No Man is an Island – The Naturalist

Brendan Atkins

Brendan Atkins (Liz Durnan)

by Liz Durnan

Katoomba author Brendan Atkins talks about his intriguing biography of naturalist Allan Riverstone McCulloch, how it raises important questions for planetary health today and why we ignore history at our peril.

Brendan Atkins’ The Naturalist: The remarkable life of Allan Riverstone McCulloch is a vivid and moving account of a man who became senior curator at the Australian Museum and the leading expert on Australia’s fish species, until his tragic death.

Allan McCulloch  the naturalist book

Book Cover: Allan McCulloch with cine camera on cliff at Malabar, Lord Howe Island, Christmas 1923. (Anthony Musgrave. Courtesy Australian Museum Archives.)

Writer and ecologist Brendan Atkins came across McCulloch (1885-1925) while also an employee at the Australian Museum, editing the museum’s Explore magazine. 

“I became intrigued with the idea that this guy wasn’t being talked about more. He was one of the Museum’s greats from one hundred years ago and the more I found out about him, the more I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anybody put all this together and promoted him?’”

Allan McCulloch by Lance Driffield

Allan McCulloch by Lance Driffield, The Bulletin, 5 May 1921

The resulting portrait of McCulloch, who briefly lived in Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains, is told with a genuine affection and interest that is infectious. And yet it doesn’t gloss over the controversies of McCulloch’s life: office politics McCulloch became embroiled in, accusations of stolen artefacts, nor the lead-up to his demise at the far-too-young age of forty.

Report on rat plague, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1921.

One aspect of McCulloch’s life that resonates today is his work at Lord Howe Island, a place he loved and visited often. After a ship ran aground near Lord Howe in 1918, an unfortunate stowaway invaded the pristine island: black rats. They decimated the island’s main crop, the Kentia palm seed, and its rare birdlife.

The island’s administrators in Sydney sent over dozens of boobook owls from Taronga Zoo, in a blunder typical of colonial mismanagement of introduced species. This caused Lord Howe’s smaller endemic boobook owl to become extinct.

Fortunately though, McCulloch and a colleague were able to prevent further devastation by advising against the introduction of “voracious predators from Europe and America: mongooses, stoats and weasels.” The problem was managed in the short term with ratter dogs and the owls.

Later, McCulloch noted in the Museum magazine: “Within two years, this paradise of birds has become a wilderness, and the quiet of death reigns where all was melody.”

Atkins says: “It’s almost an historical case study in somebody recognising an environmental problem. He devoted so much energy to making people aware of the biodiversity values of Lord Howe Island and the threats it faced from the rats. 

“He worked tirelessly until he died to bring that to public attention, like you would today, mounting a successful campaign to get your message out there. He had to fight a rear-guard action against internal politics in the organisation as well as dealing with his own demons and health issues. 

Frank Hurley, Allan McCulloch and crew on Dauko Island

Frank Hurley, Allan McCulloch and crew on Dauko Island, September 1922.
(Photographer unknown. Courtesy Australian Museum Archives

“He was a pioneer in ecological thinking, recognising the importance of bringing people along with him. But he also made a statement about it – he was saying how everything is connected and we’re all part of nature, and we really need to understand that.”

Interestingly, it’s only in recent times that Lord Howe’s rat issue is almost entirely controlled and with continuous monitoring, any rogues are quickly detected.

Watercolour: Red Lionfish, Pterois volitans. (Allan McCulloch. Courtesy Australian Museum.)

Atkins also pays homage to McCulloch’s impressive talents as an artist, fine tuned during art school. Many of his intricate drawings appear in the book. Before advances in technology, illustration was an important part of the scientific cataloguing of animals and plants. 

“The power of an illustration is that it can show things that a single photograph can’t,” Atkins says. “Being able to show the whole profile of the animal and features that are important from a scientific point of view.”

