much so that he offered her a research position in connection with a book he was writing. Under his continued supervision, Bennett later collaborated with Dakin on the classic reference, Australian Seashores. Bennett’s attention to detail and careful illustrations were achieved with her mentor’s guidance and her own self-discipline and dedication to a task that she loved. Dakin’s death in 1950 meant that Bennett was left with the job of completing Australian Seashores, which was published in 1952 and sold out within a few weeks. Bennett went on to complete further revised and illustrated editions until she was well into her eighties. Without any formal qualifications, it was Bennett’s labour of love that compelled her to research the minutiae of every undertaking, and the depth of her passion drove her desire for the ongoing care and understanding of marine life, which she shared with many others.
When I spoke to Marg Christian, it was natural to ask her why she travelled to Norfolk Island at the age of 18. It seemed an odd holiday destination for a young woman from Sydney.
“I was ready to leave the comfort of home, and my mother’s glowing reports of her earlier visit to the island had piqued my interest.”
That one-year working holiday would have significant consequences for Marg’s long-term future. It was when she met her husband-to-be, Kenny Christian, and together they returned to Sydney for a period of 11 years before coming back to settle on Norfolk. During that time their children were born in Sydney, and Kenny enjoyed the experience of a very different life in the city to the one he had known on his little, remote island home in the South Pacific. In a similar way, Marg had loved her time on the island and was captivated by much of its culture and natural beauty. And it was also where she had met two other special people, Islanders Owen Evans and his wife, Beryl. At the age of 18 years old, the foundation for Marg’s career was laid on Norfolk soil with those locals, both literally and symbolically and it would become a close professional and emotional bond for many years.
“I owe much to both Owen and Beryl. Within a few months of arriving for that working holiday I was bird-banding with Owen. He imparted his wealth of knowledge and that carried through to the time when we worked together in 1988 for the Australian government’s Bicentennial project, The Flora of Australia. Volume 49 contained the flora of Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, but the total body of work comprised of over 60 volumes.”
Marg and Owen embarked on this painstaking work by searching the forests, hills, gullies and creeks all around Norfolk. It was a massive job; exacting work that required photographing specimens and communicating the information back to the editor, Peter Green of Kew Gardens in London. And all of this was done back in the day when a fax machine was rarer than some native plants on Norfolk! Nearly all the work was sent by post, and it took ten years to complete the mammoth project. During this time Marg was working for National Parks as part of a team (1983-2003) and she reflected on, what she described as, the most important time in her career.
“I was working with the team members and visiting scientists in Parks, and it taught me a lot. I have always felt an innate responsibility to make sure that information is not lost. Propagation and scientific research are important, and someone must keep a record of endemic species. For example, the Meryta plant was nearly extinct when I arrived here as a young woman, there were less than 20 of the species left. This was partly due to the isolation of the male and female plants. The Meryta plant is iconic here on the island, and there were many other plants that were endangered at that time. But they have since recovered in numbers due to the work done. Plants are naturally regenerating and a lot of native plants have been re-introduced to the forest. However, current Parks’ programs include continuing propagation of the rare species.”
Marg is also renowned on the Island for her knowledge of the local bird life and the importance of nurturing rare species so that they don’t die out. When she first arrived on Norfolk some bird species were also becoming extinct. Marg talked of the enormous excitement when the last Morepork owl was discovered in the 1980s.
“It was an amazing moment to have that bird in hand. It was a female, but she wasn’t young. New Zealand male birds were brought to the Island and this was the best we could do to stop the species from dying out entirely.”
Much of the work done on the Island has produced great results. The green parrot has made a wonderful recovery and this is due to the reduction in rats and feral cats, but there is still work to be done. Marg started the Cat Welfare and Wildlife Protection Association 25 years ago; the nature lover insists that she is not a cat hater, but she is aware of the necessity for everyone, including itinerants, to act responsibly when it comes to keeping cats as pets. Norfolk is small and vulnerable, and we are all responsible for its sustainability.
After working for Parks for 20 years and having enjoyed a wonderful, fruitful career Marg then focused on another project; and that was to sit down and write a book about the birds on Norfolk, which is titled ‘Norfolk Island…the birds’. When I asked why she felt she had to do this, she replied “Because someone had to do it.” Again, it is clear that the naturalist’s sense of responsibility and duty of care for Norfolk Island’s wildlife is at the forefront of her every decision. Isobel Bennett’s work was a vocation. Marg Christian’s life echoes Bennett’s in the sense that she too was drawn to this work through a mentor, and she continues to share her vast knowledge with all who wish to discover the beauty and sustainability in nature. She sums it up best when she says, “It is satisfying knowing that you’re contributing to the ongoing existence of our unique flora and fauna.”
As in childhood, the ocean still holds a magnetic attraction for Marg. She remembers when she arrived on Norfolk Island how her daily snorkelling sessions naturally evolved into the monitoring of changes in the marine life here, over every season, over every year. Details matter. The natural world matters. Marg Christian loves Norfolk’s landscape with its majestic pine trees, but she has dreams to travel further afield and stand next to the giant redwoods. She will no doubt continue to search and research for all that is wondrous in nature, whether it’s the depths of our ocean or the awesome, towering trees on a different shore. There is always another, fascinating world to explore.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 01, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.