The Reef is Not a Poem

by Nicolette Stasko

When I began to think about a topic for my first post I realised that I had an opportunity to write about something I am passionate about but don’t usually get to address: conservation and the environment as represented by the natural phenomenon of the Great Barrier Reef. Readers who are familiar with my poetry or my book Oyster: from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, would not find my interest surprising. For me, like many poets (including Judith Wright, whose work is also a main focus of this piece), the land and especially the sea is a ‘manifestation of a deeper and more abiding reality…the treatment of it an index of our values, or rather of our lack of proper values’ (Brady: 126). The Reef is one touchstone of this belief and practice. My decision was fuelled by the number of alarming reports about the deterioration of the Reef due to global warming and recently the activities of the Liberal government and the Queensland mining industry.

To summarise, the Australian government has given permission for the construction of one of the world’s largest coalmines, Queensland’s Carmichael Mine, to be located in the Galilee Basin region which will risk contaminating local groundwater and endangering wildlife. The resulting coal production will be transported to the Abbot Point terminal, which will need to be expanded to accommodate this coal export. Originally it was planned that approximately five million tonnes of seabed would need to be excavated and dumped within the marine park area. Researchers estimate that hundreds of ships will cross the Great Barrier Reef during construction and later to carry the coal to overseas markets. Recently however, the Queensland Government endorsed a new plan to dump dredge spoil on land, rather than inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ‘It said the plan would ensure 3 million cubic metres of dredge material was reused on land and would seek fast-tracked federal approval’ (ABC: 8 September 2014). Stay tuned for further developments.

You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.
Aldo Leopold

As is my want, I have gone at this arse-backwards: on my desk is a stack of books about the Reef, about Judith Wright, her Collected Poems—my chance to reread the poetry and learn something. Among other facts, that the Reef is more massive than I had imagined, stretching from Bundaberg (QLD) and Lady Elliot Island, north to the Torres Strait and around as far as Papua New Guinea. It encompasses an area of almost 350 000 square kilometres, ‘comparable to the size of Japan and larger than the combined landmass of Great Britain and Ireland’ (Bowen: 2). It is the only living structure that can be seen from space.

NS 1 1Photo credit: (10/12/13)

Surprisingly the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2900 separate coral reefs, ‘some fully submerged, some only visible at low tides’. As Captain Cook was happy to discover, it is ‘not a continuous barrier but a vast and impenetrable assemblage of reefs’ composed of ‘long strips of ribbon reefs, large areal spreads of patch reefs and circular formations known as cays, with a central lagoon and an elevated area of pulverised coral sand’ (Bowen: 2). Apparently the Reef as we know it is relatively recent in the earth’s geological history—but with a long period of settlement and use by Indigenous peoples.

In terms of European history, there is some debate over who first ‘discovered’ the Reef (including the Portuguese, Dutch and the French) but credit generally goes to Captain James Cook who in 1770 literally ran into what he called its ‘Labyrinth’. Cook describes the ‘great wall of Coral Rock’ and wonders ‘if such reefs were formed in the Sea by animals…how came they [to be] thrown up to such a height?’ We know now that like oysters, coral polyps build and grow on the dead formations of their predecessors.

At the beginning of her book about the fight to save the Reef, Coral Battleground (1977) Wright quotes from Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, which effectively captures the awe he must have felt before such a wonder:

Flowers turned to stone! Not all botany
Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole,
Could find the Latin for this loveliness,
Could put the Barrier Reef in a glass box
Tagged by the horrid Gorgon squint
Of horticulture. Stone turned to flowers
It seemed—you’d snap a crystal twig,
One petal even of the water-garden,
And have it dying like a cherry-bough.

What is important here, and what Slessor’s lines emphasise, is that the Great Barrier Reef is a living structure, a vast eco-system of countless creatures, both plants and animals. The number and variety is spectacular as one small survey done on the ‘dead’ Ellison Reef in 1967—the first strike by conservationists in the long campaign to save the Reef—illustrates (more on that later). The diving team, in only thirty days, managed to identify 88 species of live coral, 60 species of molluscs, 190 species of fish and that was just the tip of the iceberg or reef so to speak.

NS 1 2Photo credit:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. … Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
—George Santayana

Most of us know that the Great Barrier Reef was declared a protected national marine park in 1975. Some of us may not know that it was also declared a World Heritage Area by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) because of its

‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty and superlative examples of the most important eco-systems’. It is considered an outstanding example of the major stages of the earth’s evolutionary history’ and of ‘significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man’s interaction with the natural environment’. It was further listed as ‘the foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive.’ (UNESCO 1980:22-23)

This was in 1981.

