Category Archives: small being

Warm kids in an icy tent

Last night four young people in my care braved minus 4°C temperatures to camp out in the back paddock. They slept in a 17 year old large two-season dome tent with netting rather than nylon walls, plus a fly.

Despite their good mattresses, many sleeping bags and hats, I fretted during the night. Would I wake to find four icicles instead of four kids?

Curious, and paranoid, I wandered down to check on their status, through the morning frost when temperatures were just hitting zero. All had slept and woken safely and complained only of cold feet.

The thermal imaging camera tells the tale of the icy tent and warm kids.

Here’s the tent, before I have opened it up. The thermal image shows that some heat is escaping through the zipper and seams. Parts of the fly are warming up in the sun. then there are super warm patches where cold toes push against the end of the tent. All in all, the temperature in the tent looks much warmer than outside.

closed tent close - photo

closed tent close - thermal

Once we open the tent, heat starts pouring out. Now we can see the full story of the cold feet. I ask the one on the left if it seems cold up near his head and he confirms it. That’s the dark blue patch on the left, inside the tent.

open tent close, photo

open tent close - thermal

I ask the two on the right and their heads pop up – still with their hats on, and there it is. Their faces are positively warm compared with the top of the doonas and sleeping bags which have done their job well. Very little heat is coming off the kids bodies.So are the kids warm?

Two faces in sleeping bag, hats on, photo

Two faces in sleeping bag, hats on, thermal

So, we wake to four safe, mostly warm people. Next time we’ll add another mat and doona to their feet.


Home chicken butchering for part-timers, solos and softies

Chicken butchering is a conflicting experience for me. I am gratified that I can kill a chicken when needed. I’m satisfied when I turn it into food. I am also distressed that I can take another life. My belief in sustainable food production wins out, and I try hard to turn chickens I can no longer keep into food for the table.

Until recently, it was touch-and-go whether my dead chooks made it to the table, or were buried as compost. So here are my secrets for tipping the balance in favour of the table.

First – why do I kill chickens? I don’t just kill them after they stop laying eggs, but instead allow them to retire for as long as they stay healthy and happy. But eventually they get , and it is cruel to keep them alive. I bury my old, sick ones in the ground. But I also keep a rooster, and breed chicks each season. Somehow I always end up with more young roosters than new hens.

If you’ve ever tried to keep a whole lot of roosters together with hens you’ll know it doesn’t work. They’ll fight each other constantly, drawing blood and causing distress, and they fight over then hens and make the whole flock miserable. So keeping roosters, and raising chicks inevitably means killing young, healthy birds, which are brilliant part of sustainable food production.

It all adds up to killing about 2-5 roosters in a batch, once a year, and putting down another couple of birds at odd times. Today I butchered four young roosters, and was only mildly traumatised.

In summary, I use “the broomstick method” to kill, and then skin, rather than plucking. There’s virtually no blood, no feathers and no noise. These features make it possible for me to get the job done well by myself, without a lot of skill, experience, preparation or time.

Get prepared

First, recognise that you need to be quite determined and focused to kill a living animal, and turn it into food. Some of the tasks need strength, others need great care and some feel unnatural. Prepare yourself mentally before you begin.

Starving a bird for at least 14 hours makes gutting easy. If you can’t easily separate the target birds, remove the food from the whole flock the night before. In the morning, the others can wait for breakfast, and knowing your other chickens are hungry will help keep you on track too. The added bonus is the roosters may be cross enough to come up and peck at you, making them easy to catch.

Work out what you are going to do with the leftover feathers, guts and other leftover bits. I bury mine in the garden, so I dig a hole first.

