For some time, I’d been thinking of writing about Westgate Park, an inconspicuous piece of ground beneath the shadows of the Westgate Bridge at the mouth of the Birrarung (Yarra) River in Melbourne. The idea was to produce a walking/reflective/philosophical essay, an approach to writing that has become increasingly prolific in an era of loss—of vital places, ecologies and the political will we require to combat climate change. At times the genre can result in an exercise in navel-gazing, incorporating aspects of traditional ‘nature’ writing and the wellness industry. Regardless, I’ve always found that walking (and running) in places has been a key aid to both my thinking and writing, particularly if I get stuck in a creative/intellectual gridlock. And I was stuck, concerned about how best to proceed with my climate-justice research while experiencing a sense of despair about inaction on climate issues. I hoped to utilise a long walk as a means of reflecting on the parlous state of the protection of country. That was my plan, until a dramatic intervention shifted, if not what would become the focus of the essay, an awareness of where and how I would need to begin the process of finding meaning and clarity.
I started to walk many thousands of kilometres from Westgate Park. I was in Kyoto, Japan, early on a Friday morning. The weather was crisp and clear and I chose to walk a quiet pathway beside a canal, located below street level. I had escaped the morning bustle about to kick off in the streets above. I was on my second visit to a city I have since realised that I have come to love. On previous mornings my habit was to run the length of the canal pathway for about two kilometres before cutting through one of the city’s many narrow streets towards the Imperial Palace Gardens. Negotiating a Kyoto backstreet is an exercise in cooperation. Barely able to accommodate the width of a single car, the street I run along accommodates drivers, cyclists, walkers, joggers and small children on their way to school, without the need of the blast of a car horn or expletive. In the Imperial Gardens, I join joggers, dog walkers and meditators.
On my final morning in Kyoto before returning home, I decided that I would not be running. I needed to walk. Quietly and slowly. One of my younger brothers had passed away, suddenly, two weeks before I left home for Japan, and I had been thinking about him constantly. He had visited me in dreams in which he was youthful and happy. After arriving in Japan I’d hiked into the mountains outside Tokyo, stopped at a temple and lit incense for him. Although the decision to be away from family immediately following my brother’s death concerned me, spending time with myself, walking through forests and beside water was emotionally restorative.
I was raised a Catholic and was taught by the Christian Brothers. I thrived in an academic system dependent on the Bible and corporal punishment. I was also an altar boy and sang in the church choir. I gave up on religion around the age of 13 when my godmother, my mother’s younger sister, died of cancer. She suffered terrible pain and left three young children behind who were unable to comprehend the loss of their mother. I continue to grapple with the concept of spirituality. I do value it in the context of an Indigenous world view and its vital relationship to the balance between human and non-human species and an eco-spiritual existence. But I remain unconvinced of the literal interpretation of living ancestors, or the death of a loved one resulting in an afterlife.
And yet I’m drawn to moments, events, ‘sightings’, experiences in place that I convince myself carry great metaphysical weight for me—at times embarrassingly so. As ludicrous as it may seem, I have a serious attachment to pine cones. Perhaps 20 years ago, I was running around Princes Park in Carlton when I spotted a pine cone lying in the grass. I would estimate that I’ve run by hundreds of pine cones over the years, without paying them particular attention. On that morning, as I ran on, I became obsessed with the thought that I was under obligation to collect the pine cone I had spotted and carry it home. On my next lap of the park, I picked up the cone and took it with me.
The following day I was being interviewed for a position teaching creative writing at Melbourne University, a tenured position! I wore a red shirt that morning, a lucky colour of mine. On my way out of the house I instinctively picked up the pine cone I’d collected the day before and took it with me to the interview. I placed it on the desk in front of me as I spoke. Before answering each question put to me by the panel, I glanced at the pine cone for inspiration. I picked the cone up at the conclusion of the interview and was still holding it in my hand when the phone rang later that night. I was offered the job. I’ve called on the pine cone for support many times since that day. Two days after my brother’s death my mother asked me if I would perform the role of celebrant at his funeral. I’m not sure that I had a choice in the matter. I accepted her invitation. On the morning of the funeral I took the pine cone with me to the chapel and placed it on an empty chair in the front row. Each time I felt that I was about to emotionally break down, I looked to the pine cone for strength.
