As someone who has made a lifelong contribution to our understanding and appreciation of arid zone botany, much loved Central Australian man Peter Latz has been awarded this year’s Australian Natural History Medallion. The award is managed by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, with nominations from all over the country. At the recent presentation ceremony, hosted by the local Field Naturalists Club at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, MIKE GILLAM was asked to speak. His was but one of many contributions from around the country so the organisers placed strict time limits on the speakers. Forced to skip over sections of his tribute, he provides it here in full “with a couple of extra tweaks.”
I first met Peter when I began work as a lowly technician within the Wildlife Section of the federal Government, Forestry, Fisheries, Wildlife and National Parks Branch located at the Arid Zone Research Institute. I was 18, a recent refugee from Melbourne and Peter, a slightly mystical and aloof botanist, lurked beyond the Naphthalene haze of the nearby Herbarium.
The brilliant individualist brought much needed spirit and oxygen to a laboratory environment, with its numerous scientific and bureaucrat totem poles to be climbed. Many years later I was to fully appreciate what a great workplace this was for a young man trying to find his place in the world. There was a significant cohort of positive male role models and perhaps of greater significance, just enough very strong women and several wonderful Aboriginal staff, sufficient in combination to keep the egos of the scientific community grounded and the bureaucrats almost honest.
The Lab, known affectionately as AZRI was a diverse community that represented the ideals, aspirations and even the post-colonial fashions of 1970s Alice Springs. With his colourful beanies and fabulous silk smoking jackets, Latz was an island that did not seek permission to exist. I’m certain the clerical class of New Guinea long socks shuddered at his approach, and his example probably undermined the spread of collar and tie formality beneath the white lab coats favoured by the scientific staff.
I should add that my boss at the time wore khaki overalls so Latz had some help on matters egalitarian. (To my delight, one of the many contributors to the recent Latz tribute event, reached back even further in time to recall Latz as a very young stock inspector, recently graduated from university, who ignored the rural dress codes of his clientele in favour of thongs and a straw hat!)
Latz gave us all permission to be ourselves and while I did not feel encouraged to rush out and purchase clothing made infamous in the opium dens of Bohemia, I did feel comfortable dressing like a hobo. We became firm friends and it was a great pleasure listening to Peter conversing in Arrernte with Emily Liddle, our esteemed cleaner who reminded us all of the sacredness of country and had the temerity to call out pompous behaviour when others were too timid to do so. I reiterate, a rich workplace and introduction to Centralia that benefited me greatly.
Over the past decade or more, Latz has reminded me endlessly of his impending death. Yet in his eighties, he retains a level of physical fitness that would be the envy of most fifty year olds. He of course would claim that’s no recommendation.
Still, I have witnessed his formidable core strength and agility on many occasions, long and arduous walks in the bush, diving into fecund crevices, climbing trees, spitting Pituri. This is when Latz is in his element, the ultimate free spirit. Certainly the times I’ve spent with him out bush are the most memorable.
The late 1970s and early ‘80s were halcyon times for the natural environment. We collaborated in various biological resource surveys that led to the declaration of key national parks such as Watarrka in the south-west. New species were discovered regularly with the undescribed plants greatly outnumbering the less surprising fauna, and Peter was in heaven every time we entered new country.
Parks generally were much better resourced then, biodiversity was a key driver for park managers and the morale of ranger staff was generally high. Forty years later, national parks are degrading and tourism is in the driver’s seat.
We did not see this coming back then. We were determined to make a difference and felt sure the appalling extinction rates of historical times would now be stemmed and even reversed. Naively we envisaged national parks and reserves as a lasting solution, but Latz was already focussed on the bigger picture, the spread of invasive grasses and the threat of wildfires.
So a bush trip with Latz was characterised by multiple agendas and unexpected trauma. including the time we rushed him back to town after he’d eaten the fruit of an unusual Solanum, making a rare mistake. For the record he wasn’t hospitalised and shrugged it off.
On more than one occasion, with our vehicles negotiating remote and difficult terrain, our bush trips took an alarming turn. One time, hearing a roar and smelling smoke I cast a nervous glance in the rear vision mirror and realised the country behind us was a wall of flames, large spinifex tussocks flaring and showering sparks. Latz had been casually throwing matches out the window.
For a young person not yet inducted in the ways of fire management, these seemed to be the actions of a madman. Of course Latz had read the situation expertly, worked with the terrain and used the updrafts on the stony plateau to control the fire’s spread and put it out. The country needed management.
On that same trip, Latz graphically demonstrated the loss of topsoil upstream from the effects of 100 years of overstocking. In a desert river flood-out he chose a mature coolabah and dug down to reveal that more than a metre of topsoil had built up around its natural base and this deposition covered an immense area.
In my memory Peter always spoke up for the country, he has been a loyal and courageous voice in the public domain, willing to speak the truth on a raft of matters, notably weeds and our management failures. I’ve quoted him often and despite my disdain for human portraiture I’ve photographed him regularly over several decades.
At his Ilparpa bush block and the wonderful E.intertexta forest that he has protected for decades Peter may be found carrying a great wooden staff, a buffel chipping hoe. Long before the publishing and cinematic sensation of Lord of the Rings, Peter had already defined, in my mind at least, the character of Gandalf, the mighty wizard.
His bold, bald and often controversial concepts, delivered as perfectly placed hand grenades, have both enlightened and offended Australians in equal measure. Latz, the magnificent maverick, with a healthy disregard for authority, has enriched the lives of a great many Centralians, elevating our understanding and passion for arid zone ecosystems and the botanical wonders that surround us. I can say his impact as a mentor on a great many rangers, researchers and naturalists is without peer in Centralia.
Photo at top, Latz on his buffel-free rural block, portrait by © Mike Gillam • Photos of a younger Latz, collecting specimens, in camp on a field trip, courtesy Ken Johnson • With Costa Georgiadis, at the 2014 Eco Fair, from our archive.
In 2014-15 the Alice Springs News published a memorable series by Peter Latz, about his adventures in the bush with traditional owners. Go to Searching for Kurlpulunu, and scroll to the bottom for the links to each episode, in reverse chronological order.