Here’s my set-up:

Outside and out of sight of the hen-house, target birds 

  • Make up a processing area including a sharp knife with a pointed end, a cutting board and large, clean kitchen bowl big enough to hold finished chicken. An optional extra is a pair of bone-scissors.
  • Hang a hook above your head height, within easy reach of the cutting board, and with a large bucket underneath, and twine to tie the bird up by its feet. I use a piece from a hay bale.
  • A broom, rake or other long, wooden-handled implement somewhere nearby.
  • A hose with a strong jet nearby to clean the bird before taking it inside.

Inside, in the kitchen

  • Another chopping board and knife, near the sink.
  • Adjacent to that, glad wrap and a clean bag for each bird.

 Honour the bird

An important step for me personally is to honour the bird and its short life and sacrifice. I hold each bird for a while, talking with it about its life, and what I’ve loved about it. I tell it I’m sorry that I can’t keep it alive, explain why and tell it to look at the beautiful world around. This process gets me centred and ready, and maybe even helps the bird too, as it always relaxes in my arms. We are both very relaxed for the next bit, and I keep talking until I have worked up a clear, calm determination to carry through with the whole job.

Use the Broomstick Method

I learned the broomstick method from a Backyard Poultry fact sheet on How to kill a chicken for food. It’s mentioned in just one short paragraph copied here, with some extra tips of my own below:

Lay the chicken on the ground, holding the tail and legs together, and gently rest a broomstick across the neck behind the head. This doesn’t hurt the chicken until the last second, when you place your feet on the broomstick to either side of the head and pull the chicken’s body swiftly upward. Done properly, this remains a quick and clean method, as the blood drains into the gap between vertebrae and remains inside the skin until the head is cut off.”

My extra tips are:

  • The correct hold is high up on the feathered part of the legs so that you can also pull the tail down and hold it together with both legs in your dominant hand. This hold confuses the chicken, and it will stop thinking about you, and stretch its body out, while staying pretty still and making it easy to get into position.
  • Lie the bird’s chin on the ground, then put the broomstick across the back of its head, right up against its skull. Stand with both feet on the broomstick, one on either side of its head.
  • Minimise distress to the bird by working quickly with the right force, speed and angle.
    • Force and speed depend on the bird’s condition. Don’t be too quick or strong with an old, sick bird or you could accidentally pull its head right off. Go quite hard and fast for a strong, young rooster.
    • For the right angle, use both hands and start down between your legs so that the bird is stretched out, then flick forward as if you were ten-pin bowling or throwing a softball. At the end of the movement the bird’s body is across the top of its head at a hard angle, and you’ll hear a small noise, which is not as clean as a pop or a snap, but is still a definite bone-and-gristle noise.
  • You can tell you have succeeded because the bird will immediately flap as a reflex action. Usually it will flap about 10-20 times very hard, then hang still, and then flap again a few more times in shorter bursts. Its legs will move a bit at this time too, but its head will hang down loosely.

 There are three parts to a bird…..

Think of the bird as having in inside, an outside and the meat and bones in the middle.

The outside includes the feathers, head, tail, feet etc. You need to remove all of these outside bits before you can eat your chicken.

The inside is the guts and organs, all in a big, strong cavity inside the ribs and between the back and breastbone. There are two tubes at the top, and one coming out of the bottom, and they are all connected together. The goal of ‘gutting’ is to remove all of the inside bits in one big piece, without puncturing the digestive tract, which is a continuous tube from mouth-to-cloaca. The cloaca by the way, is the ‘pooh hole’, and also the ‘egg hole’ (or rooster equivalent), which is the only opening in the back end of a bird. If you’ve starved your bird overnight, there’ll be enough room on the inside for all of those parts, and your hand as well, which is what you’ll use to pull the insides out.

Once you have removed the outside and the inside bits, you are left with the foody part in the middle. The skin is in between the feathery outside, and the good bits in the middle and can be treated either as part of either. Pluck the chicken if you want to eat the skin, or skin it as an easier alternative.


