River view

My feet thud against the wooden planks as I cross the bridge, a slight breeze stirring wisps of my hair and blowing them into my face. Pausing at the centre, I grip the red handrail and gaze at the landscape before me, taking in the details. Ahead lies the river, its shimmering surface alight with the blazing rays of the sun. Grey rocks tinted with the deep green of algae line the water on both sides, separating the land from the water. Lush green grass ripples in the wind, darkened by the shadows of the enormous trees that tower above the ground.

Sparrows, magpies, galahs and rainbow lorikeets dart in and out of the vegetation, disturbing the quiet with a ruckus chorus of birdsong. In the distance a dog barks, followed by a squeal of childish laughter floating on the breeze. Suddenly I hear my name being called, telling me that it’s time to go. Slowly, I turn away and begin making my way across the rest of the bridge, thinking about the river. The river I have grown up on. The river that I have always lived on. The river that is so full of life … I can only hope it stays that way.

– Eliza / Footscray City College Substation

Let’s Walk – number one – Tony and Nina

[map 23 - Mr Wolf, Yarra River, Melbourne]

[map 23 – Mr Wolf, Yarra River, Melbourne]

How do we speak about the places we love? If we are not poets, if our education has been limited, if saying to a teenage mate, ‘I love this place,’ causes embarrassment (all round) and results in ridicule and possible humiliation, how can we express our fierce loyalty and attachment to place? When I was a teenage boy, I loved my piece of the Yarra River in inner Melbourne. I lived on a Housing Commission estate, typical of the brutalist architectural response to ‘slum clearance’  across the globe in the post-WW2 era of ‘reconstruction’. We spent most of our time on the estate discovering new ways to slam each other into concrete walls – which dominated both the inside of the flats we lived in and the surrounding outdoor spaces.

[map 24 - my literary hero]

[map 24 – my literary hero, Barry Hines]

Tony Birch_03Despite my delinquent behaviour at school, I was always a voracious and serious reader. My favourite novel around the time I discovered the river was Barry Hines’ A Kestrel For A Knave, a story set on the other side of the world in a grim northern England mining town. The central character, Billy Casper, is a boy who suffers violence; in the home, the street, at school and on the football pitch. Billy is a boy who roams and falls in love with the ‘wilds’ surrounding his town. He also falls in love with a bird, a kestrel – Kes.Tony Birch_03

The book affected me in a deep and lasting way. I felt great affinity with Billy, and developed an admiration for the author of the book. I thought it remarkable that a writer could create a story that could travel across the globe and produce such influence in me. Hines became the first literary hero of my life, and has remained so to this day. When I was writing my first book, Shadowboxing, I thought of Billy Casper and Kes each morning before I sat down to write. And I wondered if I could, like Barry Hines, write a story that teenagers would connect with.

[map 25 - Shadowboxing]

[map 25 – Shadowboxing]

In Shadowboxing, and with each book I have written since, I have produced a story about the river: on each occasion, attempting to articulate more clearly my deep attachment to it. While I would not say that I have failed to express the extent of my attachment through words, it is clear to me that my words and stories are yet to fully satisfy me – as should be the case for any writer attempting to reiterate an idea mediated through landscape.

What is more revealing to me is that when I was a teenage boy, I did not possess the expression of language to convey my love of the Yarra River. And now that I do, the words still fail. Perhaps that is a good thing? My (slightly more mature) intellect and my creative work are no more able to express that love – that way I felt about the river, as I lived it, walked it, swam in it and dreamed of it when I was a boy.

[map 26 - Nina Birch looking for her father's demolished home - Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 26 – Nina Birch looking for her father’s demolished home – Abbotsford, Melbourne]

Yesterday, I went walking with my sixteen year-old daughter, Nina, along the Yarra River. On the way there, we stopped at my mother’s place for a cup of tea. She is in her mid-seventies, and has lived her entire life within a couple of miles of the centre of the city. While we spent many years as children on the move from debt collectors, the police and government bulldozers, we never travelled far, living by a rule passed down to my mother from her mother – ‘if you can’t hear a tram bell when you’re in bed of a night, you’re living too far away.’

