Vincent Serventy, 1916-2007
Vincent Serventy was green before greenery became fashionable. He did not wear shoes until he was 11, “running wild through the bush like a brumby”. Honoured in 1996 for having fought for the environment for 50 years, he was still fighting in his 91st year, writing to the Herald, for example, on the horrors of whaling.
His battles were many, varied and often involved formidable foes. When the West Australian Liberal Government gave Alwest a lease to mine the Dryandra Forest, Serventy wrote to Rupert Murdoch, who headed Alwest: “If you destroy Dryandra, it will be an act of sacrilege.”
Murdoch relinquished the lease.
After losing the battle for Lake Pedder he read an article by Tom Uren, a Whitlam government minister and conservationist, pointing out how the Commonwealth could override the states in certain matters.
This knowledge was put to use, and the incoming Hawke government saved the Franklin River.
With the poet Judith Wright and others he helped save the Great Barrier Reef from plans by the Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to issue oil leases. “I enjoy a fight,” he said in 1996. “You win, you lose, you regroup and fight again.”
Serventy enlisted the written word and the moving picture for his battles. He wrote, or co-wrote, more than 70 books. Asked in England to write on the endangered noisy scrub bird, he replied: “There’s a whole continent in danger.” This led to A Continent in Danger, one of his most acclaimed works. He made a popular TV series, Nature Walkabout.
Serventy, who died on Saturday aged 91, was born to Victor and Antica Serventy, who had come from Croatia early last century, met on the Kalgoorlie goldfields and moved to an orchard and vineyard at Armadale, outside Perth, where Vincent was the youngest of eight children. He attended Perth Modern School, graduated in geology and psychology from the University of Western Australia, researched zoology for the CSIRO and taught. One student at Northam High School was Shirley Strickland, the gold medal Olympic athlete who became a committed environmentalist.
He signed up in 1946 for life membership of the Wildlife Preservation Society, founded in Australia by David Stead in 1909, mainly to protect the koala from the skin trade and lyrebirds from being killed to decorate hats. Subsequently, Queen Mary said she would not wear the plumage of any wild bird. The US president, Herbert Hoover, banned the importation of koala skins.
Serventy’s first conservation fight was against a plan to build a swimming pool in Kings Park, Perth. The conservationists won. He was in the Great Victoria Desert in 1956, watching budgerigars drinking from a waterhole when a falcon plucked out one bird and tore it to pieces. Serventy bought a movie camera and made a documentary film, which led to Nature Walkabout, Australia’s first television environment program. Sir Frank Packer commissioned it and supplied Vincent and Carol with a caravan and four-wheel-drive vehicle. He wrote a column for Packer’s Daily Telegraph and later for the Herald.
Vincent had married Caroline Darbyshire in 1955, and the couple honeymooned in the Dryandra forest, which Serventy considered “the best bit of woodland in Australia”. His book Dryandra is included in Geoffrey Dutton’s selection of Australia’s greatest books, The Australian Collection.
Carol, a fellow conservationist, was his principal ally, but he worked happily with people such as the documentary maker Bob Raymond and the artist John Olsen, particularly in Lake Eyre and the Kimberleys. Advising the prime minister Malcolm Fraser to continue Gough Whitlam’s environmental programs, he then encouraged Fraser to establish an Australian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
He campaigned relentlessly for public access to the Sydney Harbour foreshores and for the koala, wombat and shark. He railed against soil degradation, the rabbits, foxes and feral cats that kill Australian wildlife and the erosion of wetlands. His Easy Guide to Green Living (1990) was not just about what to put in the shopping trolley but a way of looking at the planet and the way we live, including a section on “How to protest”.
His last campaign was for a bill of rights for the environment, with 10 Green Commandments. He had wished that “When my time comes, I hope a tree falls on my head.” In the event, he died after suffering a stroke.
Vincent Serventy leaves Carol, their children Natasha, Catherine and Matthew, their partners and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Pearl Beach Hall on September 23.