Come, defend them with all speed, and fill the currents
of your water from the springs, and stir all the torrents of the gullies,
raise a great wave, stir a tumult
of timbers and stones, so that we stop this savage man,
who now is powerful and as determined as a god.
— Iliad, XXI
The thirteen men have been mired here in the making of the Explosives Road for more than 80 years now. Almost to a man they are spearing themselves into chiaroscuro shades of mud made silver-grey by the afternoon sunlight, sleeves rolled to the elbows, hats on heads, knees and backs bent, wellingtons deep in bog, and their spades like sticks of the blind, instruments that evidence the fact of the obscure slow-moving underworld of water, earth, and rock at their feet. Here, each element sympathetically, symmetrically—patiently—bears the weight of the other through time. Each man is in some permutation of the task of disturbing from the mud a parade of large stones, each of which is best described by the dimensions of a human head. Set into this state of nitrated, photographic labour the men work with perfect, obedient attention to rouse the stones from their cool, centuries-long sleep in the shallow groundwater to indifferently welcome the newfound fall of the westering light on their faces.
The waterway in the photograph has been snaking a shallow course through the older Pliocene geological regions of western Victoria’s Newer Volcanics basalt plains and across this site into the low wetlands for at least 2.5 million years. It passed through here long before the arrival of the people whose polity at the time of colonial settlement had come to be shaped into the Kurung jang balluk clan of the Woiwurrung and the Yalukit willam clan of the Boonwurrung. ‘Kurung jang’ refers to the red earth typical of the land to the north. The ‘Yalukit willam’ are literally the ‘river dwellers’ who occupy the area southward to the coast. The waterway here at this intersection is somewhere close to the porous north-south boundary of their estates.
The first colonial crossing of the waterway, built in the 1850s for the south-west run of the Melbourne-Geelong railway line, was a buttressed bluestone bridge whose wide culverts generously accommodated the waterway’s seasonal south-east pulsing into the terminal of the nearby swamp. In 1901, the culverts became part of the route along which explosives were transported on a 20-kilometre-long railway loop from the Nobel factory on Kurung jang balluk country in Deer Park via the industrial suburbs and sheep runs of western Melbourne to a railway siding in nearby Laverton. The crates of dynamite and gelignite were carefully unloaded from the train carriages on to small tram wagons by men wearing leather aprons and canvas-covered boots that reduced the risk of sparking an accidental explosion. The wagons were drawn by teams of Clydesdale horses along a narrow-gauge track that doglegged back under the railway bridge, following the creek and coursing around the swamp before tailing down through to the marshy coast where, in the Explosives Reserve on the lands of the Yalukit willam, they were secured in earth-buttressed, stone-walled magazines. Here they were readied to be relayed to the jetty where ships propelled by the non-combustive force of wind waited to carry them across the waters of Naarm, the body of water most commonly known as Port Phillip Bay, out through the headlands and away.
This almost pre-modern method of transport, its literal reliance on horsepower at its terminal stages, was a delicate and dangerous operation that in the photograph is shown being put to an end. The road the thirteen men are working on will come to form a direct truck route for traffic between the factory and the Explosives Reserve.
While, from an engineering perspective, the road is wholly unremarkable—initially only this 10-kilometre north-south stretch of metalled road mediated by the 100 or so metres of concreted ford under the railway bridge—the photograph of it bears witness to a symptomatic moment in the consolidation of the pastoral conquest of the continent—here, of the estates of the Kurung jang balluk and Yalukit willam—by the gathering momentum of industrial modernity.
If we could widen the narrow frame of the photograph just a few miles in any direction, we’d see how the grasslands and waterways in the immediate surrounds have become entangled in the westward expansion of Melbourne’s industrial imperium. For 50 years already the city’s Main Outfall Sewer has cut a westward swathe through the land; chains of workers have been assembling harvesters in HV McKay’s Sunshine works since 1906; in 1924, the vast Cheetham saltworks reshaped the coastal marshlands to the south, and in the same year C.O.R. established Australia’s first oil refinery on the banks of the nearby Kororoit Creek. Right through the 1930s the area saw a proliferation of large abattoirs, meat processing plants, and saleyards. Its early 20th Century quarries will, in time, become the sites for enormous rubbish tips that will be filled with the increasingly toxic wastes of industry and consumption.
Right across Australia, in the years bridging the Great Depression with the Second World War and the post-war boom, large tracts of pastoral-, agricultural-, and so-called wasteland within reach of urban centres, often near to littoral zones, are being reclaimed for industrial purposes. The reconfiguration of the material use of sites in places like Botany in Sydney, Wingfield and Osborne in Adelaide, Lytton and Fisherman Island in Brisbane, and Kwinana in Perth will be fixed into place by an exponentially growing network of heavy traffic-bearing roads.
The photograph shows the moment of the making of a node, a field of battle where the centrifugal force of industry comes to meet the centripetal force of the stream.
It’s possible to pivot and to bring another kind of attention to the photograph. To see the waterway in time.
As she recounts the cost of being at odds with Naarm, the waters and the country in which this intersection is embedded, Aunty Carolyn Briggs, N’arweet of the Boonwurrung, whose estate includes that of the domain of the Yalukit willam clan between this site and the coast, reclaims the value of the living waters:
One day—many, many years ago—there came a time of chaos and crisis. The Boon Wurrung and the other Kulin nations were in conflict. They argued and fought. They neglected their biik [land]. The native murnong was neglected. The animals were over killed and not always eaten. The gurnbak [fish] were caught during their spawning season. The iilk [eel] were not harvested.
As this chaos grew, the warreeny [sea] became angry and began to rise. The wurneet [river] became flooded and eventually the whole flat plain was covered in baany [water]. It threatened to flood their whole barerarerungar [country].