Learning to skin a bird was the turning point for me between reliably turning chickens into food, or usually burying them. Plucking takes more time, makes more mess, and involves some complicated heating and timing. You have to ‘scald’ the bird for a few minutes in hot-but-not-boiling water, so you need a large, clean bucket and new water for each kill (unless you are doing it production style with many on the go at once). Wing feathers and some others are really hard, and I always managed to tear some of it. Do this when you are processing lots of chooks with a bunch of friends, but consider skinning if you are working solo on a small scale.

There are lots of skinning methods explained on-line, but the one I explain here works well, because it minimizes the number of times you move the bird around, and gets the whole process going quickly. Know that the skin is stuck on pretty well, so you need to be firm and determined to pull it off.

While the bird is still flapping, tie its feet tightly together with twine, then hang it upside-down on the hook. It will stay like this until the final steps.

As soon as the bird is hanging still, take hold of its tail, and locate the cloaca. Slice upwards into the tail, without cutting all the way through, then cut towards one side slicing around the cloaca. Keep cutting until you can see open space between the skin and the very end of the digestive tract – inside the bird. What you have to do is to cut all around the outside of the cloaca, without puncturing that tract. The tail and the cloaca will stay together as the end of the ‘inside’ part. Keeping them together makes it easy to keep track of the cloaca so that you don’t puncture it.

While working around the cloaca, start preparing to skin the bird. Think of the skin as a tight-fitting outfit on toddler who wants to keep it on. You’ll be pulling firmly, while keeping in mind the basic shapes (arms and legs) that you are working around, and how each one of them bends. Make a few definite cuts through the skin.

  • forwards from the cloaca, between the legs and towards the breastbone,
  • All the way down the front of the bird from breastbone towards the shoulders,
  • Up the back of the legs towards the feet, pulling the skin off from the muscle as you go. Also cut around each knee, just below where the feathers meet the scales.

Start skinning from top of the leg-feathers, one leg at a time. You may need to do some more careful cutting between the legs once you have stripped them. Skin comes off the belly easily, and is harder on the back, but a firm pull, while loosening with fingers or knife will do it.

For the wings, I recommend cutting them off at the first joint, which means they’ll be shorter than a shop-bought bird. You can try to skin the whole wing, but the feathers are stuck on very tight there. To remove the wing-tips, cut the wing membrane in towards the first-joint elbow, then firmly bend the wing backwards, dislocating the joint. Then you can easily cut through between the ball joints, and then pull the skin off around this bit of wing.

After you’ve skinned the wings, you’ll quickly have the whole skin hanging down over the head. Now you can see that while you’ve been working, nearly all of the blood has settled around the skull, so the meat is nice and white. Don’t worry about getting the skin off the head, but instead cut the neck off up close to the shoulders (this is where the bone-scissors are useful).


Take the bird off the hook now, and remove the twine. Also cut off the feet by bending the knee-joint backwards at the end of the ‘drumstick’, and then easily cutting through the tendon.

The trick to gutting is to loosen everything, make as much space as you can, and not puncture the digestive tract. Start by cutting carefully around the windpipe and digestive tract at the neck. Then use your fingers to reach in and loosen the inside from the outside, by running your fingers along between the organs and the ribcage, all around the inside of the shoulders.

Then ensure you have a good hole around the back of the bird up towards the breast. This needs to be large enough to get your whole hand right inside. The insides will already be detached from the breast, but all of the organs will be sticking to the back. As with the neck, just run your hand between the inside and the outside, breaking the connective tissue. While you are doing this, hold the bird above the bucket, gradually easing out the whole inside part. The wing-tips, skin, feathers, head and insides are all in the bucket now, a chicken that looks nearly like a bought one in your hand, and there’s barely a drop of blood spilled anywhere.

Cleaning and storing

Use the hose to clean off any feathers, and the inside of the carcass. Put it in the bowl, and take inside for a final clean-up, and packaging in a plastic bag. Pull the legs and wings in tight, so that it is compact in the fridge. The best option is a vacuum sealer, but I don’t have one, so I tightly glad-wrap all around then put it in a clean plastic bag.

