Blue Mountains APS member awarded OAM
“Oh my goodness, what have they done now?“ was Margaret Baker’s reaction when she opened the email bearing the very surprising message that she had received a 2022 OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) for service to conservation and the environment. Inaugural winner of the Blue Mountains City Council Environmental Citizen of the Year in 2020, she wondered if her colleagues had nominated her for this second award.
In a career spanning almost 40 years, Margaret has had voluntary and paid teaching and instructional positions, sharing her knowledge and experience with many people. Representatives of the Blue Mountains Random Meanderers, who have been both taught by Margaret at TAFE and have then spent many years with her on bush forays, nominated Margaret for her role in educating adults about their natural environment and for her volunteer role in conservation campaigns in the Blue Mountains. The principal award nominator stated that “over the past four decades, as a professional and a volunteer Margaret Baker has been a tireless, committed and passionate contributor to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and the protection of the ecological values of the Blue Mountains”.
Margaret explained that the Meanderers “… are a community science group who meet weekly to carry out biodiversity surveys in endangered plant communities or in bushland that is facing development threats”. Random meandering is a recognised ecological survey technique, she said. The collected information is passed on to a range of organisations and databases. These include: NSW BioNet (a NSW repository for biodiversity information), PlantNet NSW Flora Online, iNaturalist and the Atlas of Living Australia, and to the University of NSW in their fire recovery studies.
The Random Meanderers were supported in their nomination by representatives of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society and Blue Mountains Bushcare as well as locally based ecological consultants, authors, artists and teaching colleagues. One noted that “Margaret has an intimate knowledge of the environment and a depth of understanding of the complex natural and human relationships that have formed it. She has an extraordinary ability to interpret the landscape and guide the learning of all – from the beginner plant enthusiast to the professional botanist”.
When asked about her reaction to receiving the award Margaret said: “I was very honoured to receive it. However I always feel that I have just done my job. I never expected to receive such recognition”. “However the award is also a validation of the importance of the volunteer work that I have been involved in with a number of groups on aspects of our region’s natural environment and its biodiversity” Margaret added. She stated that many Blue Mountains residents also work to promote conservation and the environment but tend to go unrecognised.
Margaret has never sought attention, preferring to “work in the background”. Apart from her role in formal environmental education, she has been involved in a number of areas including the provision of illustrated talks to community groups, writing journal articles, and co-authoring books on plants and birds (along with Robin Corringham and Jill Dark). She has also written submissions on a range of development proposals and environmental management issues. In the late 1970s Margaret co-authored the first paper about gravel mining and the development of the Penrith Lakes Scheme. Others followed over the years on issues as diverse as a proposed mega-tip in Scribbly Gum Forest at Londonderry, the protection of Faulconbridge Mallee and the inclusion of Radiata Plateau in the NSW National Park system.
Margaret’s interest in the environment started in her early years. “I always wanted to be a geography teacher. That’s where my interests lay.” Environmental concern was sparked in her high school years when reading in the newspaper about the flooding of Lake Pedder. She said she was “totally appalled at what was going on”. At a more local level, the “… filling in of Newcastle’s Shortland wetlands …” caught her attention as a local resident. Geographical studies at Newcastle University in the 1970s provided an even greater understanding of the capacity for people to damage and destroy landscapes and ecosystems.
In 1976 Margaret and her husband Mark moved from Newcastle to Sydney for work. She packed her interest in the environment and brought it along. The Bakers became involved in the Australian Plant Society by 1978. They wanted to replace introduced species in their garden with natives. Returning from bushwalking adventures in the Blue Mountains they drove past the Blue Mountains Australian Plant Society nursery at Glenbrook several times before finally dropping in to make their first purchases. Fascinated by the range of unfamiliar plants and impressed by the friendliness of the volunteers, Margaret and Mark joined the Society on the spot and started to attend meetings and other activities. Margaret said: “I didn’t know one native plant from another” but learnt pretty quickly from others. By the early 1980s Margaret had become the newsletter editor for the Blue Mountains group and Mark was its secretary, positions they retained for many years.
They printed the newsletter on an ancient Gestetner ‘printer’ and posted them out via Australia Post. She still takes walks and sometimes conducts workshops for the Blue Mountains group and writes articles for the Australian Plants Society journal Australian Plants.
Margaret’s vocational passion has been her role in educating people, especially adults, with whom she has always experienced valuable two-way flows of knowledge and ideas. Whilst she did teach Geography in high school, Margaret had the opportunity in 1983 to move into teaching at TAFE. It has been very rewarding “…teaching adults, it was fantastic …”. She met “really amazing groups of” students. It was rewarding to see students applying what they learnt at TAFE in their jobs. The importance of educating adults, especially women has stayed with her. “It’s largely what I still do, it’s very important for them and it’s really important to me.”
At Blue Mountains TAFE, Margaret started an Environmental Studies Unit, which was the first in the state. The unit taught outdoor guiding (interpretive guiding), environmental, land management and plant identification courses. She said “I didn’t teach people to stand in front of a bulldozer, but I taught them why”. One former student recently stated that “… it was the field trips which Margaret conducted that made we students realise how special it was to have her as our teacher. She has immense skill in the interpretation of whole landscapes”. It is this ability to integrate all aspects of the environment that has made Margaret a strong voice in Blue Mountains conservation.
In their retirement “spare time” Margaret and Mark manage their own bushland property in the lower Blue Mountains that is almost entirely covered by a Conservation Agreement with the NSW State Government. Surrounded increasingly by development their property supports an endangered ecological community, Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest, as well as stands of the endangered Leucopogon fletcheri, Pultenaea villifera and Hibbertia superans.
In concluding, Margaret said: “I consider that the future of our bushland as we know is much less secure than in the past. Climate change and alterations to fire regimes, for example, pose significant threats. Environmental management based on strong scientific principles and knowledge is needed more than ever. I hope that I have been able to contribute in a way that might make a difference.”
The award ceremony will be held at Government House in Sydney. Usually held on Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday, January’s event was postponed due to COVID reasons, and is planned for April or May 2022.