”It’s great to sit and listen to the children talk as they plant seeds or prick out seedlings,” says Paul. “The banter is fantastic.” Like all children, he laughs, they can also get competitive at times: “They’re very much into doing it properly!”
Pupils grow native seedlings here to plant in Emu Creek, their local waterway. “Recently I heard some children explaining to a visitor, “We’re growing indigenous trees to plant in our creeks, to make our creek healthy, so we can visit it in the future.”
By replanting Emu Creek, the students are also helping to protect the wider ecosystem; the creek flows into Axe Creek, which joins the Campaspe River, a precious haven for many native species.
Named after St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, this Catholic school in Strathfieldsaye, near Bendigo, has been green from the word go, and now has 300 eco-literate pupils. St Francis has won sustainability awards, and in 2003 gained 5-Star Accreditation through the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative.
“We came from nowhere,” recalls Paul. “We went from being an active dairy farm, to the first school in Australia to be fully accredited. Everyone’s played a part, particularly the children.”
Pupils harvest rainwater, recycle waste, regenerate wetlands, and build nesting boxes for Emu creek’s endangered birdlife, and care for the resident cows and Buster, the school goat.
A new venture involves promoting low-energy light globes. “Instead of selling chocolates and supporting obesity, students sell Compact Fluorescent Lights. It raises money for the school, saves their family money and also saves on carbon emissions.”
In teaching kids about the environment, says Paul, it’s vital to help them make causal links: “A child’s relationship with a chip wrapper lasts two minutes. But dropped in the wrong spot, that rubbish has a long-term relationship with the creek. We try to instill those links “Please don’t litter, because this drain flows into our creek.”
Now working as an Education Officer with Sandhurst Catholic Education Office and with the CERES Sustainable Schools Project, Paul also runs environmental workshops for students from the Australian Catholic University, and eco-themed professional development workshops for teachers from state and Catholic schools across the region.
Personally, he feels a strong link with the Campaspe River, and the impact of the drought worries him. “Growing up around Echuca I had a special attraction to the river: its unique rock forms, its tranquility. We wanted our children and their friends to experience that too.”The family has bought land fronting the river, fenced it off and planted native vegetation. It’s a favourite destination for fishing, camping, canoeing, barbecues and field trips.
While Lake Eppalock, the Murray and the Loddon rivers are known for boating and water sports, Paul says the Campaspe’s saving grace is its peacefulness. “It’s a passive river, not a hooning around sort of place. I’d like more people to realise the beauty of sitting next to it – just feel that serenity!”
Story by Meg Mundell, 2007