Rigor mortis is the condition where a recently-dead animal becomes stiff for about 48 hours, starting about 20 minutes after death for a chicken. If you cook or freeze a bird in this state it will be very tough. You need to leave it in the fridge for 48 hours so that it becomes tender again, and then either freeze or cook.

Want to see pictures?

I can’t easily work out the ethics of showing this process in pictures. Post a comment if you want photos added to see how it is done.

Hot and Cool with Thermal Pics

Here are some random thermal images with thoughts on what they show. Cats, dogs, chickens, noses, hands, gardens, tents beverages and injuries.

Cats have hot faces and cool bodies.


Dog on a couch

Dogs have hot eyes and cold noses.


Chickens roosting on a cold night.

Chickens have hot faces and feet.

Hot nose, cold nose.

Cool day, warm soil. Cool above the weed mat.

A folk festival in a heatwave. The dark parts of the tent are very much hotter than the light parts.



Our sore bits are hot.

Noticing the changing days

A similar version of this article was first published in the Winter 2015 Landcare Perspective Newsletter.

By Su Wild-River Is anyone feeling SAD? Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as the winter blues is a seasonal pattern of recurrent depression that occurs at a certain time of the year, and remits at other times. It affects more people in areas where the winter days are shortest. For instance, in America, it affects 1.4% in Florida, but 9.9% in Alaska. So maybe about 1 in 20 of the good folk in our district are feeling SAD at the moment ( Seasonal_affective_disorder).

The good news is that we’ll feel better soon. Winter solstice is just around the corner, so this year the days will start lengthening from 22 June onwards. The winter solstice is one of eight mathematically distinct moments of the year, in terms of the length of days. I find it both interesting and useful to take note of each of these moments. The Gaelic calendar is helpful because it marks each of the eight moments with a festival. In the southern hemisphere, we have to shift each festival by 6 months. You’ll see what I mean in the paragraphs that follow.

The solstices are the longest and shortest days and nights of the year. Winter solstice, or Yule is the shortest day and the longest night. Around here the Yule day is only 9 hours, 46 minutes and 30 seconds long. After Yule, the days start to lengthen, but only very slowly at first. The day after Yule is less than 1 second longer than Yule, and the next day is longer by 2 seconds.

8 August is Imbolc which translates as “in the belly”, or “ewe’s milk” since that’s the start of lambing. Imbolc marks the end of the SAD time of the year, because this is when the days start becoming noticeably longer, with 1 minute and 41 seconds difference between 8 and 9 August. Maybe it’s also seeing all of those cute little lambs around that makes us start to cheer up.

Days and nights are of equal length at the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. These are also the times when day lengths change most dramatically and some people get SAD because of this rapid change of day length as well. Each day is about 2 minutes and 12 seconds longer than the one before around the spring equinox.

Beltane is the spring festival, traditionally celebrated with cleansing fire, and optimism. Days are still lengthening, but more slowly than before.

Midsummer, or the summer solstice is the longest day of the years and ours will be 14 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds. Midsummer was celebrated with fire in the northern hemisphere, but we’d be foolhardy to light up here because this is bushfire season in our part of the world. (We like to have a winter solstice bonfire instead).

Lammas on 4 February is the harvest festival, celebrated with banquets of fresh produce. This is the point of the year where days start getting noticeably shorter. Mabon, the Autumn equinox follows with equal days and nights, and speedily lengthening darkness. Samhain is the day of the dead, or Halloween in the northern hemisphere.

Samhain brings on the long, dark nights that make some of us SAD again.

pre-winter solstice bonfire 2015

Photo by Su Wild-River. Our 2015 pre-winter solstice bonfire.


Update Society: Take the Mothers’ Day Housework Quiz

Take the Mothers Day Housework Quiz. 

I’m tired. I’m really deeply tired most of the time, but especially after the day’s third bout of washing up.

