‘Freedom’ is the word that Eric Lindgren would use to best describe his childhood in Perth. Despite growing up during World War II, he remembers being given free rein to roam the neighbourhood, spending hours playing in the bush and swimming in the Swan River. As is the case with many boys, Eric’s main focus during his formative years was the intriguing creature known as the female. But just as his love for the opposite sex grew more ardent, so too did his passion for nature. It wasn’t until he began high school, however, that he took serious notice of its feathered inhabitants. “My friend Charlie was from the country and I remember he described the great variety of birds that were around his home farm,” Eric recalls. Intrigued, Eric accompanied his friend to a place called Pelican Point, where Charlie began pointing out all the different types of water birds. While Eric had seen plenty of these birds before, this was the first time that he had actually taken the time to observe their antics and admire their beauty.
A few years later, a family holiday to Rottnest Island became particularly momentous in Eric’s life. Firstly, after he discovered a nest filled with huge eggs in a cave on the island, his passion for birds truly ignited. But most importantly, it was on Rottnest that he encountered a girl named Del Gillies, who became his lifelong love.
Following high school, both Eric and Del chose teaching as their vocation, and, after completing teachers college (and marrying in 1956), spent the next few years teaching at primary schools throughout Western Australia. With a ravenous appetite for knowledge, Eric tried to indulge his love for nature wherever possible during his spare time, studying and photographing birds and flowers, and exploring the natural sites of wherever he and Del happened to be based.
In 1959, adventure beckoned, and the couple packed their bags and drove for two days to the Great Sandy Desert, to teach at the Jigalong Mission School for 12 months. “At that time, all the Aboriginals were full bloods, born in the desert, and in first-generation contact with Europeans,” Eric recalls. “So their culture was unsullied to a great degree. While we went there to fulfil part of our teaching contract, we also wanted to learn more about Aboriginal culture and study the wildlife in the area, particularly birds.” Upon returning to Perth, Eric resigned from primary teaching to fully dedicate himself to his passion for nature, completing a Bachelor of Science in biology and zoology, followed by a PhD in zoology, and becoming a lecturer at what is now Curtin University.
But in 1969, the siren call of adventure again proved irresistible, and Eric and Del (along with their two young boys Tim and Roland) moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG) – and within a few months, their youngest son, Carl, was born. While many people saw it as dangerous – and even foolish – to move their young family to the unstable third-world country, Eric and Del saw it as a wonderful opportunity to encounter a culture completely different from their own, and to discover PNG’s diverse birdlife.
Eric initially began work as an ecologist with PNG’s Department of Environment and Conservation, researching at a local, highly primitive crocodile farm. He also worked at the PNG Museum, helping to start its War Museum branch – a collection of World War II artefacts and ephemera. Not only did the museum give Eric the opportunity to indulge his love of documenting and cataloguing, it also made a great playground for his three sons. “They definitely benefitted from growing up in a different culture,” he says of raising his young brood in PNG. “It showed them that there are other things in life besides the money-oriented Western society they now exist in. In many ways it made them more tolerant of others, and paradoxically frustrated about the artificial lives that so many people live in our society.”
Since his own father had passed away when Eric was only two, he had no blueprint from which to raise three young boys. So instead he simply tried to instil in them a love of adventure, a respect for the environment and an insatiable curiosity about the mysteries of the world. Just as he had been allowed to roam free in nature as a child, Eric and his family would often spend their days scuba diving, exploring jungles and riding horses. Asked what he sought to teach his sons to guide them through life, he cites respect, individualism and working for the greater good of society. “Hopefully they’ve grown up with the knowledge of right and wrong, and they choose correctly. We wanted them to learn to be themselves, to respect those who deserve respect, to be honourable, to contribute to society, to enjoy their lives and do their best.”
As a man of science, Eric’s preferred credo is that of Gaia – or Mother Nature – rather than any religion. “I don’t believe in a god, but perhaps there is a life force that we do not understand: a form of energy that lies outside our capability to measure because our sensory and technological abilities cannot measure it. We have five senses, mostly based on electromagnetic energy – are there other forms of energy not based upon these wave/particle forms? Who knows? A large number of highly qualified people have been trying for aeons to find the answer. I know I don’t know, because sometime ago I worked it out: There is but one truth, and that is, ‘There is no truth.’”
While he and Del (now married for 58 years) returned to Australia in the early nineties, Eric’s passion for discovery hasn’t at all subsided. He continues to fuel his curiosity, cataloguing his prolific findings from over the years, but he has never concerned himself with matters of success. “‘Success’ is a subjective judgement, made within the parameters of the person and their peers,” he says. “In my case, I’m not interested in success or failure and they don’t occupy my mind. I leave success to others – I’m happy the way I am.”
Though he still views himself as a work in progress, Eric says he finds peace within. It also comes, as it always has, when reconnecting with the natural world – in particular during the moments spent on the back deck of their Brisbane home, observing the quirky antics of the local birdlife he has worked so hard to attract to their yard. “I love seeing the king parrots peering at me with their cockeyed style,” he says gleefully. “And crested pigeons threatening each other with the wing flicks, and the turkey hoping a scrap of food will drop from heaven above so he can gobble it in one gulp.”
Having seen the world change significantly during his 80 years, and not always for the better, Eric hopes that, one day, we’ll see a sustainable population of people who care about, and care for, each other and the natural world around them. “Work with nature, not against her,” he offers as his wisdom for the world. “Nature knows that, no matter what humans do, she’ll win in the end – she has all the time in the world. After all, the future is going to last a long time!”