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The Last Emu: a lesson about small business survival

Updated: May 9, 2023


Coastal emu at rest on Palmers Island, with a view of Clarence Peak at dawn
Coastal emu at rest on Palmers Island, with a view of Clarence Peak at dawn ~ photo: Barbara Winters

In the past month, we've had massive bursts of energy released by the sun, giving New Zealand and Australia the best Southern Lights show in years. Even in central New South Wales there were clearly visible spectacular Aurorae Australis (yes, plural). On the other side of the world, there were also extra impressive Aurorae Borealis all over the Northern Hemisphere. It was the perfect storm, a real solar "tsunami". Last night we also had a bright, full moon followed by a part lunar eclipse. And if that wasn't enough, we had frequent meteor showers that were visible all over the Clarence Valley early this morning. With so many natural wonders showing off in the skies all over the globe this week I felt like nature was trying to tell me something. And this humbling feeling reminded me of a story I once read about the Last Emu. But first, we need to talk about our own local emu.


The coastal emu

The emu is one of the world's largest flightless birds and Australia is the only place where you can see them in the wild. They roam all over, but not all emus are the same. Here in the Clarence Valley we have the much rarer coastal emu, which due to isolation from the others evolved a little differently. And due to habitat loss, increased traffic, and introduced pests is now critically endangered. There's a feverish local campaign going on to try to save the last 50 or so coastal emus. It's run by my new friend Barbara Linley, 2022 Clarence Valley Citizen of the year. These majestic birds only still exist between Yuraygir National Park and Bungawalbin National Park (from about Red Rock near Corindi to Evans Head). Even the local distillery has come on board to support the cause with a special local lemon myrtle "Emu Vodka" and related Clarence Distillery merchandise. There is hope: We have seen new emu chicks after the 2019/20 fires and also happy emus who seem to be addicted to the soy bean crops on Palmers Island. But can we save the last emus of the Clarence Valley? Perhaps we should turn to the sky for some answers...


(and, coincidentally, as we speak, a new count is being conducted by advanced drones and field researchers. I will update this blog to share the current number as soon as it's in)


The Great Celestial Emu

You may already know that the earliest astronomers of Australia, the First Nations peoples, have been studying the sky for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous lore, which was passed on for many generations through storytelling, song and dance, tells us about the Emu in the Sky, or the Great Celestial Emu. It's a pretty special one, since it's formed by the dark clouds of the Milky Way galaxy and not by bright stars ~ as is more usual. What the Emu in the Sky tells us, according to this article by Kirsten Banks, a Wiradjuri woman from Central New South Wales, is at what point during the year emus breed, lay eggs, or hatch... essentially predicting when to safely collect emu eggs. What Aboriginal people are teaching us here is not to go out collecting emu eggs (emus are protected after all!) but to always consider the Bigger Picture. Rather than just focusing on the land or our waterways, take a holistic approach to harvesting and also look to the skies. While fascinating, and the very reason why last night's skies prompted me to write this blog, that's still not the moral of my story.


At last, the Last Emu (and why it matters for small business survival)

I read about the Last Emu somewhere online by chance. It was a story told by someone who had just visited Australia's Red Centre. Their Aboriginal guide had explained how their ancestors never killed an emu father, because he's the one raising the chicks. They also never speared the emus when they came to drink at the watering holes surrounding Uluru, because it would only scare these flightless birds off for good. Instead, they patiently waited for the mob to leave and then quietly followed the emus. Then they would only pick off one emu: the one trailing behind. That way, the rest of the emus continued without realising what had happened, and would feel safe to return to the watering hole time and time again. This lesson in sustainability really resonated with me when I decided to start a small business, named Little Big River, because that was exactly what I learnt when doing community-led disaster preparedness projects in the Clarence Valley. From a survival point of view, the Last Emu story reminds us to always:

  • be sure to be part of a group (build social capital)

  • stay in shape (be economically viable)

  • readily adapt to changes (e.g. use new technologies, do not fall behind).

If you are running a community resilience project, or a small business in the Clarence Valley ~ or like me a bit of both ~ then that's excellent advice. And there you have it, the moral of the story and the key to small business survival. Let's connect, let's create something lasting together, and let's be ready for future changes. And please, let's take care of those precious coastal emus...

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Good Yarn 🙋‍♀️🥰

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