The values intrinsic to this place reflect an understanding that water is affronted by the delinquency of its human custodians, and, armed with its own force, will go into battle against them to defend itself. It’s a high stakes struggle for survival. For the Boonwurrung, the risen waters that flooded the plain of Naarm, through which the Birrarung waterway flowed, served as a fearsome lesson that they should maintain correct behaviour toward the elements and with their neighbours. Stripped by the water of a vast tract of their estate, the Boonwurrung returned to balance and to deliberately respectful relationships.
In the Iliad, the Homeric account of the brutal battles of the last weeks of the decade-long Trojan war, outraged Achilles has learned nothing of this lesson as he befouls the waters of Scamander, the Trojan potamos, the river and god as one, with the blood and bodies of scores of his slaughtered enemies. The river, in echo of the warreeny, rises up against the warrior, bringing to bear on him the immense force of flood. But Achilles is so furiously intent on satisfying his revengeful thirst for the restoration of prestige over the killing of loyal Patroclus that he is unwilling to give up the fight. He is blind to the living Other. He turns instead to the god of the forge, Hephaestus, to come to his aid. So ferocious is the fire that Hephaestus brings to the river that its waters boil and evaporate. Faced with existential obliteration, Scamander surrenders; its final obedience is not to prestige but to purpose, to continue to bear in its streams the flow of teeming life from source to sea.
While he will not live to see it, Achilles’ unbending momentum of slaughter will pause only briefly, but famously, before being continued by his Greek allies, beyond the Iliad, all the way to the unbridled, brutal, and sickening sack of Troy. Victory drives the lust for victory. Higher and higher the victors climb on the bones and bodies of the dead, whether Trojan or Greek, until that other epic hero, Odysseus, finally weightless, as if in flight amid the unbridled sack of Troy, takes to its loftiest rampart to dash from it blameless Scamandrius, the infant Trojan heir who bears the river’s name.
I imagine the heart wily, cruel Odysseus must take, the purpose he finds, in remembering the river’s surrender as he brings that final force to bear on the boy, to make him so decisively, so crushingly into a senseless thing.
The first British survey of Naarm, the waters that had risen to claim the hunting plains of the Boonwurrung, was led by Charles Grimes in 1803. Later that same year, a British settlement at a site later known as Sullivan Bay was staked out on the Boonwurrung estate at Monmar, known to the settlers as Point Nepean, near the heads of the bay. While the settlement soon failed, it marked the beginning of the relentless encroachment of British and other settlers onshore. While the incursions and settlements over the next three decades were mostly ephemeral, they foreshadowed the 1835 landing of the Batman and Fawkner parties from Van Diemen’s Land on the Merri and Birrarung waterways and the claims of the Port Phillip Association that followed as they unfurled the full map of British colonial conquest across the lands of the Kulin Nation and beyond.
This conquest was prosecuted through the middle decades of the nineteenth century by colonial settlers who were embedded in a powerful network of material, legal, military, economic and ideological instruments. While the first settlers wished to avoid the outright, systematic slaughters of the Tasmanian campaigns of the 1820s and early 1830s, the result of the conquest, which was in any case still not free from direct massacre, was barely less devastating. The local clans, who found ways to both accommodate and resist the first settlers, were overwhelmed not only by martial, sexual and other violence but by the introduction of exotic species of flora and fauna—wheat, grasses, sheep, cattle and horses—that practically eradicated indigenous food sources. The clans’ traditional practices were disrupted by expelling and excluding them from their estates and by overturning the ecological coherence of the country, partitioning it into geometrically regular pastoral freeholds. Even before this formal occupation, local indigenous populations had been structurally weakened by the blind, blunt instrument of communicable diseases like smallpox that were introduced to places where they had never before taken root. The growth of the settlement at Melbourne brought wave after wave of deadly influenza. At the undeclared victory, the tendons of indigenous tradition and custodianship of country were practically, but not entirely severed. Where language and ways survived it was by the barest of threads.
In her reading of the Iliad, Simone Weil understands the poem’s almost infinite brutality to be the West’s last real articulation of an ancient wisdom about the geometrical certainties and perpetual dynamics of force.
‘The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad,’ she writes, ‘is force.
Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to…To define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all, this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.
Just as Weil sees that under force’s weight we are deformed, she also apprehends the necessity of its obverse, that when we are in its light we become blind to the illusion of weightlessness, buoyed by its endowment of prestige.
‘The man who is the possessor of force,’ she observes, ‘seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection.’
To draw on a martial metaphor, it’s enough to say that when yoked by force we are slaves, while astride it we are soldiers. The slave, stripped of all means by which she might exercise force, bears a burden so vast that the very possibility of realising intention as action is erased. Having been so utterly robbed of ego, the slave, by necessity, cannot be a bad moral actor. Equally, the soldier, who moves without resistance through the element of light with which force presents itself, and whose unrestrained will brings the crushing burden of force to bear upon the slave—the slave who only ever appears to the soldier as an object—cannot be a good moral actor.
To attend to the thirteen men squared into the photograph is in one way to bear witness to their abasement under the weight of force. Their existence has been reduced to that of mindless instruments. They are esteemed exclusively for their brute capacity to bear in their spades the lifted weight of the stones they extract from the mud so as to realise the dreams of other men to whom they are more or less mutually abstract—surveyors, engineers, managers, committees, boards, and shareholders. These other men calculate the geographical dimensions of geology, elevation, subgrade drainage, and water tables; and by way of increased prestige or financial wealth, they stand to profit from the efficiency gains to be had from laying down this stretch of concrete, which is effectively nothing more than a weather-resistant ford. Its purpose is to sheet off the rain-swollen inundations of the intersecting waterway so as to better deliver the destructive, extractive force of explosives to the world. Nothing is required of the men but their obedient labour. As they stand in docile relationship to this imperative, they are incapable of moral turpitude. They have no choice but to yield to it.
