February 11, 2008, The Age
He is a quiet one, is Richard Appleton, but you would not want to mistake that for an absence of passion.
In the diabolical tumult that is the climate change debate, he has a clarity of vision and calm resolve that could be a model for those of us who want to help the environment but don't know how.
Mr Appleton is a steward of the earth. We all are, he says, just temporary caretakers of the planet. He reckons that what we do now and tomorrow will determine our legacy.
In this philosophical stance he is far from alone, but Mr Appleton long ago decided to act on his beliefs.
And so we come to a good news story about what can happen when people set an example, form sympathetic alliances, dirty their hands and substitute altruism for ego.
Mr Appleton has a little remnant cool-temperate rainforest on his property at Balook, in that misty part of the Strzelecki Ranges where even in summer a persistent drizzle can feel like a sponge bath.
The rainforest has nowhere to run, he says. This is its final refuge. But the fact that it has survived at all is reason for hope. It could have disappeared during the wholesale (and many now say mad) clearing of Gippsland's Great Forest, which began in the 1870s, when settlers decided ancient stands of glorious mountain ash should make way for crops and cattle.
Richard Appleton's parents bought the 40-hectare Balook property in 1953. They cleared a few patches to grow potatoes and ride horses.
But when the Forests Commission came knocking, Mr Appleton's mother refused to sell. The area was beginning to recover from the 1944 bushfires. When Mr Appleton acquired the property in 1997, he sat down to plan not just its preservation, but a replanting scheme. He wanted to recreate the biodiversity that would have existed 200 years ago, when the tree canopy protected a dense understorey, and animals and birds had a symbiotic relationship that contributed to their survival. An environment, that is, that did not need human tampering.
Today, Mr Appleton's property is a little native oasis flanked by the Tarra Bulga National Park and the Merrimans Creek headwaters.
The leeches cling like limpet mines as you gingerly pick your way through gullies where Mr Appleton has loosened the formidable grip of blackberry infestation, allowing native shrubs and ferns to reclaim their rightful place.
He is putting in sassafras, beech and, of course, eucalypts — but it's a hell of a task. He turned to Trust For Nature for help. Like many Victorian landowners developing an eco-consciousness, Mr Appleton signed a covenant, protecting the land from opportunistic development.
Since 1972, the trust, a not-for-profit organisation, has been in the vanguard of innovative moves to protect Victoria's native habitat through covenants, land purchases and management programs.
In 2006, the trust put Mr Appleton in touch with Brendan Condon, of Australian Ecosystems. He is director of an offshoot organisation, Climate Positive, which is dealing with historical carbon debt.
It is not enough to be carbon neutral, Mr Condon says — we can suck it out of the atmosphere and lock it down.
Science is making inroads, all we need is the will to act positively. He dubs it "carbon catching".
On Friday, we went with Mr Condon and Trust For Nature's executive director, Mike Gooey, on a visit to Balook.
Also on board was the trust's West Gippsland conservation officer, John Hick.
Our little expedition was joined at Mr Appleton's home by GippsLandcare representative Gaby Mitchell, then we walked.
Mr Hick described one magnificent specimen of mountain ash as stately, exactly the word you had to settle on.
Mr Appleton took us to the paddocks where, with help from Climate Positive volunteers, thousands of eucalypts, wattles and acacias have been planted. There will be another planting in July.
Richard Appleton has a vision. He knows he won't be around to see the mature results.
Nor will any of us who don't know what to do except use energy-efficient light globes and ride a bike to the supermarket. But it is a vision that incorporates hope for a future with oxygen, and last Friday's expeditioners agreed that hope is as good a place as any to start.