[Map 27 - 'Slum kids' - looking happier than they ought to, 1966 - author is second from the left]

[map 27 – ‘Slum kids’ looking happier than they ought to, 1966; author is second from the left]

After we left my mother’s house, we walked along a plantation separating Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway from the narrow streets leading down to the river. The plantation had once been a street of terrace houses, full of kids, and kitchen tables, and backyards with barking dogs. It is all gone. When I pointed to a spot on the plantation and told Nina she was standing on my childhood front doorstep, she looked around as if searching for a ghost. The house I lived in at the time was knocked down for the freeway development. It was close enough to the river that I could lay in bed of a night and smell the scent of the water drifting into my bedroom, and could hear the water rushing over Dights Fall, no more than a few hundred yards from my back gate.

[map 28 - Dights Falls, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 28 – Dights Falls, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

In the years that I hung out at the river, it was the remnant of a nineteenth century industrial site. Cotton mills and factories had been built along the lower side of the river. The workers for the mills were crowded into narrow houses built in the shadows of capitalist expansion. Dights Falls itself, built over a ‘natural’ waterfall, was a ‘man-made’ construction. It powered a turbine in an adjoining wheelhouse that supplied water for the mill. By the time I inhabited the river, more than 100 years later, both the mill and the wheelhouse were in ruin; all the better for young teenagers laying claim to our own place.

[map 28 - the wheelhouse wall, Dights Falls]

[map 29 – the wheelhouse wall, Dights Falls]

Nina and I took photos at the falls and walked across to the wheelhouse. While the ruin has been stabilised, its past remains present; in the rancid smell of stagnant water laying at the bottom of the wheelhouse, the damp mosses creeping up the redbrick walls, and the scratching sounds coming from the darkness below, which could well be bare tree branches bending with the wind. Or the river rats we witnessed as kids, happily strutting their stuff in the mud and rubbish and weeds. I pointed to various spots around the falls where we rode our bikes, where we jumped from rocks into the water, and where we came across burned-out wrecks of stolen cars. I would not say Nina was envious of the stories of my teenage years, but I do know she has a yearning to discover places of her own; places outside regulation, outside the prying eyes of authorities, parents and invasive CCTV cameras. Such places are harder to find in the contemporary city, but I hope she stumbles across them before its too late, before she grows up.

[map 29 - Nina visiting the site of her father's beautifully misspent youth]

[map 30 – Nina visiting the site of her father’s beautifully misspent youth]

We left the falls and headed downriver toward the city, passing endless numbers of drains that wash rubbish from the streets into the water. When I was a boy, it was nothing to see chemicals dumped directly into the water from the factories above. Until the 1970s, the lower Yarra was widely accepted as the open drain of industry. Swimming in it was hazardous (as I experienced as a teenager, collecting pus-filled sores and alien rashes after a swim in the river).  In the 1970s, Melbourne’s Age newspaper began a campaign, ‘Give The Yarra A Go’, in an effort to raise both the profile of the river and the consciousness of citizens. The campaign had some success, and the river did become cleaner (although over the years, many setbacks have occurred).

[map 31 - a man expressing angry over the violence done to his Yarra River]

[map 31 – a man expressing anger over the violence done to his Yarra River]

I often felt angry over the poisoning of my river. I would sometimes see dead fish in the water, in the area around drain outlets. Or oil and paint trails drifting downstream with the current. In those days, I would not have considered that the environmental damage done to my river could be stopped. I felt powerless. My parents were powerless. My community did not have a voice that could be heard. All we had was our anger. An awareness of environmentalism was an impossible notion. Today, so many of us are aware. And we are also more informed. There are also outlets for us to articulate and express our concerns. And yet many of us feel equally powerless.

Why is this so? I cannot provide an answer here. It is, though, a central idea in my thinking and writing for the Weather Stations project.

[map 33 - Nina visits another childhood home of her father - Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 32 – Nina visits another childhood home of her father – Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

We left the river and went to the Salvation Army shop in Abbotsford. Nina bought a woollen cardigan, and I picked up a t-shirt and running top. I’ve been going to ‘op-shops’ for more than 50 years. I love the smell of the places. They smell of life, or use rather than refuse. We stopped for one last photo opportunity outsider another house I lived in during the 1970s. Nina asked if I had enjoyed living in the house. ‘Yes. I was happy here. We were never far from the water.’

