Monday, June 23, 2008

Living River on a Beautiful Day

The Brahminy Kite flies in slowly and settles on a branch overlooking the river. Tiny birds such as Wrens and Flycatchers hop chirpily through the undergrowth. Ravens caw overhead. It's just another beautiful day on the river. As Bono sings in the evocative U2 song Beautiful Day.

It's a beautiful day
Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

Here, in Bono's song, incidentally performed at the Live 8 megaconcert, beauty meets concern and care for global devastation. And, in a plea for action, it calls for peace and social and environmental justice.

U2 use their music to raise political issues. They use their celebrity status and moving lyrics to call for an end to poverty, to stop overfishing, to halt rapid overdevelopment and to bring peace to the world in the song's image of the peace dove. Hope springs eternal - after the biblical flood, the world was born new again, colours burst forth and it was, and is, beautiful.

Beauty, poetry and any mention of the spiritual seem to be anathema to river management and are are largely missing from the more clinical discussions on natural resource approaches. Passion for place is absent. Feelings of love or attachment are buried as if projects to protect, save or restore a beautiful place like the river domain have little to do with these emotions. Individuals and groups involved in NRM community consultations are referred to as 'stakeholders' who are encouraged to bring arguments about the merits or otherwise of the stakes they hold. Emotions may flare but feelings of love, joy and passion rarely hold sway with decision makers.

Places may get protected not because people love them and express their feelings of love openly but perhaps because we/they realise that to be heard and taken seriously, we/they need to voice our concerns in NRM speak - resources, impacts, allocations, assessments, scientific research findings and management measures. But what needs to be managed - is it human or nature?

But some of these narrowly framed NRM practices are being countered in an unsual way - using art and music to raise community awareness about environmental and social concerns in more creative and innovative ways. In many places across the globe, creativity has become a cornerstone for community action and involvement.

One powerful example of creative ecology is what's known as River Dialogues. In different localities around the US, communities are taking part in discussions about their river systems. The aim is to find a balance between the needs of residents and the needs of the river. For example, in Spokane, the River Dialogues project sourced and involved local residents 'passionate' about the river. They told stories about their relationship with the river and along the way created relationship and community capital.

One of the local residents, Mary Kunkel, started a small activist group called River Sisters, made of up of women who cared passionately about their region and were worried about the river. The river area was destined to become a 'condo' development but their concerted effort and committed action led to the creation of an open access river park instead.

This now very well-used and loved park began with passion and sharing stories about what the river meant to them.

Another Spokane group Friends of the Falls also encouraged locals to think about, and connect with the river. Says Steve Faust, the group's Executive Director:

'My relationship with the river was like a lot of people in this town. They sort of know it's there, but they don't really pay much attention to it. One of things we try to do as an organization is to change the way that people relate to this river. To really get them to engage with it in a positive way, with the expectation that if they engage with it, we will, as a city, have a higher degree of concern about what we do with the river.' (Spokesman Review, 2006).

Telling and re-telling stories of place is one way to keep the history and presence of a place alive and in people's hearts. It can also help raise awareness about how to improve and/or restore water quality and riverbank eco-aesthetics by sharing experiences of involvement in rivercare and recreation as well as knowledge of the river's ecology. Emerging out of this process of sharing stories, suggests Linda Burnham (2001), founder and director of the Community Arts Network, come innovative ways of managing and improving the water environment.

Another River Dialogues project, this time in Pennsylvania, set out to engage local residents in 'issues of water quality, riverbank diversity, stream restoration, and river advocacy'. Using a multi-disciplinary team of artists and scientists known as 3 Rivers, 2nd Nature, the project assessed water quality and the state of urban riverbanks and questioned the 'blue and green infrastructure of a recovering landscape' by asking the following questions:

'1. Can artists working as cultural agents affect the public policies and private economic programs, which mark and define urban places and ecosystems?
2. Given the issues of scale, the power of private interests and the state both invested in the development/growth model, can the artist develop a public realm advocacy that expands the creative act beyond the authorship of the artist?
3. Finally, can (and should) artists create verifiable social change?'

Blending ecology with art, the research team arranged river tours and gathered residents, artists and ecologists together to tell stories and brainstorm ideas in groups referred to as charrettes. Through these active and engaged focus groups the research team devised a set of Living River Principles.