I have quoted the report somewhat in full since it will become apparent how sadly ironic many of the statements are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1963 Judith Wright and others formed one of the first conservation societies, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland based in Brisbane. Not long after, the first skirmish in the long war was identified when they became aware of reports that ‘coral collectors, shell collectors and tourist interference were increasing rapidly’ on the Reef (CB: 2). It’s not my intention here to give the entire history of the campaign (except for the fact that SAVE THE BARRIER REEF was the first bumper sticker in Australia as Wright was chuffed to record.) Anyone interested in the details can read her book. But I do want to point out certain astounding and shocking parallels between what was happening then and what is happening now to this precious natural resource.

In 1967 an enterprising cane-grower applied to the Queensland government to dredge for limestone by removing coral from Ellison Reef (supposedly a ‘dead’ reef as I mentioned above). The grounds for objection to this application were not only the damage to the actual reef and its denizens but more importantly ‘the danger of establishing a legal precedent for mining that could lead to widespread commercial exploitation of the whole of the Reef’ (CB: 6). (And of course the possibility of oil deposits and contiguous oil exploration reared its ugly head more than once during the battle and continues to do so.) Remember UNESCO’s recognition of the Reef as an example of the ‘foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive’??

NS 1 3‘Any form of dredging, on such reefs, would create problems of siltation and water pollution, not only in the immediate area but along the currents that make an intricate network of patterns throughout the Reef, as far as silt may be carried’ (CB:6-7). Living organisms such as coral (and oysters) are severely damaged by siltation as they are filter feeders and if the silt becomes heavy enough they simply ‘suffocate’ and die. Sound familiar? The rest of the story (eight long years) is a similar tale of individual battles for various parts of the Reef with various Government bodies and industries. It is complicated by the sheer size and diversity of the Reef itself, the fact that it wasn’t clear as to which authority had control over what aspects of the Reef and from the magnitude of self-interested profit in the names of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. So much for ‘man’s interaction with the natural environment’. As Wright herself noted in 1977, ‘[t]his story has no real beginning and no one knows what its end will be’(CB: xiii). (Photo credit:

Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable: what it means can never be said.
—George Santayana

One of the first characteristics, according to UNESCO, to recommend The Great Barrier Reef is its ‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty’. This statement raises questions of aesthetics and ethics. Is beauty a reason to protect and conserve a natural resource for our pleasure as against the needs of development and progress? Is ‘ugliness’ cause to allow a creature (consider the vulture) to become extinct? Wright described her chronological account of battle for the Reef as ‘bare’ and ‘unadorned’—not giving ‘much hint of the devotion, some might say obsession that drove a few people to resist at any odds the commercialising of the Great Barrier Reef’ (CB: 187). She goes on to explain: ‘But when I thought of the Reef, it was symbolised for me in one image that still stays in my mind’. She continues, and sounds much like the poet we know and admire:

NS 1 4On a still blue summer day, with the ultramarine sea scarcely splashing the edge of the fringing reef I was bending over a single small pool among the corals. Above it dozens of small clams spread their velvety lips, patterned in blues and fawns, violets, reds and chocolate browns, not one of them like another. In it sea-anemones drifted long white tentacles above the clean sand and peacock blue fish, only inches long, darted in and out of coral branches of all shapes and colours. One blue sea-star lay on the sand floor. The water was so clear that every detail of the pool’s crannies and their inhabitants was vivid, and every movement could be seen through its translucence. In the centre of the pool, as if on stage, swayed a dancing creature of crimson and yellow, rippling all over like a wind-blown shawl. …That was the Spanish Dancer, known to scientists as one of the nudibranchs, a shell-less mollusc. But for me it became an inner image of the spirit of the Reef itself (CB: 187-188). (Photo credit:

So ‘seeing’ may, for some, be the catalyst to a life-time love but as Wright goes on to explain not always necessary: ‘Some of us who worked in Brisbane had not even seen the Reef. …I myself had seen only a very small part of it, in the fringing reef of Lady Elliott Island many years before the battle started’. Beauty is probably the least of it. Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty puts the issue in perspective:

FIRST, well Great Barrier Reef 200 kilometres long
reefing us always, ha, ha, human construction
but we Aborigines respect Great Wall of China and Pyramids
compare our 40,000 years that say migglou scientist it.

