In August 2001, as a whipper-snapper of 22, I met A. John Coventry, Emeritus Curator of Herpetology at Museum Victoria. That day is memorable for more ways than one.
First and foremost, it was the day I met ‘the man’ in Victorian herpetology. AJC had just stepped down from a stint at the Museum spanning 50 years. An incredible length of time, and an incredible contribution to Victorian herpetology. Over that time he had amassed and curated an extraordinarily detailed herpetological collection, discovered several new species, recorded others that were new to the state, and conducted an extensive study of the herptofauna of the Victorian Mallee that laid the ground work for many of the recent ecological studies in this region. But this is just a snippet of AJC’s activities. Peruse the acknowledgements section of just about any herpetological paper, thesis or report with Victorian origins from the second half of last century and there he will be, receiving copious thanks for his time, support and expertise. For a young man besotted with herpetology, you can imagine that meeting AJC was somewhat intimidating.
The second thing that I remember very clearly from that day in 2001 is the sight of AJC catching the biggest and meanest Brownsnake I’ve ever laid eyes on. We were knee deep in grass on a stony knoll adjacent to the Craigieburn Grasslands – prime Brownsnake territory. On this particular day we were working with a crew of Botanists, one of whom suddenly yelped and headed off at break-neck speed. AJC knew exactly what it meant. In flash he had pounced, emerging from long grass with 6ft of writhing, hissing fury. It was a joy to behold.
Over the next six years, courtesy of Peter Robertson, I had the great pleasure of joining AJC on field trips far and wide. AJC was a font of herpetological knowledge, and gave freely of his wisdom. But he was also, quite simply, a fantastic person to be around. His humour was unique – a combination of ancient ‘Dad’ jokes and cheeky boyish naughtiness. Yet he was a statesman too. I would marvel at his inner discipline and resolve. It didn’t matter if he had just spent his fifth night sleeping on a Banana lounge in the middle of nowhere, AJC would be up at the crack, boiling the billy, with a glint in his eye and readiness to lead us off for another day chasing lizards in the sun. And this was after two hip replacements! Incredible stuff.
Fittingly, AJC’s final days were spent in the Mallee doing what he loved. I was there again courtesy of AJC’s great friend and colleague, Peter Robertson. I’ll be eternally grateful to Peter for taking me on that trip. We were searching for Heath Skinks (Liopholis multiscutata) on the tall dunes of the Big Desert. Years before, Peter and AJC had discovered a population of this species in the heart of the Desert, and our objective was to clarify its regional distribution. AJC was in fine form, tearing up and down dunes, leaving me in his wake. We found several new populations, and went home happy with our achievements.
Sadly, not long after arriving home and retiring for the night, AJC’s heart gave out. Peter rang me the next morning with the terrible news, and I bawled and bawled.
But AJC’s legacy lives on. As well as his many scientific contributions, AJC leaves behind a network of Mallee parks whose gazetting sought to protect the biological diversity he played no small part in documenting. Next time you find yourself in the Big Desert marveling at the vista of Mallee heath, think of AJC. If there is a Heaven, his is there, sitting beside a Mallee root fire, with billy boiling and a sea of stars overhead.