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MHS Library | Our Fragile Environment


A Literature of Place by Barry Lopez

Literature's power is in self not identity by Mark Tredinnick


"I'm face to face with Ningaloo's living miracles and it feels holy" by Tim Winton

I pull the outboard out of gear and let the boat’s momentum wash away until we’re dead in the water. Then I switch everything off – engine, echo sounder, even the radio – and there’s silence. Not even the sound of water lapping against the hull. Because it’s breathless out here today. The surface of the gulf is silky. The sky is cloudless, a shade paler than the water. And behind us, onshore, the arid ridges and canyons of the Cape Range are mottled pink and blond in the morning light. 

There’s only the two of us aboard, and although the air and water are still enough to be dreamlike we’re not at all relaxed. In fact, each of us is craning at opposite sides of the boat, heads cocked, tense with anticipation. 

We wait. A full minute. Then another. Speaking only in murmurs. Until, just as our initial confidence begins to wane, there it is – blam! – just off the stern. And even though we’ve been expecting this eruption, the scale and proximity of it startle us into shrieks and oaths. With a single guttural blast that ends in a groan so deep-throated it sounds positively subterranean, the whale breaks the surface and lies shining and glossy beneath its pall of reeking vapour. Then another rises beside it, a calf. It tilts sideways, showing a flash of white belly. It lifts its pectoral fin a moment as if contemplating a body roll, but others surface close by, hemming it in, so it pulls its wings in and nuzzles up beside its mother. 

We count seven of them, take a few photos. It’s the same group from earlier in the morning. They seem to have swum a long lap out toward the shoals and come back for another look. Only this time they’re emboldened. They park on the surface for a minute or two before spreading out for the drive by. 

Humpbacks are curious. Especially about other mammals. When they’re comfortable enough they’ll come up for a look, single or in pairs, then pull back to regroup again, as if conferring. Often, they’ll repeat the procedure two or three times, easing in closer each run until they’re right under the boat or spy-hopping so close they’re all but leaning into the cockpit for a gander. And today, as they roll on their backs to check out the dimensions of the boat’s hull, we see the corrugations of their white bellies and the yellow beards of barnacles beneath their jaws. Their movements stir the water underfoot and we turn a half circle in the currents they’ve made. 

A humpback whale in Exmouth Gulf


  • A humpback whale in Exmouth Gulf 


Then, when everything’s still again, and it seems as if they’re gone, the largest and boldest of them rises perpendicular to check us out. It’s the cow. The sun shines on her knobbly head. Her unprepossessing eye appears ancient and vulnerable, somehow too small for the mass of the body below it. She leans in a little to take us in, the tip of her head at my own eye level, and I can sense her trying to figure out how much of what she’s looking at is creature and how much is just a lifeless thing. There’s no doubt she can tell the difference between a mammal and a machine. 

We been doing this for a few years, Denise and me. We know that after five or 10 minutes the pod’s interest will wane. Pretty soon these humpbacks will mooch off down the gulf and leave us in their wake. Unless, of course, we show ourselves properly. 

Denise with the whales


  • Denise looking underwater at the mother and calf 


Sure enough, the mother whale dives and the group peels away. But about a hundred metres out they round up and mill a while, socialising languidly. That’s when Denise shucks off her shirt and shorts, dons her mask and climbs down the ladder at the transom. She doesn’t swim toward the whales – that’s not only unwise, it’s illegal. She just hangs there, arm through one rung, to wait. She’s face down and hopeful. Her breaths sound a little ragged in the snorkel. 

And soon enough she has company. The calf surfaces 20 metres distant. Shortly joined by its watchful mother. After a few moments they ease in side-by-side, reading Denise with their sonar, literally feeling her out with their bodies, until they roll on their sides and lean toward her, as if reaching out. They lie like that a while until the calf can’t wait another moment. It dives and circles, then sinks vertically with its tail near the surface and its pecs spread like wings to steady itself midwater. And it takes Denise in that way, from directly beneath her, as the adult hovers in the background. Five minutes, 10, 20. Closer. It comes in at every possible angle. And it’s like a dance. These two strangers. Juvenile and middle-aged. Turning and turning. Pirouetting, tilting, reaching, backing away. Breathing huge, breathing small. 


