‘A Space of Wonderment and Love’: Emotional Engagements with the Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/the Swan and Canning Rivers

By Cate Turk and Alicia Marchant
(Project Officers, the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ Project, The University of Western Australia)

(Updated 13h00 2 June 2017 – edited to include missing paragraphs)

Image: Coolbellup/North Lake, Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, December 2014.
Image: Coolbellup/North Lake, Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, December 2014.

The expansive city of Perth is dotted with numerous wetlands, nestled in pockets between the sand dunes of the coastal plain. Amongst them is the Beeliar Wetlands, a chain of lakes and swamps located in Perth’s southern suburbs, stretching for over 25 kilometres from just south of the Swan River at its northernmost point, to the suburb of Baldivis in the south. In May 2014, the State Government of Western Australia announced that existing road infrastructure would be extended to link the eastern suburbs with the coastal port of Fremantle, and that the route would go directly through the Beeliar Wetlands system. Roe 8, as the extension came to be known, would destroy significant wetlands and woodland zones that housed flora and fauna, including the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo.

In the years before work was due to commence, opposition was loud and became louder when the initial clearing and preparation of the site began in November 2015. Speaking to a crowd of approximately 500 protesters at Bibra Lake, Federal Greens Senator Scott Ludlam spoke of the intertwined natural and human significance of the place:

The Beeliar Wetlands are a crucial part of one the last remaining wetland chains on the Swan coastal plain. The fact that it is within a residential area is even more extraordinary. It’s the most popular recreational area in the south metropolitan area of Perth. The cultural value of this place is enormous, with a human history dating back thousands of years.[1]

Roe 8 threatened Indigenous sacred spaces and heritage in both its tangible and intangible forms; Coolbellup and Walliabup (North Lake and Bibra Lake) are significant cultural places for Beeliar Nyungar people, as the birthplace of the Waugal and as a place of birthing ‒ as an Elder of the North and Bibra Lakes Nyungar community remarked at a protest rally in 2011, ‘This is a heart-place for our people’.[2] Corina Abraham, a Whadjuk Nyungar Elder, noted at the same rally that ‘these places hold deep sacred stories, which will be eroded and won’t be able to be passed on and shared with children and grandchildren’.[3]

Protesting against Roe 8. Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, 11 January 2017.
Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, 11 January 2017.

Fear about the future loss of heritage and place, and of environment and senses of identity, dominated discussion of Roe 8 in the media. It drove many people to articulate and confirm their own and their communities’ existing affective and embodied connections to the land and their ‘sense of place’. In a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Perth Freight Link it was stated that:

Communities most importantly connect to a ‘Sense of Place’. Residents relate strongly to the amenity of the area in which they choose to live. Places said to have a strong ‘sense of place’ have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors.[4]

Many protesters articulated very personal connections to the land. Megan Jaceglav, writing in the Fremantle Herald, speaks of an emotional landscape that is intertwined with humanity:

I walked the path of the proposed Roe 8 highway (otherwise known as the Coolbellup Woodlands and Beeliar Wetlands) with a woman who had for eight years of her life held the strongest, most resilient hope, close to her heart.  … Her hope was embedded in the land itself, and the land itself, its myriad colours, shapes, smells, sounds were embedded in her. Walking with her, with the creatures and the critters in the shade and the dappled sunlight, in the presence of woody elders and freshly sprung orchids, was walking in a space of wonderment and love. … And yet, four weeks later, a spectre, a vulture, an apocalypse, descended on this trusting, beautiful, life giving land. … [5]

‘Solastalgia’ is a term used to describe the emotions and the sense of distress experienced by those whose home or treasured place is lost or under threat to environmental degradation. As a sort of ‘nostalgia’ for a place of ‘solace’, the term was coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2005 following his observation of communities affected by proposals for coal mine developments in New South Wales.[6] ‘Solastalgia’ has been considered in court proceedings to challenge development and progress and, while not used to legally contest the Roe 8 development, it is relevant here as a potent force in emotional practices of protest.[7]

Despite several rounds of legal challenges, including writs lodged on behalf of Corina Abraham in the Supreme Court launched in March 2016 and a Senate committee hearing in February 2017, the bulldozers moved in and temporary metal fences demarcated the boundaries. In the end, before it was stopped by a change of state government in March 2017, around 40 hectares of native woodland had been cleared and numerous animals died, unable to escape the fences or dying in-transit to new homes.

Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, 21 March 2017.
‘Well done Cockburn. You stopped Roe 8’. Image courtesy of the Save Beeliar Wetlands Facebook page, 21 March 2017.

When the newly elected Western Australian government formally declared Roe 8 to be no more, the Beeliar Wetlands protesters began to re-plant and tend to the damaged site; the piles of cleared logs were turned into mulch, and spread over the cleared land in an act that was practical, but no doubt loaded with symbolic meanings too. The scar of the construction site was labelled a ‘traumatic wound’ by poet John Kinsella who writes,

It can be healed. Its essence is spilling out like a balm.

The red-tailed cockatoos are thinking of the decades ahead.[8]

While in the years to come the bush may grow enough to cover this ‘wound’, the memory of the protest will continue to be linked to the Beeliar Wetlands in many local minds, as a new dimension to their sense of place. The archives will retain the traces of the processes of protest; the planning documents, local papers and Senate inquiry submissions all provide testimony of emotional connections, and document the significance of this wetland and woodland region in the past, in the present and for the future. Furthermore, an important legacy of the protest has been that the significance of the area for the Nyungar people is now more widely known, and has led to the opening up of new conversations about the preservation of sacred spaces of Indigenous knowledges, practices and heritages.

*

‘The Rivers tell us about ourselves, our communities and our values’[9]

 

Just as the threat to the Beeliar Wetlands system was a catalyst prompting individuals and communities to express and document interconnected heritage values, social memories, senses of identity and place, the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project challenged the Perth community to articulate and narrate their memories and emotional connections to the Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/ the Swan and Canning Rivers and their connected wetland tributaries. A public history and cultural heritage project, two of the key initiatives of the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project included a symposium and the creation of a web platform, which provided fora to challenge traditional interpretations and histories of the Rivers. The website allowed any interested person to plot sites on a map and document their own affective relationships to the Rivers through story-telling, films, interviews, photographic records, creative engagements and historical inquiry. Crucially, the symposium offered an opportunity to discuss conceptual understandings of ‘rivers’, including Indigenous perspectives, that consider rivers do not begin and end at the water’s edge, but flow through all that is nourished by it.

What has emerged is an important archive of social memories and recollections that captures the emotions associated with the Rivers and documents changing value frameworks and cultural understandings. Many contributors reminisced about having fun on this river, while others created artistic responses, sculpted or painted or wrote about the peaceful and calming effects of the estuarine environment. Others have submitted videos of water swirling under a bridge or jellyfish propelling themselves languidly along as if in slow motion.

 

Jo Darbyshire, Narrows Bridge and the Stories Below the Surface, 2004. Oil and redgum resin on canvas, 150cm x 150cm.
Jo Darbyshire, Narrows Bridge and the Stories Below the Surface, 2004. Oil and redgum resin on canvas, 150cm x 150cm.

In the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ database there are also expressions of emotional responses to development progress, such as riverbanks being altered, bridges being built and dredging to deepen various points. Often the narratives were prompted by loss or threat, like the contribution by Pat Hart, who spoke of a lack of support for the River in the face of the Araluen Golf Course development, or Ron Davidson’s nostalgic recollection of the Chinese market gardens that had stretched along the South Perth foreshore since the 1880s, talking about them as he remembered them growing up in the 1940s; he notes that these were gone by 1953. The Rivers’ archive includes many discussions about the nature of development around the river, sometimes celebrating changes and sometimes mourning it. In a pro-development letter to The Daily News in November 1943, it was suggested that environmental changes are to be expected:

If Perth is to go ahead and become really a city then utility and the practicable must come before beauty. … To expect to keep a river in nature’s state where man is city-building and population-expanding is somewhat absurd.[10]

Other contributors document their own shifting opinions about development:

When I first arrived in Perth from the Eastern States the Narrows Bridge was being built and a large area of land down from Kings Park was being reclaimed for road construction. I watched the area develop and have marvelled at the success of the Narrows project and how it has all fitted in with the river. I was initially skeptical about the development but now get great enjoyment viewing it from Kings Park and showing my friends the view. [11]