I think it’s because I am a working mother, living in a world that hasn’t caught up with the last four decades of feminism. Within my household I juggle the vast bulk of the housework, with having a career, paying the mortgage, maintaining a marriage and trying to keep up appearances.

Lets unpack that sink full of housework. I buy the food, plan the meals, cook, serve, clean and put away. I find the dirty clothes that are scattered thinly around the house, under the couch and throughout the yard, then wash, fold and put them away.  Other people pat the pets, but its me who buys their food, pays the vet bills, cleans their houses, feeds and waters them. I sweep and sanitise the loo and tidy the yard. No wonder some of these things only get done every so often.

My household is fairly typical. The latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics Survey shows that the average Australian woman spends about 15 hours a week on housework, while men spend about 6. Apparently in the average home, total work hours are roughly equal between the genders because men spend more time in paid work, but that doesn’t apply in my house, because I spend the most time in paid work too.


I’m calling it.  Housework is still a feminist issue. So is the physical and mental health of mothers saddled with twice the burden of past generations. These days we do the dad’s traditional role of breadwinner plus the mum’s old duties at the sink. I agree with Annabel. Women need wives. And it seems to me that housework imbalances could be one of the reasons that women are more likely than men to have mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Housework dream2

Mothers’ Day looms towards us. For me, this represents a commercial con correlated with increased household duties. But this year I’m skimping on the housework and updating society instead.

I’ve used the simple spreadsheet attached to the purple button below to audit my current share of the housework. It turns out that I do 86%. So I commit to reducing that contribution by 11%. By this time next year I aim to be doing only 75%. Maybe this seems like a small change, but here I am, starting in an entrenched and unfair reality.

If I succeed, Mothers’ Day 2016 will really be something to celebrate.

If you think things are not fair in your household then take the Mothers Day Challenge with me. Fill in the form here, and make a commitment to change. Then you can save, print, and also ask others in your household to fill one out for themselves. (You’ll need to be at a computer running Excel).

Check your contribution

Mothers Day Challenge Commitment-SWR

How to (Not) undermine yourself in one easy lesson

By Su Wild-River.

Today I started a new project with three first-time collaborators. It’s an exciting topic and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Two team members are published experts in the field. The other directs a government program on it. I know quite a bit about other things that are broadly relevant.

I bring other areas of expertise.

When our first draft proposal didn’t make the grade, it was me who found the pathway between what the client wanted, and what we could deliver. When team members balked at a less interesting scope, I gave an upbeat reminder that it’s the client’s prerogative to choose what they pay for. I edited our proposal to ensure a focus on what they wanted. These interventions were key to us being hired to do the work.

Many times I was so out of my depth that I felt like I was reading a different language. At first I couldn’t discern if my partners proposed to measure, model or review parameters. I thought they had misunderstood key terms, but knew it was more likely my own error. I was flummoxed by the difference between spatial and categorical, historical and predicted factors. I knew none of the acronyms. But I kept on reading and redrafting until every paragraph told me a coherent story, repeatedly deleting my initial edits and replacing them with something sensible. With about eight hours work I became familiar with a whole new field of work.

The expertise I applied here is to be comfortable in the dark. I was instructed in this skill by my first year statistics lecturer and it is one of the most important things I have ever learned. It means moving beyond a fear of failure to embrace the unknown. It is learning to love the cramping terror in the pit of my stomach, which is the feeling of creativity. It demands a paced journey through discomfort while knowledge replaces ignorance.

I am grateful that in this project, I had time to move through this process alone at my own computer. By the time I actually met my team members I had some very good questions to ask. So good in fact, that when we met together with the client, I asked the first three questions. I brought some good new ideas which spurred animated discussion. And all this while still largely in the dark about at least half of what was being said.

I made only one major mistake. That was to start a sentence “So you must have noticed by now that I’m not the expert here, but I wonder…..”

