A bit about me …
My early years
Although born in a suburb of Sydney Australia (actually in a hospital in a suburb of Sydney), when I was around 16 months old the family sailed to England; a trip that took about 6 weeks. My mother is Canadian and my father born in England, and the two of them met and married in England. Prior to my birth they had decided to emigrate from England to Australia in 1965 following the birth of my older brother, Michael.
Towards the end of the boat trip back to England I contracted measles and then, shortly afterwards, I was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs as a direct result of the effects on my immune system of the measles. This illness almost claimed my life but, after a period in intensive care and a further few months in rehabilitation, I was cured. There was permanent damage on my lungs and I had apparently forgotten how to talk and walk but, other than that, I was just like any other two year old.
I spent the next 13 years growing up in the fishing village of Brixham in Devon in the south of England. Childhood memories are always a little romanticised, but the area where I lived in Devon was the perfect place for a nature-loving child. About 30 minutes by bicycle from my house and I could be watching woodpeckers in a deciduous forest, gazing at guillemots and fulmars soaring about the clifftops overlooking the ocean, looking at nesting wrens in a maze of winding country lanes, searching for crabs in rock pools at the beach, or even fossicking for ancient fossils among cliffs of shale. There was also the fishing which, I must admit, was one of my favourite past-times as well, but not one that consumed me. It really was a great place to grow up.
I had a very close childhood friend, Andrew, who shared my love of the outdoors, and would spend most of my holidays with him, and my brother from time to time, exploring new areas, or just sitting on a country wall eating our packed lunch, staring across a meadow with a creek running through the middle of it.
Andrew was a keen birdwatcher as well and he and I were both members of the YOC, the Young Ornithologists Club, and it was this mutual interest that made us best friends for several years. Andrew was also a keen fisherman, and we would spend almost every weekend and the majority of our school holidays doing something together.
Developing an interest in photography?
As a young child I remember that I was mesmorised by my mother’s box brownie camera. What a great device. Put the strap around your neck, look down through the top viewfinder, aim at the subject (which appeared upside down) and press the large, square grey button. I was never able to figure out that you could tilt the camera upwards slightly in order to get images of things above waist height.
My parents also had a Polaroid Cold Clip camera, with which you could develop the piece of film within a small aluminium clip in around 30 seconds or so. This absolutely amazed me, much in the same way that today’s children get that sense of wonderment when they are able to see a picture of themselves an instant after it was taken with a digital camera or mobile phone; although the Cold Clip took a bit longer and needed to be wedged under your armpit for a while before the results were visible!
My great grandfather had loved photography as a hobby, and the day I found his collection of bird slides in my parent’s cedar storage trunk, and looked at them using an old slide projector, was the birth of my journey in photography. I was about 10 at that time, and had already developed an interest in the birds around my garden, having setup numerous bird nest boxes and a couple of feeding tables, so photographing them was always going to be the next enticing next step.
I then moved on to an instamatic camera that allowed you to see objects through the view finder that you held at eye level. This was great! I could finally take pictures as I could see them with my own eyes, well almost. The viewfinder on the instamatic allowed me to see things at a slightly smaller size than they actually were, but the main problem was that the lens saw things a little smaller again! The end result was a lot of pictures of sky and trees with small dots that vaguely resembled the actual birds I was photographing. At least my composition wasn’t too bad.
I needed to get closer to my subject or get a better camera. My pocket money would not stretch to the latter (not back then anyway – here is my current camera kit), but my dad was a builder, and always had a variety of old building materials (doors, timber, iron and buckets of nails) lying around, so I began work on building a bird hide come tree house in the rear of the back garden, along with my friend Andrew, and my brother, at the back of the garden. We had four trees at the right rear of the garden which were perfectly spaced and configured for the construction.
Two doors were used for the front wall, laid horizontally, with a small gap between them, wide enough to poke the front of the camera through, but small enough that the birds would not easily see us doing so. The floor was also a door, laid flat, with a square hole cut in the centre and a rope dangled through it for us to climb in and out. The structure was secured to the trees with timber supports and six-inch nails. This was my older brother’s job, as I was either too short, too weak or too uncoordinated to hammer the nails into the trees without bending them (to be honest, I still cannot hammer a six inch nail into a piece of wood very well – they are very long!). I cannot recall what the roof and other walls were made of, but were most likely more doors (we seemed to have a lot of them!) or sheets of old ply. I presume that my dad also helped with the construction at some point, which is probably why the hide did not collapse with the three of us in it, although I cannot confidently recall it.