What emerges from this collection of social memories and emotional connections to the waterways are multifaceted and multi-layered histories of the Rivers, that are centred around the individual. For instance, one contributor, June, uses the emotive image of a dying dolphin to reflect on the environmental threats caused by humans and contamination to the waterways:

The river is a nurturer of our souls. It speaks to us in its own language which people can hear if they take the time to listen. The river was here before the city was built and will be here after the city is flooded. The river has never left the city, the river’s waters flow underneath it and support the land. I was hurt when dolphins began dying due to contaminated river water. I have watched dolphins tumbling in the shallows and herding fish towards waiting cormorants. Splashing and leaping to catch their prize. I have seen a dying dolphin struggling to remain afloat as its breath was leaving its body.

I hated the river after this but it was not the river’s fault. Humans had contaminated it. Lately, I have seen new dolphins entering the river. A mother and her child. I fear for their safety. [12]

June articulates her fears and anxieties for the future of the river system, creating an intricate narrative that weaves between the past and the present. For instance, we are not told how long ago the dolphin died, only that it occurred in the past and that it was a pivotal moment for June, affecting her ability to connect to the river for a time. What June’s story highlights is that the histories of the Rivers are timeless, multifaceted and personal: that the individual and their emotional connections to this place is key.

The ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project provides a platform in which personal memories and official histories, Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge, human and natural histories, deep histories and more contemporary accounts occur alongside each other, as interconnected and valued histories of Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/the Swan and Canning Rivers. Participants have been surprised and rewarded by the prompt to consider their emotional engagement with the river and wetland ecosystem. As the Beeliar Wetlands campaign demonstrates, articulation of these emotional connections can have powerful effects.

 

Cate Turk is a Project Officer for the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia.

Alicia Marchant is a Project Officer for the ‘Rivers of Emotion’ project at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. She holds a PhD from UWA, and her current research focuses on the history of emotions, heritage, materiality and dark tourism. Alicia is the editor of a collection on Historicising Heritage and Emotions: The Affective Histories of Blood, Stone and Land, which will appear with Routledge in 2018.

 

[1] Scott Ludlam, Media Release: ‘Beeliar wetlands latest environmental treasure to be Huntstruck’, 22 Oct 2015.

[2] J. Branco, ‘No Roe 8 Rally 2011 Elders’, YouTube, 2015; accessed 29 May 2017

[3] Branco, ‘No Roe 8 Rally 2011 Elders’.

[4] Patricia Carmichael, ‘Decision to Commit Funding to the Perth Freight Link Project: Submission 3 to the Senate Inquiry into Perth Freight Link’, Parliament of Australia, 21 August 2015.

[5] Megan Jaceglav, ‘Progress and Hope’, Fremantle Herald, 24 February 2017.

[6] Glenn Albrecht, ‘“Solastalgia”: A New Concept in Health and Identity’, PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature 3 (2005): 41–55.

[7] For a further discussion of solastalgia and urban protest, see Jenny Gregory, ‘The Esplanade and the City Gatekeepers: Contesting the Limits of Urban Heritage Protection’, in Historicising Heritage and Emotions: The Affective Histories of Blood, Stone and Land, edited by Alicia Marchant, Routledge, forthcoming c.2018.

[8] John Kinsella, ‘Having Given Up the Ghost, Sweeney Flies in with Seedlings to Help Stitch the Wound’, Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist. A Blog Shared Between Poets John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan, 13 March 2017.

[9] Susan Broomhall and Gina Pickering, eds, Rivers of Emotion: An Emotional history of the Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/ the Swan and Canning Rivers (Uniprint, Crawley, 2012), p.1.

[10] ‘JUST MY THOUGHTS, Perth’, The Daily News, 22 November 1943. Reproduced at Rivers of Emotions: An Emotional History of Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/the Swan and Canning Rivers http://www.riversofemotion.org.au/content/just-my-thoughts.

[11] Anonymous, ‘Narrows Bridge Project’, Rivers of Emotions: An Emotional History of Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/The Swan and Canning Rivers.

[12] June, ‘Soul River’, Rivers of Emotions: An Emotional History of Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier/The Swan and Canning Rivers.

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