I was 10 when I read Amazon Adventure cover to cover in an afternoon. The Willard Price series about a pair of brothers traveling with their zoologist dad around the world enthralled me. Part of it was my love for animals. Part was a fascination with the adventure of discovery – trekking to far-flung places to discover their true essence. As a teen I devoured Lost World of the Kalahari in which Sir Laurens van der Post recounted his learning and transformation during his many months with the San. The best part of my own zoology degree was studying Darwin’s endeavors on the HMS Beagle, articulating his theories while on the Galapagos Islands. A passion for embracing the naturalistic world as life’s greatest teacher has never left me. There is something profoundly elegant in going back to first principles, getting back to the field, immersing in the context of a place, and allowing it to reveal its true nature.
One of the cornerstones of the North of Normal research project has been in-context research. As we have traveled the continents these past months some people have bantered, “Yeah, right! Nice ‘research’ project”. There is, perhaps, a suspicion that traveling the globe to explore what people love is a convenient way to dress up a world trip as Ph.D enquiry. Given the brilliant personal experiences we have had, that is understandable.
However, personal experiences are by definition ours. What we care so deeply about as researchers is bringing to light the stories of other people – the extraordinary and the mundane, the unbelievable and the pedestrian stories of everyday people in the context of their time and place. Why? Because the stories are there, waiting to be told. They exist. They await discovery. And if we care about what makes for a flourishing life these stories deserve our attention.
We landed in Australia with these thoughts in mind. We wanted to capture the true essence of being Aussie, in all its complexity. And so we decided to travel the east coast by Hippie Campervan, stopping in small towns as well as larger cities, eating with locals, listening to stories, and asking questions surrounded by cassowaries and wallabies.
We were rewarded with some of the most iconic characters and memorable quotes of the trip. Like South East Asia, Australia was a lesson that there is no “typical” Aussie. And the trip drove home the message that engaging with people on their own soil provides a rich understanding of who they are, what they care about, and why. There is no substitute for sitting in the red earth surrounded by mangrove branches while learning about personally transformative experiences of a sinewed, heat-drenched Australian. Nor is there a substitute for hearing about the bush and the interconnectedness of all things from an Aboriginal elder while enveloped by the rainforest of North Tropical Queensland.
We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to all of our Australian interviewees who taught us so much about this amazing land and its people: Mama M who will be a ballet dancer in her next life, magical Dr. Ernie, croc hunter Dave, inspiring Lisa and Guy, salt of the earth Spider, Aboriginal grandma extraordinaire, enthusiastic Pru, generous Gerald, and wise-beyond-your-years Luke. You reminded us of a Dream Time painting – many dots making up the full picture of Australia. Thank you.