Beginning my morning walk along the canal path in Kyoto, I passed several elderly people out walking. I saw no joggers. It seemed that everyone had decided to stroll rather than pound the earth that morning. Around a kilometre into the walk I spotted a pine cone on the ground ahead of me, and another, and then another. I noticed six pine cones in all, loosely gathered together. They were smaller in size than the pine cone I’d collected at Princes Park. They were beautifully shaped and coloured. I am one of six of my mother’s children. My brother’s death was a stark reminder that, to a degree, we remain children in the eyes of a mother. I stopped and looked down at the six cones, convinced that they had been waiting for me to pass by. I gathered the cones together and sat them on a bench. I studied each one and decided which pine cone represented me, and which were my two sisters and three brothers, including my brother who had died. I rested five of the pine cones together in a garden bed above the bench and walked on with the sixth pine cone in the palm of my hand, where it became my brother. Returning along the pathway around a half hour later, heading for my hotel to pack my suitcase for the flight home, I saw a young girl with an elderly man sitting on the same bench. She was talking animatedly with the family of pine cones. The old man looked quietly up at the empty sky.
My favourite filmmaker is the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. His feature films include After Life, Nobody Knows and the recent Shoplifters. A general critique on Koreeda is that his films highlight the value of being ‘with the world’, rather than withdrawing from its challenges. In a time when we read about people experiencing ‘climate grief’, I believe it is vital that grief and mourning do not immobilise us. We must be proactive in tackling the violence enacted against the planet together; be in the world together. I left Kyoto on the same morning as my final walk, and Japan later that night. A cartel of one, I smuggled my contraband pine cone into Australia in a running sock. Back home the following morning, I unpacked my suitcase and placed the pine cone, my brother, on the window ledge in the morning sun. Later that day I sat on the couch and looked across the room at the pine cone. I stood, walked slowly across the room, sat at my desk and began to write.
Westgate Park can be difficult to locate on foot. I caught a bus from the city to Port Melbourne and headed in the general direction of the West Gate Bridge, an arched structure looming between buildings, streets and a skyline of industrial cranes. Within ten minutes of commencing my walk I was lost. I wandered the streets for some time before realising I’d circled the quaint Garden City (twice), a planned estate built in the 1930s. The suburb was designed and marketed as a model English village. It now resembles a worn chocolate-box portrait stuck in time. Stubbornly deluding myself that I knew where I was going, I cut across a football oval, turned left and left again and walked along a street lined with flat-roofed ubiquitous warehouses. It was not until I’d arrived at a dead end that I accepted that wherever Westgate Park happened to be, I wasn’t in it. Attempting to retrace my steps, they had been mysteriously erased and I was stranded in a Ballard-like landscape of traffic roundabouts heading nowhere, ‘refuge’ islands surrounded by menacing road trains and a footpath that ran out of path at the edge of a freeway.
I only discovered Westgate Park by finally putting trust in the course of the river. The Birrarung (Yarra) leaves the city centre and glides by the working docks that historically contributed to the river’s neglect, subjecting it to gouging, blasting, realignments and occasional suffocation, all in the name of modernity and progress. Across almost two centuries now, the government surveyor has altered the pre-invasion course of the river and destroyed surrounding wetlands. Country and balanced ecological systems have been erased in the name of imperial conquest, with abandonment. As Stephen Muecke has written, ‘the ancient is of little relevance to the future of the country’.
Having eventually located the park, I stood beneath the West Gate Bridge and looked up at the dark ribbon of concrete and steel bracing the river. On 15 October 1970, during the construction of the bridge, a span collapsed and crashed into the river below, killing 35 workers. A royal commission concluded that ‘poor structural design’ was the major cause of the accident. The span was 125 metres in length. It is difficult to contemplate the extent of the force as it hit the water. In the moments immediately following the collapse people across the western suburbs heard thunderous sounds in the air and felt earthquake-like vibrations in the ground that some claim they continue experiencing today. Looking up at the bridge, I reflected on the folly masking a history of colonial hubris, an unstoppable force that the words ‘poor structural design’ are unable to convey.
Below the bridge, the river runs into Hobsons Bay, which itself meets Port Phillip Bay. Beneath the surface, commencing on the bed of the contemporary river’s mouth, the ancient Birrarung River continues its journey. I find it comforting to know that although we cannot physically see the old river, it is there; a repository of story and knowledge, flourishing in deep time. In this way, we might consider country itself to be a living archive, a repository of memory holding both the narratives of the past and the knowledge we require to live with and protect country today.
