A story of grassroots conservation and one community volunteer
Nowadays she has a lower profile. But she is still invested in preserving this ‘unique land’ for everyone to treasure and enjoy.ears ago, Rosemary Birney was known as the ‘witch of Somers’. As a conservationist and dedicated protector of what she describes as a fantastic place, Rosemary stirred mixed feelings in this small seaside hamlet on the Mornington Peninsula.
Rosemary is a small woman whose appearance is practical, unadorned and workman-like. I first encountered her at a foreshore community working bee. She was leading a group to see a shy native orchid: a rare, inconspicuous flower tucked away on the edge of a trail, unseen by those of us who are unfamiliar with the bush.
Rosemary can read the bush. She knows the shrubs and trees tumbling down the coastal hillside to the ocean. She knows how to plant native grasses to coax growth and how to conquer the ever-lurking weeds. She is a natural educator, teaching herself first and sharing knowledge enthusiastically. Her family think she’s ‘nuts’.
Why such devotion to the land? Her childhood was spent on Sydney’s north shore, in what was then mostly bushland. Visits to her mother’s family farm in Kilcoy, Queensland, kindled an affinity with the ‘magical’ bush. As a young married woman she lived for a time in the shadow of the Snowy Mountains and her love of this area looms large. Her life has been spent in country towns and small communities where people don’t ask, they just help out.
Somers was to be Rosemary’s final destination. Having spent holidays here, camping with her five children, she arrived in retirement, ‘I came thinking I’d stay forever.’
She joined the local foreshore volunteer group, eventually becoming secretary. With friends, she founded Nautilus because ‘the place needed a voice’. The foreshore group has been instrumental in creating one of the most beautiful cliff-top pathways in Somers: a winding nature walk that overlooks Westernport Bay. But the politics of building the pathway – a long hard battle – took its toll on the committee, and on Rosemary. Eventually, when ‘life became unbearable’ she resigned and established a new Friends group.
Years later, Rosemary is still active on the foreshore. Much of the work is physically hard. The task of weeding, planting and replenishing a sprawling native coastal reserve, much of it dangerously hilly, seems endless. But Rosemary describes the pleasure of transforming bare ground to native vegetation.
Propelled by a polite steely drive, Rosemary seems an old-school model of diligence and duty, a stickler for process, ‘You must stick to what is right; do things properly’. And yet, there is a cheekiness, and a glimmer of the ‘greenie, hippy, leftist’, as described by her son.
She has a pragmatic stoicism. Her father, who served with the Australian Army in the Middle East during the Second World War, died young and unexpectedly. He was a constitutional lawyer involved in crafting the constitution for Papua New Guinea, and was about to take up a position in Canberra when he died. Her mother, left to raise two children, turned to teaching. Rosemary explains, ‘Parents who lived through the war did have a rough time. My mother was shifted around and it made her very insecure. She brought us up alone.’
As a young woman Rosemary was an actor. With typical understatement she reveals, ‘I was on the stage a little. I went to NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Arts] over 50 years ago – it was another life. We toured, doing children’s theatre, in New South Wales and Western Australia. I still have a hankering for children’s theatre.’
She was unofficial tour manager and caterer for the travelling theatre company, but says, ‘I stopped when my second child was born; I had to start being responsible and become a serious person. It was very hard to stop touring. The hardest thing was staying in one place, it was agony. It was a nice life but a long time ago.’
She is a hospitable soul, in the old-fashioned way. Early community working bees included ‘lovely food, cooked on the barbecue’, which passers-by and locals were invited to share. ‘I think the most important thing is not to say “come and help”, but just to talk to people about what we are doing … so they understand why we are doing things,’ she says.
Now, the self-described ‘works coordinator or bossy devil’ faces a new challenge. She says, ‘I’m getting old and tired and it worries me because I would hate to see [the work we have done] lost.’
What happens when people like Rosemary and her group need to stop? Who do they hand the reins to? She expresses concern that the fragile environment could fail. ‘I have talked to so many people about how do you hand on? I don’t know how to open the door to say that something needs to be done. I wish there was a magic wand to get people to see that this land is really special, fragile. We could lose it if the effort isn’t sustained.’
Family circumstances prompted her move from Somers to the hills; it’s leafy and lovely, but doesn’t hold her heart. She returns often for working days on the foreshore, maintaining ties. She tells a story.
‘One night, after we had finished planting on the eastern cliffs, I suddenly realised I had left my camera behind. I went down the pathway to find it; it was dark, the moon was shining across the water. I sat there on the edge of the cliff, and out in the bay a whale went past – headed to Hastings. As he went past he spouted. This place is magic. Isn’t it worth keeping that piece of ground so that everybody has that experience?’ ʘ