Yet at the same moment they are moving with complete, complicit ease through the displaced world of the Kurung jang balluk and the Yalukit willam. It’s a fairly safe bet that it does not much matter or even occur to the men that these clans never ceded sovereignty over this country. As beings embedded in the hot mess of the twentieth century they dwell in an era when that first generation of Europeans to have insinuated themselves into the land had already fallen from the horizon of living presence and into the abyss of popular history where they were coloured as pioneers, entrepreneurs, men of vision. In 1939, the prevailing European Australian attitude regarded whatever was visible to it of indigenous Australian life as a ghostly vestige, a curious trace of the people whose tenure over the land had, over the previous century, evaporated without resistance or trauma. It was generally understood—despite the first real flickers of resistance activism, like the inaugural Day of Mourning in 1938 during commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the British colony in Sydney—that the clans here had simply and unproblematically been supplanted by a ‘superior’ civilisation.
The men in the photograph are bound to the prestige they have inherited from these facts of dispossession. At the crest of the road behind them, beyond a car that lingers in a state of superintendence, there stands a row of three tents. It must be that in one of these tents is the man from whom, at the end of the day, each of the men in the mud will take in hand an envelope in which the poundweight of his embodied attentions is contained. Having endured another day-long ordeal of crooked-back labour, each man will take the money proffered him as a promissory note of material amelioration. Rent. Down payment. A drink. The bill paid at the butcher. The frugal living wage. It is in receipt of this small compensation that the men become wedded to the plunder of the land’s wealth, complicit in securing the roots of its seizure. When they step up to the tent on the horizon and take in hand their wages, they are grasping at their paltry share of the spoils of conquest.
The men and the road are at the vanguard of a second wave of occupation that is being guided by an economic imperative of accumulative materialism that continues to this day in the ideology of limitless market reach, the boundless optimism of modernity that claims dominion over the making and marketing of individual imagination and desire. In the liminal mud, where it is no longer clear whether we are on water or land, the thirteen men are fulfilling the ancient longing to breach the riparian boundary, they are soldiers serving the centrifuge of industrial expansion. They are instruments of the audacious, geometrical artists of modernity who have painted for them the promise of material satisfaction without end. The road they are building at the intersection of these ways ploughs through time like the flight of a poison-tipped spear into the naked heel of the future.
It’s the last days of the southern winter of 2019 when I take the train out of central Melbourne to walk the thirteen-kilometre length of what was formerly and formally known as the Explosives Reserve Road from Deer Park to the sea. The train passes Ardeer, my home station as a child, named for the peninsula in Ayrshire, Scotland where in the 1870s Alfred Nobel established a British outpost of his explosives manufacturing empire.
In the last century and a half, the train station has cycled through a gallery of names: Australian Explosives and Chemical Company Siding, Nobel (Aust) Pty Ltd Chemical Siding and the most impressive, the Federal Manure Siding. This last one for servicing the Federal Manure Company. Manure is originally meant as a verb meaning to work the earth by hand [Latin manus]. It attaches itself this way to fertilising animal and human faeces as they are manually worked into the earth. The manure produced by the Federal Manure Company is not meant as shit, but as the superphosphates that were fabricated here as a by-product of the manufacture of high explosives. Today, phosphates from manure or fertiliser run-off that course through subterranean water tables are a major contributor to eutrophication, the process by which excess nutrients and deoxygenation fuel the growth of poisonous cyanobacteria and algae in waterways. So, shit, actually, of another order.
It’s at Ardeer that the train passes the house I grew up in. When I pass, my father is still in there. His operation and hospitalisation are still six months away. A few hundred metres further along, on the other side of the tracks, stood the Sims Metal factory, a car battery recycling plant and lead smelter that occupied an entire four-acre block of the suburban grid. This was the 1970s. Houses and heavy industry were pressed up against one another. Later, when the factory shut down, new houses were built on the land. You know how this goes. Lead, cadmium, antimony in the soil. The EPA auditor’s report on the site says that ‘[s]pecial wastes were primarily residues found inside pipes used by the previous industrial operations. Many of these were known or suspected of containing significant amounts of lead oxide. These materials were placed in 200 litre drums and disposed of in accordance with EPA requirements.’ As a prescribed material, that is, as toxic waste in the Ardeer site, the antimony was either mixed with concrete dust in a pugmill and cured, or, in raw form, dumped in a landfill site at Lyndhurst, fifty kilometres away. Once the site was hollowed out, clay backfill was carted in from CSR’s Oaklands Junction quarry, a former dairy farm twenty kilometres to the north. The topsoil came from a former orchard on Browns Road in Arundel ten kilometres away as the crow flies. History, in the report, only goes back to colonial usage. Former dairy farm. Former orchard. Not: former estate of the Wurundjeri willam clan of the Woiwurrung, east of the Maribyrnong. Nothing ever disappears. It just gets moved around.
I leave the train at Deer Park Station and make for the Orica site. Its 150-hectare grounds contain the remnants of the vast explosives and explosives-related industries that dominated the outer western suburbs of Melbourne from the 1870s onward. Nearby is the plot of land that was the location of the Gate 6 settling pond for effluent from the then Imperial Chemical Industries’ (ICI), previously Nobel’s, nitrocellulose plant on Tilburn Road.
Nitrocellulose was, circa 1855, the first man-made plastic. Its use was common to explosives and photographic film. In guncotton it was the prima materia of the magicians’ flash. It produces illusions of presence and absence. Film was explosive, flammable. It was the cause of cinema fires in the early twentieth century. Nitrocellulose was also the basis for making leathercloth, the vinyl for car seats that fed into the expansion of auto manufacturing in the mid-twentieth century. New car smell. I think to Melbourne’s Melway street directory’s bold modern design. Edition 1, 1966: the year my parents moved, carless, into their home. As the Melway sent people out onto its hierarchy of colour-coded roads it became, like all maps, a powerful instrument for its own expansion.
