Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tree Ducks and Other Surprises

High in the leafless branches of an old eucalypt tree overlooking the river are birds which initially I could not identify. As I walked past I would hear a persistent 'engh engh engh engh' and occasionally a loud 'waaaa' which echoes across the river. Peering closer I realise these birds are ducks. Tree ducks.

The bird book tells me they are the nomadic Grey teal which can nest in a wide range of sites including tree holes, rock crevices and even rabbit burrows. They are known to perch on dead trees in the waterway. And 'their sexual cycle is triggered by a sudden increase in water levels' (Reader's Digest Services, 1976:104). But these birds are hunted - and are described by the Victorian government's Department of Sustainability and Environment website as 'the most numerous game bird we have'. Who has it? Game bird? Sustainability? This narrow anthropocentric view gives rise to a sense of ownership. Once owned, the bird is deemed property and the hunter can treat the bird accordingly.

The effects of such a notion of common property was famously critiqued by Garrett Hardin in his analysis of the 'tragedy of the commons' where no one person cares for shared resources. This lack of care leads to the resulting tragedy. The natural environment, wild lands, wild rivers and wild seas are all such commonly shared resources which, to avert Hardin's tragedy, need obligation, responsibilty and reciprocity - and an end to hunting these gorgeous water birds.

But the river holds other surprises today. A steep muddy cliff overgrown with gnarled spikey shrubs reveals an old plaited rope and I lower myself to the mud and mangroves below. On the way down I disturb a cormorant drying its wings on a branch while a fantail dances in the trees above. This must be another good fishing spot; it's certainly a good vantage point to watch the rowers and kayakers glide by.

Reference: Reader's Digest Services, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Sydney, Readers' Digest Services Pty Ltd.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

River Journeying

There are signs. Signs along the trail from the past, fishing spots along the river, rock steps hidden among the now overgrown bush covering the riverbank. Here you can imagine the time when indigenous people lived on this land and cared for this place. When I've looked at the records (diaries and letter excerpts) of the early settlers to the Brisbane River valley I found much comment, heart-piercing comment, on the people referred to as 'natives' and the way the Aboriginal people were viewed and treated.

For instance, the explorer Ludwig Leichardt writing to his mother in August 1843 commented: 'If the children could be taken away from the clans and brought up properly quite apart, there might be hope for them' (Brisbane History Group, 1991:72). The legacy of this view is still being felt, especially through the experiences of the Stolen Generation. But these letters also shed light on Aboriginal traditions, such as the reminiscences from the settler Charles Archer in April 1845. He eschewed the significance of the corroboree, regarding it as amusement not a sacred ceremony but observed that the men wore feathers in their hair and body designs painted with red and white clay. They danced while the women performed body percussion and drummed on kangaroo skins stretched tight across their laps.

The local Turrbal people were fishing people and who are still intimately involved with the river place of their heritage. Their website tells the history of their river connections along the Brisbane River (Turrbal Association Inc., nd).

'The Brisbane River was an essential source of livelihood for the Turrbal people. Creeks and swamps around Brisbane were vital food sources. Tom Petrie recalled in his writing in 1901 that, as a young boy he used to catch tortoises with Turrbal children in the swamp at New Farm - which meant "a place of the land tortoise". Binkenba was the Turrbal name for New Farm. Kurilpa was the Turrbal name for West End - which meant "a place for rats".'

Today the tortoises are gone; the turbidity and pollution of the river has affected both inhabitants and ecosystem. But in the 1820s, in the early days of European exploration and settlement, when the settlers lived off the land, they reported an abundance of fish of all varieties, as well as freshwater mussels found in 'clear greenish water' (Gregory, 1996:8). Different fish species flourished and signs they were numerous were found in the flowering of local trees and the appearance of certain species of birds. Gregory (1996) reports that blue mountain lorikeets announced that mullet had arrived, water lilies in bloom signified plentiful mussels, while the silky oak in flower indicated eels were about.

Who holds this precious knowledge? And along the riverbanks, do these trees and plants still flourish? Are the mullet still running? Do water lilies still grace the water?

