Ghost River

[map 3 - Branded Aboriginal flag, garage wall, North Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia]

[map 3 – Branded Aboriginal flag, garage wall, North Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia]

The first europeans arrived in what would become Victoria – a colony of Britain – in 1835. They illegally occupied the land of Indigenous nations collectively known as the Kulin. An immediate impact on Kulin communities was the degradation of land, particularly the  wetlands surrounding the Yarra River, itself a vital source of physical and spiritual sustenance. The wetlands were gradually drained to provide land for speculators and shipping merchants. The impact on Indigenous people was immediate. The destruction of ecology resulted in the eradication of food sources, the permanent loss of spiritual sites and environmental damage impacting on future communities.

Wetlands provide a natural sponge during times of flooding. When waterways overflow, the surrounding wetlands absorb much of the run-off. When wetlands are destroyed in areas prone to flooding – a weather event becoming more frequent – the problem is exacerbated, not only by the volume of water people have to deal with, but the growing realisation that the water recedes very slowly – as was the case in the recent floods, both in Australia and the south of England.

Developed countries are either slow to learn that the manipulation of natural habitat has serious and negative knock-on effects; or they think only of the present, fixated on the now benefit with no serious consideration of future costs. Indigenous communities are not romantically in harmony with nature. Indigenous communities give due consideration, intellectually and metaphysically to past, present and future impacts on land as a result of human behaviour and intervention.

In 1836 the Europeans were told by the Kulin that the waterway that met the mouth of the Yarra – Port Phillip Bay (as the Europeans named it) – was only young. The sea on which Europeans sailed to enter the mouth of the river had been land until recent times, in a relative sense, and any shift from sea to land was gradual, with each learning to accommodate each other. The Europeans dismissed the information as an ‘Aboriginal myth’, as they dismissed much Indigenous knowledge of place.

In 2005, the Victorian state government legislated for the dredging of the shipping lanes in Port Phillip Bay so even larger vessels could enter the port. In the following year a team of divers entered a crevice on the sea floor at Port Phillip Heads, where the bay meets Bass Strait, the waterway separating Victoria from Tasmania. The divers went to a depth of 105 metres, where they reached the original riverbed of the Yarra. The bay’s formation was gradual and natural. It occurred over thousands of years, with land and sea coming to understand each other.

On Sunday, I will be taking our four visiting writers from Europe on a walk along the lower Yarra and sharing stories with them. Stories of two rivers; one in the present, another of the past that is present still.

Tony Birch

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