Living River Principles is a set of guidelines for caring for local waterways and also designed as a 'challenge' to communities, governments and residents about the urgent need to ensure healthy water quality for rivers and streams, and to do something about it, especially at the local level.

The Living River principles state:
'1. Each community should monitor and care for water quality in rivers and streams
2. Upstream community water problems should not impact downstream communities
3. Water problems should be solved at the source, addressing cause, not effect
4. Public rights to waterways and wetlands should not be compromised by private interests
5. Wetlands and streams should be treated as economic and ecological assets
6. Wetlands and streams should not be lost, and should be restored where possible
7. Public access to and from the water, and along the water's edge, should be restored
8. Riverbanks should be preserved or restored to their natural form wherever possible
9. Pre-industrial connections between water and communities should be restored
10. Redevelopment should accommodate public access to water and riverbanks
11. Redevelopment should restore community, culture, ecology and economy.'

These principles are part of a wider program to encourage action towards protecting riverine ecosystems at all levels. They are based on the presumption that water needs to be a common access resource. But in many regions, water is also a privatized resource, and thus the cost of what is a basic right can become, and has become, way too expensive for individuals who simply can't afford it.

The rationale of the Living Principles states that:'All citizens should be able to have a direct relationship to water; All rivers and streams should meet the water quality standard for swimming; and Rivers and streams should support an increasing diversity of plant and wildlife.' These recommendations are not dissimilar to the water quality reports from SE Queensland, and more widely, rivers throughout Australia.

But in a field of rapid development and lack of action on Living River Principles, coupled with the severe drought, creating healthy river systems and restoring environmental damage seems a long way off...but still possible. It requires passion, certainly, and commitment, and perhaps a shift in resource management practices to hold consultations as conversations where stories can be shared and in the process, both the environment and the local community can be regenerated.

Burnham LF, 2001, Telling and Listening in Public: Factors for Success, Reading Room, Community Arts Network,
Spokeman Review, 2006, Spokane River Dialogues,

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solstice Light

Intense solstice light spreads across the river valley. It’s a sleepy kind of day in what Brisbane residents call mid-winter. Coming from southern climes, this seems like a warm spring day. There is a hint of coolness in the delicate breeze; but the heat is pervasive, especially out of the shade. In Brisbane there is very little respite from the daunting summer sun. Happily that is still a few weeks away.

Last night a large orange not-quite-full-moon rose slowly above the hill. It looked magnificent as it heralded in the longest night. I watched as stars began to sprinkle the darkening canopy with bursts of lumino-esssence until the sky was sponged all over with lustrous clusters. What stood out were the two white pointers of the Southern Cross, alpha and beta Centauri, shining even more prominently than those of its emblematic cousin. While high in the sky flowed the dazzling river of stars, the Milky Way.

American poet and global justice activist Drew Dellinger writes in one of his magical poems the laws of earth and objects of feeling the 'strange music' of the heart of this dazzling skyway.

'at the core of the Milky Way there's a black hole with a ring of blue
stars around it
at the core of the Milky Way there's a black hole with a ring of blue
stars around it

does anyone else feel this strange music?'
(Drew Dellinger)

Dellinger's poetry talks about the ineffable, the spiritual quest and the necessity of merging environmental activism with social justice. He believes that the terms cosmos and justice are synonymous with beauty and uses his beautiful words and his commitment to action to move the hearts of those who feel the 'strange music', where his voice intermingles with the voice of the cosmos.

A performance poet, as well as a reflective activist, Dellinger features on several online sites. In one titled The Poetry of Gratefulness 08, I find his breathtaking and passionate Love Letter to the Milky Way and these words explode off the screen: 'I inherit the voice of the Milky Way in dreams.' It touches me deeply.

So I search among other sites and find a copy of this most powerful poem whose lines ripple with the flow of the Brisbane River as I walk along its edge on this shortest day. It is indeed a homage to the starlight, to the cosmos, to the intimate confluence of human and nature, and to his passion for the planet.