From 1960 to 1979 water containing high levels of nitrate and sulphate was discharged from the nitrocellulose plant into ICI’s Gate 6 settling pond and, at a rate of 9000 gallons every hour, twenty-four hours a day, every day save for Sundays, was piped directly into the Newer Volcanics basalt scoria aquifer. The resulting ‘Inferred Mount Derrimut Plume’, almost ten kilometres long and three wide, was not formally detected in the water table for another two decades. The nitrate-rich effluent is draining, by gradual gravitational pull, down through the decades toward the sea.
The environmental auditors’ conclusion is that ‘remediation timeframes would be expected to be in the order of decades to centuries’ at a cost of anywhere up to ten million dollars, depending on the course of action taken. Its final recommendation is that the only viable action is ‘the No Action option,’ a strategy that depends on instrumentalising future time. Say the auditors: ‘…potential future risks can be adequately managed by a system to notify future intending groundwater users…’
The necessity for audit is an indictment of the past and passes responsibility for it into future time, leapfrogging the present by way of signalling that a kind of attention has been paid. But it is not real attention. Any environmental audit is built on the metaphysical difficulty of delivering a problem from past time to future time. It relies on the sleight of hand that figures abstract future time as telic: knowable, known and complete, mapped.
But future time is atelic: the verb form of an incomplete action; actions are eternally ongoing. The past is not complete, the present never completes. Telic time is the magician’s flash. Yet risk management depends on it. It proposes foreseeability. But what do we truly foresee?
Projected onto a map, the plume feathers like a watercolour blot on paper. It seeps down through the decades toward its eventual meeting with the sea. The plume and the road are one another’s ghosts. Two velocities. Two movements in slow and fast time. The chemical past carried by the force of time into the future.
I trace the fringe of the explosives factory’s mostly decommissioned grounds along the length of the chain link fence: its idle buildings, the distant scars of its magazine mounds. This is the paddock on which I rode a horse in the 1980s. Recently, it has been churned over for traces of explosive nitro-glycerine by remotely controlled armoured bulldozers in a process of remediation that still has no end in sight. Just as at the Ardeer lead factory site, the contaminated soil here is being removed, ‘transported to an off-site treatment facility,’ says the Orica statement. The force of endless movement. Problem shifting.
The soil at one corner of the site is contaminated with nitrobenzene and chloronitrobenzene, poisonous, carcinogenic precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of various synthetic compounds that have become essential to daily life: polyurethanes, explosives, pesticides, even paracetamol. ICI once claimed to have coined the modern usage of the noun plastic.
Littering the verge are plastic Coca-Cola bottles filled with piss. I see these everywhere. The necessary convenience of low-paid, time-pressured delivery drivers. My friend recently described to me her exasperation at the blitheness with which men pissed in places they did not need to—more or less in public—wilfully indifferent to social ignominy. Piss where you like, guys. My friend understood this to be a function of the pervasive force men possess and wield, their unencumbered power to do as they pleased as women could not. For the drivers pissing in bottles, it’s a class issue.
At the intersection that marks the setting out point of the Explosives Road, a sealed standpipe pricks up through the earth. It is labelled ’Coogee Energy. Methanol Pipeline. Test Point 16.’ The standpipe is a vent for the pipeline underfoot. The flash point for methanol, that is, the lowest temperature at which a vapour will ignite, is 11 degrees. The air temperature, as I’m walking, is 13 degrees.
I am walking and I am filled with the memory of never having been so free as when on that ride on the horse across the explosives paddock. The feeding pen, the itch of Lucerne hay and the clammy sweetness of molasses are buried now under the M80 Ring Road. Never been so free. Movement without resistance, sailing through light.
I turn southward now, away from the factory grounds, across the railway tracks and past a paddock I have known since childhood to have been rumoured as being riddled with sulphur, an almost-forgotten local urban legend, a memory of the facts of the contamination of the land here more generally as they fell into the ears of children and were repeated and distorted. Now the block is occupied by a Croatian Catholic Church and community centre which came to life at the same time as the Balkan wars erupted in the early 1990s. It’s a Sunday, so the entrances are festooned with Australian and regional Croatian flags. The community here, older people of my parents’ generation, arrive in cars, well dressed. They fill the church and set up a market stall.
There is no EPA map of the sulphur paddocks, but a 1945 aerial photograph shows a pond fed by a rivulet at the intersection of the Explosives Road that is draining liquid as if into a kidney from the ICI site. Surely there’s a truth in my suspicion, that it really was some kind of chemical dump.
The Explosives Road is layered now with eighty years of tarmac accretions: stability for the unstable compounds for which it was built. The paddock to the west, in which a storage shed marked ‘Hi-Ex’ once stood, is now also baked into the Ring Road or beyond it into the newer industrial park.
I imagine the road renamed as the Alchemical Road where bare chemical compounds are mediated, transported in containers of possibility, passed through crucibles of industry to be shaped and harvested and synthesised into the meat and fibre and fluid of objects that barely stay still before they fall into other cycles of being in which the entirety of their ephemeral meaning eventually collapses into waste.
A digression into a thicket of bushes and sharp grasses in the Millennium Flood Retarding Basin adjacent to the M80 Ring Road. I cram myself into a hide of branches and there I piss into the out-spill of a freeway drain that is ripe with road trash, a holy-well devoted to plastic bottles and such. It is only when I am back out on the Explosives Road that I notice the rivulet of blood on my finger and the clean deep slice that has been made into it by a sharp blade of grass. The bloodstains are impressed as well on the crotch of my jeans, so I must have been bleeding already before I was pissing. I think to my friend and cannot imagine that this is not evidence of karmic ignominy. I imagine being stopped by police—by anyone—and being asked to explain myself, to explain the blood. The day is warming but I pull on my jacket and zip it, pulling it down over the stain on my crotch. The blood is a shame I cannot openly wear. I make my way along the roadside, sucking at my finger, spitting out teaspoon weights of blood, patching together the slice with the scraps of a tissue.