Leaving the river and commencing my walk around Westgate Park, I felt underwhelmed. I’m not adverse to wastelands, the vague terrain. But I had been expecting a park. The reclamation project, which is less than two decades old, looks a little scrubby. It has also managed to suppress a history of ecological vandalism. Prior to British occupation, the land and the greater surrounds of the river and bay, including its wetlands, sustained a multitude of animal, insect and plant species. Many have since become extinct, or in the case of some migratory bird species, been forced to nest at more southern reaches of the bay. Globally, wetlands sustain vital ecosystems. They act as a sponge, a catchment, absorbing increased water flows during periods of heavy rains and floods, while storing water during periods of drought. The bay and the river no longer follow a natural course. Both waterways are heavily governed. The country on which Westgate Park is built has also been subject to neglect throughout its post-invasion life, serving as a dumping ground for heavy industry, the site for a government aerodrome, a sand mine and a construction and engineering depot supporting the construction of the West Gate Bridge.
Volunteers committed to maintaining the park celebrate the fact that the ‘Friends of Westgate Park’ have transformed the area from a run-down neglected space to ‘the biodiverse habitat it is today’. Accepting that the people involved in the project work hard, with genuine care for the land they manage, regardless of the ‘biodiverse habitat’ that has been recovered, vast industrial schemes surrounding the park have destroyed extensive habitat that will never be recovered. It is also notable that the site not only carries a history of extraction (sand), but that the park itself was constructed from tonnes of earth extracted from other engineering projects that removed valuable soils from country. What we are witness to at Westgate Park, the ground we walk across, is the transportation of earth from Aboriginal country elsewhere, which is subsequently used as a masking agent for a history of colonial destruction beneath our feet. We are not simply referring to dirt. Many of the soils extracted from Aboriginal country not only contain nutriments that provide life. When country is sifted and shifted, cultural and scientific knowledge is destroyed.
In 1945, RA Keble, a palaeontologist attached to the National Museum of Victoria, published a report, ‘The Sunklands of Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait’. The land in question, located at various levels and depths of the bay, was the result of changes in the geological and marine structure of Port Phillip and Bass Strait between 13,000 and 8000 years ago. Keble discusses a ‘scour hole’ situated where the Port Phillip Heads meet Bass Strait. He writes that the scour hole is 282 feet (86 metres) deep, in the shape of an arrowhead pointing in the direction of Queenscliff. In recent years, further explorations of the hole have found it is deeper than Keble concluded. On 12 July 2005 a team of archaeological divers ventured into the hole. Twelve minutes later they reached a depth of 101 metres and stood on the riverbed, where the ancient Birrarung River flowed into the ocean thousands of years earlier.
The 2005 exploratory dive was undertaken by the Port of Melbourne Authority as part of an engineering project to dredge the bay’s shipping channel (which follows the course of the old river) from 14 to 17 metres, so that larger ships, including oil tankers, would be able to enter the bay and make their way up river to the working port. The dredging was opposed by some marine scientists, environmentalists and, importantly, Indigenous traditional owners of the bay and country surrounding it. Senior members of the Boonwurrung nation argued that the extraction venture would not only threaten marine ecologies but also disturb the spiritual integrity of the bay. The dredging went ahead with state government support. Of no surprise to both traditional owners and scientists, a few years later, the wealthy residents of Portsea, who enjoy not only the most expensive real estate in Victoria, but privileged and private seafront access, lamented that one of their beaches had been mysteriously washed away.
While the true depth of the scour hole was a recent discovery by latter-day adventurers, the narrative underpinning the history of the Birrarung River is a foundational cultural and ecological story for Aboriginal people of the greater Kulin nation. In January 1836, the former chief surveyor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Joseph Tice Gellibrand, arrived on Boonwurrung country at Westernport after sailing across Bass Strait. Gellibrand had been the legal draftsman of the failed Batman ‘treaty’, initiated with the Kulin in 1835. A year later he returned on a hot summer’s day. He and his party suffered heat stress, exacerbated by an inability to find fresh water, a situation alleviated only when Gellibrand realised that to locate water wells he would need to follow the walking paths laid down by Boonwurrung people over thousands of years. He eventually became worn out and dehydrated, and collapsed on the beach at today’s Port Melbourne. Gellibrand was fortunate to enjoy the hospitality of a number of Kulin men, who, spotting an ‘Englishman out in the noonday sun’, rescued Gellibrand in their own boat and delivered him to the fledgling Port Phillip settlement.
