Tim was my supervisor for my honours year, and then again as I started my MSc in Zoology in 1971. His death last week at 93 has prompted my mind into a series of recollections of this larger than life character who came across as a complete opposite of your stereotype academic. His ability to cut through the dross to ask questions to the heart of an issue was unmatched, in many ways reminiscent of the child asking why the emperor was naked.
Every time I think of Tim, I can’t help but replay in my mind the bellow of laughter from his office sometime in 1972 as he read a letter from Mike Archer, I think then curator of mammals in WA. Mike had just completed the formal description and naming of a tiny red furred marsupial carnivore Tim had found in the West Australian desert in 1957, and he had written to Tim to advise him that he had decided to name the specimen in Tim’s honour. The animal was to be known as Ningaui timealeyi. The letter went on to explain that the new generic name, Ningaui, was also to honour Tim’s hair colour and stature, as in the local Aboriginal dialect the word meant “Red Dwarf”.
This quote from Wikipedia: “This makes the Pilbara ningaui one of the smallest of all marsupials, surpassed only by the planigales. It is partly arboreal, and differs from other others of the genus in its smaller size and rufous-tinted face.”
Tim abandoned me to the Zoology Department shortly after that to set up the new Department of Environmental Science, so my studies continued in much more formal surroundings. I eventually left to go off teaching and returned to Melbourne several years later, much more cashed up and able to join the Conservation Co-op that Tim, with others, had established on a 360 acre bush block near Christmas Hills, out past Eltham. Members of the co-op were able to take a lease on a house site and build their home subject to a series of rules limiting the impact of their development on the surrounding bush. The co-op was run by an elected committee, who supervised all facets of every development to ensure the rules were followed and the land protected. Meetings tended to go until everyone was exhausted, as all decisions were argued out until a consensus was reached.
Tim was the cause of many, many interminable meetings in his determination to run a couple of chickens. Most members of the co-op committee could only see the weeds and runoff from the chook pen which could not be allowed to escape into the bush. A compromise was eventually reached where the chooks could live only on the fenced and waterproofed area of the transpiration bed where all waste water from the house was contained.
The co-op land is in an especially fire prone zone, one of the top 4 world wide, so management of the land for fire threat reduction was high on everyone’s agenda. The main goal is to reduce the fuel load and therefore the intensity of the fire, so the arguments tended to be whether we should rake and compost, rake and burn or just burn. Tim’s red hair may have been responsible for him being the proponent for the frequent hot fire school. At least once in my memory Tim’s fire, which should have been creeping slowly along the ground, escaped into the canopy when an untimely wind came through.
One of the side effects of building your own home was that every detail could be adapted to suit your own needs, instead of simply using the standard patterns. This was driven home in no uncertain manner when I visited Tim as his house was nearing completion. At 185cm, I’m not especially tall, but to enter Tim and Raya’s home was to become as a giant. Everything was designed and built to suit their 150 cm height. So my head would bang into the overhead cupboards, I had to bend my knees to wash dishes, or even simply see myself in a mirror. He also objected to the standard pattern of having the hot tap on the left hand side of every sink. This meant he would have to use his left hand across the water flow in order to clean his teeth with his right. Tim installed all his taps with the cold on the left to avoid spitting on his arm. I did the same in several houses and cabins I built over the next few decades, much to the puzzlement of tourists staying in my B&B cabins.
Tim will live on in my memory as one of the people who was most influential in teaching me several life lessons.
Always get the fundamentals right and let the rest evolve.
Identify your own needs and let that, not other people, rule what you do.
Believe in yourself, but you don’t need to be arrogant about it.