At a watery ditch alongside the protected Derrimut grasslands, I listen for the frogs. The trickle of water here is the trace of Cherry Creek, the run of gum trees into the grasslands marking out its course. Even on a Sunday there is work all about me. Truck driving, moving things, making roads. At a roundabout, a group of three vintage motorcycle riders pass.
They feel momentarily like allies. Like me, they also have an eye on the past and the present. But the idea doesn’t hold. I’m a curiosity. A walker where no one walks. At the truck-scale petrol station I buy Band-aids and tissues one-handed and I’m asked if I have also bought petrol.
At the Coojee Energy plant the odour of gas pervades. This is the source of the methanol that is piped underground to the Orica plant. The methanol is used to manufacture acetic acids and formaldehyde. It is a constituent in the adhesives in the Band-aid on my bleeding finger. My comfortable, convenient complicity.
In 2006, Orica’s adhesives business was sold to Hexion, which operates out of the Deer Park site. According to ASIC, Hexion was first registered in Australia in 1949. It has run through a cycle of names and ownership. Casco. Then Swift & Borden. Then Borden Chemical Australia. The pipeline also branches off toward the Borden site on nearby James Street to the east. Somewhere along the line Borden was merged with a number of other chemical companies that became Hexion. A string of corporate genealogies that intersect with Orica, ICI and Nobel’s. Each one presenting an unconvincing image of stability and corporate loyalty. A charade of prestige performed by no one, for no one, yet performed nonetheless. Rootless, opportunistic multinationals. Another kind of chemical compound. The Borden site is up for sale and abandoned. Hexion filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in April 2019 and came out of it in June. The pipe to Borden under the drystone wall must be dormant, the movement of gases sealed off.
I cross the now long-disused Main Outfall Sewer that is remembered as a triumph of late nineteenth century engineering, the material remains of the order that was brought to bear on the unsanitary chaos of the young city as it faced a crisis of disease in the 1880s. The city’s new network of sewers was chanelled into a tunnel that coursed west under the remade Maribyrnong and Yarra river delta then was driven via a pumping station further west to the higher ground of Brooklyn from where it fell in a slurry of gravity through this sewer for twenty-five kilometres, against the tendency of the south-east fall of the land, in open and closed channels and across aqueducts at its intersections with other waterways—Cherry, Kororoit, Kayes, Skeleton Waterholes, Werribee.
Truck upon truck upon truck bears down on me. I breathe diesel spew and dust. The Explosives Road has become an arthritic bone in the rigid spine of a gridlocked network that branches out across an industrial zone that is as vast as it is ill-defined; a cauldron of elemental transformation, that from raw compounds gives shape and heft to the building blocks of comfortable consumer modernity—the hot baths of which Hector, in the Iliad, dreamt of in the future that would never arrive for him: chemical plants, meatworks, petrol refineries, plastics makers, warehouses, distribution centres, waste dumps, mountains of glass and steel, and acres of tilt-concrete and tarmac.
Cartographically, the industrial zone sits on the land like some enormous organism that is in parasitic symbiosis with the body of the metropolis. Within the reach of its long tributaries into suburbs, whose own expanding empire is fast clearing away the traces of remnant grasslands, is a legacy that one local mayor has called the problem of ‘historic endemic waste.’ The tripartite phrase pivots on ‘endemic’ and its roots in the Greek demos. This legacy is at the heart of what environmental sociologists Robert Brulle and David Pellow call out as the characteristic impact on cities of industrial modernity’s ‘treadmill of production’, where ‘environmental risks … are disproportionately concentrated among specific groups of people with the least ability to resist the location of polluting facilities in their community.’
The population of these western suburbs of Melbourne live precisely in these circumstances of environmental injustice. Fanning out far beyond the road is a filigree bloom of ongoing despoilment: not only is suburban soil discovered to be contaminated with lead and asbestos but creeks are awash with toxic chemical residues neglectfully or deliberately discharged into them; a florescence of multilane arterials, freeways, bridges, and tunnels are endlessly rattled by heavy freight traffic; tip, tyre, and chemical fires send populations scrambling indoors for safety; the air is thick with particulate pollutants that result in a hospitalisation rate for respiratory and related illnesses that is significantly higher than the rest of the metropolitan area; excess leachate levels are detected at a vast landfill site that practically abuts an enormous prison complex; the only certainty in a dispute that rages over where to dump 1.5 million cubic metres of soil from road tunnel works that is riddled with PFAS, a class of potentially toxic synthetic chemicals, is that the site will be somewhere in the western suburbs.
Here I wonder if the industrial expansion being materialised in the photograph has not produced affliction that is far greater than the good that might have been imagined in 1939. Where human society has become far poorer experientially and materially the further the industrial imperium has reached across the globe. Where our lives are embedded in work that alienates us from one another and from our communities in the very moment it convinces us it is doing the opposite; work that compromises the fabric of direct, specific and real human relations by reducing them to blunt transactional instruments in jobs that are often intrinsically meaningless, whose human purpose is so abstracted that it is barely detectable. Where modernity’s slavery to consumer imperatives, bedded on the rock of ever-expanding industrial manufacture, relies on an enormous and enormously marginalised and precariously employed global labour force. Where the reach of extractive agriculture and industry lays sensitive ecologies to waste, causes vast contamination and is definitionally entangled in the anthropogenic disruption of complex natural systems including, but not limited to, climate.
I wonder if what we might finally be hearing is the real battle-cry from the conquerors of the past who promised so much; the call from inside their wooden horse to pour forth and sack the very future in which we dwell.