Whales at Exmouth Gulf


And this dance goes on and on until eventually Denise gets cold and retreats up the ladder for a towel and a bit of sun. As she sits on the coaming, buzzed and blissed, the two whales move away. But when I scuttle down the ladder they’re back in no time, right up in my face: dark and massive, freckled and frilled, sleek and gnarly. We’re head-to-head, me and the youngster. Mutually curious, I think. Certainly enthralled. And from my end, just a tad apprehensive. Because even this little fellow is bigger than the boat I’m clinging to. With one deft swipe or a single clumsy mistake he could kill me. In a heartbeat. But we just turn our heads, he and I, making eye contact, feeling each other’s presence the best we can, as long and as close as we dare. 

A whale shark at Ningaloo Reef


  • A whale shark at Ningaloo Reef 


So how does it feel to be face to face with a creature whose heart is several times bigger than your own body, whose eye is curious and watchful and whose intelligence is palpable? Despite how many times I’ve done this before, the experience feels … well, it feels holy. Yes, it feels sacred. It’s a privilege, a joy. It’s like being 10 years old again and realising the world around you is a living miracle. A meeting like this renews my spirit; it makes me glad to be alive. 

When, eventually, I climb up and towel off on deck, the mother and calf linger a while. But once it’s clear neither of us boat-bound creatures is coming back in, they mosey off to join the pod still huffing and groaning in the distance. I lean against the rail a while to let the sun and the heat of the encounter soak in, and that’s long enough to consider where I am and what’s at stake. 


Exmouth Gulf from Charles Knife Road


  • Exmouth Gulf from Charles Knife Road in Cape Range national park 


This is Exmouth Gulf, in northern Western Australia, one of the last intact arid-zone estuaries in the world. Right in the shadow of the world heritage area at Ningaloo. I’m grateful for this place, and grateful to it. Because over many years I’ve had the pleasure of swimming with its whales and dolphins and I’ve spent many hours observing its dugongs and manta rays. I’ve paddle-boarded beside a marlin out here, picked my way through the waterway’s rich sheltering mangroves to gather crabs, and fish for jacks, and on summer afternoons I’m happiest just lying in the shallows out the front of an oyster-crusted rock-bar as hundreds of tiny coral trout pour past to feed on the outgoing tide. 

This is one of those places, and one of those reasons. One of those lines in the sand we can’t afford to cross. 

I pull on a shirt. In the distance a cloud of breath hangs in the air. A tail catches the sun. And they’re gone. 

The Pandemic Completely Redefined my Relationship with Nature

The Pandemic Completely Redefined my Relationship with Nature (by Coryna Ogunseitan).

I have a new understanding of what it means to be living, and worthy of protection

Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash

Creative non-fiction

Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction writing

Photo by Koen Swiers:

Love in a Time of Terror: On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, and Warlpiri Identity, by Barry Lopez

The Understory, by Robert MacFarlane

Sun Showers and White Ochre, by Jason De Santolo

Bend in the Trail, by Narendra

Greenland is Melting, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Letter from a Drowned Canyon, by Rebecca Solnit

The Watergaw, by Gregory Day

An Orchard for my Father, by Jenny Sinclair

An orchard for my father by Jenny Sinclair

An orchard for my father by Jenny Sinclair (published in The Griffin Review)

My father is eighty-two years old. He loves people, loves to talk. So of course he’s on Facebook with the rest of us. The other day he posted a quote: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’ He added a comment supporting schoolchildren who were marching to demand action on climate change. The children’s point, as I understood it, was that they would be around longer than the current crop of politicians, and that they were therefore entitled to a say. 

Dad is not, particularly, a greenie. He worked as a tax accountant. He was, and still is, a bit of a petrol head – his own father was an amateur race car driver, and Dad loves vintage motor shows, where he greets each of the makes and models like old friends. But when I observed to Mum that the environment must now be a core political issue if people like Dad were starting to shout about it, she told me: ‘He’s been on that for years.’ 