Love Letter the the Milky Way

'I want to tell you about love
There are approximately 1 trillion galaxies
I want to tell you about
In the Milky Way there are about 100 billion stars
I want to tell you
Love is the breath of the cosmos
I want to write a love letter to the Milky Way
Everything is an expression of the galaxy
My 30 trillion cells
The four noble truths
The eight - fold path
The five precepts
The seven energy centers of the body
Everything is the Milky Way
Including my lover,
and every kiss
of every lover that’s ever

Your skin
the texture of the cosmos
the religion beyond religion
I want to know you like the wind knows the canyon
or the rain knows the rivulets
Lightening is continuously striking in 100 places every moment
The universe spills through our dreams
The future belongs to the most compelling story
Even the word "love"
is not adequate to define
the force that wove
the fabric of
If we could sense everything at once
like Krishna entering with all the memory of his past
then I could tell you about love.'
(Drew Dellinger)

Friday, June 20, 2008

River Health Auditing

Just this week the federal government released its River Health Audit. Out of the 23 river valleys listed, only one is gets a positive tick. The quality of other major rivers in Australia is deemed 'poor' and 'very poor' - 13 river systems are described as 'very poor'.

The government's first solution is to blame the previous government while allocating $3.1 billion to buy back water towards restoring the health of the waterways. Buy back water?

The bigger issue of combatting climate change is also part of the restoration program - but there was no discussion of how this is to be achieved. With less rain, reduced water flow, lowered water quality, and a demand for irrigation, what is the future for these wild rivers?

River water is valuable - so valuable in fact that it is sold off. This means that for the river itself, and the ecosystem services that depend on a health water flow, are under threat from severe degradation.

River revival projects are underway all over the country. What is crucial about these projects is support from local residents and water users. Ecological and scientific experts are working with the community, first gauging knowledges the community holds about the riverine ecosystem, their attitudes towards the stakeholder engagement process, and the values held about the river and river environment quality.

Important in this process is an understanding of community values on issues such as aesthetics, water quality, recreational amenity, pollution, riverbank health, native vegetation and wildlife. For example, a study of river attitudes about restoration on the Cooks River in NSW by Andrews and Smith (2006) found that the community was generally aware of the link between the presence of vegetation and river health and most understood the connection between dense vegetation and river quality when compared to more open space river surroundings.

The study also showed that residents thought that native vegetation along the river added to the river's beauty in comparison to their attitudes about 'enhancing the ecology of the place'. And of interest to Brisbane River environs, the study found that while most residents held a positive attitude towards the recolonisation of mangroves along the river, others were 'displeased' about loss of view and river access due to the dense growth.

Andrews V and L Smith, 2006, A community-based survey: the knowledge and attitudes towards urban biodiversity
of the residents and users of the Cooks River Corridor, Final report for an Urban Ecology Project at the University of Technology Sydney, October 2006

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Field of Blue

Along the trail I meet Susan walking her black and white sheep dog. The first thing she remarks on is the quality of the sky, its clarity, its intensity and its depth of colour. The seasons are changing. Mornings are cooler and the cloying humidity has dropped.

In the summer months Brisbane is bathed in a sweltering humidity which covers the city in a sheer film of water vapour that seems to dull or blur the colours of nature.

As the Kookaburras call in the background, Susan remarks on the refreshing cooling breeze. It's been quite a while since tufts of wind have murmured across the trees and rippled the usually smooth smooth river. 'But,' she says, 'it's so dry.' I agree. I'd been lying on the tough yellowing grass taking pictures of the sky and saw how sparse the grass was becoming. It was as if the drought had not really gone away but had just been hiding during the few wet weeks. Now it was back and the plants had begun to suffer. And Susan had noticed.

So I began to wonder - what makes someone aware and observant about the river's ecoclimate? And could this awareness be translated in any way to river care?

To help me answer these questions I turn to Helen Dunn's article 'Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers' (2004). She recommends that the first step towards protecting a river is 'to define the particular values and attributes that describe [its] conservation significance' (413). Dunn surveyed river scientists and found, perhaps not surprisingly, that what they valued about rivers was their naturalness, rarity and diversity of ecosystems and endemic species.

Rivers valued for their naturalness such as wild rivers or rivers in remote areas are considered a high priority for conservation although Dunn's respondents did mention the significance of pockets of the wild as ecological value in already 'disturbed rivers'. They also noted 'the role of rivers in providing corridors for dispersal and migration, and refuges in times of drought'. Dunn mentions that in the past rivers have been protected because of their high scenic value and their wildness but her survey pointed to current emphasis on the importance of ecological and conservation values of river systems.

