Sowing the seed: a profile of Planet Ark's CEO Rebecca Gilling - National Tree Day Blog

Sowing the seed: a profile of Planet Ark's CEO Rebecca Gilling

Rebecca Gilling, the CEO of Planet Ark and spokesperson for National Tree Day, has been with the organisation for over 20 years. In the following interview, she discusses what sets Planet Ark apart from other environmental organisations: our focus on positive solutions. Rebecca also shares her early fascination with nature and how her upbringing shaped her love for the environment and drives her work today.

Not only do you have a Masters of sustainability, I understand you’ve studied horticulture as well. Where did your fascination with nature first come from?  

Well, I'm one of the lucky generations that was born at a time when Australia's population was a third of the size it is now. I had nature on my doorstep, close to the bush. We were kicked out of the house after breakfast and told to come home for tea and we spent our time ranging through the bush climbing trees, making cubby houses, grazing our knees. Nature was just a part of our everyday world. On top of that, our family holidays were spent camping beside mountain rivers in the snowy mountains of New South Wales. And again, that opportunity just to make your own fun in nature, unmediated by adults because they left us to our own devices. I think that's so important and it's something that the children of today sorely lack. 

I think this is one of the reasons why National Tree Day is so important because it does not only build an ethic of care for the environment in the young, which is so vital, it also gives them the practical opportunity of getting their hands in the earth. And we know for a whole lot of children, that opportunity is becoming increasingly rare. 

Can you talk about one of your first experiences in nature? 

Apart from the camping holidays that I enjoyed as a child, I vividly remember trying to grow pansies in the sandstone soil of my neighbourhood. But with a singular lack of success of course. But I think that desire to sow a seed and see it grow into something beautiful was possibly innate.  

My mother was also a very keen gardener. I learnt a lot at her knee. However, my mother had a talent for making exciting things a bit boring. If we were complaining about being bored, she'd say, well, there's always the path to sweep or the lawn to rake. It wasn't really until I had my own garden as a renter, that I was able to exercise my love of growing things.  

Why do you think it’s important for people to spend time in nature?  

Our own research tells us that there are huge mental, physical health and well-being benefits from spending time in nature like lowering your blood pressure. For children improving their ability to pay attention, which is an increasing problem with the amount of time they spend on devices. It also brings you back to what really matters. 

I think as a gardener, I understand the sense of hope you feel with the approach of a new season. You may have had a disastrous season last year and all your tomatoes rotted or failed to thrive, whatever it is, there's always another year. There's an old saying that says if you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a weekend, get married. If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, become a gardener. 

Do you have a favourite wild place?  

One of the wild places that sticks in my memory, whether it's a favourite or not, I don't know, but it certainly has been hugely important to me, was on the South Coast Track of Tasmania. That six or seven-day walk was second only to childbirth in degree of difficulty. But coming down the southern slope of the iron ranges through the temperate rainforests of Tasmania was extraordinary. The diversity of plant forms was staggering.  

One of the things that I appreciate when I travelled is coming home, and understanding what incredible diversity we have in this country. In my experience, which is fairly limited, our diversity is not found anywhere else. We have some beautiful places in the world but in terms of real diversity, we are unmatched in this country. 

Do you have any books, podcasts or other resources you would recommend to those wanting to learn more about taking action for the environment? 

I would start with Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. It frames the problems, environmental and social and the limits of what the Earth can manage with what our political and social systems need to provide for all generations present and future. 

I'm really impressed with the work by Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists, it isa wonderful book.His more recent bookHumankind is fantastic. In terms of framing how we can live fairly equitably and comfortably on this wonderful infinite planet.  

I was led to Rebecca Solnit’s work, Hope in the Dark, which I think is a mastery for anybody who cares about the environment or works in the environmental field. Because the risk of eco-anxiety or eco-despair is real not just for us who work in this area, but for people generally. Her approach really says the future is an unknown.That's the dark, it's not scary.It's unknown. What we do with it is up to us. Hope implies action. She says hope is the axe that you use to break down the door when the room is on fire. It really requires action from all of us. But despair, you might as well not get out of bed in the morning. That sense of hope is hugely important, I think for all of us.  

Finally, I would add Sam Harris' work. Firstly, his Waking Up app. This has been hugely beneficial to me, in terms of trying to keep things on an even keel, but also his podcast Making Sense, he attracts the most brilliant minds on issues of the environment and moral philosophy and the ethics of living a good life has been hugely influential on me as well. 

Pamela Jolly

Pamela is a Marketing Communications professional with over 10 years experience working for both agencies and organisations in communications, travel, finance and retail industries. Pamela loves to be in nature riding a bike, skiing, appreciating the trees at her local park or exploring wild places abroad with her family.