This phrase was self-defeating and undermining. It positioned me as a pretender in others’ minds. In hindsight, I think I don’t think anyone had noticed that I was out of my depth until that moment, but in saying this I sowed a seed of doubt about my every contribution.

I started the sentence with an apology because I wasn’t sure if my question had been covered before. What should I have done instead? Not ask the question? Ask a simpler one instead? Ask it without the opening phrase? Any of these would have been better.

So what was my motivation for underselling myself? I think it was fear of having my cluelessness discovered, and a sense that it was safer to acknowledge it up front. But this is wrong on so many levels. My low-level specialist expertise has value so long as I am willing to fit in, learn, and help. Asking an obvious question can show the experts that part of their story is simply not clear. Naming the opacity gives my team the edge in communicating findings effectively. And all of that other related knowledge can help us to fit our project into other the bigger picture.

And for my next trick, I’ll try to remember these lessons the next time it counts.

How do you feel in the dark, and what do you do for a torch?

Photo by Tim McCann

Photo and artwork by Tim McCann

Why I love my wetsuit, or living in the second law of thermodynamics

By Su Wild-River

Snorkeling in an Australian South Coast Autumn can be a chilly business. But last weekend wasn’t so bad. Our best estimate for the water temperature was 18ºC, and so Tim, who has better underwater staying power than the rest of us, decided not to wear his wetsuit. Armed with my thermal imaging camera, I decided to see what difference a wetsuit makes.

A thermal imaging camera is really a heat sensor, not a camera which shows what you see with your eyes. In these photos, the hottest areas are shown in white, and a rainbow spectrum going through red, to yellow, green and finally blue, show colder areas. The photos are calibrated so that the same colour has the same temperature in each of the pictures.

First, I photographed Kath and Tim before they went into the water. Tim is on the left, without a wetsuit, and Kath on the right in her full body suit, or ‘steamer’. Bare skin is showing up hottest in these photos, and you can see it on both faces, hands and feet, but only on Tim’s arms and torso. The highest temperatures here are reading 31ºC. (You can’t see to the top of the scale in this picture because I have calibrated it lower, for consistency with the cold pictures below).

Wetsuits warm 2

Next, we all went snorkeling, and saw the most wonderful fish, sting-rays, crays and an octopus. After shivering for a while, we got out. The next photo shows Tim and Kath after they got out. Now they both look the same colour as one another all over, and are now thermally camouflaged with the ambient temperature of 16-18ºC.

Photo by Su Wild-River

But hang on, did the wetsuit keep Kath warm or not? In fact, Kath is showing up as cool as Tim because all of her heat is trapped underneath the wetsuit. But she was too cold to take it off and pose again. I had to do it myself.

I had been wearing a ‘spring suit’, which ends above the knees. Here’s the photo of my legs with the wetsuit on. Like Kath, the colours are similar to background, and the same both above and below my knees, ie, with and without the wetsuit.

Photo by Su Wild-River

But now the wetsuit comes off and suddenly you see some warm skin. Underneath my wetsuit, my skin maintained about 22ºC, which is closer to my healthy body temperature of about 36.5-37.5ºC.


Photo by Su Wild-River

What’s going on here?

Our bodies our demonstrating the second law of thermodynamics, which covers the conservation of energy. This states that heat (and other energy) moves from hot areas to cold areas. Our bare skin was uselessly transferring the heat within our bodies into the ocean, and in the process it was making us all cold. But the parts of us under the wetsuits weren’t transferring nearly as much heat, and so they stayed warmer. The outside of our wetsuits, and all of our skin that touched the water, ended up as cold as the ocean but the rest of us stayed a bit warmer. Our subcutaneous fat and skin were also insulating us against the elements, slowing the transfer of heat to the world and making our skin cooler than our blood, even before we went in the water.

Photo by Su Wild-River

How cold were we? Not cold enough for a brain freeze. But all of our toes and fingers were pretty chilly.

hot feet 10-32

It took over an hour for my feet to warm back up.