Other studies outline that the vital values influencing river conservation are recreational, cultural, economic, social and environmental. According to the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment (2002), rivers are valued for their 'assets' including 'environmental assets' such as rare species, sites of significance, naturalness, health; 'economic assets' which relate water supply and industry's reliance on river health; and 'social assets' such as sites for recreation and those of special significance for indigenous and European (only?) cultures.

So what does the Brisbane River offer by way of values, especially in the urban area? A paper by Lauren Schroeder (2002) about the values arising from the restoration of the Mahoning River Watershed in the US sheds a different light on definitions of conservation values. Schroeder defines river values in more socially engaged terms. These relate to the benefits that future generations will enjoy from a fully restored river, to residents' increased quality of life, and to the pride residents will feel by living near 'a restored, beautiful river'.

She surmises that these values are likely to engender a sense of social wellbeing manifest in a greater sense of 'social cohesion, social conscience and self-esteem'. She suspects that these outcomes could lead to a reduction in crime and a rise in work performance and productivity. She agrees it's hard to assess these values in monetary terms but says this shouldn't be a reason not to seriously consider social impacts and beneficial outcomes. In fact she comments that the process of restoring the Mahoning River system 'invites' local citizens 'to speak with pride of the river as a symbol of beauty, and of how we care for our environment, how we value and care for our heritage may prove to be the most valuable asset that we have...'.

Studies on local rivers tend to focus on water quality, allocation and flow and not on the social impacts of these issues. But the Brisbane River is more than its scientific value; it is an interdependent network of people, places and natural amenity. Thus, to incorporate this concept of interconnectedness, studies on the ecological and economic value of the river system need to be expanded to embrace social and spiritual values.

Dunn H, 2004, Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers, Aquatic Conservation, Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 14, 4, 413–433.
Schroeder L, 2002, The Value of a River: How the Mahoning River’s Restoration Will Impact Our Quality of Life & Economic Vitality,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Open Spacious Vivid

The natural world has the power to move us, inspire us, transform us. This can be sudden or gradual event initiated via scientific exploration, religious understanding, spiritual experience and/or immersion in beautiful and sacred places in the wild and in wilded urban places.

In his article titled 'On Being Moved by Nature', Noel Carroll (2008:170) speaks of being 'emotionally aroused' by nature through a panoply of cultural and personal value systems including the aesthetic, the scientific and the religious. Emotional arousal, he suggests, 'may be a function of our human nature in response to a natural expanse' which can engage all the senses and give rise to a 'sense of mystery' (174), 'majesty' (177), and even a 'displaced religious sentiment' (183 citing Diffey, 1993).

In concluding, Carroll surmises that emotional arousal in nature might be 'instinctually grounded' (185). That is, having deep feelings for nature is natural. This seems similar to Wilson and Kellert's biophilia hypothesis but their concept is also grounded in notions of care and sensitivity based on a human's innate affinity with nature.

Carroll's article is part of a new volume of ecophilosophical highlights on environmental aesthetics, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (2008). The chapters explore the relationship between art, aesthetics and action, but many of the ecophilosophers seem to debate the aesthetics of nature as if we humans are somehow removed from our own naturalness. Along the way they question whether everything in nature is positively aesthetic (and arty) or whether aspects of nature can also be deemed negatively aesthetic or unscenic (Saito, 2008), and if so, how would this viewpoint affect environmental care?

Saito takes umbrage at the view that all natural phenomena is 'aesthetic appreciable' (249). He claims that environmental dangers and natural disasters which deleteriously and seriously affect human life cannot, and should not, be regarded in a positively aesthetically context. This would be morally inappropriate.

Another chapter takes the theme 'From Beauty to Duty' written by the highly regarded Holmes Rolston III who asks: if we humans value the beauty of nature will we be motivated enough to care for beautiful places too? But there are other questions to ask as well. Would all cultures regard these places in the same way and therefore join together to save them? And if a beautiful place was seen to be in the way of an economically valuable development (mining, logging, freeway, housing), would its beauty be enough to save it? There are plenty of examples to say no.

Rolston (2008:326) slightly alters the common saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder to beauty being in the 'mind of the beholder' but I would suggest that such a mind-full view of beauty ignores the significance of a deeply embodied experiential immersion in the natural environment. Despite this oversight, Rolston warns that approaching conservation via aesthetics may be too limiting. He says: 'Starting off with an aesthetically oriented approach may disorient us and leave us with too weak a locus of value to protect all the values in jeopardy'.