The house had been seriously renovated and would fetch a packet at auction. I remember walking by the house many years ago when it was being fixed up. I was angry then also. When we rented the house, it had holes in the roof, the walls and the floors. The rising damp reached the ceiling, and the only hot water was supplied by a ‘chip heater’. I was annoyed that it took someone with money to make the house decent to live in.

I don’t think that way any longer. I’m simply happy that this is one childhood home of mine that was not bulldozed for some grand scheme. There was a kid’s bike on the front verandah, and a muddy pair of gardening boots. There are children in that house, playing and crying and sleeping. There is somebody living in that house who turns their garden over and clips their roses and sits on a chair on the front verandah in the afternoon sun. I hope they love their house.

Tony Birch

The Glass of Water

szklankathey say that some
upon seeing the same glass of water
see it as half full
while others as half empty
but I know
that regardless of it
being half full or half empty
you can drown in it
or drown somebody
because there are also people
ready to kill for this water
and others
for whom a glass of clean water
will remain an image seen in a film on TV
in which they will never play a part
as these were cast long time ago
and roles didn’t go to the poor, hungry and thirsty
there are also others
who will pour this glass down the drain
not even thinking about the fact
that it might save somebody’s life
I am sometimes one of those people
so give me some water
before I die of thirst
somebody might indeed die
but instead of me
it will rather be them

Translated by Anna Hyde

Maribyrnong River

Image: Hot air balloons over Melbourne

Hot air balloons over Melbourne

The road tips downwards, hurling me towards the silvery body of water. Straightening my legs, I stand on the pedals and let my bike gather speed, whizzing through the freezing air. The river releases thick columns of morning mist, spiralling into the air in curling tendrils. Towering sky scrapers are silhouetted in the distance, backed by the slow turning of the Ferris wheel. In the icy water, two hot air balloons are reflected, catching the marmalade rays of the morning sun. The air is silent, the world still asleep. It’s just the river and the morning and me.

– Maxine / Footscray City College Substation

Remembering a boy in a tree fishing for carp

The dam is at the bottom of the street where I lived as a teenager. This Christmas, I went for a walk and ended up here, ambushed by nostalgia and belonging. I escaped from this daggy Adelaide suburb as soon as I could.  I stood at the dam, now landscaped, with a fountain and a boardwalk for birdwatching. Back then it was a pool of muddy water where the boy I liked would sit in a tree and fish for carp.  I was reminded of the simple consolations that this suburb and the water and trees nearby will always be a part of me.

Wynn%20Vale%20dam copy

Jo Case is a writer, editor and festival manager who lives in Footscray and grew up in Adelaide.

Remembering Steven – walk number two

[map 33 - Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 33 – Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

I set out with the intention to begin my walk at the Kew Billabong (more on that later). I studied the transport maps and worked out I needed to catch the number 48 tram to Balwyn and get off at stop number 33. I’ve been feeling lightheaded and pleasantly spacey. (I have felt the world too big of late, and kept myself small.) I caught the 109 tram by mistake. I didn’t realise my error until the tram was about to verge to the right instead of ploughing straight on. I jumped off the tram and decided to walk the remaining journey. Within a few minutes, I was standing at the gates of Kew Cemetery. Not my intended destination, but the place where one of my closest teenage friends, Steven Ward, has been buried for 35 years. I loved Steven. We lived on the same public housing estate and went everywhere together; most particularly to the Yarra River, the backyard of our childhood.

Deciding I couldn’t walk by the cemetery without visiting Steven’s grave, I went inside. I had visited him many times before, and was surprised that I couldn’t locate the grave. It angered me. I felt negligent. And guilty. It was as if I had forgotten him.

Determined not to give up, I walked the lanes in the section of the cemetery where I knew Steven was resting. I passed the graves of the old and young, married couples and entire families. Just when I was about to quit the search, I found myself standing in front of Steven’s tombstone. It was a bittersweet discovery, like frantically searching for the face of a loved one in a crowd, finding that face and experiencing its disappearance at the same time. I sat down and cried, not surprisingly, and unashamedly. Was it a fortuitous detour? I guess so. After all, I had been heading to our place. There was no question that Steven would come walking with me.

