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Towering yet self-critical figure in forestry inspired students

RONALD FRANCIS HATELEY ECOLOGIST, LECTURER 20-2-1948 - 24-8- 2011

RONALD FRANCIS HATELEY

ECOLOGIST, LECTURER

20-2-1948 - 24-8- 2011

RON Hateley, a gifted ecologist and inspirational communicator has died of a brain aneurysm in Ballarat, aged 63, almost a year after publication of his life's work, The Victorian Bush - its 'original and natural' condition.

Hateley grew up in tiny Kiata, a pub and some houses on the Western Highway, but with the Little Desert as his backyard.

Inspired by his park ranger father, Keith Hateley, OAM, an accomplished naturalist and anthropologist, the shy, easy-going 17-year-old left home in 1966 for the Victorian School of Forestry (VSF), unaware that its Creswick campus would play a big part in his life.

After diploma studies he was dux and a BSc in forestry at Melbourne University, he started postgraduate work in quantitative ecology. In 1976, he began lecturing in botany and ecology at the VSF, at the time still run by the Forests Commission Victoria. The extraordinarily informative notes on Australian forest types he distributed differed markedly from his own student days, when lectures more or less meant dictation, with the set-in-stone course reflecting European environments.

By then he had married Margaret Gorman, a midwife from Casterton. In 1978, the couple moved to Clunes, and quickly integrated into the community. Renovating their old cottage and enhancing its substantial grounds became their passion. His cottage garden was outstanding, with salvaged basalt and bricks used creatively among heritage trees, shrubs and herbs.

Hateley's children did the lifting for these projects because, in the late 1970s, a spinal injury caused by a fall from a bridge at St Georges Lake a decade earlier inevitably caught up with him. In his 30s, he faced premature retirement. However, he was able to return, albeit with increasing pain, to lecturing at Creswick, which became part of Melbourne University in 1980. But his injury deteriorated and became more severe over the past decade.

Happily, Clunes proved a caring community, which Hateley loved unconditionally, with its friendships, book festival, bocce games, coffee shops, nearby bush and wetlands, squatting history, volunteer medical support and proximity to Creswick campus and its library and faculty. His prized sports car took him on afternoon rural drives.

A gifted communicator and winner of two university awards for teaching excellence, Hateley's trade would always be lecturing. His approach was to stimulate and motivate students, to generate a desire to learn rather than merely convey information.

Over a 30-year period he trained and inspired hundreds of students now working throughout Australian (and overseas) forestry and other arenas.

Community environmental groups often approached him for advice, and his great generosity earned him a joint Victorian Community and Local History award in 1999, the latter for his work in developing Creswick's La Gerche Walking Track, commemorating a pioneer forester of the late 1800s.

Hateley sought to better understand the complexities of interacting ecological factors over time, along the way developing high-quality teaching material and aids, as well as his own ideas about the influences of natural events and human activity on our forests.

He was a severe critic of his own work, declining publication or wider offerings of his work because of his unfounded view that it was not of deserving standard. His doctoral thesis in the 1970s went the same way.

Fortunately, The Victorian Bush emerged last year, possibly his greatest professional highlight. A mountain of work underpinned the book, but how would it be published? In this he was indebted to the late Alf Leslie, who provided years of intellectual rigour, and to Rob Youl, a forestry colleague who privately published the book. At the same time, Hateley, Youl, and fellow-lecturer Brian Fry were working on a history of forestry education in Victoria, published last year, the centenary of the VSF, as Circumspice.

The Victorian Bush represents Hateley's views on the factors affecting the landscapes before European settlement: drought, fire, wind, snow, ice, hail, frost and Aboriginal practices, with additional less widely recognised factors since then. The book is non-technical and reader-friendly, but it also challenges conventional wisdom. These challenges are based on scientific evidence and painstaking searches through the logs, journals, reports and diaries of early navigators, travellers, settlers and miners.

In the months after the book appeared, and the long drought broke, Creswick Creek flooded Clunes with a vengeance, more than once. Hateley realised that he had overlooked occasional major flooding and its effect on riparian vegetation, streambed profiles and the northern plains in general, and had started on a second edition.

His wife, Margaret, died in 2002, and he is survived by his children, Andrew, Rebecca and James, and a younger sister Rhonda and her family.


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