In other words, aesthetics might 'give rise to duty' but it might not be enough to preserve a special place or ecosystem (327). Other values need to be taken into account particularly what Stephen Kellert (2004) calls 'biophilic values' which, he states,'constitute threads of relationship between people and nature that foster an ethic of care for the natural world' - beauty or no beauty.

Along the wilded trail the Brisbane River and its environs are beautiful, its colours vivid, the sky above, spacious, intensely blue. Not far away, among the concreted highrise repressed and depressing cityscape the river is still beautiful although its natural surroundings have been decimated without thought to aesthetics.

Rolston calls for a recognition and valuing of an aesthetic vitality in nature or an 'ecological aesthetics'. This, he says, brings us face to face with the wild and wild places where 'we are not at home and must take some care' (336), and where, referring to the concept of ecological self, 'our sense of identity enlarges into local, regional, [and] global biotic communities'.

Inspired by his call for an expansive and expanded self, a river-centred ecological self may come about through a deep connection with, and understanding of the river's beauty, bounty and ecosystem services. It can emerge gradually through building relationship, through experience and growing sensitivity; it can arise instantaneously, such as being awestruck by its flow, its rainforested banks, its dolphins dancing, its scenic quality or its recent rain-drenched overflow. Pehaps if we argued more about its aesthetic scenic quality in addition to its potentially poor water quality or endangered environmental flow, the river would be a central and beautiful red (or should it be blue/green) carpet of this river city.

Rolston concludes his chapter passionately by asking whether an environmental ethic needs to have an aesthetic quality. He emphatically answers 'yes' and in this way stresses the intimate and exquisite link between beauty and duty.

Carroll N, 2008, On being moved by nature: Between religion and natural history, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Diffy TJ, 1993, Appreciating art and appreciating nature, in S Kemal and I Gaskell, Eds, Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Rolston H III, 2008, From beauty to duty: Aesthetics of nature and environmental ethics, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Saito Y, 2008, Appreciating nature on its own terms, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Sustainable Ways, 2004, The Sustainable Ways Interview, Social Ecologist and Author Stephen R. Kellert Shares His Views of Sustainable Design, Sustainable Ways, 2, 1, Autumn,

Monday, April 14, 2008

River, Reflecting the Sky

As the seasons change in Brisbane the sky along the river valley becomes clearer, a more intense blue which is reflected in the river's brown muddy flow. Different birds appear. This week a lone Straw-Necked Ibis patrols near the trail, searching the hardened earth with its scythe-like bill for food. Honeyeaters chirp piercingly as they hop among the drooping leaflets of the Allocasuarinas along river's edge. Mudlarks, Butcher Birds, Magpies, Currawongs, Brush Turkeys are the usual fare but watching quietly there's always a constant movement of small birds in the bushes and branches overhead.

I've seen the lone Ibis for several days now. It wanders the grassland searching for food. Straw-Necked Ibis are the most common Ibis species in Australia and normally live in huge colonies sometimes numbering up to 200,000 birds. Frith's bird book describes the cacophony when such large numbers get together as 'deafening in volume' (1976:89) as well as flattening the bushes all around with their bulk.

With the story of their communal living arrangements, a lone Ibis seems out of the ordinary. But the Frith says that young can wander from the nest at three weeks so perhaps this is simply a juvenile bird who's wandered off.

Just a short distance away the Straw-Neck's cousin, the White Ibis is flourishing. Normally White Ibis feed in waterways but the drought has brought flocks into the cityscape where they ferret in rubbish dumps and along nature strips. As they become urbanised, their stunning white plumage turns a dull grey. People say, 'look at those dirty birds, aren't they horrible' and shoo away what were and are still wondrous feathered beauties.

The ABC site Scribbly Gum calls these city dwellers 'bold' as the birds have learnt that humans are repositories of tasty snacks and so they may rob humans of their lunch as they patrol city parks and cafe areas on the lookout for someone with food. This inquisitiveness has led local residents to call them 'pests'. The media reports an Ibis 'invasion'. And this negative stereotype is just part of their problem.

