It was the final night in the field and the group was lying on an island beach looking up at the configurations of stars which had staved off the earlier cloud cover. Students participating in this Wildlands Studies program were invited to share any word which they thought could best sum up their six-weeks of field studies in far north Queensland. From the shadows, someone assuredly broke the silence with, “Yalada” *. This sentiment was greeted by a chorus of agreeable “Mmmm’s”. Indeed, it was all good.
We asked Matthew Zylstra (Lead Instructor, Wildlands Studies and Co-Founder, EarthCollective) a few questions about this recent experiences in the tropics:
Can you briefly tell us what Wildlands Studies is and how you became involved?
It is an international academic field studies program aimed at North American undergraduate students, which has been successfully running programs in various countries for over 30 years. I have been involved since 2009 when myself and EarthCollective colleagues Dieter and Silvia were invited to take over and lead the South Africa program. In 2012, I was asked to step-in for the first ever Australia program which we were able to do at short notice, largely on the back of the fine groundwork of colleagues Alejandra and Elena.
What is your role?
I am contracted annually by Wildlands Studies as the ‘Lead Instructor’ for the six-week program. In that role, I’m responsible for designing and facilitating the academic syllabus, itinerary, logistics, safety, student assessment and everything in between. However, as Lead Instructor I’ve always been strongly supported by a co-instructor, logistics coordinator or teaching assistant in actually executing all of this.
So in this six weeks you just completed in June, which places did you and the students visit?
We were based out of Cairns and this year we explored the Wet Tropics (Wooroonooran and the Daintree/Cape Tribulation regions). Then we went up to just south of Cooktown and stayed with Aboriginal land management group Bana Yarralji. After that, we travelled over to Boodjamulla National Park and then we headed back to the east coast and spent our last 7 days on Orpheus Island. At that point you realize just how quickly six weeks can pass you by.
What sort of activities can students expect on this Wildlands Studies program?
Well, it’s broad and designed to expand one’s horizons and skills in multiple areas. But the core focus is getting immersed and gaining ‘hands-on’ experience with many dimensions related to the environment: ecology, wildlife, natural resource management and the intersection with culture and society. So we get involved with everything from science-based species identification and monitoring to resource management issues as well as improving fundamental naturalist field skills. Students also have the chance to develop their own group research projects.
Do you lead all these activities yourself?
No. In addition to teaching assistants, we have some very engaging guest speakers or researchers who bring a lot of valuable skills, insights and experiences to the program along the way. And, importantly, we’re able to meet people and spend time at locations which really open our minds to the many complex dimensions of an issue. We often have our preconceived ideas or judgements challenged. That’s good in my opinion. My role then is to help students discuss and reflect upon experiences and integrate them as part of their learning.
What were the highlights from this recent 2013 program?
For me, it’s always being able to finish the program with happy healthy students who’ve been inspired by what they have experienced and learned. Everything else is a bonus. But this year in particular, I was impressed with the group dynamic, humour, commitment and how well everyone integrated.
Not everything is “yalada” *, though. Seeing the effects of the current socio-political climate in Queensland is tough. You know, it is difficult enough teaching tragic historical legacies such as The Stolen Generation, dispossession of Aboriginal land, the related cultural disintegration as well as the extensive environmental destruction sanctioned by former Governments. So you remind yourself and students that it is history and there’s little more we can do now apart from learning from the mistakes with sensitivity and empathetic action. But to then have to acknowledge that current Governments are still repealing environmental protection of National Parks or jeopardizing the Great Barrier Reef is an embarrassment. On top of that, we witnessed an appalling racist outburst on our first day in Cairns. Some students commented on these trends, like: “I might’ve expected this in the U.S. – not here.” I can’t help feeling torn up inside with shame thinking “C’mon Australia – let’s get with it.” This ‘Lucky Country’ sometimes seems content to squander its irreplaceable fortunes.
How about the highlights for the students?
From what they shared with us, they also really valued the great interactions and friendships formed between them. In terms of places visited, it seems that their stand-out moments were the welcome and warm hospitality at Bana Yarralji – and just all the cross-cultural learning and appreciation that came with that. The multiple days snorkelling the Reef at Orpheus Island was certainly a big highlight for most – just being confronted with that explosion of colour and life in a new underwater world for the first time. So I’m pretty sure they will cherish these moments into the future.
Any unexpected highlights at all?
Yeah, it’s interesting. We were involved with quite a vast array of activities – some requiring substantial cost or logistical organization. But do you know what numerous students will take back to the USA and Canada as an eye-opener? The act – or art – of sitting.
It seems counter-intuitive. We did what might you call a ‘solo sit’ when we arrived at Boodjamulla (NP). Since we were going to be staying there a while and completing the group research projects there, the idea was simply to, firstly, allow the students some solo time away from the group and, secondly, help get their senses ‘in tune’ with the area to improve their observation and awareness. But it seemed to achieve that and more, with most students coming back to report some quite profound moments or insights during that one-hour seated silently alone. As one student said to me beforehand, “Strange things happen on solos”. There’s probably some truth to that. Or do we just rarely take time out alone these days to tune in and experience what might actually be normal?
*‘Yalada’: an Eastern Kuku Yalanji (Kuku Nyungkal) Aboriginal word meaning “good” or “all good”. This word was learnt and used repeatedly during the group’s stay with the Bana Yarralji Rangers.