not a word you commonly hear in Australian botanic gardens and
natural history institutions. It comes from the Latin docere,
to teach, and is widely used in North America for the legions
of volunteer guides who underpin, maintain and communicate the
best of society's values through cultural and natural institutions.
Bernard Fennessy was one of the finest, a teacher par excellence,
and was the very embodiment of the ancient Greek aphorism
: "a society grows great when old men plant trees under whose
shade they will never sit."
As a volunteer
guide, Bernard, and his distinctive hat of rabbit felt, has been
the public face of the Australian National Botanic Gardens; for
countless thousands of visitors, Bernard Fennessy was the
Botanic Gardens experience.
all day everyday, putting in more hours than many of the full-time
Gardens' staff, Bernard was a fixture of the Gardens for as long
as I and most ANBG staff can remember, a watchful eye on everything,
keeping us all honest and on our toes. He was ubiquitous, keeping
up-to-date with the location, state and condition of every plant,
and who was, or wasn't, looking after it.
I admired most about Bernard was his love and respect for knowledge
and his passion in sharing this with others. To Bernard it was
totally unacceptable for a visitor to come to the Gardens for
lunch or a cup of coffee. Totally! Anyone who entered the site
had to leave the place as a better person, inspired and better
informed and appreciative of Australian plants and the environment.
I often thought of Bernard as an avuncular angler-fish, a patriarchal
predator, lurking around the bus shelter, outside the Visitor
Centre, or his favourite habitat, the congestion point where all
visitors must converge on the bridge across the rainforest gully.
An alternative image of a bear fishing salmon out of a stream
often came to mind. Bernard would entice his prey with a friendly
nod and a gesture of assistance and ... snap! 'Have you seen the
...?' 'Did you know ...?' 'Let me show you ...' . Hardly any could
escape. Hardly any wanted to.
everywhere. You could walk deep into the Gardens to get away from
it all (your job, your boss, your staff, the usual things) to
collect thoughts, and there would be Bernard - a jovial pied piper
instructing, informing, lecturing and regaling an enthralled bunch
of hijacked visitors. Or sometimes by himself, checking out some
hidden nook that he would later show to someone else. When his
legs got weak, he would pursue visitors on an electric wheelchair
commandeered from the Visitor Centre. Yes - it was unacceptable
for anyone to leave the Gardens without having been inspired by
the place and without learning something.
And it wasn't
just visitors. Bernard was always extolling the virtue of knowledge
and cajoling his fellow Guides to learn more, know more, teach
more. And when he ran out of visitors and Guides he would make
sure the staff was fully aware of what they were responsible for
and that he was fully aware of what they had to show and talk
spared the burden of botanic knowledge, which to Bernard was not
a burden at all. As well as lurking strategically in the Gardens,
Bernard positioned himself in the ANBG library and encouraged
everyone who passed through to know everything about our plants
and environment that could be found on the library shelves. He
would lie in wait for the Deputy Director Science and Information
and pounce on him to make sure he was across all the science and
had all the up-to-date information and that he was going to give
directions armed with this knowledge. Learning, knowing and making
sure others learnt and knew was his passion.
Bernard, and what they stand for, is one of the reasons I come
to work each day. He was truly a decent docent and a friend to
Fennessy wearing his distinctive hat of rabbit felt.
Bernard Fennessy 'What's in a Name?' Award is to be established
by the Friends of the Gardens to commemorate the valuable contribution
Bernard made to the Gardens as an educator and mentor.
Full details will appear in the March 2007 newsletter.
: Murray Fagg
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