According to Sydney-based Ibis researcher, Ursula Munro, city flocks of Ibis can grow so large that the pressure on local food, nesting sites including the build up of faeces becomes so great, they eventually overdo it. Then along comes local Councils with eradication programs.

The researchers say that programs which destroy the nesting sites or prevent eggs from hatching might actually have a more serious long-term effect. If the drought continues and more and more Ibis make their home in the city, and if more and more residents call for the birds' removal, then these once abundant regal birds who ruled the inland waterways will be under severe threat.

The Brisbane City Council maintains that White Ibis are harmful environmentally, socially and economically. Environmentally large numbers put added pressure on native animals and local vegetation. Socially they 'may reduce the recreational value of parks and public areas. The main issues of concern are smell, noise, unsightliness and defecation'. But of course, this definition of 'socially' is human-centred. The Ibis's view might be completely different. Ibis are known to be very gregarious, so perhaps they are simply hungry and nosey at the same time. Economically they are seen to be problematic as cleaning up after these supposed messy creatures can be costly.

Seen as a problem in contemporary society, it was not always so. In fact they were regarded as sacred.

According to fossil records, Ibis are 60 million years old. Sacred Ibis, similar to White Ibis, were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as the god Thoth who wears the head of this sacred bird with a bill reminiscent of the crescent moon. It's said that Thoth invented hieroglyphics. Perhaps this development may have been in communion with the Sacred Ibis. As a result, this clever and adaptable bird was considered a symbol of wisdom because of an image of its quill-like shaped bill dipping into ink.

Ibis were also venerated for their power of protecting the land from plagues and serpents. Since then they have been very useful in agriculture for keeping crop-damaging pests at bay - although more recently, this role has brought the additional hazard of contact with damaging pesticides.

The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change booklet on Ibis states that 'Australian White Ibis are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Their long-term presence in the landscape is reflected in Indigenous Culture and stories across Australia. For thousands of years ibis have been sacred to communities, and an indicator of environmental wellbeing.' (Legoe and Ross, 2007). But, the sustained drought has brought tremendous pressure on inland wetlands and over recent years numbers of birds have dropped substantially.

The booklet laments the decline stressing the importance of waterbirds as a significant indicator of healthy wetlands ecosystems, while the population health of nesting colonies' is indicative of the vitality of the wetlands they inhabit'. Thus the recent influx of Ibis into the city seems not to augur well for the future health of neither Ibis population nor wetland.

Once the Sacred Ibis was the indicator of the health of the land in its role as protector of crops from plague and serpent in ancient Egypt. But sadly the birds have not been able to protect themselves from human intervention, and Middle Eastern Sacred Ibis are now in danger.

Meeting birds along the trail lead me on all sorts of pathways. I thank the inspiration of the lone Straw-Necked Ibis who inspired this blog.

Frith HJ, Ed, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd., Surry Hills, NSW.
Legoe C and G Ross, 2007, NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, Wild About Ibis: Living with Urban Wildlife, Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW.

Friday, April 11, 2008

River and the Deities

The river valley sits shrouded in fog. Outside the valley the sun glows.

In other places, other cultures and other religions, the river is the Goddess. Likewise, the living spirits of rivers are depicted as deities, for instance, as snake, python, anaconda, dragon. Frequently, these deities are female perhaps because the element of water is regarded as a feminine essence embodying 'life, birth and rebirth, creation and creativity, but also with death and oblivion' (Parente-Čapková, 2006).

The question then arises, does the Brisbane River and the downstream embayment Moreton Bay, have a feminine or goddess quality? In a contemporary sense, and in relation to Goddess spirituality, practitioners might honour the River as a Goddess and through this honouring and ritualising, seek protection for the ecosystem and creatures who live along the watery terrain.

In India river Goddesses like the sacred Ganga and Yamuna are under severe threat. I have written previously in this blog about the insightful book with the difficult message by David Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution (2006), which stories the Goddess Yamuna who flows in the upper reaches of the Ganges. The river is both a river of death - and a river of love.

Both the Ganges and the Yamuna are believed to be spiritually pure but both are in appalling physical shape with raw sewerage, industrial and agricultural runoff, toxics and heavy metals flowing through these vital waterways. These rivers are the Goddess. Spiritually they are divine, reverential, beautiful. Devotees worship the Goddess by immersing themselves in Her sacred flow or conducting ritual washing in Her sacred waters. Yet sadly, while doing so, they are facing serious waterborne diseases and the risk of contact with toxic chemicals.