In 1825 Major Edmund Lockyer recorded his impressions of the rich ecology of the riverine system:
'The wood on the banks - Fig tree, Blue gum, Swamp oak, and Iron bark, and there a solitary cedar - On landing found spinage in great abundance, mint, parsley, and the wild poppy. ...Whilst dinner was preparing, took a walk into the coutnry, found it delightful, thinly wooded...occasionally thick bush with little marks of natives having been there. Several very fine eels were caught here, and a fish called the cat fish' (Gregory, 24).

During the 1820s while the river valley was explored, and scientific expeditions documented the flora and soil types, the river valley was described as lush, luxuriant and fecund. One convict observed, it was:
'a tangled mass of trees, vines, flowering creepers, staghorns, elkhorns, towering scrub palms, giant ferns, beautiful and rare orchids and the wild passion flower, while along the River bank were the water lily in thousands and the convolvulus of glorious hue...' (Gregory, 26).

But this edenic riverscape gradually made way for 'villas', commerce, sanitation and industry which, in 1850s led to an influx of sharks into the river attracted by the waste from tallow and hide factories along the river, rendering 'it dangerous to bathe' (Gregory, 33). Sugarcane was planted at St Lucia and the enormous fig trees, where a human looks the size of an ant against the huge spreading trees, were logged. That place is still known as Fig Tree Pocket.

The historian Bob Fisher (1990:186) writes that around the 1860s, 'the river was already losing its identity as a wondrous ecosystem. ... Exploitation was replacing appreciation of the river itself.'

But back in 1883 the writer Archibald Forbes still relished the allure of the waterplace -'You turn your back on it with regret for it is ever a thing of beauty.' That thing of beauty still flows through the city. Yes it is channelled, freewayed, de-treed in many places, overdeveloped, but its identity is still there in the term for Brisbane 'river city'. To me it is lustrous, and as Forbes noted in 1883, 'it flows at your feet, sparkling up into your face in that mellow sunshine which makes Queensland winter an abiding joy' (Fisher, 1990:188).

Fisher R, 1990, The Brisbane River Personified: Historical Perception Since 1823, in P Davie, E Stock, & D L Choy, eds, The Brisbane River: A Source Book for the Future, Moorooka, Australian Littoral Society Inc & Queeensland Museum.
Gregory H, 1996, The Brisbane River Story: Meanders through Time, Yeronga, Qld., Australian Marine Conservation Society.
Brisbane History Group, 1991, Brisbane River Valley: Pioneer Observations and Reminiscences 1841-50, Brisbane History Group, Sources No 5.
Turrbal Association Inc., nd, Turrbal Culture,

Monday, June 25, 2007

River Flowing, Sea Moving, Explain

This post is inspired by the video that goes with the Sarah Blasko's magical song
from the album
'What the Sea wants, the Sea will have'. It shows nature in trouble while the animals and birds watch on. Sometimes I think that writing a blog in the midst of such an ecological imperative adds to my sense of bewilderment at why, as Blasko sings, 'there is a heavy cloud hanging over us'.

It rained all night again. The water. Flowing. Down. Running. Along.

When I was small I used to love going swimming in the rain in the bay, being totally immersed in a mix of fresh and salt waters, and feeling at once the warmer and cooler water as the sea's water often seemed warmer than the rain.

And going riverswimming as a child, the water, warmish on the surface, but deeper down, the cold grabs you - tugging at your toes as you wonder what creatures are lying in wait in the muddy bottom.

Riverswimming these days in the Brisbane River seems to be non-existent at least in the inner city area. People I've spoken to say they would not consider it. The river is too polluted. Too dirty. And yet in the mid 1800s the river was a haven for bathing and shark proofed bathing pools were erected along the river which lasted for 70 years.

A friend who has lived on the river most of his adult life tells me that many Brisbane residents view the river in a utilitarian way - the view, the ferry, a place to row - or as an inconvenience when they have to cross the river with insufficient bridges and often hideous traffic.

Can the river have an instrinisic value of its own? A value not connected wih human use? When we (humans) think of water as a resource, of the river as just a view, or a ferry ride, what happens to the river? When we pay for water use, and the authorities increase the amount we pay, does that make us more ecologically sensitive, or aqua-logically sensitive?

Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth changed the green - and blue - consciousness in Australia. Instead of the media questioning global warming, the launch of the film, coupled with the effect of the drought especially in inland rural areas, shifted the focus to water resources, to water scarcity, and now to desalination plants. Use less water. Harness the rain. Swim in the river. Treat it with sacredness. Watch the 'environmental flows' and bring a balance not only to water resource use, but to the ecosystem as a whole and create a condition where the river has an intrinsic right to its own water. Celebrate the river.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines environmental flows as: 'the water regime provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits where there are competing water uses and where flows are regulated'. A water regime?

In September this year, in Brisbane, there will be a whole conference devoted to 'Environmental Flows' aimed at managing water and conserving ecosystem health. The conference is part of the great Brisbane River Festival devoted to the celebration of this sacred waterway that snakes through the city.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Listening and Hearing

Nature talks to you when you sit and listen in stillness and solitude. Being quiet and open you hear things that you might swear were never there, thoughts you never could have had, ideas for new directions, inspirations, intuitions. We live in a noisy life but in wild nature, even patches of reclaimed bush in the midst of the city, the voices of earth are speaking.

In his article The Healing River Jesse Wolf Hardin (2005) says something I have been exploring throught this blog, the reverence we have for the sacred flowing water and our connection with it. Hardin says:'The lesson may be that all things natural have an intrinsic sacred value, but through ritual, attention and intent we make them even more so. It’s often a part of the belief systems of those peoples living closest to the land — that the river knows when we’re singing to it, and knows when we’ve stopped. And that it holds in its bowels the memories of all life’s songs.'

What this says to me is that the songs, dances, rituals, venerations, invocations are there regardless of the human connection being apparent. They live in the memory of the water, enveloped, wrapped within the rhythmic hues and unfurling flows. It's sometimes thought that humans make a place sacred through their connections, through their honouring of its qualities. My view concurs with Hardin's. Places are sacred regardless of humans. The river knows. It's written in the wind.

Hardin JW, 2005, The Healing River, High Country News, June 27,

Water Running Out

On the Water Conserve portal I found this highly disturbing post from Dr Glenn Barry. He cites the United Nations' Millennium Project as saying the world's water is running out as there are 'no more rivers to take water from'. This is also the outcome as displayed by the hydrological cycle, flowing from sea to sky, from fresh to salt. The water is held within this cycle; it moves from rain to sleet and snow; it runs through rivers to oceans and back to rain, sleet and snow. Looking at the river in Brisbane it's hard to fathom that the flow could ever cease. In the bigger picture the river is playing its vital role in sustaining the viabilty and vitality of ecosystem services.

I remember being in Yirrkala in Northeast Arnhemland a few years ago and going to watch a class at the local community school about the water cycle. The Yolngu children were first taught by the non-Aboriginal teacher in English, and in a western scientific paradigm about the watery interconnections. Then we climbed into the school bus and went to visit an elder couple who taught the children the manikay or sacred songs about the flourishing of weather and the movement of waters. This is an example of the 'both ways' education in operation; it is an inspirational approach that parallels the practical psycho-philosophical worldview that pervades this north Australian community.

Sitting on the beach the women, teachers at the school, shared their knowledge about how the exchange of salt and fresh water through the movement of the tides acts as a life-affirming and vital metaphor for living and sharing in this community. The metaphor of 'ganma' sits within the flowing waters as a foundational principle. It refers to the swirling of river and ocean flows that meet and merge in the tidal lagoon.

In metaphorical terms, ganma refers to the interlinking of western and indigenous knowledge systems where the interflowing sea water represents western knowledge, and the outerflowing river-land water represents indigenous knowledge. The waters move, flow over, overflow together, enjoined as one. This concept represents a deeper understanding, a deeper truth, where the place of interconnecting waters is likened to the place of interconnecting peoples, to the flowing together of people with country.

In outlining the significance of ganma Hughes (2000) writes: 'Ganma is an Indigenous form of dialectical praxis for working both-ways, with Indigenous and Western cultures. Ganma does two things. It takes elements of Western culture and makes them Aboriginal, and it provides a pattern for interaction and dialogue that respects the integrity of both cultures.'

Both ways is the guiding principle for what could be. It links. It brings together. It acts. It reconciles. It flows as one.

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Hughes I, 2000, Ganma: Indigenous Knowledge for Reconciliation and Community Action, Action Research E-Reports, 14,