A Gippsland “Greenie” puts down roots in community

Catheryn Thompson was at the forefront in the construction of the community garden in Yinnar after devastating fires ravaged the region. But being an environmentalist in a small town is no easy feat. Report and photos by Charlotte Grieve.

Nine years ago, the Yinnar sky was blood red. It was January and a bushfire had raged for days in the Strezlecki Ranges, 100 kilometres east of Melbourne.

Thirty houses, 82 sheds, nine cars and a pig farm were destroyed in the 6500-hectare fire. No one died.  Hundreds of firefighters worked around the clock. The fire threatened several towns in the Latrobe Valley that summer, but Yinnar and neighbouring Boolarra were on the front lines.

Catheryn Thompson, 59, remembers the colour of the sky. “It was absolutely old telephone box red,’’ she says. “The whole sky was just like blood soaked.”

One of the fruits of Catheryn’s labour

In response to the fires, the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust launched a $1 million fund to assist in the restoration of community life in rural townships affected by the fires. Two years later, Yinnar had a new community garden funded by that grant.

Catheryn was instrumental in setting up the garden and now volunteers 20 hours a week. She manages the “worker bees” – people ranging from those living with disabilities to prisoners on community service orders – and she applies for grants to fund new projects.

“My big vision is to create a totally sustainable hub,” she says.

Despite having two bachelors and a masters degree, Catheryn hasn’t been able to secure employment for years. She puts it down, in part, to her age, gender and the fact that she’s a “greenie”.

“I was once told, ‘You made Hazelwood redundant so now you’re redundant,’ to my face.”

She’s twice run as a candidate for the Greens – once for the Lower House seat of Morwell in 2002 and again for the Upper House in 2006.

“There is a lot of antagonism from a small section of people towards the Greens,” she says. “And that can be difficult in a small community.”

The Greens were the only political party to call for Hazelwood’s closure in the last election. Catheryn says that despite the closure being decided by French electricity company, Engie, it was environmental groups that copped the blame.

“It just opened up all that sort of resentment and stereotyping that made the Greens the enemy. It’s all fear-based. The Greens don’t actually have the kind of power that’s often attributed to them.”

She says that since the closure, resentment towards environmentalists has intensified. She sees anti-environmentalist bumper stickers on cars “often enough” to make her feel uncomfortable. She’s considered moving out of the area.

“Probably once a month I think to myself, ‘Oh, why am I here?’

“We have climate change deniers speaking publicly in the Latrobe valley all the time. They deny the impacts of coal.”

But she says that the attitude is changing. Yinnar residents have been supportive of her work at the community garden, and in the last state budget $12.4 million was allocated to move from brown coal to renewable energy.

“In a way, the old school support for coal is still there. But they’re more isolated. It’s a smaller group of people, they’re just more vocal.”

Catheryn is facilitating a project to put solar panels on the roof of the old butter factory that neighbours the community garden. She says that with government funding, renewable energy is gaining support from the community.

“Because they know that in the long run, it saves them money.”

For now, she walks with a smile between the heritage plants before entering the greenhouse to water the seedlings. She picks a bunch of flowers and proudly introduces the plant species.

“Places like this garden give people hope of a different way of experiencing life.”

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