Sathya Gosselin (nd) in her paper Pollution and Ganga Ma writes of the Ganges or Ganga, as the great mother who 'mercifully provides for the people each year with her swelling monsoon ... Indians receive her with great blessings and appreciation; village farmers benefit greatly from the fertile silt and soil that the great Ganga leaves behind. Seasonal flooding leaves small pools and lakes (jhils) that are diverted to irrigate crops in an otherwise dry land ...[She] speaks life, renewal, and fertility...'. But, says Gosselin, she is being assaulted.

Gosselin's article talks about the problems in India of first, defining the term 'pollution', second, explaining what's happened to the vast amounts of funding directed to the Ganges' clean up campaign, and third, the frustration of local residents not consulted about the river's management plans.

She says that the very term pollution is problematic when the river Herself is spiritually pure but suffering from impurities. Gosselin cites the anthropologist Kelly Alley (1994) who grapples with this dichotomy - the spiritual versus the westernised resource management approach. For devotees, 'the Ganga can never be impure' (1994:130). She is a powerful force and can carry the impurities and pollution 'away into the ocean'. In this comment Alley recognises that the Goddess is believed to have the power to transform impurities and offer absolution whether spiritual and/or physical and this includes body wastes. It has thus been so.

This cultural difference in ways of seeing (and revering) sacred water brings me back to the Brisbane River and the contemplation of Goddess spirituality. There are a number of possible modes of thought and action worth reflecting on. For instance, in a (post/most)modern world there is a view that anything (or almost anything) goes. So in this perspective it may not really matter what the river is called as long as it is cared for. Indeed, regarding the river as a Goddess might very well engender an ethic of greater care and concern among residents and if so, acknowledging the sacredness of the water's tidal flow and its downstream embayment can be seen as a positive move.

On the other hand there is the spectra of cultural appropriation. Goddess spirituality as it is practised in Australia is one of a number of emergent religions connected to the spread of interest in earth-based spirituality, feminism, Paganism and the New Age movement. But indigenous cultures including Native Americans and Aboriginal people have rejected these individualised New Age spiritual movements not only because they tend to romanticise indigenous cultures, particularly the spiritual and ecological lifeways, but also due to practitioners borrowing, stealing or misappropriating sacred rituals and sacred beliefs.

Christina Welch (2002) criticises New Agers for buying and selling these precious practices saying that they are simply reaffirming capitalist consumer culture. She comments that they lack an active political engagement in, and understanding of, the plight of indigenous peoples, while at the same time, she maintains that indigenous people should not be defined solely as the 'victims' of cultural appropriation concluding that: 'The colonialist presentation is refuted by indigenous agency in the dynamic of cultural growth' (2002:35).

My view falls somewhere in between. Embrace the River Goddess on one end of the spectrum or condemn cultural appropriation at the other. While I would find it difficult to overlay an indigenously-venerated waterway with a Goddess-inspired spirituality from ancient and/or distant lands, I can see that others might revere the local river with a spiritual demeanour which reflects their own cultural heritage.

For example, Bryne et al (2006) in their article 'Enchanted Parklands' cite a wonderful story of a Vietnamese-Australian living around the Georges River in SW Sydney who regards the river as the embodiment of a sacred dragon and defines locations along the river in terms of the dragon's anatomy.

In this light, the Brisbane River could be re-inscribed as Goddess and worshipped by those whose spirituality is defined as Goddess spirituality.

Alley KD, 1994, 'Ganga and gandagi: interpretation of pollution and waste in Benaras,' Ethnology, Spring, 33, 2.
Byrne D, H Goodall, S Wearing and A Cadzow, 2006, Enchanted Parklands, Australian Geographer, 37, 1, 103-115.
Gosselin S, nd, Ganga Ma, paper prepared for the Goddess Traditions in India and Tibet seminar at Vassar College,
Haberman DL, 2006, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parente-Čapková V, 2006, Narcissuses, Medusas, Ophelias...Water Imagery And Femininity In The Texts By Two Decadent Women Writers, Wagadu, 3, Spring,
Welch C, 2002, Appropriating the Didjeridu and the Sweat Lodge: New Age Baddies and Indigenous Victims? Journal of Contemporary Religion, 17, 1, 21-36.