Adventures are great. But one of the pleasures is getting comfortable afterwards.

Photo by Su Wild-River

When we got back in the car, my fingers absolutely loved the heater vent.

How do you experience the second law?


How I became Su Wild-River

To say that people often ask me about my name is an understatement. It is extremely rare that I meet anyone who doesn’t ask me about my name. So here are a bunch of true stories about my name, just in case you are curious. Go on, you know you are.

The most common question is also the most tedious. “Is that your real name?” The short answer is “Yes” and so that’s what you get if this is your only question. But even that is not strictly true. In fact, my legal name is Su Wild River (without the hyphen), which is the name I took on at 16,when computers were mythological beasts and the internet not even a dream.

My favourite part about the question of my “real” name is its resemblance to the Monty Python skit where a man uses his cat licence to justify getting a fish licence. When he produces the licence, it’s criticised because it’s “a dog licence, with the word ‘dog’ crossed out and ‘cat’ written in in crayon”. That’s what my birth certificate looks like. There’s a stamp in the margin saying “for Section 1a, read “Su Wild River”. It seems like a beautiful way to wreck a perfectly good form and I love it.

A slightly better question is “Did you change that by Deed Poll?” which shows some prior knowledge of name changing shenanigans. No, I didn’t change it by Deed Poll, but by Instrument. Deed Poll is the expensive option, where a lawyer stands up in court and announces the name change, since a name change must be publicly declared. Deed Poll is expensive because you have to pay the lawyer and the court. You bypass both of these expenses by making the announcement using the Instrument of a classified ad in the local newspaper. Then you just need to pay the relatively small cost of the ad, which you take in and show to the good folk at Births Deaths and Marriages.

You need some patience in dealing with BDM, because none of the desk staff know about changing names. So they keep insisting that it’s not allowed, and you have to ask to see their boss, and then their boss, and then their boss, until finally, someone very senior comes in an says “of course. Just use this form under the counter here”. When I did it, my very senior person loved my name and signature so much, that when a once-in-a-decade brand new 1,000 page, leather bound register of births, deaths and marriages started up a week after I came to get the magical form, he decided that I was to be the first entry in the sparkly new book. Not knowing this, I took my time getting the paperwork together and it was four weeks later that I came back in with my Instrument. The junior desk clerk immediately called this boss of bosses, who arrived white-faced and grateful. There were already about 50 names below mine in the book, and he had been terrified that it was all a lark, and I would leave him with an incomplete, and quite crazy first entry to explain to even more senior bosses.

I added the hyphen so that my name would match my first URL, (, having learned that spaces confuse computers. By then, all the databases were having trouble deciding if I was really called “Su River Wild” or “River Su Wild” or “Su WildRiver” or even “Su Wildriver” which is the worst of the lot, because that surname phonetically reads “Wild Driver” and people don’t get in cars with me. Once in Western Queensland I hired the only rental car for a 500km radius, and laughed when I saw they had me down as Wildriver. “It’s OK”, I said, “I’m really a river, not a danger behind the wheel”, and they laughed back nervously, then gave me a detailed lesson in finding the brakes in an automatic car.

I received an original, great question during a recent trip to the white water mecca of Tasmania. The manager of a climbing gym asked “do you even own a kayak?” Thankfully, the answer was “yes, I own five kayaks”, as otherwise he would have been outraged by my false pretences.

In fact, my name was partly responsible for my very many wonderful and terrifying white water trips. On Open Day at my first week studying Environmental Science at Griffith University, I joined the Griffith Uni Bushwalking Society (GRUBS), which owned and used a bunch of kayaks. The president took one look at my name and said “we have to get you kayaking”, and so it started. I loved my first trip so much that when everyone else was waiting their turn to use the good boats on a particular “play wave”, I found a beaten up, leaking and unwanted vessel so that nothing would stop me from repeatedly going in, and then washing out for yet another swim. I was hooked.