It is said in the final lost poem of the Epic Cycle that many years after the Trojan war, long after Odysseus had returned to his island kingdom of Ithaca and defeated Penelope’s suitors, a stranger named Telegonus washed up on the shores of the island. This young distant-born traveller had set out on the seas from his far-off home in search of the father he did not know and had come to grief in a storm. In need of food and and then out of blithe recklessness he plundered a herd of cattle belonging to Odysseus. Odysseus, on learning of this offence, was determined to bring Telegonus to his knees. But in their clash, the king was bested by the younger man, mortally pierced by a god-made spear whose tips were poisoned with the venom of a stingray. As Odysseus lay dying, the younger man came to him and in a tender, tragic exchange both came to realise that Odysseus was the father Telegonus had been seeking. The fullness of each man’s humanity, the empathy and knowledge of the care they owed one another, had arrived too late for it to be lived. While one of the bare moral lessons of this tragedy is to teach us to regard every stranger with the care we owe to those we love, as we would owe it to our parents and to our children, its wider message shows us that tragedy is a function of force, defined by ignoring the foreseeable see-sawing of chance between conqueror and vanquished. It is an epilogue to which Weil attends when she writes that: ‘[t]he auditors of the Iliad knew that the death of Hector would be but a brief joy to Achilles, and the death of Achilles but a brief joy to the Trojans, and the destruction of Troy but a brief joy to the Achaeans.’
The photograph of the workers shows the fulcrum of the Trojan tragedy—the defeat of the Scamander, the sack of Troy, the weightlessness of victory, and defeat’s leaden suffering. It shows the glory-seeking ache to plunder and ruin having been cut free from mytho-historical time as it spills out into the centuries, unchecked by the absent river god. It shows that in time revealed, Odysseus too falls to ‘that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.’ Achilles’ rageful victory over the river eventually comes to nought. It shows the sack of the estates of the Kurung jang balluk and Yalukit willam. It shows the physical toppling of the careful balance these clans achieved with the waterway, with their biik; the ruin of the lesson they had learned in living with it. It shows the forceful abasement of the living and natural order that prevailed here for thousands of years. It is a portrait of the taking of the prize in the wake of conquest: the erasure of the old ways to profit the new. It is the erasure, too, of the domain of foregone futures; an erasure that has entrapped us in our present age of despoilment.
The photograph is evidence of the indifferent force of light fixed into the object; the sun falling on stone.
I descend with the nitrate plume and the road from a freeway overpass that carries me vertiginously high over a pulsatile gush of traffic. There’s scarcely an allowance made here for walking. The narrow, barely-trodden path is littered with the deconstituted detritus of the road: a neat sweep of metal, grit, rubble, and rubber. A kind of panic of self-preservation sets in at the sheer vehicular terror of trucks and cars below and about me. I become aware of the vulnerability of my own body. The danger is so thick that I don’t think to remember that this is the meeting point of the two estates, where the southern fringes of the Kurung jang balluk intersect with the coastal run of the Yalukit willam.
Over the bridge I look to return to the Explosives Road, but instead of taking the most direct route, I fall under the spell of an abandoned backlot, a square mile of land that was first pegged out in 1852 to John Pascoe Fawkner, one of Melbourne’s founding colonial opportunists. On the old charts in the archive it is shown hatched with named but never-made ghost streets, an immaterial extension of suburbia. It’s zoned now for industry, but no industry has ever arrived. The land is unserviced by water or energy. It’s mostly used as an illegal dumping ground, a place where material that has been stripped of its position in the human constellation of instrumentality and meaning, no longer endowed with the forceful capacity to move or to endure movement, is abandoned as abject. In being stripped of momentum, in its immobility and permanent disorientation in a place of desolation, it is stripped as well of all prestige. It is a kind of peace.
When I look hard at the photograph, I see this man—this old man—fixed and facing the camera from the perspectival centre of the muddy road. I see his bashed in fedora, his drab white shirt buttoned up to the throat. Below the heart of his dark vest, I see his hands crossed before him and the impression they give that he is leaning on the handle of a shovel. But if there is a handle, then it has been perfectly camouflaged against the man’s baggy grey trouser leg. There’s an uncanny jolt in recognising this illusion. The man is in fact simply standing, staring into the camera, holding the unnatural gesture of crossed hands, at least for the photographic moment, so that it looks to have been whittled into his body.
I return again and again to the loose hang of his closed lips. From them, I make the simple, bleak deduction that through a lifetime of toil and deprivation, through all the years of struggle and yearning to seize for himself just the tiniest sliver of the prestige that he has seen being accumulated by the forces of colony, class, and industry—the same forces that, still now, when other men in better circumstances, with richer material lives, would be fitting themselves out for comfortable retirement, insist on setting him to work for them in the mud for the few pounds he will collect from the man in the tent on the horizon behind him—all that he will end up amounting to is the indignity of being unable to afford new teeth.
And now, with the camera upon him, the old man suffers through the further humiliation of having his shame and anguish being made into an object, a thing. In the infinitesimally brief photographic instant in which he is caught spadeless, toothless, utterly disarmed, paralysed, the old man falls to the mercy of the one who sees him as he has been yoked to time.
For this moment, and only for this moment, he is wrested not from the anguish of his humiliation, but from the wilful pursuit of seizing prestige for himself. He is rescued from Weil’s calculation that ‘between one prestige and another there can be no equilibrium. Prestige has no bounds and its satisfaction always involves the infringement of someone else’s prestige or dignity. And prestige is inseparable from power. This seems to be an impasse from which humanity can only escape by some miracle.’
If the photograph is the miracle then it will pass—it has passed for more than 80 years already—and the old man will return to the momentum of road making as it drives through the photographic moment, from pastoral past to industrial future, trapping those who are caught under its weight and those who sail in its light in the illusion that force has been harnessed; that while that force might be as solid as a road underfoot one day, it is as a torrent of water the next, washing away all before it.