[map 33 - Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

[map 34 – Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

I stopped on a bridge above the Eastern Freeway – a river for cars. Victoria has a freeway fetish, matched only by our fetish for cars. I can spit further than the distance some people drive to work of a morning. A freeway flows reasonably around lunchtime when it’s quiet. During peak times, Melbourne’s freeways block up like an old sewer, and the state is forever on the lookout for solutions – of a limited kind. While Melbourne’s public transport system struggles with ageing infrastructure, each time a major road artery clogs beyond repair, we choose a bypass; a new artery with a limited lifespan before it too requires major surgery. Our latest transport solution is the proposed East-West Link, a tunnel that will burrow deep beneath the ground, welding two freeway systems together. Most cars travelling through the link on workdays will carry solitary drivers. I expect that eventually they will spend a lot of time in the tunnel talking to themselves.

[map 34 - Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

[map 35 – Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

It took me no time to leave the traffic behind and find myself at the Kew Billabong. The billabong is the remnant of a vast wetland that once dominated the landscape. It was home to a vast array of birds and animal species, few of which remain. (Although programs to provide a suitable habitat for birds is ongoing). The billabong is an important cultural and spiritual place for the Wurundjeri people, the Aboriginal nation of greater Melbourne. They are a remarkable community. Faced with the onslaught of the British occupation of their land from 1835, the Wurundjeri’s courage, intellect and ingenuity has ensured that their knowledge of, and claim on land remains vital to sites such as this.

[map 38 - Welcome to Wurunjeri Country]

[map 36 – ‘Welcome to Wurundjeri Country’]

When we were kids, we would ride out to the billabong on summer afternoons. The bikes we rode were put together affairs, assembled from bits and pieces we scrounged from around the streets. There were no bike paths in those days, very few people out walking their dogs, no freeways bulldozing our wayward days, and no signs welcoming visitors to Aboriginal country. But still we played the game of Aborigines every chance we got. Our blood was strong, but our skin, burnt brick-red by the sun, would never do. We would begin the game by jumping naked into the billabong, scooping up handfuls of mud at the water’s edge and smearing it across our bodies. We went black face, I guess. But all for a good cause. We were wild and did not want to be civilised or assimilated. We hid our faces from progress. In the billabong, we were safe. While we imagined spearing anyone who dare invade our country, we were sure we would never grow and never die. As long as we stayed in that water.

[map 37 - Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

[map 37 – Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

The billabong could not hold us, and we did grow. We roamed the river for miles and claimed all of it as our own, with little competition, as the river was unloved and neglected by others. We would sit on along her muddy bank, smoking cigarettes and singing to her. The river wanted to know that we loved her, and tested us at every opportunity. One summer we pledged to jump from each and every bridge from the city centre to the Pipe Bridge, the last bridge along the river before the billabong. Jumping into the water from 60 feet above its surface should have created fear. It never did. Even deep in the blackness and pockets of chill, I was sure the river would hold us true. If you have never jumped, let me share a secret with you.  In the space between your feet leaving the safety of the railing and hitting the water, there is a moment of genuine flight – everything stops, except your imagination.

[map 38 - Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

[map 38 – Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

And then the saddest day arrives. Some of your river has been taken from you, and destroyed by those fools in suits who love freeways. And those other fools who would rather sit, stuck, immobilised, in capsules spewing shit into the air. Other parts of your river have been opened up with pathways, bikeways and walkways.

You have a choice. You can share the river with others, and their dogs, and their frisbees, and kites, and expensive baby strollers. Or you can leave and carry the river and the soul of your teenage friend with you. All you can do is leave behind an epitaph for those who will never know the river as you do. Maybe you don’t want to admit it. Maybe you can’t face up to a truth; these new people who come to your river may just love it too. Yes, that’s the hardest truth of all. You do not own this place. And you cannot – if what is left of the river is to be cared for and saved.

[map39 - epitaph to the Lost Boys - beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 39 – Epitaph to the lost boys – beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

You return home, to the falls. The river you love – this is her heartbeat. As the water rushes over the falls, the vibration shakes the ground. It is good to know that she is alive. Just when you are feeling as selfish as a stupid man can be, thinking, ‘why don’t these people just fuck off and give my river back to me,’ a serendipitous sound shifts against the sandstone steps on the far bank. You think it is a trick. A deception tugging at your deep sense of loss – for your people, for your loved boyhood friend who shared the water with you with his gleaming skin and velvet hair.