Before learning to kayak, I’d struggled with my name. My first problem became apparent in my first days with my new name, when I realised that a mild speech impediment meant I couldn’t pronounce it properly. I have trouble with “R” sometimes, and when I said my new name aloud it sounded something like “WurlWoower” – especially on the phone. It took about a decade for me to learn to say my name so that people could understand it. Then there was the trouble of being quite an undeveloped person with a very iconic identifier. This was most apparent in university classes, mostly because of the perfect match between my name and environmental degree. I was always a high achiever, and I struggled to be invisible in crowds so I wouldn’t stand out any more than I had to. Imagine my horror then, when a new lecturer walked into my class of 200 people and said “Hello, this is Agricultural Ecosystems and where is Su Wild-River?”

When people can’t work out what to ask about my name, I tell them that the best question is “how did you become Su Wild-River”, which is also a kayaking story. Once, after several years of paddling every flooded creek, stormwater drain and giant wave I could get my paddle into, I had the opportunity to tackle the Gwydir River in North Western New South Wales. The Gwydir is one of the toughest in Australia, featuring two grade six rapids (certain death…. We portaged those), many grade fives (I walked around those too), heaps of grade fours (which I paddled some of) and a bunch of grade threes and below (all of which I shot, and several of which I swam). I had approached this trip with much fear, and a very real feeling that I may not survive. One of my clearest ever memories is of pulling up on a steep rocky beach after 12 hours of joy and terror thinking “I’m alive. And I AM Su Wild-River. And I’ll ALWAYS BE Su Wild-River”. My name and I were finally a match.

It’s been an interesting journey to have a name that matches my profession. Although in the first decade of my professional life I worked mostly on ‘brown’ environmental issues of pollution prevention and risk management. I would joke that I should really have been called “Su Stormwater-Drain” or “Su Sludge-Puddle” or even “Su Sewerage-Treatment-Plant”. I never really gelled with the brown issues until a particular brown consultant (strangely actually called “Brown”) said that I could never work with industry with a name like that. The challenge was on, and in fact, industrial workers loved it. I’d write to them saying I was coming around to do a site inspection, and when I arrived, they were fully primed, expecting me to “ride up bareback on a bronco with feathers in my hair”. Having expected something interesting, they were willing to take me as I really was – an earnest young woman respectfully asking good questions.

I once told a colleague from this era of my life that I felt my name had given me an advantage as an environmental scientist. He disagreed and made a touching argument that anyone could have a great name, but it was me that had made the name great. Thanks DougY.

Why I changed my name is another question with a bit of value. The thing is, as a woman, your name means very little, and from birth there’s the possibility of it changing to the name of a different family if you happen to get married and take on your husband’s. I changed my name so that it would really be my own. I’m about to get married, and I offered my name to my spouse, who has seriously considered it (it’s pretty cool after all). But no, we’ll keep our own. Even my children don’t have my name. They are simply “Wild”, since I was worried that I might pass on my speech impediment, and give them a name they couldn’t say. No need for this caution as it turns out, as Wild-River rolls of their tongues easily. I tell them they can decide what sort of Wild Thing they want to be when they “come of age” (whatever that means), but for now, they just love when tickets usually list them as “Wild Child”.

The only time that my name really confused me was during anthropology classes, where we learned all sorts of difficult rules and associations of naming conventions. My constant question was “why didn’t they just change their names?” to which the answer was “you can’t change your name”, and then a double-take by the lecturer when he saw who had asked. Can’t you? I followed in my mother’s footsteps since she changed hers when I was 15. And have been an inspiration many others’ name changes. So obviously you can change your name if you want to. I don’t understand why some people live their lives with terrible, embarrassing or insulting names. If you have one, have you considered ditching it and starting again?

What would you change your name to and why? How you grow into your new name, and how would the change change you?