We then built a bird feeding table, which we hung from a branch of one of the trees so that it was level with the camera / viewing slit at the front of the hide and loaded it up with seeds, peanuts and lumps of suet. We also made a nestbox and placed it on the tree at the end of the garden and next spring a pair of Great Tits move in and raise a brood of chicks. After this success, we started making nestboxes on mass and placing them in the local woods.
Back to Australia
In 1982 my parents must have found the return ticket to Australia (some 13 years after the first part of the journey) and we travelled back to Sydney, but this time by plane.
Shortly after moving to Australia, I started writing airmail letters (aerogrammes) to my friends back in England. An aerogram was a prepaid letter that, when you folded it up, became its own envelope. It had sticky strips down the side that kept it all together, presumably, throughout its journey to the other side of the world. The other side of the world; the reality was starting to sink in for me. I had moved, with my parents, to the opposite side of the world to my friends and family.
There was much to write about for me, and I had no problems in filling up the aerogram in no time at all. I think this is what made my handwriting become smaller and neater; although, now it is bigger and messier again – especially if I don’t where my glasses. I would write one letter to each of my four closest friends and send them off. It would take 3-4 weeks to get a reply, which was quicker than when I used to put messages in bottles back in England, and launch them off of a cliff into the English Channel. Actually, I think I only ever got one reply from all of my bottle messages, from a teacher in another town in England, who wrote to say that she got her class to also put a letter in the same bottle and throw it back in the ocean. That was not how I got the reply from her, it was sent by conventional mail. Where was I? Oh yes, it would take 3-4 weeks to get a reply to my aerogrammes, and I would eagerly open each one and delight in my friends’ experiences on the other side of the globe.
This went on for several months, but gradually it would take longer and longer to arrive and the content got less and less, until all but one of my friends stopped writing. During the time that the replies from my friends started to dwindle, I found myself more and more disheartened. At that time I was 15 and not really fitting in at my new school, don’t know why; who wouldn’t love a small, pale, smelly pommie (although I wasn’t born in England), who was just starting to break out in loads of pussy pimples and blackheads – oh joy!
One of my main comforts was watching wildlife documentaries. At the time, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and The Living Planet was popular, as were the Australian equivalents, Malcolm Douglas, Harry Butler’s In the Wild and the Leyland Brothers. I would take every opportunity to watch any of these shows when they aired on TV. If I was organised enough I would also video the shows, so I could watch them whenever I wanted to (got to love this new technology). Mum and dad were into Sons and Daughters back then, and I almost got hooked as well, I wonder where that path would have taken me?
Back to being disheartened. I decided to write a letter to one of my idols, in the hope that I would get some answers or, at least, a little direction, so I sat down and wrote a letter to David Attenborough, care of the BBC. I must admit that, although I was hoping to get a reply, I was not entirely sure that I expected to get one. About a month or two later I actually did receive one from him. I was beaming from ear to ear, David Attenborough wrote ME a letter! The response was just as you would imagine from a compassionate, wonderful and genuine human being, such as he is. I have, sadly, since lost the letter in one of the many house moves I have had over the 35 years or so that have passed, so I can only loosely paraphrase it here. In essence, he wrote:
“Peter, So sorry to hear that you are disheartened about your move to Australia and are finding it difficult to get enthusiastic about the wildlife. I must say that Australia is one of my favourite countries in the world. I think the wildlife there is some of the most amazing in the whole world. I do hope you find your enthusiasm again and get involved in something that you love. Yours sincerely David Attenborough”.
Thank you David for taking the time to write to a 15-16 year old boy who needed a connection and an ounce of re-assurance from someone who has, almost, done it all. (I later got to meet Sir David after a talk he gave in Sydney)
Working things out
In year 10 at school, all students had to sit down with the school careers advisor and discuss what they wanted to do for work after they left school. I had no idea! I told my advisor that I liked animals, particularly birds, and that maybe I would like a job doing that. “Doing what?” she asked, obviously not being familiar with a job called I like animals, particularly birds. “Dunno.” would probably have been my standard teenager answer. I remember her telling me that Taronga Zoo and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) were always in high demand, so it would be very unlikely that I would get anything there, but she would try and find something similar.
