Paying tribute to a person that was ‘one in a million’ – Chris ‘CJ’ Wilson

Paying tribute to a person that was ‘one in a million’ – Chris ‘CJ’ Wilson

Fifteen years ago, the SA Environment Department (then DEHAA) offices in Mount Gambier hosted an overseas exchange ranger from Wexford Slob in Ireland – a special bloke called Chris ‘CJ’ Wilson, originally a bobby from London. Obviously a long time has passed since then, but two of us now at NGT – Bryan Haywood and myself – were working in the office there at the time and boy, did we get an introduction to what it means to live life to the full!

A photo of Chris from the Wildside website

Chris showed genuine care for the people around him (wherever in the world he was at the time) and an unbridled passion for the things that he cared most about. Luckily for those of us who met him back then, his primary interest was in natural history – and you couldn’t help but catch ‘the bug’. Passion for the topic simply oozed out of the man.

After that first visit to Australia, Chris and his lovely wife Annie returned to visit again on a few occasions. In fact, we most recently caught up with Chris at the Birdlife Australia Congress in Portland late last year. But on Monday morning this week, Bryan rang me to share the terribly sad news that last weekend, Chris had lost short battle with an aggressive form of cancer.

Although the readers of this blog may never have met Chris, he deserves a tribute here because he displayed rare attributes that are just so important. Being passionate is fantastic, but being able to share that passion in a simple and contagious way that positively influences those around you, is something to be celebrated. The world needs more people like Chris.

Because of these attributes, as a young ecologist still ‘finding my feet’ in the region when we first met, I found Chris to be an inspiration. Here was someone encouraging (in fact, almost demanding for) me to turn my ideas into action – way back then – and I never forgot that message. So in my view, there is a little bit of Chris that will live on in NGT, as all of our staff carry on that simple philosophy of finding ways to turn sound ideas into action.

But the final word on Chris should go to Bryan, who maintained much closer contact with him over the years, after his return to Ireland in 2001.

Here is a heartfelt portrait of Chris written by Bryan Haywood:

“Today we lost a fighter, a natural history fighter. One whose daily routine revolved around looking out for and observing nature. He remains an inspiration, he will always be in our thoughts and dearly missed. His bright and energetic personality was always too difficult to resist. Many a time we spent chasing butterflies and birds, while dodging swamp leeches.

He and his lovely wife Anne came for a year and wow what a year it was. Chris was an exchange ranger in Australia during 2000-2001. He was the ranger of the North Slob wetland in the south east of Ireland and came to the south east of South Australia.

Both Chris and Anne left their mark in so many ways. Not only was Chris always smiling and happy, but he was cheeky and a real joker. He had a warmth and caring disposition with intelligent natural history whit. Boy was he quick. You could never get a quick ‘dig’ in without one coming back at you with interest!!

Chris initiated Australia’s first Butterfly Walk aimed at bringing ‘people to the butterflies’. A walk which now has a brochure and the trail has been maintained by the Mt Gambier Friends of Parks ever since. This project is possibly the longest running butterfly monitoring transect in the country.

One of Bryan’s photos of Chris (in action as always!) when he visited in 2007.

Chris was also the impetus for the BirdLife SE SA group forming back in 2001, he chaired the inaugural meeting in August 2001 at Millicent and the group was known as ‘Birds South East’. Chris shared fond memories of he and Annie going along to a bird watchers course back in Ireland many years before, which then set him on a journey to study Tree sparrows. During his stay he also encouraged the Friends to organise a ‘dawn chorus’ of bird song down in Caroline Forest.

Chris was part of a trio called ‘Wildside’ with friends Don Conroy and Alan McGuire. The Wildside team were heavily involved in biodiversity education programs with a regular Wexford radio slot, where they would share experiences and observations of all biodiversity. The Wildside team produced numerous books together including Wildlife Quiz and Amazing Facts (1999) and more recently Wexford’s Wild Heritage.

The Wexford Naturalist’s Field Club was an active part of Chris’s life. It is through his ‘limitless sharing nature’ he helped produce books on Lepidoptera and Odonata for County Wexford.

Chris travelled on cruise ships as the ornithologist to Antarctica (over the last 10 years or so) where he shared stories and experiences of his great Uncle Edward Wilson, who was a fabulous natural history artist who perished on expedition with Captain Scott (and others) in 1912. Chris and younger brother David co-authored books on the amazing talent of Edward Wilson from his Antarctic and Nature diaries.

Chris wrote a ‘haiku’ (in 2001) which he left for me.

“Black silk, splash of red

Canopies cry at sunset

Red-tails come to roost”

Written by Christopher J Wilson, 2001

Love and best wishes to our dear Annie.”

Pride of Place – the farewell gift from Bryan and myself to Chris at the end of his ranger exchange in 2001, here shown in a photo that Chris sent through of where it ended up. The rustic timber frame was made by Bryan, to display a feather from the iconic and endangered SE Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. I collected the feather (noting that this particular feather was the first Red-tail feather I ever found) from my bushland property near Rennick.

Mark Bachmann