Ken's enjoying the best job on earth

Dr Ken Green is the Alpine Ecologist for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). His office is in Jindabyne and he is responsible for research and long term monitoring of the animals, vegetation, lakes and snow in the alpine area of the Snowy Mountains. Before he began this role in 1995, he was with the Australian Antarctic Division wintering on the Antarctic mainland and sub-Antarctic Heard Island, which erupted while he was there creating spectacular display of lava flowing down the middle of a glacier. He has co-authored many books, including any alpine traveller's companion: A Field Guide to Wildlife of the Australian Snow Country. Ken recently took some time out to share some of his work experiences.

How did you become interested in alpine ecology?

I went on my first overnight ski tour in 1977 with friends from the Canberra College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra. We skied up from Schlinks Hut onto the Kerries on a sunny day with magnificent views of Jagungal and the snow-covered country all around. Together with Will Osborne, with whom I later wrote Wildlife of the Australian Snow Country, we speculated on what animals were active in the snow each winter. In the following year we returned for a full three weeks of surveying the fauna in the snow during the mid-year break. I was hooked. I later went on to complete a PhD at the Australian National University studying animals in the alpine zone of the Snowy Mountains, so coming back to work here was a natural progression.

How do you think people view your work?

They seem to think I have the best job on earth. I'd like them to think that I am out there grubbing out an existence: calloused hands, feet and knees, working my fingers to the bone for a pittance in fair weather and foul. Trouble is, they can see I am enjoying it - and sometimes my grin gets bigger the wilder the weather. People often think that animals of the snow are confined to the northern hemisphere and are fascinated by the fact that in this flat, hot, dry continent we have animals that have to deal with snow. For example, wombats dig through two metres of snow just to find their burrow, the incredible shrinking antechinus that gets smaller (and not just lost body fat) so it needs less food under the winter snow, and insects here change colour to absorb or reflect heat at different times of the day.

What have been your work highlights?

There are two standout moments - one natural and one involving people. Camping in winter near the remains of old Rawsons Hut and watching the Aurora Australis (the southern lights) flickering over the summit of Kosciuszko was pretty amazing. Second, was finding a missing walker just before Christmas one year after she had been missing for four days. We had followed her tracks for two days and finally found her - this was the best Christmas present I ever had.

Have you had a difficult experience in the field?

Breaking my leg on Mt Tingaringy was a bit ordinary. I was walking between enormous cliffs we had abseiled down quite safely, looking for peregrine falcon nests and evidence of Quolls and Rock Wallabies. I simply stepped on a rock that rolled under my foot. The broken leg wasn't devastating, neither was the one hour crawl and climb down to where a helicopter could winch me out in 50 knot winds. It was the fact that I was stopped from being in the field while the leg healed and had to focus on paperwork.

How should people taking the time to roam enjoy the environment?

The best way to enjoy nature is in solitude, so get away from people and just walk in the woods or grassland by yourself - no talk, no phone, no noise - and just look and listen and think.

And when you have gone, leaving nothing behind except your fleeting presence you will have added to nature, not subtracted from it. If you are interested in the Australian 'high country', I recommend exploring the Snowy Mountains and Victorian Alps and the Tasmanian Central Plateau. Also, learn from nature while you drive... Have you ever noticed that ravens always know which side of the white line is theirs and which is yours? They will sit there and watch you go past only a metre or so away.

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