Weekly Take: Waterways and Wildlife in Focus

Lower Portland residents take extra care of the waterfront recreational area. Photo: Rosalind Chia

In the Hawkesbury, the lifestyle and ecosystem provided us by our network of waterways has been a mainstay of local folklore for countless centuries.

From generations of Darug families sustainably living off wetlands, creeks and rivers - via a golden age of river recreation and agriculture - to a new crisis of collective consequences for environmental mismanagement, there's a lot to unpack, and very little time left to unpack it.

A simple Facebook post this week in a local nostalgia group prompted misty-eyed memories from locals about lazy afternoons spent by the river. By extension, broader memories of "growing up in the Hawkesbury" remain a reliable comfort point in social media conversations for locals who may not otherwise feel they have much in common in the 21st century. Sadly, on the topic of environment, politicised buzzwords and aimless social media vitriol divide those same Hawkesbury comrades who each claim to love that same environment.

In short, unlike our river, we have lost our way.

Sandy Gerrish's pooches enjoy a lazing afternoon fishing at the Mooney Creek jetty. Photo: Sandy Gerrish.

In so many facets of the holistic human existence, I've been taught to refer to "the Old People" for guidance. I wish I could say that my awakening to the ageless relevance of Indigenous knowledge began when I had my first friend in school who happened to have that ancestry. I'm sorry to say that I didn't really learn about how truly sophisticated their social structure and environmental acumen was until much later in life.

We so often refer to the phrase, "recorded history", implying that the Darug people did not record or do not remember their history, but this is not true. In fact, for anyone searching with an open heart, our local First People are never far away. Sadly, because in so many ways colonisation is ongoing and so incredibly destructive, some will no longer recall their ancestors' memories beyond four or five generations.

A friend sent me a message this evening, perplexed by her first efforts to research what exactly pre-colonisation Hawkesbury was all about. Like everyone who is new to their own Aboriginal ancestry, she kept Googling, only finding proud and detailed records of colonial history.

And to my dismay but not my surprise, her message sounded pained, and hurt. This is a hurt we inflict upon First Australians not just once, but with every occurrence of this discovery. How can it be possible that the world's oldest living civilisation, with all its enduring wisdom and empirical knowledge, be so blatantly ignored in such a way, on so many levels, even when a climate emergency is declared and the obvious experts are those who managed the land for in excess of 80,000 years? What sort of arrogance does it take to think we know better than they, and how is it that we are so surprised to now have dead rivers, worsening climate conditions and vanishing species?

To answer my friend's question without drifting from my "lane", I have found that because of thorough colonisation and omission in our history books, it is best to sit and yarn when you wish to learn. In all the massed murders, stolen children and disease, they still failed to kill the powerful art and science of story that is endemic and exclusive to Australia's First People. It is how white arrogance failed to truly destroy their knowledge of themselves. You can't burn or bury what is taught via oral means, and you can never break the connection to Country that these ancient, generous hearts share.

For that is how they know the same fables in the same words their ancestors told. It is why you will ask Uncle Greg to tell you the story of the willy-wagtail one day, and hear it told identically by Uncle Wes on another. Every story and every line is a page of intricately recorded history, and our Western method and Western pages bind us to one-dimensional, structured learning that also binds us to one-dimensional understanding of the world around us. This includes our understanding of the bush, and of how we must urgently heal all that we have done wrong by this stolen land.

We were lucky enough to have Professor Grace Karskens visit the Hawkesbury Regional Museum last year to speak about her research about the relationship of people and environment with Dyarubbin. In her book, "The Colony: A History of Early Sydney" (2009), she explains:

"Aboriginal people developed effective ways to manage and maintain their country, subject as it was to [El Nino and La Nina] cycles, especially through fire. They burned parts of the country at different times and in different ways to control undergrowth. 'Cleaning up country', as it is still called in some Aboriginal communities, prevented the build-up of dry material, the fuel for uncontrollable wildfires. It also created open woodlands in some areas, while others grew dense and dark. As Jim Kohen argues, their fire management must have had considerable environmental impacts, affecting the flow of water, soil composition and erosion as well as vegetation, animals, birds and insects."

While the colonisation of Australia and the Hawkesbury has long stolen the sovereignty of the Darug people over their land (and consequently their land management decisionmaking), we can still refer to locally-specific, culturally-empirical knowledge about how to best restore the health and hope of this land and her life-giving waterways.

It takes a mature and cohesive community to face critical decisions together, even when the process may overturn stones heavily aged with the moss of discomfort or regret. Some of us feel more responsible than others to challenge the status quo, because we know that in our very genes lie authoritative whispers that don't necessarily align strongly with one party but have generations-old threads of knowledge throughout all sides.

In my work exploring immigration history in the area since February 2017, I've sat with farmers who along with the seeds of their crops have sown three or more generations of identity, financial independence, legacy and purpose. Nobody understands the personal nature of the immigrant's proud heart than I.

Yet, with governments literally ploughing forward with overdevelopment and sand-mining, and the continuing threat to food security frequenting media discourse, I find that it's possible to find intrigue and pride in local history but also embrace an urgent call for primary industries and Ministers charged with their portfolio to change their ways.

I may not be the only second-generation immigrant and environmentalist living on the bank of a waterway that sustains life of human, animal, ecosystem, economy and sociology.

But today, I'm the one sitting on a laptop, elated by news of platypus activity in the Hawkesbury and determined to instil hope for the future in the youngest Hawkesburians. And I truly believe that the youngest Hawkesburians must now ask the oldest Darug People.

I would love to hear from the Darug Nation directly on this topic. I had the pleasure of speaking to Professor Grace Karskens last year, and this year sees the exciting creative project by Oonagh Sherrard, called "11 Stories From The River". Celebrating memories, celebrating heritage and human story is but one facet of storytelling in our repertoire. The other, less practiced locally, is the art of positive, community-led planning. For planning is storytelling our future.

A 2010 State of the Catchments report into the health of our wetlands describes the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment's condition as "very poor", saying that “many river systems across NSW are at crisis point, and few are undamaged by development, particularly agriculture and urban water demand. There simply isn’t enough water remaining in the State’s river systems to keep them healthy if the pace and style of development continues without effective, sustainable management."

I call upon Hawkesbury locals from all corners and backgrounds to consider the lifegiving Dyarubbin and her child-creeks and quiet, wise lowlands, all so sickly with pollution and water-theft from their bellies. I call upon you to appreciate Dyarubbin and her timeless beauty, and imagine life without her. Now is the time we act.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Professor Ian Jack, without whose support I couldn't have enjoyed the learning opportunities and support of the Hawkesbury Historical Society since 2017. Professor Jack dared to step into an imagining with me that brought together truth-telling and innovation in a new look at Hawkesbury history narrative.Thank you for all that you did for History, for the Society and for the Hawkesbury.

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