Sometime later, writing in his diary, the wayward explorer reported that he’d learned from Aboriginal people that the mouth of the river was, in relative terms, a recent geographical formation. He was informed of an older time when the bay did not exist at all, when what had become a seabed was open country. He was also told that the original mouth of the Birrarung River could be found in the depths of the bay where the Port Phillip Heads opened into the ocean, the same location where the scour hole exists today. As extraordinary as Gellibrand and others found the story to be, the life of the Birrarung River is even more dynamic and ancient than this story.
The first men
In Kristin Otto’s detailed history of the river, Yarra: A Diverting History, she writes that 20,000 years ago, when no ocean separated Victoria from Tasmania, the river ‘was joined by the Barwon River and the contemporary Tamar River in an equally dry Bass Strait before flowing into the Southern Ocean east of King Island’. The country that subsequently became submerged at the end of the Ice Age is sometimes referred to as the ‘Bassian Plains’ or the ‘Bassian Nation’, and stretched approximately 450 kilometres east to west. The science underpinning the story of a river, bay and the ocean, and the vast expanse of country that is now part of the seabed, has produced invaluable information of the geological and ecological history of south-eastern Australia. It also provides an insight into and guidance on how we might deal with the pressing issues we face in confronting climate change, rising sea levels and the subsequent impact on people, country, the non-human and ecologies. Western science cannot provide the extent of knowledge we require, in particular with regard to the spiritual, intellectual and philosophical narratives supporting an Aboriginal ontology of country, vital to understanding the environmental challenges we face today.
The adverse impacts on the physical environment of Port Phillip Bay and its surrounds, as a result of the combination of colonial neglect and climate change, have become obvious—a situation being replicated on a global scale. The apocalypse may indeed be coming, but not as an instantaneous cataclysmic event, as we experience the phenomenon by way of the disaster narratives of popular culture. Climatic changes, including an increase in the dramatic weather events we are already experiencing, will, as Rob Nixon writes in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), ‘take time to wreak havoc’, incrementally altering our way of life. In the meantime, we must address a pressing question: do we have the capacity as individuals, and more importantly, as communities—at a local, regional, national and global level—at a minimum to address the challenges we face and confront them with dignity, intelligence and the common sense we lack at present?
In the past, as a result of changes to country and the communities living with it, Indigenous nations across the planet adapted to meet such challenges. Additionally, over the last 500 years, and due directly to colonial global expansion, Indigenous nations were threatened with genocide, dispossession and ecocidal violence that destroyed vast areas of country. And yet Indigenous nations have survived, adapted, and in many cases thrived. There is a lesson contained in this history of tenacity and spiritual and intellectual adaptation. It is not a lesson to be co-opted by non-Indigenous people, but one to learn and gain from. An informed knowledge of place will be dependent on recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, a universal respect for country and greater respect for each other.
Deeply embedded philosophical engagement with country is told in the Kulin story of the birth of the bay. Fundamental principles of knowledge are dependent on the interconnectedness between sustainability, the dynamic power of water, knowledge of country, teaching, respect for the potential ferocity of environmental change and an innate ability to live with such change. It is therefore not surprising that when the Wurundjeri elder William Barak, in the late nineteenth century, spoke of the formation of both people and country of the greater Kulin nation, he conveyed the literal and the spiritual connection between humans and earth; again, a principle we must learn from:
Bunjil, he made the first men, took clay from the riverbank, made them, put his breath into their nose, mouth, bellybutton … his brother, Pallina, always everything of water, brought the women up from the creek … first the hands came up from the mud, then the heads, the bosoms.
Our house is on fire
On the day of my walk in Westgate Park I’d earlier attended the youth climate rally on the steps of the old Treasury Building at the top of Collins Street. The action, attended by tens of thousands of schoolkids and university students, began with a series of speeches, including a hip-hop artist—clearly suited to a youthful gathering. In the days prior to the march, politicians had berated the students. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, urged students to remain in school, while the then Opposition Leader, ‘each-way’ Bill Shorten, claimed to support the action, as long as the students involved protested after school hours, seemingly oblivious to the fact that such a move would blunt the potency of the action (a dubious position for a former senior trade union official to adopt).