But it is not a trick. It is an offering from another visitor, standing by the water offering a song. For the river. And for me. I wave across the water to him and say ‘thank you.’ I leave knowing that I am the only fool today. I am the one who needs to know. I need to know that the places we love are not ours to covet. They are not ours at all. We belong to them.

[map 40 - Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

[map 40 – Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

An epilogue

I leave the river thinking that thinking about the walk and the river is over. There is nothing more to write about. My journey ended perfectly, at my favourite corner of the world, and with a perfect end to a piece of writing about walking, and places, and generosity – all thanks to the mysterious sax player.

And then I come across a wall. Separating me from the river of cars. And I discover an act, the art of defiance.  This place lives. So, let’s end here instead.

[map 41 - Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

[map 41 – Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

 Tony Birch

The Ruins of Port Douglas

[map 5 - Paradise Lost]

[map 5 – Paradise Lost]

I thought the dog might belong to the jogger. And then the woman with the pram and child. It had deserted them and was running around me in wide circles barking, without menace. It was a bit-of-this-at-that dog. Maybe part-Staffie crossed with a Kelpie? It was crazy-friendly, running off on me as I walked, chasing garden sprinklers watering deep green manicured lawns. Just when I thought it had given up on our brief friendship, the dog ran back to me and nuzzled my crotch, affirming an instant loyalty.

I was walking from my motel into the Port Douglas commercial strip, a forty-five minute stroll, passing condos and apartment buildings – some a little worn out by backpackers and schoolies binges, others genuinely luxurious, secured behind walls of palm trees imported from commercial farms. The gardens are a deep green and require a good drink, not a problem in a part of the country that measures rain by the feet. While it might be unfair to describe Port Douglas as a theme park, it does feel un-real.

I had walked for around twenty minutes and had apologised to at least a dozen people, explaining, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not my dog,’ each time my new friend jumped on a jogger or harassed a small kid with an ice-cream cone melting down one arm. I’m sure none of them believed me, as, after causing havoc and been shooed away, the dog would retreat to my side and look up at me with the eyes of a loyal companion.

I stopped at a high metal fence that ran for fifty metres beside the path. I could see the heads of palms trees on the other side, following the fence-line. I spotted a gap and climbed through the fence. The piece of land was infested with weeds overgrowing a series of murky canals running between the brick foundations of an unfinished apartment complex. The ruin was maybe less than ten years old – I couldn’t be sure – and across the road from the entrance to the beach. Position! Position! Position!, the marketplace would call it. I wondered if it was a grand scheme gone bust. Or worse, a project outdated before its opening date.

I left the ruin with the intention of following a bicycle path into town, until I reached a proverbial fork-in-the-road. Rather than following the bike-path, winding through more palm trees and apartments, dog veered to the left and I followed. We quickly found ourselves on a dirt track. We passed a yard holding several train carriages, badly in need of repair, a water treatment works, and an ancient hand-painted sign advertising yet another holiday paradise – although there was no paradise to be found except for the footings of a building that had long since departed.

On one side of the road were the remnants of human activity since gone.  On the other a putrid muddy soup that would have once been wetland, now cut off from the sea by the reclaimed land (strange word, that) that more recent condos had been built on.

Dog and I ended our walk near the old wharf at the tip of Port Douglas. I realised we had shadowed the main road into town having never strayed more than 200 metres from it. And yet, we could have been in another world. In fact, we were in another world. One that may have existed as a ‘settlement’ for less than 50 years before being abandoned for new frontiers only 100 metres away (‘just a jump to the right’). Or in the case of the Paradise Lost I’d discovered with dog, in the blink of the speculator’s eye. We are a disposable society. Some of our rubbish we can pick up and recycle – tin cans, plastic bottles and newspapers. But land, it can only take so much of our stupidity.

Dog moved on from me once we hit Port Douglas. But not before giving me a final loving nudge in the crotch followed by a wet sticky lick of the back of my hand with a sandpaper tongue. He was a good dog. We parted on equal terms. If he’d been my dog and I thought myself clever, I’d call him Reciprocity.

Tony Birch

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