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Byron Shire
March 3, 2024

Goodbye to an inspiring scientist, activist and friend

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Mary Gardner 1957–2023.

Mary Gardner, born in 1957, was the eldest daughter of Lithuanian refugees who fled to the US after the Russian annexation of Lithuania. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, often caring for her two younger siblings, especially after her parents separated. It left her with little time to follow her passion for ballet dancing, further inhibited when a car accident damaged her spine, causing her chronic pain.

Cleveland was a polluted, industrial city and Mary told me that the Cuyahoga River there caught fire often.

Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when she was young changed her life. It is no surprise that reviving water, and the things that live in it, has been the thread through the work of her life.

Mary started college in Boston, but surprised her family by dropping out to get married. Her daughter, Claire, was born in 1980. Two years later Mary left her husband and moved with Claire, first to Hawai’i and then, in 1984, to New Zealand.

In New Zealand, Mary completed her Bachelor of Science and then a Masters of Science; her thesis was about the effect of ocean pollution on shellfish. Rachel Carson had a devoted disciple.

Part of the remnant wetlands at Belongil. Are council and developers going against the tide building a hard rock wall? Photo Mary Gardner

Customary rāhui

In Auckland, Mary spearheaded a group that achieved legal enforcement of a customary rāhui that prohibited the collection of shellfish at Kare Kare beach near Auckland, and later other beaches. For several years Mary taught biology at Otago University.

In 2007 Mary came to Australia and visited Byron Bay. She felt she had found her place – and people – and stayed. It didn’t take long before she got involved in protecting the local environment.

From 2007, until she became too unwell, Mary wrote a column Tangle of Life for The Echo – deftly and effortlessly drawing together her vast knowledge of science, music, literature, Indigenous culture and so much more. She gave us a prism through which we could see light, split into a rainbow spectrum, like Mary saw it and, in that revelation, look at our world with greater love and a desire to care.

Jim and Mary on their wedding day.

Friendship and love

Mary loved to snorkel and, introduced to each other via their mutual friend, Mungo MacCallum, she met Jim Beatson. She invited him to join her snorkelling and a spark was lit – under water! They married in 2016 and together hosted many legendary gatherings filled with ideas, debates, laughter, food and friendship.

West Byron after rain, August 2014. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary’s love of our local waterways and all that lived in them became the point at which she and I connected. She was extremely concerned about the proposed development of West Byron that threatens to impact the koala population that lives on the site, Belongil Creek and Cape Byron Marine Park. She was tireless during that campaign and her eloquence about the ecology of the site was persuasive. As an activist she was both an intellectual and heartfelt campaigner.

Mary created an organisation, Caring for Water Places, and enthused the many who joined her in this passion. She was especially insistent that we needed to look at waterways the way traditional owners do. Whilst much has been written about Indigenous cultural fire practices, Mary was first person I knew who stressed how important it was for the future that we take heed of Indigenous water culture. 

Belongil lagoon. Photo Mary Gardner.

Dr Mary

Mary undertook her doctoral studies at Southern Cross University and was awarded her PhD in 2016. Her thesis, titled A socio-ecological marine history of east Australian subtropics, was a unique cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary work that, unusually for many academic theses, is also enjoyable and interesting reading. She achieved high praise from her examiners.

Mary’s influence on me as a local activist, and later councillor, was profound – she opened my eyes to how water courses through and shapes this place. Because of her, Byron Shire now has a Water Sensitive Urban Design Policy, another layer of protection in this precious water place. 

Pied oystercatcher. Photo Mary Gardner

Byron Coastal and ICOLL Centre

Last year, Mary’s friends and dedicated followers set up the Byron Coastal and ICOLL (Intermittently Closed and Open Lake Lagoon;, such as at Belongil and Tallow Creeks) Centre – the realisation of Mary’s vision to have a dedicated coastal environmental organisation. Had she been well enough, she would have been the figurehead, parting the ocean spray.

In 2020, Mary and Jim moved to Kandanga in the Mary Valley, Queensland, to be near Claire, her husband David and their son Zachary. Despite the limitations of her illness, she had a joyous time with her grandson – it was a meeting of minds, as Mary never lost the excitement and curiosity that children possess.

A frog sunning itself on a leaf – one of environment writer Mary Gardner’s favourite things. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary’s milestones and only some of her achievements have been noted here, but of course that is not her life, not really. How to describe the character of one so enigmatic? Mary had so many very good friends, it is an honour for me to be writing this obituary. But it is a challenge to constrain Mary’s life to a few columns. Like her namesake in The Sound of Music, ‘how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?’.

All of Mary’s friends report joyous and enriching encounters with her, yet that similarity doesn’t diminish the individuality of each experience – how she was with her friends was universally Mary, yet particular, and therefore so special, to each of us.

Mary really saw us all. She also showed us how to look.

Mary died of a blood cancer, at home, on 19 March in the care of Jim, her daughter Claire and her family. Many of her friends were able to visit Mary in her last few weeks. She was also fortunate to have her sister, Rose whom she had not seen for 30 years visit her from the US in her last days.

In memory of Mary

A memorial for Mary is planned for Saturday 6 May from 2.30 pm at Marvell Hall.

All welcome. So we know numbers, please confirm attendance via Facebook event or email: [email protected].

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  1. A nice account of her life, thanks Cate Coorey.

    I’ll especially miss the snorkeling, where she would often be seen suspended 2 metres under, with countless fish hovering around her; she being transfixed in wonder, observing the few, right in front of her eyes.
    She was a natural poetic creature, encompassing all around her in artistic flair, in styles that were always educative and enticing.

    Mary will be greatly missed by many, into the distant future.

  2. I love you Mary.
    Your columns were undoubtedly some of the most heartfelt and insightful writing ever seen in The Echo.


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