A few weeks went by before I was asked to go back and see her. I walked into her office area and she told me that she could not get me anything at either the zoo or the NPWS, but managed to get me one week at the Marine Zoology department at the Sydney University, assisting PHD students, and the second week at the Australian Museum working in the bird department. I did not know what to expect from either of these jobs – studying marine creatures sounded interesting enough, but had no idea about what it would entail, and working in the museum had me thinking of dinosaur fossils and mummies. The only museum I had been to was the British Museum in London, as part of a school excursion and those were the only things I could remember from the trip. As it was to turn out, getting some work experience in the bird department of the Australian Museum was to open up some wonderful opportunities for me.
The week of work experience ended up with me spending a little over 20 years working in the bird, reptile, mammal, terrestrial ecology and business services departments at the Australian Museum as a curatorial assistant and environmental consultant. During this time, and since leaving the Museum, I traveled extensively throughout Australia, for both work and pleasure, researching and photographing it’s amazing wildlife.
Working at the museum also started me on the path of writing wildlife books, which you can read more about here …
I have been blessed more than most in my years to date. I have met and worked with some amazing people, seen over 2,000 species of wildlife (that I could identify), enjoyed art and architecture that is centuries old, traveled around the world several times, stood in places where you could easily believe that no other human had ever stood in before and have a wonderful wife, wonderful children, wonderful family and wonderful friends. I have also survived measles, septicemia (had an hour or two to spare on that one), two bouts of double pneumonia (which have caused severe scarring on my lungs [Bronchiectasis] and ultimately being a contributing factor to my COPD), two house-fires, being struck by lightning, a Red-backed Spider bite, sleeping with a scorpion, numerous tick bites, often in places that ticks just should not go, and a couple of bad car crashes. In addition to these physical trials I have struggled on an emotional level as well, visiting numerous medical emergency centres and being hospitalised due to stress and panic attacks, and having been medicated to get me through the worst of it.
But for quite a while now, I have been pondering both my past and my future, and my present too I guess, searching for the meaning of life or, as a secular humanist would say, the meaning of my life. At my current age of 50+, I have already surpassed the magical number of 42; which the late, great Douglas Adams suggested was the answer to ultimate question about life, the universe and everything! So I guess I now need to work out what the question is.
I turned to the philosophers. Plato told me that I had to attain the highest form of knowledge to find the answer; which, if you were to see my exam scores over the years, was just not going to happen. Tu Wei-Ming, a well-known Confucianist, stated that “we can realise the ultimate meaning of life in ordinary human existence.” To me, this seems more confusing than the place where I started and, not intending to be disrespectful in anyway, I find it very hard not to think of those silly sayings that people regale in every time someone mentions the name Confucius. In the end, Wittgenstein tried to tell me that the question itself was recursive and therefore nonsensical. Perhaps this is why I have been unable to find the answer, there is no question in the first place.
After listening to some works by Eckhart Tolle, whom I was introduced to the teachings of by one of Australia’s greatest photographers – Steve Parish, and I have since stopped asking the question. Eckhart’s message was very similar to all of the philosophical teachings I had already read, except for one thing – Now. The penny dropped, took quite a while, but it dropped; and when it hits the bottom I hope I will finally understand what he is talking about, but for the time being, I am learning to live in the now. Time is illusory. There is no past or future, just now. We must all live in the now and make the most of it.
I have found great benefit from being (mostly) strict with my diet and I have spent many years studying and trialing the medicinal benefits of foods and my overall diet. Additionally I regularly practice meditation and mindfulness, and often visit the local Buddhist Temple to sit and contemplate things or take part in one of their classes. While many things combine to heal our body, mind and soul (You can read more about this and my other health findings and beliefs here), ecotherapy is perhaps one of the biggest benefits I have found. Just being out in the natural environment and letting it absorb me, becoming at one with it, uplifts my soul like nothing else I have found. Being a wildlife photographer adds to that sense of oneness. When I am trying to get the picture I am after my mind is truly present. I am looking, listening, smelling, touching and almost tasting everything around me, I am so focused on everything that is happening, yet completely free of cognitive thought. My subconscious mind and my intuition are running the show. I don’t always get the shot I want, actually I most often don’t get the chance to take a picture at all, but just being there gives me such joy. It is my Ikigai, my reason for living.
So here I am now, a wildlife photographer, natural history writer, columnist for Australian Geographic Magazine, conservationist, trainer, public speaker and meditator. I have had many amazing opportunities come my way and have had the absolute pleasure of meeting and working with many wonderful people, many of whom I am privileged to call my friends. I also have the love and support of my wonderful family (both immediate and extended).
Thank you for reading about my life, about me and about my passion!