We live in a time when it has become obvious that the momentum and consequence of the industrial reality being shaped on the Explosives Road and on roads like it being made across the country as they upturn ancient landscapes in the service of the expansion of heavy industry and consumption are escalating beyond control. Yet we remain, slave and soldier alike, foolishly wedded to the pursuit of the illusions, the dreams of endless hot baths, promised by the reshaping of that land.
The counter-imperative is to exceed the impasse, to dissolve illusion and to become attentive to reality.
The Iliad leaves off its narration of the Trojan war at a moment of respite, a precarious state of balance achieved as the grieving warrior Achilles empathetically hands over to King Priam the body of his slain son Hector so that the sorrowful funerary rites it is owed may be observed in peace. The cunning and merciless victory of the Achaeans over the Trojans, the famous Trojan horse and the sack of Troy, belongs to a later narrative. In the Iliad, balance is found in the equal bearing of sorrows by its actors. It becomes the vehicle of empathy.
In her time, which was also the time of the thirteen men, the time of industry and of war, Weil understood that the Iliad’s message of balance had been forgotten:
Conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics. We are only geometricians of matter.
The consequence of this restriction is tragedy. In our time, having abdicated value to managerial technocracy in the service of the empires of industry, we have lost sight of virtue and it is at our peril that we ignore wisdom’s warning ‘that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.’ In our amnesia, in our determination to over-determine the future, we are cast into a state of furious disproportion that now bears down on us in the collapse of ecosystems, in the hothousing of climate.
‘The empire of force,’ we remember, in Weil’s equation, is ‘as extensive as the empire of nature.’
Weil, and, in her wake, Iris Murdoch, argue that fundamental reality—God for the former, Good for the latter, and for both a version of the Platonic, perfectible ideal—is approached through what amounts to negative ambition, a momentary, ephemeral achievement of true passivity; a state of vertiginous paralysis through which it is possible to grasp what W.G. Sebald reminds us of in After Nature as ‘the future’s resounding emptiness’, an apprehension of the dimension of illusion which, for Weil, is nothing more, and nothing more dangerous, than ‘the filler of void places.’
Murdoch points to the dimensions of this state of ‘unselfing’—which Weil calls ‘decreation’—in her regard for the lesson of ‘great art’, which
teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organisms of the self. This exercise of detachment is difficult and valuable whether the thing contemplated is a human being or the root of a tree or the vibration of a colour or a sound.
The challenge of this practice is not in achieving it momentarily, ephemerally, but, in its fullest realisation, as a willing commitment to what, in Weil’s terms, is a state of slavery, an ongoing orientation of quotidian perception, bearing, and behaviour toward the authority of the ungraspable reality of the Good. While the Good finds manifestation in the beauty of nature, art, and humanity, it resides beyond these. It resides, perhaps, in their very relation to one another.
Might attending to this relationship, by way of habitually and ritually acknowledging and respecting the immanent, living dimension of materiality whether human or country, that is, its capacity to sense and to know, prepare the self to act rightly, as Murdoch has it, ‘when the time comes’? And if so, how much more difficult might it be to extrapolate a meaningful body politic from this individuated habitual attendance to the Good?
It could be argued that in recent years such an expression of collective attention has emerged through the New Zealand government’s formal recognition of the Whanganui River as being in possession of legal personality so as to acknowledge and embed the importance of Maori knowledge and cultural practice in maintaining the river’s health. And here in Australia, on the very waterways intersecting the Explosives Road, the Victorian state government has planted the seed of listening to the ‘voice’ of rivers in projects like the Birrarung Council and the Waterways of the West which similarly attempt to entangle indigenous knowledge and cultural-spiritual practice—the old ways—into the administration of human interventions in the life of the waterways.
While these feel as if they are steps in the right direction, I wonder if they do enough to truly attend to the living reality of the water and land. Is the gesture toward what is sometimes called ‘vital materialism’ any more than ventriloquism when little individual obligation is felt toward a collectively embodied commitment to it?
It’s with easy embarrassment that many of us shrug off the prospect of participating in collective contemplation beyond its reduction to art. ‘When the time comes’ we are often just too compromised by our entanglement in the endless promises of modernity to acknowledge, as Weil does, that ‘nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths’ and to really do anything but fall into obedient, comfortable step with that limitlessness.
It’s difficult to outline what this collective contemplation could look like, but it must involve old wisdom and, perhaps most importantly, it can’t be done abstractly, from afar. It must be wedded to place. It’s hard not to wonder if waterway councils and legal personhood really escape the charge of delegating the problems of industrial modernity to ‘the vocabulary of technics.’
Just the same, it’s easy to make an enemy of modernity because it does so much of its damage by abstracting people and places, by inflicting the immense wounds it does by instrumentalising distance. It’s difficult to not simply wish it would go away. But perhaps the true imperative is to see that modernity also has a reality outside the myths of its history and the illusions of its futures.
To extend the logic of the New Zealand example, I wonder about how we might also come to acknowledge roads, like the Explosives Road, as they carry so much of the material of modernity’s abstractive force, as also as being in possession of legal personality and in that acknowledgement bring moderation to the force they carry?
Why not imagine the roads, just as we do the rivers, as having a relationship to the moral good? How do we truly rediscover the virtue of living material when both Scamander and Hephaestus have been forgotten? When both have simply become instruments for the geometricians of matter?
How to balance against the illusory prestige modernity paints both into history and into its speculative futures, the true weight of the present in which the reality, the inevitability and—for Weil—the necessity of affliction resides? And how, in the contemplation of that affliction—in assimilating it—to find empathy? How to live with and find a use for anguish?