The Melbourne gathering was part of a global youth climate-action protest inspired by the bravery of a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who in August 2018 skipped school and sat outside the parliament building in Stockholm in protest at her government’s inaction on climate change. When asked what she was doing, Thunberg responded, ‘I am doing this because you are shitting on my future.’ In January of this year she travelled by train for 32 hours to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she told the gathering, many of whom had chosen to jet in from across the globe, ‘I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’
Around 50,000 young people marching through the streets of Melbourne on a fine sunny day appeared well aware of the crisis we face. Whereas those who had ordered them back to the classroom are driven more by an eternally revolving and simultaneously fleeting moment of political spin. The rowdiness of the protest I left behind in the CBD was in sharp contrast to my walk around Westgate Park. Initially I was alone, following a sandy track across a post-industrial landscape. The only person I saw was a young man, up ahead of me on the track holding a finely woven net. I stopped and watched as he crouched beside a bush, before pouncing, wildly swinging the net like a tennis racquet. I speculated that he was a butterfly catcher and imagined him taking his prey home to a darkened room where he would stab the butterfly clean through, pinning it to a board. I tentatively introduced myself. He did likewise. The young man’s name was Luis Mata, he was from Spain, and he was a postdoctoral researcher at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Catching bugs,’ he said.
Catching bugs. Luis captures bugs with a camera lens. He gathers them in his net, photographs them and releases them. I told Luis that I was researching and writing about climate justice. He replied that his ambition was to work with Indigenous people on ecological knowledge. I looked down at my dusty shoes and to the ground below them. It’s right here, I wanted to say. The knowledge.
I left Luis to his bugs and walked the length of the park, arriving at its central ‘attraction’—the pink lake. During Melbourne’s summer months, the water in the lake heats and an algae forms on the water’s surface—a pink algae. Additionally, the salt content in the water increases dramatically, resulting in a warning sign to visitors that it is dangerous to touch the water, let alone swim in it. The lake produces a sulphurous odour that itches the eyes. Tourists arrive by the busload at a car park on the city side of the lake. They file out of the buses, digital cameras at the ready, attach them to selfie sticks, take a few shots with the lake providing a backdrop, hop back on board and leave. While the area was renowned as a wetland and bird habitat prior to European occupation, on the afternoon I stood on the shore of the pink lake the only bird I saw was a dead one, flattened in the mud at the water’s edge.
For some months, I’d been feeling anxious about my work on climate knowledge and action. I have published several essays on the issue and have given many conference papers and keynote addresses, at Australian and at international gatherings. My work has been received with generosity and I’ve been fortunate to create connections with like-minded people, determined to do what we can to address the challenges of climate change. Regardless, in recent months, like other people occasionally are, I’ve been worn down contemplating the wanton inaction on climate justice by many governments, corporations, industries and some citizens.
My stagnation led to my decision that I needed to walk on country and allow it to revitalise me and guide me forward. Commencing at Westgate Park was a deliberate choice for me. I’ve written often about the river, both in fiction and nonfiction. It has been my place for much of my life. Under the West Gate Bridge the mouth of the current river and the current of the ancient river below meet their elder selves. It was the only place to begin. Following my brother’s death, and the grief I was experiencing, the river was also the place to revitalise myself metaphysically, to bring into reality the thought that ‘having gone, I will come back’.
On the day of my brother’s funeral one of my sisters told a story of a morning when he was surprised with a brand-new bike, a red dragster, for his birthday. He rode to the Birrarung that afternoon, along a track and down a steep bank, heading for the water. He’d been used to riding an old bonecrusher of a bike with footbrakes. The red dragster had brakes attached to the handlebars. My brother forgot they were there and rode his bike into the water. It is a good story, a funny story, and my sister told it well. The photo montage presented at the funeral, accompanied by the Beatles song ‘Here Comes the Sun’, included a photograph of my brother sitting on his new bike. He never looked happier.
Flying out of Tokyo, I thought about my climate work again, without the accompaniment of anxiety. The walk along the river before leaving home, the many kilometres I had covered while I was in Japan, and the good thinking I had done, had come together for me. As with the nourishment provided by country, I genuinely feel that my brother will guide me forward. He was always a quiet child, at times overly nervous. As an adult he endured problems with his health, both physical and psychological. It is an emotional, but ultimately sustaining revelation for me now to understand that despite his setbacks, my brother was always stronger than me. He was also determined and humble to a degree I could never be. So, I am going to walk with my brother beside me and country all around me.
Tony Birch is a professorial research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University where he works on the relationship between climate justice and Indigenous knowledges. He also writes short stories and novels.
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