This no scenic wonder we giving, but 1,000 million layers
of Murri season—open air, 30,000 years
top corner or waves
more iron ore than letting rich dissatisfied minerals
stealers raw our atmosphere, oxygen gets poison by you.

            from ‘Scenic Wonders—We Nula Fellas’

Judith Wright’s entire ouvre attests to her deep and abiding love for the land and her spiritual connection to it. Interestingly I have not been able to discover a poem published by Wright specifically about the Great Barrier Reef although she was wonderfully prodigious during that time, producing at least five impressive collections. Perhaps the wry, ironic ‘Report of a Working-Party’ from Shadow (1970) gives some indication of the toll the battle for the Reef was taking on her. In her last collection Phantom Dwelling (1985), the ghazal, ‘Rockpool’ may sum up her feelings at the time.

My generation is dying, after long lives
swung from war to depression to war to fatness.

I watch the claws in the rockpool, the scuttle, the crouch—
green humps, the biggest barnacled, eaten by sea worms.

In comes the biggest wave, the irresistible
clean wash and backswirl. Where have the dead gone?

At night on the beach the galaxy looks like a grin.
Entropy has unbraided Bernice’s hair.

We’ve brought on our own cancers, one with the world.
I hang on the rockpool’s edge, its wild embroideries:

admire it, pore on it, this, the devouring, the mating,
ridges of coloured tracery, occupants, all the living,

the stretching of toothed claws to food, the breeding
on the ocean’s edge. ‘Accept it? Gad, madam, you had better.’

NS 1 5Judith Wright lived another fifteen years and continued her activism for Aboriginal rights but she published no more poetry. Brigid Rooney asks: ‘How do writers negotiate the gap between the single-minded, solitary pursuit of writing and their public, collaborative or political interventions? How do writers hold in tension their need to retreat from the world with their need to engage in it? And what impact do their activities have on the value writers accrue in the literary marketplace?’ (Rooney: xxiii) There is no doubt that Wright’s literary reputation, founded on her first two collections, served her in good stead during the Reef campaign. Rooney rightly comments that it is ironic that Wright’s philosophical and poetic engagement with modernity’s self-destructiveness in these two collections was at first so readily dismissed, for this was the intellectual scaffold for a maturing environmental poetics’ (Rooney: 13). ‘There was a kind of weaving going on in Wright’s life at this time, between the inner and the outer life, the private and the public, the aesthetic and the ethical’ (Brady: 284). To balance both takes an enormous strength which few of us have. As a poet Wright worked towards reducing the ego and distanced herself from the petty politics of the literary scene. Increasingly she was interested in doing rather than saying and perhaps this gives a clue to her poetic silence in the last years of her life. She had produced an incredible and important body of work. And as she readily admitted—the world needs activists much more than poets.
(Photo credit:

It has been almost fifteen years since Judith Wright’s death and it is difficult to believe in spite of all hers and others’ efforts that the Great Barrier Reef should be under dire threat again. In her honour, if for nothing else, can we manage somehow to be poets and activists as well?


In spite of international concern, the federal government has made several decisions within the past two months that arguably erode safeguards for the reef, including:

  • 10 December 2013 – granting approval for the Abbot Point port expansion (although it was the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that took the decision on where to dump the spoil).
  • 13 December 2013 – reaching a revised agreement with the Queensland government (signed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Premier Campbell Newman) for a “one-stop shop” on environmental approvals, including decisions about “actions on state land and state waters that impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park”.
  • 20 December 2013 – approving the Galilee Coal and Rail Project, allowing for six new mines and a railway from the mine sites (400km inland) to Abbot Point.


Works Consulted

Bowen, James, and Bowen, Margarita, The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Brady, Veronica, South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1998.

Fogarty, Lionel, New and Selected Poems, Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera, Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995.

Rooney, Brigid, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.

Slessor, Kenneth, Collected Poems, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1977.

Stasko, Nicolette, Oyster: From Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2000.

Wright, Judith, Collected Poems 1942-1985, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994.

________________The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996.

3 thoughts on “The Reef is Not a Poem

  1. This is a fine piece, impressive research and great use of quotation, it’s well written and argues powerfully the reason and the need to seriously consider the concluding paragraph: “It has been almost fifteen years since Judith Wright’s death and it is difficult to believe in spite of all hers and others’ efforts that the Great Barrier Reef should be under dire threat again. In her honour, if for nothing else, can we manage somehow to be poets and activists as well?” Onward.

  2. A really interesting and important piece. The amount of irreversible damage that could occur to our natural environment under this government is alarming. I think we all need to speak up about it. Thanks for bringing the plight of the reef to everyone’s attention Nicolette and for skilfully synthesising so much research and so many images and ideas!

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