Farewell to Steve Clarke: a friend, colleague and champion for wetland restoration

On Monday last week, I received the tragic and unexpected news that Steve Clarke had died suddenly on Sunday the 5th of August in Mount Gambier.

Monday this week was a very sad day as we said farewell at his funeral, but as we left, those many people in attendance were also given an indigenous grass to plant, to honour his memory – a really fitting gesture given Steve’s passion in life for the environment.

Back in May 2005, when I still worked for the SA Government and managed the Conservation Programs Unit (CPU) in the South East (but was still definitely ‘finding my feet’ with wetland restoration), Pick Swamp was finally purchased by the SA Government after a long and complex struggle (you can read the full story about that journey here).

Luckily, later that year I managed to secure some federal grant funding to employ a new project officer – a Wetland Restoration Ecologist – to help turn the vision for Pick Swamp into a reality on the ground. I say ‘luckily’ because despite being able to visualise in my mind how I wanted Pick Swamp to look when we were finished with the project, we needed to bring someone into the team who had the practical experience in wetland restoration to make the project a success.

And so it was that we interviewed Steve in around December 2005, and (with his background of a number of years working in wetland construction and restoration at Salisbury Council north of Adelaide) needless to say, Steve was the right man for the job. After the big move down to the South East from Gawler with his very friendly and equally caring wife Les, he started in early 2006 and – I think it is fair to say – he never looked back.

For the subsequent 6 years until I left the Department (to launch NGT in January 2012), Steve was a fundamental part – maybe even the binding force – of the ‘CPU team’. He was the wise, calm influence and philosopher, but often also the life of the party (not to mention provider of cinnamon donuts to share at random moments!). Most of all Steve was a truly caring and supportive figure amongst our diverse group of 12-18 staff in the CPU who, at the time, were mostly 2-3 decades younger than him.

For a trip down memory lane, here are a few snaps I was able to find of some CPU people back then… and sorry to the many great CPU people who don’t feature (there are a few of you out there)!

Myself with Tina and Bron in 2006
A portion of the South East CPU in 2008: Nerissa, Cath, Luke, Tim, Bron, Dave, Bec, Randall, Dan and Steve.
The CPU (minus yours truly – holding the camera) in 2009. More old friends who’ve moved away, and some familiar faces who have stuck around… Steve, Craig, Lachie, Scott, Ronald, Cath, Melissa, Michelle, Emily, Randall and Natasha.
Sitting with Steve and Tony for a breather at Pick Swamp in 2006.
Oisín and Steve fish monitoring at Pick Swamp in 2010

I can’t quite find the words to express how much Steve meant to all of us who were part of the CPU back then, kicking goals for conservation in our own little team and – if I am honest – almost pretending like we didn’t really work for a government Department! Yep – it was a special time.

In fact, I recall Dan Harley once saying to the group before he moved back east that we should really cherish our time together, because we might never find ourselves in a workplace that felt quite like that again… I can now definitely vouch for how difficult it is to replicate an intangible thing like this, but I do know for a fact that Steve – with all his quirks, humour and very big smile – was a massive part of it. I am sure people who continued to work closely with Steve at the Department in Mount Gambier over the past six and half years since I left will also relate to what I am talking about, and this is why the loss of Steve will leave such a gaping hole that is impossible to replace.

Aside from his warm, gentle nature and friendship, the two things that will continue to remind me of Steve are:

  1. Pick Swamp – Steve turned the vision for this special site into a reality over the past 12 years, and it is his legacy. Anyone who visits this site should take the time to think of Steve and how much effort he put into making it the amazing place it is today.
  2. Every trial wetland restoration structure I work on now – because Steve is the person I watched and learned from as he experimented with water at different sites in the South East. Never afraid to tinker with some sandbags (or even a shovel, some dirt and an old tarp!) when experimenting to work out what to do at a new restoration site. The experience of working with and learning from Steve helped me to develop the practical expertise, and grow in confidence, to now tackle the ambitious wetland restoration work we do at NGT.

Steve, you were an inspiration.

Vale Steve Clarke: a friend, colleague and champion for wetland restoration.

Steve Clarke in 2009 – looking right at home in the tea-tree and Gahnia thicket at Pick Swamp.
Mark Bachmann