STEVE LA VALLEY won't win any marketing prizes. On a country road about 60 miles east of Melbourne, his faded ``Botanic Ark'' sign has seen too many days of searing Australian sun. Mr. La Valley greets visitors with the frank admission that his ramshackle, scrap-lumber-strewn estate does look more like a dump than a garden nursery. But this shaggy-bearded ``Noah,'' with a master's degree in natural science, is far more interested in results than appearances.
``I don't know that you can solve the world's problems. But I've already changed Australia in a thousand ways - well, 10,000 ways - by just doing this little thing I do here,'' he says in a soft voice still laced with an American accent.
La Valley has lived in Australia for 16 years. Since 1981, he's been propagating and selling unusual plants from all over the world. Spurred by ongoing environmental degradation and fear of nuclear holocaust, he aims to bolster the biodiversity of the Australian landscape.
``Socrates said, `An unexamined life is not worth living.' I've thought about how you make environments diverse, as opposed to simplifying them, which is what man is doing everywhere,'' says La Valley. ``I'm trying to reverse the current destruction of genetic variability.''
His five-acre-square organic nursery is packed with hundreds of young trees, shrubs, and seedlings. The emphasis is on slow-growing varieties ignored by commercial farms. Most are rare - particularly in Australia - and ``useful.'' That is, edible varieties and those used in making such things as candles, perfumes, paper, dyes, sugar, cordage, spices, and silk.
An orchard tour is part botanical seminar, part philosophical homily: ``This Brazilian cherry guava will cover the ground in edible fruit 10 inches deep.... This North American Osage Orange was used by the Osage Indians; it's one of the finest bow woods on the planet. ... Thomas Jefferson said something like, `one of the best things you can possibly do for any place, is introduce just one kind of useful plant to it.' ... This is a New South Wales Sassafras; they used it for mosquito repellent in World War II, until it was replaced by DDT. ... This Plum Pine is found in Australian rainforests. Cooked, it makes a fine jam. Uncooked, it's chicken fodder....''
La Valley says his customers are often like-minded ``strange people living in funny little river valleys in the mountains and hinterlands of Australia. People who don't want to eat `poisoned' [that is, chemically-treated] fruits, living as natural a life style as possible.''
Soured on American values in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, La Valley came to Australia in 1974 to teach. He stayed on after his two-year contract lapsed. A few years were spent living in a farmhouse, and in a commune, gathering some hands-on horticultural experience. ``Although I have a master's, majored in botany, I was never required to grow or care for plants,'' he remarks. Then he and Robyn, also a teacher and his partner for 15 years, started the Botanic Ark on a derelict farm.
They live modestly. The gardens, orchard, goats, and chickens surround their two-room house. ``We don't do a lot of business. But we don't need much money,'' La Valley says. He claims not to have been to the city, a restaurant, or a movie theater in 10 years. But they do have a 200-tape videocassette library, he says, and just bought a dishwasher.
Some plants in the ``ark'' are grown from seeds bought overseas. Most are the result of scavenging the countryside for rare, acclimated species. ``I never take the main roads. I search for old home sites, old railway stations, shire halls, cemeteries. Wherever humans gather, they usually plant trees.''
La Valley's actions are criticized by some Australian naturalists. For the last decade, there's been a move to propagate indigenous plants, to restore the Australian landscape to its pre-European-settlers condition. ``Saving things Australian is an excellent idea. I work toward that,'' he says. ``But the whole planet is endangered.'' He argues that plants from other continents will also be necessary to support the population in the event of a catastrophe.
How does La Valley justify his ``ark'' when there are already botanic gardens in cities around the world, and universities preserving genetic material from plants in huge vaults?
``There's no way I would measure up what I'm doing here as being more significant,'' he says. But, he argues, a nuclear war is more likely to decimate the gardens and vaults near major cities than his humble plantation.
He adds, ``Unfortunately, a genetic vault can become an excuse for people to say, `Ah yes, we don't have to worry about this forest, or that river, or this place or that place, because we've got a genetic bank. We've got the stuff saved, we've got everything important. It's all tucked away.' Of course, that's ridiculous.''
Steve La Valley also views the thaw of East-West relations with a hefty dose of skepticism. He plans to go on loading his ``ark'' with exotic Chilean palms, rare hickories, and quoting the likes of Henry David Thoreau:
``What is the use of a house, if you don't have a decent planet to put it on?'' Phytophiles desiring a catalog, write: The Botanic Ark, Copeland Road, Warragul, Victoria 3820 Australia.