If you’re planning a trip to Lord Howe Island, may I suggest you watch Silent Running, the 1972 movie in which Earth’s last forests are preserved on giant greenhouse domes attached to the Valley Forge – a space ship orbiting Saturn. One of its crew, ecologist and botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), cares for these forests until Earth can be re-vegetated and its environment restored. All is well until he and his crew are ordered to destroy the domes and return to Earth when funding for the project is suddenly cut. Devastated at the implications for Earth’s future, Lowell rebels and manages to save one of the domes from destruction. The final scene will stay with you forever.
I returned from Lord Howe Island recently with the distinct impression this lush, exotic haven is an Earth-bound version of the Valley Forge, with its own Freeman Lowell of devoted residents overseeing a collection of rare and endangered plants and animals on a remote speck atop the Tasman Sea. It is as if Gaia, in an early fit of prescience, saw us coming and flung a portion of her bounty far into the ocean, as safe from human predation as possible. She did an admirable job, because even with modern air travel Lord Howe is still tricky to get to; unpredictable weather can delay flights and boarding an island-bound ship isn’t an easy option.
Lord Howe is particularly lucky because, in addition to its residents, it has at least two other Freeman Lowells – neither of whom are orbiting Saturn. One is a brilliant group of zoologists at Melbourne Zoo who have managed to breed the critically endangered and gloriously outlandish Lord Howe Stick Insect so successfully it will soon be released back onto the island. It is sobering to be informed that ten years ago only forty of these phasmids were left on the planet.
This breeding program also attracted the attention of perhaps the greatest Freeman Lowell of all – the formidable Sir David Attenborough.
In a curious coincidence (although the mysterious Lord Howe has plenty of these in store for you), shortly after my return to the Australian mainland, I turn on the television to find Sir David sitting in the butterfly enclosure at Melbourne Zoo, looking ecstatic as he holds a Lord Howe Island stick insect in his hands. This venerable, eighty-six year old naturalist – who has seen just about every land and sea-dwelling beast on Earth – is meeting this rare creature for the first time. He had turned down hundreds of requests for interviews and appearances and had chosen to see the Lord Howe Stick Insect instead.
I may be launching into fanciful territory here and Hamlet needs a word first:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
You see, the Lord Howe stick insect (and its theatrical appearance with Sir David) embodies the playful mystery, intense vulnerability and critical importance of this subtropical hermitage. Lord Howe, as some of you may also be beginning to suspect, is much more than a glossy tourist destination. In addition to its World Heritage listed bounty of clean beaches, friendly fish and great food, it is a planetary blueprint to which we will turn when we regain our senses. Lord Howe Island is one of the last remaining, unspoiled paradises on the planet. It also contains traces of what we were like before losing ourselves in gadgets and life in the fast lane – the speed limit on Lord Howe is a dizzying 25 km an hour (and everyone adheres to it). In this respect, you may also like to peruse Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, as his fictional island residents differ in one crucial way from the rest of humanity: they are sane.
Humans may still be hacking down the Amazon rainforest and turning the Pacific ocean into a plastic waste dump. However, I have seen something to give me hope. If it ever comes to it, I have no doubt the Freeman Lowells of Lord Howe Island will do whatever they can to preserve this precious jewel.
So, if you have the good fortune to encounter this ocean gem, relish your stay and tread gently in the stillness. Freeman Lowell will be proud.