As a teenage technical student in Newborough, Greg Gilbert used to skip Friday lectures and drive to Lake Narracan to waste the afternoon on the banks of the Latrobe River. Little did he know that half a lifetime later he would be taking students down to the same river during school hours to educate rather than entertain.
“We were four male chemistry students and we’d often disappear down to the lake in the car and get bogged. We’d leave our girl colleague to collect our notes,’’ Greg smiles. “I guess it’s a bit ironic that I spent my youth on the same river as I ended up teaching kids on but I do believe people’s lives move in circles’’.
The 62-year-old spent 11 years as a committed Waterwatch Coordinator in the lower reaches of the Latrobe River system and has now been monitoring its water quality for 15 years.
“It was a pretty enormous job as a coordinator and I’m very proud of what I achieved. I had 27 primary schools in my region and I cycled all of them through our education programs every two years,’’ he says.
“My activities involved talking to the kids about pollution, algae, salt and erosion in the classroom and then we’d go out to the local waterway and net the animals, put them in a tub, study them under a microscope and complete an assessment of the river’s health.” “It’s a great way to introduce kids to science and biology with that hands-on stuff out in the field. They were amazingly responsive’’.
Despite his focus on children, Greg believes education of adults in the region is just as important to the river’s future. He has organised major community canoe trips along different sections of the Latrobe since 2003.
“We had 100 people on the river over two days during one event. We had farmers, environmentalists and other important community members out on the river and it was a fantastic educational activity for them. They were able to see for the first time all of the river’s uses from the river’s side.
“I have seen massive changes in the river and there has definitely been a big consciousness change in people. We have to keep the pressure on, keep revisiting it and maintain our focus on the issues’’.
The keen bee-keeper grew up on a Jumbuck farm adjacent to Billy’s Creek, a tributary of the upper reaches of the Latrobe. In between those early days and now he spent some of his time overseas working in a range of science spheres, but says he always knew in his heart he would return to be close to the Latrobe River.
“I feel I’ve always been connected to the Latrobe and I understand it now. There’s a psyche that we all have, an ecological spirituality. We connect ourselves to the land just as Aboriginal people do – we just haven’t done it as long as them.
“It is an aesthetic and I do believe you follow in circles where your ancestors have been. My great, great grandfather was buried in Sale in 1901. I never came near the place in a long time but here I am settled in Golden Beach’’.