Mum and Dad have just had a solar power system installed, despite the possibility – they have said this themselves – that they may not use it long enough to amortise the costs. They did it because they believe in reducing carbon emissions: because they believe in a future for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

I’m fifty-two. The ‘natural’ world has changed since I was born. The seas have risen: the average sea level in Australia has risen by about 1.4 mm a year. It’s hotter: only fifteen of the first fifty years of my life recorded Australia-wide average temperatures below the overall mean, but each decade, the degree by which the mean is exceeded in hot years has increased. In the year of my birth, the number of days with extreme heat events (over 35 degrees Celsius, averaged across the continent) was zero, then not an unusual occurrence. In 2014, there were thirteen, and the last year with zero extreme heat events was 2001. It’s drier: rainfall in Victoria, where I live, has decreased by 1.65mm for every year of my life – 1.65cm every decade. At that rate, by the time I’m 60, ten centimetres less rain will fall on the state than when I was born.[1] Species have disappeared and more are threatened: according to the World Wildlife Fund, vertebrate species have declined by an average of 60 per cent in just over forty years.[2] And there are more than twice as many humans in Australia now than there were in 1966.[3] 

It feels, sometimes, like I am the problem, like it all went wrong around the time I was born. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty writes that 1964 is one of two candidates for the beginning of the Anthropocene – the geological era defined by human influence. (The other date he gives is 1610, because that’s when colonialism really took off, and others have suggested 1950 as the start of the era.)[4] There’s been life on earth for about 3.5 billion years; even when I consider that I was close to my late grandmother, who was born in 1909, and that my youngest child could easily live until after 2100, the scope of what I personally know and what I can pass forward is tiny. 

My human life is just a blip in deep time. Which means that these changes are happening with lightning speed. I’ve felt some of them in my body: warmer winters, drier springs, hotter summer nights. I have childhood memories of extremes: peeling burned skin off my arms after a day at the beach; wearing two pairs of preheated gloves when I left for school in winter; days of ceaseless rain in September and October. But the summer heat dissipated at night, and doors and windows could be flung open to cool down the house. These days, the heat hangs around, making restless nights and acting as a harbinger of a greater heat event that will not leave us either. 

Our years are short; eternity is, well, eternal. We are small; the earth is huge and wide (never mind the universe). Recognising these two facts can bring on a kind of panic: the writing, say, of a travel ‘bucket list’ and its subsequent ticking off. I’m guilty of that – of skittering around the planet, burning up fuel, spending a day or two here and there. The problem is perspective: too much of it, and you’re overwhelmed. Too little, and you make the mistake of putting yourself at the centre of the world. 

But I’ve found a way to place myself in relation to the size and scale of it without feeling too small, or too important either: by abiding. 

The place I’m in right now is the tiniest dot on the map. A stone cottage on half an acre, nowhere in particular, down towards the bottom of Australia. Yet for fifteen years it’s drawn me back, and I’m sure that if you attached a heart rate and blood pressure monitor to my wrist, the drop in both as I catch sight of the house would be measurable and sharp. I breathe differently here. The size of the world becomes irrelevant. 

I don’t know if you choose a place, or if a place chooses you. The alignment of elements of your deepest self with a similar arrangement of elements in the landscape – this cannot be manufactured, only recognised. That this place feels so right to me is perhaps because it’s not that far from the country town where I grew up, or perhaps it’s something else – maybe the amphitheatre effect created by the low enfolding hills to the north and the line of big gums out across the paddock as they face the more open country to the south. When I first see it – the twin As of the roof jutting up against an undulating horizon, the gravel road vanishing into the tree line on the hill behind – that tightly wound spring coiled up inside me unwinds. 

Other places where I’ve felt the same sort of peace have been similarly enclosed. One was a natural arbor just off the Cradle Mountain walking track – green mossy floor, lichen-covered tree-trunks, green leaves overhead and fern-frond walls, all admitting and reflecting diffuse green light – where I lingered for a moment, surrounded by photosynthesising life, before rejoining my fellow walkers. Another was a stone eyrie in an old Indian fort; part of the women’s quarters, it gave a view through star-shaped perforations of a misty valley and a distant, noisy market town. 

Whatever the reason for how it makes me feel, I come here whenever I can. The first thing I did when I bought this house and the bare patch of land around it was to plant native trees, maybe fifty of them (I roped in some friends to help; I was pregnant at the time). All but one tree died. That one is now twenty metres high, and I think of it as forever linked to the baby boy I bore that summer. He’s now taller than me, and that fits with the tree’s spectacular height too. Trees kept dying, but I kept planting; those that lived, thrived. 

I planted an orchard of eighteen fruit trees; that died too, twice, because of drought, because of rabbits. I brought it pipes with tank water, I brought it tough wire sleeves, and it survived. The orchard is positioned so that in spring, I look out from my bedroom window through a maze of fairy floss blossoms. 

The eucalypts flower too. They drop limbs, shed bark in strips. Native birds live in them; frogs inhabit the moist soil around my septic tank. Snakes come to eat the frogs, and I keep out of their way. The orchard ebbs and flows. One year there were so many plums I took to anonymously dumping them on friends’ doorsteps in two- and three-kilo bags. Another year, there was no fruit, not an apple or a pear or even a quince, and I was absurdly grateful. From time to time I dig up the overly ambitious vegetable garden and wrest a few pumpkins or stalks of silverbeet from the rectangular patch of dirt before the grass reclaims it. 

In the city, the forest I live in is obscured. It’s there for sure: green avenues of trees, public lawns covered with jacaranda petals, the air of suburban streets scented with floral notes, wild places along the rivers, bats and birds flitting between them all. But it’s possible to ignore nature altogether and only focus on the roads, cars and buildings. You can’t do that out here. 

This isn’t wilderness – it never really was, having been inhabited for so long by other people – but it’s a place where what we call nature has the upper hand. I can only work with it. I can only till and plant the soil, capture and redirect the rain, hack at the weeds and protect the plants from pests as best I can. The house and its contents, here, are the exception; reality is the world outside. Outside the city, there is no such thing as nature. There is only an environment. As for time, I can’t hurry anything; things take as long as they take, and to everything there is a season. 

Watching seedlings become trees, deep time is easier to contemplate. Not that I’ve mastered it in any sense; the Eucalyptus camaldulensis (river red gum) in the back corner of my block is ten years old now; it may live to a thousand.[5] There’s a tree down the road in the town of Guildford known as the Big Tree: a 500-year-old river red gum that is the town’s main tourist attraction, with a nearly ten-metre circumference.[6] I can still easily get my arms around my own twig of a red gum, and the thought that it may reach the size of the Big Tree in my however-many-great-grandchildren’s time is strangely soothing. High above the ground, the branches are fused together to form distinctive rings, probably as the result of being tied by Aboriginal people centuries ago. The Big Tree predates colonisation, and where things will be when it’s lived another 500 years is anyone’s guess. 

In the other direction, just east of Castlemaine, is another favourite tree, this one introduced. It’s a Liquidambar, tucked in behind an old brick hotel. All summer it’s a pleasant enough leafy green. All winter it’s another European stick, bare-branched and unattractive. My secret knowledge, though, is that there are two weeks in late May and early June when the tree becomes a pillar of fire against the pale blue sky. Its broad, splayed leaves turn gold, scarlet and a vivid shade of purple all at once, and I find it impossible to pass by without stopping just to stare. 

These trees don’t require ownership to be appreciated. Rather, I have a sense of kin with them, in a way that invokes the related word ‘ken’ – to know. (Checking my etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary, I find under ‘kin’ a quote from Shakespeare: ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’)[7] My knowledge of this place is physical. I know that each spring the wattles will burst like yellow puffballs in the bush; that in deep winter frosts will lie like snow across the paddocks and it will be especially lovely to be here, inside, close to the flames of the wood heater. Each time I come here I add a memory, like the night last week when a cool change arrived after a scorching day. I went outside and stood in the centre of the road, feeling soft rain on my skin and a gentle midnight wind in my hair; a gift of grace. 

The years have passed; the baby is a young man, and his little brother is no longer a baby. In the city, each year brought me its struggles: illness, treatments for that illness, the bittersweet conflicts of motherhood. Here, I don’t date events by the calendar, but by seasons, tree-planting and weather events – ten years ago when the drought broke, for instance. All along the roadsides are ten-year-old young gums shooting for the sky, competing for light and water, all germinated in the floods that followed the dry years. The trees on my block that did survive the drought are tough now and dominate my little paddock, reminding me that struggles are not only survivable, but become merely one growth ring among many. The raptors that float on the updrafts above the nearby hills date from the end of the drought too: rain means insects, insects mean reptiles, reptiles are food for birds of prey. Wedge-tailed eagles are the largest – I call them Bunjils these days, after the Kulin word for the creator spirit who took an eagle’s form.[8] I watch their upturned wingtips, their heads tilted down towards the earth, searching for prey, and I put myself in their place, surveying the fields and streams beneath. 

There are so many birds. The dawn chorus in summer is a mix of the sublime and borderline offensive. Magpies in trees carol with a musical rise and fall in clear phrases, while high up in the sky, a flock of galahs emits a raucous screeching, many voices in one. It’s a swarming, not a song, and it aurally mimics the look of their flight: a disordered mass of dark shapes milling back and forth. Underneath is a chitter-chatter in the bushes from some small birds, and every now and again the staccato beat of a kookaburra trying to start its engine. 


FIRE IS A constant threat, a sleeping dragon. Five years ago, it came. It was late December – not bushfire season yet, or it wouldn’t have been fifty years ago – but there it was, racing across the neighbour’s unmown paddock. I was in the city at the time, and while the flames surrounded my little block on three sides, I hardly registered the text messages from the power company about the interruption to supply. That’s always happening. 

It was the next morning, when other neighbours rushed to tell me that my place was still standing, that I understood there’d been a fire. The day after that, when I arrived to check the damage, the air still stank. The house reeked of wet ash – I have a photograph of a helicopter water-bombing my tin roof to quell the sparks – and the valley was black and grey and the sepia of desiccated foliage. Inside my fence line, most of the ground was black, punctuated by whitish stubs of burnt tussock grass. The line of the fire could be clearly seen – it stopped (or was stopped) halfway through the orchard, and at the tin fence around the vegie garden. My green moat and the Country Fire Authority had saved my house. 

A year later, the native trees had regenerated nicely. The river red gum, in particular, seemed to have enjoyed the experience. Not so much the fruit trees, of course. I sighed and replanted. Now a few charred fence posts and an area of baked ground that favours thistles over grass are the only physical traces of the fire. 

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2016 climate change report helpfully offers its key points in large text on coloured background. It points out that ‘there has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s’.[9] Here, north of the Great Dividing Range, where the winds from Central Australia blow like a hair dryer turned to high in summer, and the winds from the south are stripped of their moisture by the time they arrive, and where the forests are sometimes referred to as ‘fuel’, that’s a frightening thought. 

Yet this is good farming country. The soil is rich. The area has been known for its apples for 150 years. So the orchard is half apple trees – Jonathans, Granny Smiths and a couple of Gravensteins, a rare, early-fruiting variety that my dad loves because he used to eat them as a child. I replanted the current Gravensteins after the fire: Dad was already seventy-six. This year it’s been raining around here (though not across most of the continent) and the harvest is looking so good it’s daunting. 

The sun today is of such strength that when I go outside, I feel it penetrate my upper dermal layers and press on the flesh beneath. If I must venture out, I put on sunscreen or a shirt; no more peeling off burned skin for me. When I go into the orchard to move the hoses that are fortifying the trees against tomorrow’s 35-degree blast, I walk in sandalled feet through a field of bees, hundreds of them buzzing on clover flowers. I trust that they will not sting me, if I do not crush them. Even after two minutes outside, re-entering the house – leaving the natural world – is a relief. 

The doorway is a threshold between bright heat and a cool, dim space. The walls are built of two-foot-thick stone blocks and the windows are small and well curtained. Today it’s not so much a house as an analogue for my mind: internal, protected, in-here as distinct from out-there. If the block is a fenced-off space set in the landscape, the house is the inner sanctum. But there can be no in-here, no internal world, without an out-there. 

My life is not calm and sheltered. My mind is not always protected. More often it is invaded, beset by the thousand cares that parenting is heir to. I tell myself that this place is a sanctuary, but its calming effect isn’t always immediate. Even without an internet connection, I have my phone. Anxieties follow me. When I come here, I pack more books than I can read, bring more projects than I could think of working on. 

I rely on the magic kicking in, but when it doesn’t, I surrender. I potter about. I sit on the back step and watch birds the size of mice dart between bottlebrush flowers. I take a mug to the front verandah and stare at the hill across the road. My eyes run up the hill and down again. There’s nothing particular there to see – a small paddock on the lower, more fertile slope and, higher up, where the soil is thinner and the rocks of the earth show through, just scrappy trees: ordinary ironbarks and stretches of brush. The fire raced up that hill too, but failed to reach the treetops. At its crest is a dark-green line of pine trees, marking the start of a neighbouring property. 

I’ve walked up there a few times, opening a gate onto what is technically Crown land – a road reserve set aside when greater things were expected for this hamlet. The government plans lay dormant for more than a hundred years, and the road can’t be distinguished from the scrub around it. Other hillsides and paddocks around here were similarly divided, if a line on the map that has no physical counterpart can be called a division. 

My block is just north of a junction of two valleys, both running east–west with their own small waterways, joining to become another, southbound valley. The valleys are carved from the Guildford Plateau, a plateau much eroded but forming a kind of upper limit to the land around here and, where it persists, still flat enough that there’s an airstrip on it. Being water-formed, the valley walls are gently sloped; being of small scale, they support an echo if you coo-ee loud enough. 

Recently, the hillsides have been sold off in blocks, according to the long-dormant maps. The houses being built on the newly fenced-off rectangles offend me. I have no right, I know. It’s their land. But where a wide flank of waving grass once created a clean horizon against the sky, there are now two double-storey brick houses, plonked onto the bulldozed soil with no apparent regard for the sites they occupy. They could be anywhere. 

Other newcomers have built less ostentatious structures lower down the slope. A mudbrick bungalow with chicken coops and mounded, native landscaping meets my approval. If there must be houses built, let them at least be modest and leave space for the air between land and sky. 

Around the corner, in the southern valley, a jutting rock shelf that once defined the north end of a golden expanse of grass has been desecrated. The ground under it has been dug away and made to host a children’s metal climbing frame, sharp-cornered and brightly coloured. Every time I pass, I wince. 


DID THE DJA Dja Wurrung people of the 1800s see my place – then a new and probably hastily thrown-up hotel – as a similar intrusion? My house sits on a flat area bounded by one of those small creeks, the Mopoke Creek, which is always dry except when it floods every single house around it. The creek would have had another name before Europeans came. This plot, with its rich river soil, would have been a good place to shelter from the north wind that comes down off the deserts, or maybe to harvest plants and small animals. I don’t know, because there isn’t much to tell me. And here, like the first colonists, I am wading into matters I can only dimly understand; I do so with the best intentions and an eagerness to learn. 

The Dja Dja Wurrung people have ‘Aboriginal title’ to six pieces of public land in this region.[10] But for small pockets like this one, there are no specific stories. Because of settlement, because of the gold rush – because, in short, this land was desirable – there was wholesale dispossession. It wasn’t just one or two buildings here and there: the whole of their country was appropriated. They were shifted about by a well-intentioned ‘protector’, but ultimately, not a single piece of land was deemed theirs until 2013, when the Aboriginal title was awarded along with two freehold properties.[11] In 1887, a Dja Dja Wurrung man petitioned the government about a railway running across his land: 

‘I do Humbly wish you to compare two lots o‘I do Humbly wish you to compare two lots of title deeds. I received mine from the author of nature While the land occupied by all the railways Is titled by the white mans lawyers.’.lawyers.’[12] 

I own my land under settler law. Only the bank can take it from me. By comparison, it’s a rock-solid hold. But I wasn’t born here. The only stories of place I have are those I’ve lived, plus snippets of history gleaned from old newspapers and neighbours – the publican who died here, a drunken landlady, the terrible floods, the huge bull that used to live where my orchard is now, the family of ten crowded into three rooms, and many and various petty crimes. My connection is only as deep as the time I’ve spent here, perhaps anchored a little more firmly by my childhood on similar country one hundred kilometres south-west. But it’s not ancient. 

I have a list of Dja Dja Wurrung words, compiled and self-published by an amateur enthusiast. It lists the name of this place – Yapeen[13] – and defines the word as meaning ‘corroboree’. At the very least, this suggests that somewhere near here was an important meeting place.[14] In the list, ‘river, small’ is ‘wonume-bur’. That’s as close as I can get to the true name of my creek. 

When I walk to the top of the hill across the road, I can see Mount Franklin. My little book of Dja Dja Wurrung language recounts a story of the mountain throwing rocks at nearby Mount Tarrengower. This is a story of volcanic eruption, a story preserved for 5,000 years through culture. Mount Franklin, these days, is a dark mass of trees rising from a mostly cleared landscape. It looks a bit like an emu’s nest – which is what its Dja Dja Wurrung name, Lalgambook, means: home of the emu.[15] 

I like these names better than the ones the ‘explorers’ gave to places – Mount Misery and so on. Mount Misery, my word book says, should be called Langi Yan – the resting place of the moon – because of the way the moon looked from a nearby camp site.[16] That’s a name that tells you something about the place, not just how one white man felt when he arrived there. I like the sound of these names, so similar to the language of the Wathaurong, the adjacent clan who gave names to the country where I grew up: Ballarat, Warrenheip, Burrumbeet. I used to use those names thoughtlessly: they were just the names of the places around me. Now I’m glad I have that tiny bit of language, that the double consonants and repeated vowels sound so natural to me. 

Lalgambook, the emu’s home, was the site of the last ‘protectorate’ for the Dja Dja Wurrung, before many of the people were shifted hundreds of kilometres to the Corranderrk government reserve, to Melbourne’s north-east. There are no emu around here any more, only kangaroos. Kangaroos coming out of the woodwork: huge eastern greys that I see when I go for early-morning bike rides. When one crosses the road in front of me, I stop and look for the rest. There are usually others – a female with a joey in a pouch, or a couple of juveniles. They melt into the bush and often I can still hear them, that weird pulsing double footstep resonating when they’ve already become invisible. Their paths, however, are clearly visible through the bush at their usual road-crossing places, and frequently so is a pile of bones – a long, curved spine and tail or perhaps a bleached, lantern-jawed skull – where one didn’t survive the gauntlet. There are also wombats – evident mainly by their bush tracks and distinctive cuboid poos – and echidnas on the roadside from time to time, as unresponsive to human presence as the ’roos are hyperactive and flighty. 

Once there was a ’roo in the garden when I woke. It heard me walking towards it and took off, easily clearing the rabbit-proof fence and proceeding up the hill into the bush and out of sight. It had been eating my fruit trees, but I didn’t mind so much: what else was it to do? 

Anyway, I knew the tree would recover. Fire, drought, flood, rabbits, ’roos, weeds. I take a perverse pleasure now in these little setbacks. Accepting them is an antidote to my usual anxiety, my good-girl desire to make everything just right. In the face of the forces of nature, perfection is a goal so patently absurd that it’s immediately abandoned. I substitute for it the Aussie ‘she’ll be right’; the making-do ethos of the land’s previous occupants, apparent in the homemade nails and hand-cut rafters of the old milking shed that’s gracefully disintegrating behind the house. I accept the smallness of my human self in this place, the temporary nature of my occupation, while doing what I can to care for it. I accept the shallowness of my hold on the land, while knowing I will never walk away. 

Towards the end of The Secret River, Kate Grenville has her protagonist, William Thornhill, envying an old Aboriginal man his connection to country: ‘This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit.’[17] Thornhill was a convict, born on the other side of the world. I have 150 years of ancestry around here. The Dja Dja Wurrung had thousands. Deep time versus a blip, again. It’s all I have, but it’s something. 

There is no word in my list of Dja Dja Wurrung language for climate change, or global warming. There are words for dry (koneja), hot (woo-koo-kool) and fire (wee, wi, wannop, ve). There are words for the constellations that remain unaffected by whatever happens here: the Southern Cross (bunya, Tchingal, berm, berm-gli). And there are stories, like those volcanos erupting on plains where no volcano has erupted for 5,000 years. 

I still hope to sit in the shade of the trees I’ll plant this year, though not for as long as my children will. When I began here, the orchard was just an open bit of paddock. Putting the leafless seedlings into the ground in winter seemed wildly optimistic. Now that the trees are grown, the grass between them stays greener; the air’s a little cooler. They make their own shade for me to work in and to save each other’s fruit from scorching. Just as, I think, a firestorm is said to generate its own weather. 

I read articles about global warming, look at the graphs that veer upwards around the year of my birth. I worry about it; I plant another tree and kid myself that there, there’s a little more carbon captured. I pick early-season apples and take them to my father. I climb the hill and look out at Mount Franklin and imagine it erupting, throwing burning rocks across the plains, and I hope that we are in fact as small and unimportant as that story makes us seem: that all this will survive us. 

I visit the Big Tree, walk around its base and touch its rough boles. It’s not a beautiful tree: more a collection of huge boughs, topped by tufts of leafy growth. Not beautiful, no, but so, so old: proof of the depth of the past. The fallen leaves scattered on the ground are shaped like rusty scimitars. I collect a single leaf and take it back to my place, a talisman against the future. 

All photos by Jenny Sinclair. 

The author would like to thank Rodney Carter of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation for his assistance. 



[1] Bureau of Meteorology 2019. Climate Change – Trends and Extremes.

[2] Dalton, A 2018. ‘Going Extinct by Neglect’, Australian Geographic.; World Wildlife Fund 2018, Living Planet Report.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017. ‘Stats Show How Far We’ve Come in 50 Years’.; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2019. Population Clock.

[4] Chakrabarty, D 2018. ‘Anthropocene Time’, History and Theory, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 5–32.

[5] Water for a Healthy Country 2004. Eucalyptus Camaldulensis.

[6] Trip Advisor n.d. ‘Big Tree’.

[7] New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary vol. 1 1993, p. 1488. 

[8] Culture Victoria n.d. ‘Bunjil’. 

[9] Bureau of Meteorology 2016. ‘State of the Climate’, p. 8.

[10] Victoria State Government n.d. ‘Dja Dja Wurrung Settlement’.

[11] Attwood, B 2017. The Good Country: The Djadja Wurrung, the Settlers and the Protectors. Monash University Publishing, Clayton, p. 186. 

[12] Quoted in Cahir, F 2012. Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850–1870. ANU E-Press and Aboriginal History Incorporated, p. 89. 

[13] More correctly ‘Yapenyar’. Private communication with the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation, 30 April 2019. 

[14] Tully, J 1997. Djadja Wurrung Language of Central Victoria: Including Place Names. Dunolly, 1997. 

[15] According to the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation, the greater region around the volcano is known as Larrnebarramul, and Mount Tarrengower’s name is derived from the Dja Dja Wurrung name, Djarungower. Private communication with the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation, 30 April 2019. 

[16] ‘Langi’ is probably a corruption of ‘Larrne’, the word used for homes of non-human animals and features. Private communication with the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation, 30 April 2019. 

[17] Grenville, K 2005. The Secret River. Text Publishing, Melbourne, p. 329. 

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