Months after my walk, in the weeks before the first coronavirus lockdown, I come each day to a hospital room in the western suburbs of Melbourne to sit with my father who, in his late eighties, is wearing his age as an affliction from which he will not recover. In the wake of the surgery that has left him with only half his tongue and suffering the effects of what the surgeon, to give it an indeterminate place in time, calls ‘perioperative’ stroke, he has become literally speechless, unable to swallow and caught in a cruel vortex of medical complications. Pain and fatigue dwell in every sinew of his conscious being. When I sit with him and, when not with him, when I think on him, the balefulness of his state calls me to set aside my own particular personal anguish, a despair that is entangled with the consequences of my obedience to what Iris Murdoch calls ‘the fat relentless ego.’ In the psychodrama of this tangle, in knowing that I have been a bad actor in it, I have been unable to resolve whether it is possible or even right to wish to preserve and project a sense of my own goodness. The work of assimilating the two states is a labour without end.
It is only in attending to my father’s state of absolute affliction that the dimensions of this anguish come to be diminished for any meaningful duration. His affliction has the heft of an entire other being, an other that precedes me, that is entirely excess to me. It is a universe unto itself. In its presence I cannot think to think on the anguish of my inner life. In witnessing it, I become schooled in the endurance of my own suffering. The hard kernel of this learning is in coming to know that the empathy I feel when I attend to him will not restore to him that which time is robbing from him. This is not its function, for there is no return. My father will not evacuate his state of affliction through attentive displacement. Only death will bring it. And in proximity to his final state, I receive his affliction as one receives the unexpected, involuntarily received gift of grace, not with joy, but in horror at the selfishness of the equation, with the self-loathing felt by the undeserving. It is a terrible, unbeautiful freedom, devoid of the comforts of illusion. It is the reality that is forced to abandon seeing for the sake of being seen.
Months before my father descends toward his final illness I am still walking the length of the Explosives Road and when I walk, I imagine I bring to bear on the world nothing greater than my footfall. I descend toward the intersection of the creek, the road and the railway. Here, at the low point, the creek regularly swells up to submerge the road surface. The water rests a few days then falls away in a trickle down into the marshes. It is a point of both occlusion and transmission.
The world is heavy here with the gravity of the intersections of force that are a symptom of the irresistibility of movement. Each force is etched into the surface of the land as the engraving of flow in the ways of nature and industry: the creek, the road, the railway; the plume; the subterranean aquifers, shaped by sheets of volcanic lava, each of them cutting across or falling, falling out to the sea.
I gaze upon these material facts, trying beyond patience to see what I am looking for. I look to strip from the photograph, from the place, all the illusion I have brought to it. Yet all I see is illusion. All I see is that superstitiously fateful number of men, their sleeves rolled up and hats on heads. I see them up to their knees and elbows in mud made silver by the afternoon sun. I see that they are sinking into that mud but that at the same time they are keeping their bodies abreast of gravity. I see the forsaken old man, the thirteenth man, the one who suffers most. I see his mouth and his ears. I see the hunched stoop of his shoulders. I see in his face my father’s face, or my father’s face in him. I see my father’s afflictions, long before he has reached my father’s age. And I see the hands that are crossed before him, hands like my father’s that, even in the grip of suffering, are still large and powerful and welcoming. I see all this, but it is not what I am looking for. I am looking for the thing I cannot name. The thing I cannot will into being.
The time has come but I am ill-prepared. I am unhabituated to the sovereignty of the Good. Instead, I orient myself against the template of time, against the men in the photograph, who are up to their knees in a state of perpetual imbalance, never in the equilibrium of force. As I walk on to the warreeny, I step through the old man’s immutable moment of anguished paralysis on the water and the road—his realisation that he will never escape the trap he is working to set. I witness the naked face of his humiliation, the baring of his abandonment of the relentless pursuit of prestige.
In the hospital, those months later, the time comes for the nurses to move my father in his bed a little, to clean him, to make him a little more comfortable. The three of us, my mother, my brother and I, step out to the tearoom that’s reserved for families like ours. Families in wait. We know what’s coming, but we don’t know when it will come. The tearoom opens out onto a yard where we sit briefly on a bench. It’s a sunny day, but despite the sun and the warmth it’s a little too windy for my mother and she heads inside. My brother and I follow. I head into the toilet where, on a bench by the sink, I find an unsecured supply of toilet paper. It’s become scarce in the stores of late and when I come out, I joke that I could easily take it home with me. This is how all conversations are heading in these days; so much of our family patter circulates about the virus now that it has surged through China and caught hold in Italy. We know already that it will come to change our own lives. So I make the joke about the toilet paper and it’s soon after this that a nurse, whose name and face I cannot remember, now that I come to write this, comes to say that my father has died. We make for the room where the nurses, who are well-practiced with the routines of attending to these gentle deaths, have already arranged his body in neat repose, blanketed and with a light sprig of flowers to carry with him. I suppose they must keep these ready in a drawer somewhere on the ward. We spend an hour, maybe two together with him, talking, crying, laughing. It is a powerful and humbling time and each time I take hold of my father’s hands, I don’t fail to notice that I have found, without looking for it after all, the gesture in them that he shares with the crossed hands of the old man in the photograph and I attend to this fact as if it might afford some last second moment of grace, even if it is already too late.
David Sornig’s two books are Blue Lake: finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp (2018), a historical, biographical and personal excursion through the former wetlands and Great Depression-era shanty town of West Melbourne and Spiel (2009), a novel about an architect in Berlin trying to escape the sins of his inherited past. Blue Lake won a Judges’ Special Prize in the 2019 Victorian Community History Awards and was adapted for ABC Radio National’s History Listen. In 2015 he received a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship and was a finalist in the Melbourne Prize for Literature Writer’s Prize for the essay ‘Jubilee: A hymn for Elsie Williams on Dudley Flats.’
This essay was written with the assistance of the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Photograph of David by Karen Quist.