Words by Megan Rowlatt
“You’ve got big boots to fill you know. I wasn’t going to hire you, but it wasn’t my choice so welcome.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but being the polite, shy, fresh-out-of-uni model employee, I did. And that was the first time I ever spoke to Mike Swanson. Treasurer for Landcare Illawarra. My new boss person. 2008.
I started out simply sitting and listening to this strong, dominant, opinionated character play devil’s advocate in meetings, challenge the status quo, and question everything. It was often an entertaining dance to watch. It wasn’t long before he became my favourite person in Landcare.
Over the years we travelled the landscape to meetings and events. These trips came to be the times I looked forward to the most.
We would talk about the environment, societal systems, politics, religion, and philosophy. I would whinge about how much I hate spreadsheets, bounce crazy ideas around, and we’d share stories about all the amazing adventures, and dumb things we’d done in life. Over the years I learnt about his mischievous youth, how he met the love of his life while he was on a date with someone else. How he was an epic square and ballroom dancer, sales man, farmer, engineer, and had in this one lifetime experienced a bazillion different jobs. He had run businesses, lived in dozens of towns and cities, and experienced major failings. Yet they were never really failings, simply life lessons.
As I took on more roles and grew into myself in this world, he became my mentor, my rock, and simply my friend. Sharing advice on how to deal with conflict, run organisations, nut out decisions about my future, and constantly told me how I sucked at saying ‘no’ to things. “You need to learn to say no!” he would say. I never listened. A collector of board and committee positions himself, I started to question if he ever took his own advice either.
He never said ‘no’ to me though. Every crazy idea I brought to the table was always met with a big fat “Yes!” or “How ‘bout this as well!”. And one of the most significant was a 7 pm phone call I made out of excitement one evening, sharing the fact that I wanted to start a Landcare group for young people. I apologised for the after hours call but I wanted to start right now! He laughed and said “Yes! What do you need?” I hadn’t thought that far ahead yet… me “Gloves!”, he “Done!”. It was all the encouragement I needed.
One of our earliest Illawarra Intrepid Landcare projects was hosted at his Landcare site in Tullimbah. A shy bunch of 18+ year olds with an older generation had been working away. I was not that great at ice-breakers and facilitation back then, so we stood around awkwardly munching down a classic Landcare sausage sizzle. Mike walked up the driveway with a beer-filled esky. Ice broken! Everyone started sharing the wildest stories about shenanigans they had gotten up to when they went out. And these stories weren’t coming from the young people. We were in a world of shared awe, new found respect and hysterics, it’s still one of my fondest memories.
Mike passed away this week. Tuesday September 19. 6pm.
With grief comes a period of deep reflection and an awakening to what’s actually important in life.
As I ran out of my first aid course having a mini breakdown after exchanging our final text, I got a call from my friend, colleague, Regional Landcare Facilitator, and fellow Intrepid Landcare Board member Peter Pigott. We later reminisced about our time with Mike and the fond memories we had. That evening I received a call from my awesome friend, fellow Illawarra Intrepid Landcare volunteer, and Intrepid Landcare Board member Chris Brunero. He reminded me of the adventure we have to look forward to on the weekend – a 27 km hike in the coastal paradise of Royal National Park, with a new bunch of young people keen to experience Landcare. The fresh air will be good. The next day I got a call from one of my besties and fellow Intrepid Landcare co-founder Naomi Edwards. We spoke of our own journeys, the beautiful people in our lives, and accidentally started planning to write a book. On my walk to the beach for some fresh air I ran into the coordinator of UOW Intrepid Landcare, Macleay Stephenson. A wonderful human being who gave me a big hug as he went on his way to uni. And throughout the day, messages came from Landcare people all over the country. And it dawned on me just how connected we all are. And just how much Landcare gives back to us, as we give to it.
Every meeting, forum and conference I’ve ever stepped into, has been anything but a room full of people in the same industry, they are my family. And every time I move through the landscape and see a rusty old Landcare sign I get excited, because there’s something I’m part of, and I’m proud of what we do.
Landcare is not just planting trees and pulling weeds. It’s so much bigger than that.
It’s people coming together to protect the natural world, and all it’s creatures in it. Driven not because of some economic value it provides, or some targets we need to meet. But because it’s so damn beautiful, wondrous, and magical, and a world without such things would simply not be worth living in. It’s people bringing back diversity to our forests so as the impacts of climate change intensify, they at least stand a fighting chance. It’s people building soil health and repairing degraded landscapes, coming up with innovative ways to grow our food. It’s people repairing and cleaning up our creeks, rivers and oceans so we have access to healthy catchments and clear, clean water. It’s people planting trees not to see them grow in their own lifetime, but so that generations to come can experience perhaps an even more beautiful Australia than they did growing up. To reverse the damage that’s been done. It’s people connecting and supporting each other through tough times, and celebrating the good. It’s people respecting culture and healing country, working to repair our disconnect. It’s a place to laugh, to cry and simply be a human being caring for this country and each other. Something the world needs now more than ever.
The day before Mike passed, I was fortunate to be sitting on the end of his hospital bed sharing his stories for the final time. One more round of how his days on this earth in this life had played out, and how lucky he had been to have experienced them. The adventures he’d had and the people he’d met and how Landcare had played a huge part in it all. I gave him a hug for the last time and thanked him for being a huge part of my journey. He’d taught me so much about myself, about life, and about Landcare.
“It’s been fun Mike.” I said.
“You know whenever I get stuck I always hear you tell me to stop worrying, it doesn’t even matter, and most of what we worry about is bullshit anyway. If you can control it do something, if you can’t, let it go.”
He laughed. “I taught you well.”
“You know I wasn’t going to hire you” he said one last time.
“But I’m glad we did. You blew us all away.”
“Well, I will continue to try and change the world.”
“Well life’s more fun when you do.” he said.
To Mike and others in the movement who share his spirit. Our elders, our teachers, our mentors, our friends. Those past, present and emerging. Thankyou for making Landcare so enriching and fun. Thankyou for the adventures. Thankyou for saying yes to crazy ideas. And most of all, thankyou for being real.