Thursday, 11 October 2018

How South Gisborne Drain became Bungil Creek

We gather in light rain in a cleft of open ground between two creeks and a road, here in one of the growing edges of Gisborne. The rain is welcome. It gleams on the roofs of the new estates, trickles its way to downpipes and disappears, but the drains lead here to this confluence of creeks.

Amanda Gauci, Helen Radnedge and David Galloway at the renaming

We're celebrating the renaming of the South Gisborne Drain. It is now Bunjil Creek, a name chosen by the Wurundjeri Council. It’s on the Victorian Register of Geographic Names. Bunjil as in Bunjil the edge-tailed eagle, the ancestor, who circles high above Mount Gisborne, where this creek begins.

Search for Fersfield Road and Aitken Streets on Google Maps, and east of that junction you'll see a dotted blue line that disappears, then reappears a little north as 'South Gisborne Drain'. Then it disappears again. Where has it gone? It’s a creek, so it going downhill, north towards Jackson's Creek. When you drive from Riddell to Gisborne on the Kilmore Road, and come into Gisborne town past the bowling club, right onto Melbourne Road – there it is again Bunjil Creek, safely housed in a broad bluestone culvert that sends water under the road to Jacksons Creek. A forgotten creek, a hidden creek.

When I was a kid in North Box Hill, before the suburbs finally settled in, we played in creeks like this. We dammed them and built bridges and got covered in mud and burrowed our way inside groves of gorse and broom to secret hideaways. One big adventure was this: to walk underground through a big concrete culvert, a thin flow of brown water between your legs as you rocked side to side, and come out 20 or 50 metres later at the edge of a road or creek, blinking in the sunlight.

Creeks and open drains gave way to bitumen and underground drains. That's brought safety to the suburbs, and less mud, but we lost our creeks. They are still there, underground, but not the creek as a living thing. All that rushing, muddy, sweaty creekness disappears, the creek swollen in winter, dangerous, and in summer, a thin stream and the sound of crickets. We lose the danger and forbidden edges. It’s been no contest of course. Drains deliver efficiency in managing water, and also a fair quantum of land. New land that can be sold. New land that is appropriated by the quick and opportunistic.

So to recapture a creek in the middle of urban expansion anywhere in metropolitan Melbourne is a major achievement. After the renaming ceremony, Melbourne Water and Council staff headed into the rest of their working day and a few community people repaired to a local cafe to dry off and rest a little longer in the moment. Of course, it's not 'a moment'. The renaming has been two and a half years of patient work, pulling to light what was hidden in plans and Council minutes and agency files. Time spent not taking things for granted, asking difficult questions.

Some of the Gisborne gang: Jackson O'Neill, Helen Radnedge and Amanda Gauci

It's always bemused me that Landcare is promoted through photos of hillsides covered with those plastic plant guards, when the hard work is the hours at night spent reading plans closely, untangling who is responsible, writing letters and funding applications, insisting that what was promised in the plan or strategy is delivered, here, right here, in the middle of this messy contest between private and public interests. 

Caring for where you live means wrestling with cumbersome bureaucracies and entrenched perceptions and values within local communities. We can tinker at the edges, but until we challenge the dominance of private interests and their appropriation of the commons, we're not going to get far. 

I think of Frederick Douglass: 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.' Social reformer, abolitionist and orator, Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. 

Let's put that quote in context. They come from an address in New York in 1857 commemorating the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. 

'Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.'

His words reach across the years to our sleepy hollows here in Australia. It seems a bit much to cast matters of creeks and town planning in the same light as the slavery of human beings. Here we are with every freedom, coddled inside creature comforts and community consultation. 

Nonetheless, healthy creeks and livable towns require citizens who don't take things for granted, who notice what's happening around them and speak up, people who insist that promises in plans be acted on. Private interests consume the common good, and must be challenged. 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.'

So here’s cheers to the good folk at Gisborne! You’ve got us thinking about our own drain here in Riddells Creek!

The Riddell Main Drain, outside the Bakery
The Main Drain heading to Station St and eventually Riddells Creek

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Sunbury Rings

We’re standing beside one of the Sunbury Rings with Uncle Dave Wandin, part of the Narrap Team that manages  properties owned by the Wurundjeri Council. When I first heard about these ceremonial grounds on the outskirts of Sunbury, I imagined in my mind’s eye a broad raised mound on the creek flats, hidden away somewhere, an ancient gathering place for hundreds. The reality is different: the rings are small, inscribed into the hillside above Jacksons Creek, the weathered shape of bank cut into on one side of the slope and the earth moved to the other side to make up a circle of level ground four metres or so across.

In fact, nothing is as I imagined it. The Rings are not hidden away, but in plain view, on the side of the valley across from the railway line as it descends into Sunbury. I must have looked out towards the Rings many times on the train to Melbourne. And these are not broad mounds where hundreds gathered, warriors rattling their spears, but something more intimate, a place where the men and women convened separately to make preparations, each out of sight of the other, then met in the third ring for a marriage ceremony, this site more complex, a circle contained in a wider circle, but still nothing grand, a place to sit in groups in the firelight, with singing and dancing in the centre of the circle, a living room if you like.

The Rings are high on the hillside because the valley was once not so deeply incised when they were first made and used sometime in the last 30,000 years. The creek would have been nearby. They were a place for family groups to meet, families that followed the seasons and the food, at a time when perhaps 20,000 Wurundjeri were living in all that country where the water flows to the bay. Not so many people in such a large area; now we have five million and more as development pushes out along creeks and hillsides just like these in Sunbury.

The original shape has weathered down, but the intent remains

And Uncle Dave isn’t quite as I imagined him. He’s wearing an orange AustralBricks jumper. He doesn’t hammer us with a sermon, but talks matter-of-factly of the life of the Wurundjeri then, as he and other elders have pieced it together from the historical record and family stories and from a feeling for how to live in this kind of country. The past and the present are a continuity for him. He is Wurundjeri, and a contemporary man, acceding to the wishes of his elders not to redig the Rings to their original shape, as he would like, but to leave them weathered, protected by fences, to leave them in peace now that a little of what had been has been recovered and granted some respect. Many elders are tired after the long fight, they too want a bit of peace, he tells us.

Uncle Dave Wandin
We walk along the hillside between the Rings and Uncle Dave shows us where he demonstrated traditional burning last year to the Hume Shire and other fire people, burning separate patches of grasses, each lit with one match he says, reading the wind and temperature conditions and the lie of the land to know exactly where each burn would finish. ‘We teach our kids to swim so they are safe and happy around water – why not teach them to use fire, so they are just as comfortable and safe with fire?’

I hear a mind and imagination at work here, learning how to heal Country, building links with mainstream fire and environment people, fighting the constraints imposed by regulation and planning, even when people with money and influence have different plans. 

We’ve been slow in the Landcare movement to make allies here, out of our fear for our property and fear of the other-ness of Aboriginal people. Yet hidden in plain sight, they are people like you and me, getting on with learning how to care for Country, whatever the obstacles.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare