Happy Melbourne Day! 30th August. Not a day emblazoned on our consciousness, I must admit. It seems fitting that the RHSV’s Melbourne Day lecture last Friday should focus not so much on ‘founders’ but more upon what was ‘found’ i.e. the wetland landscapes of such fundamental importance to the Kulin people who were already here. Rod Giblett spoke at the RHSV on ‘Lost and Found Wetlands of Melbourne’ acknowledging the ecological richness of the wet lands surrounding the bay, the crucial part they played in the Kulin diet and ceremony and highlighting the changing perceptions of settlers to these areas that were at varying times embraced as clear, open landscapes, or derided as boggy swamps.
Melbourne is just one of many cities that is surrounded by wetlands. Giblett’s forthcoming book deals with Melbourne as one of a list of other such cities including Toronto, Perth, London, New York and (as we are even more aware of this weekend with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), New Orleans. The early naval surveyors of Melbourne noted the swamps and coastal landscapes on their early maps. The presence of large bodies of water immediately surrounding Melbourne is obvious on early maps that show little more than the Hoddle Grid and the prominence of the Yarra.
The pastoralists who streamed into the Port Phillip prized the wetlands for their open meadows of grass, the fecundity of the soil, and the ease of access they promised for grazing. The large lake of water in West Melbourne known as ‘Batman’s Swamp’ was praised for its beauty. Gordon McCrae recalled the sight of the lake, at the base of Flagstaff Hill in his childhood:
a beautiful blue lake… a real lake, intensely blue, nearly oval and full of the clearest salt water, but this by no means deep. Fringed daily all round by mesembryanthenum (vulg ‘pigs face’) in full bloom, it seemed in the broad sunshine as though girdled about with a belt of magenta fire…
In his presentation Giblett took us on a “scenic tour of the highlights and lowlights” of the wetlands that surrounded Melbourne. Batman’s Swamp (where Etihad Stadium now stands) was filled with the soil that came from the levelling of Batman’s Hill, thereby topographically extinguishing Batman from the maps of Melbourne (with the exception of Batman Ave). The South Melbourne swamp was transformed into Albert Park, a recreational lake now lapped by Formula One racing cars. The name Fishermens Bend has undergone both linguistic transformations (alternating between Fisherman‘s and Fishermen‘s Bend) and geographical shifts,being taken from a bend in the river near Coode Island to a development precinct that borders South Melbourne. The artificial Coode Canal cut off the original Fishermens bend, created Coode Island, and is now West Gate Park. Bolin-Bolin swamp in Bulleen (the only one of these wetlands to use its aboriginal name) is now used as playing fields by Trinity Grammar. There are other wetlands too: the Carrum and Cheetham wetlands, both prized for their birdlife, the Banyule flats, and the wetlands that became incorporated into the Botanical Gardens.
Attitudes towards wetlands have changed, swinging from appreciation at first for their beauty to a desire to ‘reclaim’ them once they had been polluted by noisome industries and sewage, or if they hampered development. The few remaining are increasingly being recognized for their ecological diversity and their function as ‘the kidneys’ of a city. There is a world-wide movement to ‘daylight’ rivers and wetlands that have disappeared through development, especially in Toronto which is rediscovering the Don and Humber Rivers.
RHSV generally podcasts its lunchtime talks, and no doubt this one will appear on the website soon. It was a fitting Melbourne Day talk (albeit delivered two days early) that reminds us of the use of language in describing landscape and the effects both human and ecological of ‘settlement’.