I ask Atkins if McCulloch’s reputation was tarnished by accusations of stealing artefacts, directed at him and cinematographer Frank Hurley following their expedition to Papua New Guinea. And if that’s one of the reasons he has been somewhat overlooked. Did McCulloch go too far in his collecting exploits, even by the standards of the day?

Allan McCulloch with Gaura Pigeon in Papua.

Allan McCulloch with Gaura Pigeon in Papua. (Frank Hurley. Courtesy Australian Museum Archives. )

“He did go too far,” says Atkins. “But he was kind of applauded for it because that was what they did then. We have certainly re-evaluated that sort of collecting behaviour. The difficulty for the Australian Museum is that the artefacts are still in their collection.”

It’s what makes this portrait captivating. Even while celebrating McCulloch’s many achievements, Atkins doesn’t sugar-coat the truth of McCulloch’s and Hurley’s often dubious practices. At times, McCulloch’s ‘collecting’ methods were tantamount to stealing, McCulloch himself admitting as much in his diaries and letters.

This is, of course, an ongoing issue for museums, including the Australian Museum. Atkins recognises that repatriation of collections is complex and sensitive.

There’s a suggestion that McCulloch’s declining mental health could have been worsened by psychological guilt from the unscrupulous practices playing on his conscience, or even karmic justice wrought by the power of the objects – akin to the ‘Mummy’s Curse’ – the folklore around treasure hunters and archaeologists who met their demise after plundering Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s grave.

“I didn’t want to dismiss that idea completely, partly out of respect for the people that do hold those cultural beliefs, where those items came from,’ Atkins says. “There is a power of belief that is very strong; it’s possible that it could have affected his mental health.”

I wonder if Atkins hopes this biography will bring wider recognition of McCulloch’s contributions to science and outweigh controversy around the ethics of his collecting.

“His scientific reputation is there for all to see. He was an amazingly energetic and productive scientist who produced the first checklist of Australian fishes … which was a major achievement because the previous classification of fishes had been badly done.”

In fact, Atkins thinks that McCulloch’s ‘overwhelming sin’, as far as his legacy is concerned, is that he took his own life in 1925. That’s not something people like to talk about, especially with the museum’s family-friendly focus. 

The suicide impacted McCulloch’s final resting place too. At that time a suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground, so instead of being buried at the city of his birth, Sydney, McCulloch’s ashes are interred at a monument dedicated to him on his beloved Lord Howe Island. 

Memorial to Allan McCulloch, Lord Howe Island, with the island’s coral lagoon. (Brendan Atkins)

It’s a fitting memorial to McCulloch though: looking out to sea, and Lord Howe being the place where he sought respite from troubles throughout his life.

Lord Howe Island, a World Heritage Area, viewed from Mount Gower. (Brendan Atkins)

This is where Atkins chooses to end his book, on a distinctly poignant note, at Lord Howe. The rats are finally under control on the World Heritage-listed island, but there’s a new ‘emerging and insidious threat’ to the island’s seabirds. One that McCulloch could never have envisaged: plastic. He leaves us with a tragic vision of the fledgling Flesh-footed Shearwaters being fed plastic by their well-meaning parents.

“The adult birds mistake the floating particles for food and bring them home for their young. Islanders report finding numerous malnourished or dead specimens on the island’s beaches, their bellies distended with indigestible plastic.”

Says Atkins: “It’s really a warning that the work is never done.” 

The Naturalist, the remarkable life of Allan Riverstone McCulloch is published by NewSouth Publishing in association with the Lord Howe Island Museum, and is available from all good bookshops.

Read more on The Naturalist here:

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Liz Durnan

Liz Durnan has been writing and editing for digital and print media for over twenty five years, with an interest in sustainable building and travel, food and books. She has lived in cities all over the world, including London, New York and Sydney, before settling in the Blue Mountains where she has built a solar-passive strawbale home. When not writing, she loves cooking, overnight bushwalks and camping.

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