Maree Byrne was awarded OAM for service to the community of the Southern Highlands
Maree Byrne was awarded OAM for service to the community of the Southern Highlands

When I email Maree suggesting a conversation she writes back in answer with what I now think of as ‘the Covid19 response’. She tells me she has so much time on her hands these days. “Nothing’s happening!”

She can meet at any time, she says.  But when I name a day a reply comes back promptly; she has an appointment and two meetings on that day.

It is quickly clear that Maree is a woman with an unusual concept of doing nothing.

It’s an August afternoon when we settle into a sun-warmed corner of the house she shares with her husband, Geoff. Comfortable chairs of natural-coloured cane; cushions in restrained, classic prints; clear, calm, modern spaces, muted colours, except for those in large, bright paintings that caught my eye as I walked down the hallway.

“Left overs from past lives,” she says, smiling, “As you’ve probably guessed, we’re not creative types.”

The coffee mug warming my hands is plain and practical.

I’ve come to discover the source of the agitation that has turned Maree into a lifetime activist.

She’s a country girl, born in ’49 and raised on a dairy farm down Bega way. “Living the sustainable life was as natural as breathing,” she explains, “It made perfect sense to grow our own food and be self-sufficient. It was just the way of living on a farm.  The word ‘environment’ was hardly used in those days.”

Insight into what makes Maree tick comes when she tells me her family belonged to the Methodist church. My mind jumps to John Wesley, together with images of missionaries, soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, and bringing the Christian message to criminals. That church had a mission for social justice.

As a secondary school student, Maree was sent to board at MLC, a Methodist girls’ school in Sydney. There are no sad stories here; no tales of a poor country kid torn from home. This was a smart, strong and focussed girl. She took advantage of all the good things on offer at the school.

“I was a leader”, she tells me.

She still is.

At school she became the leader of a Christian group. A picture is emerging of a visionary, clever and idealistic kid. She wanted to become a missionary.

The missionary idea took flight later when, in 1970, Maree joined Australian Volunteers Abroad and left home to work in Malaysia. This experience she sees as a turning point in her life.

In her own words, “…my eyes were opened through mixing with people from different cultures and religions and through witnessing poverty and discrimination first-hand.”

Back home again, life events intervened and gradually Maree’s faith in the church unravelled, but in 1997, when she married Geoff Byrne, they undertook to have another look, and together the couple researched Christianity, both for a second time.

At around this time the Tampa crisis happened and the plight of refugees commanded their attention. As with many of us, Maree and Geoff did not have a particular taste for politics, but they recognised that political engagement is a direct way to effect change. Finding the Greens party best represented their viewpoint, they joined the local branch. The Four Pillars of Greens policy platform accurately lined up with their beliefs. These are:

*Ecological sustainability  *Grassroots participatory democracy  *Social Justice  *Peace and non-violence

Despite very serious health challenges, the couple have remained committed to the local Greens. They hold ongoing leadership roles in the group and are dedicated to the work of this party.

Around that same time, the couple attended the first local meeting of Rural Australians for Refugees and found this was an area of work to which they were drawn. They committed to work with the group and remain active to this day.

Inspired by Dr John Kaye’s Climate Change workshop in 2007, They became foundation members of local activist group, CANWin (now WinZero).

By this time in the conversation it’s clear that the thing drawing Maree to all this work is a passion for social justice. This theme keeps reappearing when she tells me about her work and life choices. As she describes time committed to running a business, travelling for study and bringing up her two boys, evident is a continuous thread of commitment to community service running through her life.

Our coffee cups are empty and wind rattles shrubs outside the window. The sun has moved away from our corner. I cast my eye over the little garden outside Maree and Geoff’s windows. Trimmed box hedges make squares around bright patches of grass; camellias, azaleas and daphne. Maree reminds me that, on an earlier visit, I offered to help her pull out the box and plant the garden with natives. Whilst I’m more than a bit confronted at having been so outspoken, I recognise myself and my own passion. For a second time I’m surprised by her response,

“It’s not a priority for me”, she says.

How is it that this woman who has fought so hard for the natural world does not yearn to use her tiny plot to provide habitat for our beleaguered wildlife?

After some time and more thought, the penny drops. If gardening is a craft, this matches up with Maree telling me she is not creative (this is only partially true, since she is certainly creative in her chosen field of work). She will preserve her energy for working in areas where her own priorities lie.

Once again, it is reinforced for me that we all see the world in a different light and the ensuing truth is that we are all needed in the fight for a better world. With our different skills and interests, we must work together.  As with a jigsaw puzzle, every piece is needed.

Maree is not a small steps person; she’s after big changes. She sees social justice as something expansive; something that reaches out to encompass the environment, together with the original Australians who nurtured it, unspoiled, for so many thousands of years. She has dedicated her life to fighting for a respected place for misused humans and similarly, she wants a rightful and respected place for the misused natural environment. She wants all of it positioned in an honoured place, together with the original Australians who walk in lockstep with what we call ‘the environment’ and they know to be Country.

I’ve looked at the video made by Gaye White (WinZero) to acknowledge the work undertaken by members CANWin, over many years.  Hard graft.

Maree appears in frame after frame. She’s holding up banners, planting trees, addressing crowds and pushing wheelbarrows, “I can’t believe that was me!” she exclaims. “We worked so long and so hard and we were so optimistic!”

An underlying dreadful truth is left unsaid…and we achieved such small headway in changing hearts and minds.

Maree tells me that, over years, she has struggled with this reality and that at times it can drag her down towards the realm of the black dog.

We turn away from one another, not wanting our eyes to meet. We cannot acknowledge a shared glint of tears in our eyes.

We will not shed tears for Planet A.

Not yet.

Not while there is still hope.

This year, in 2020, Maree has been awarded the OAM for service to the community of the Southern Highlands.