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Following the Water

Chapter 8

Mirror, mirror? The reflective catchment

Water is my eye, most faithful mirror …

Newton Faulkner1

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;

She is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

St Francis of Assissi2

Water is the earth’s natural mirror. Peering into the waters of the Gippsland Lakes Catchment (GLC), we see a story on many levels. At one level, it is a variation on humanity’s love affair with and dependency on water. At another, it is about what people see and how they see it. More fundamentally, it is about learning from the ways in which that love affair and those perceptions shaped practices in the past, and analyses the impacts of those on the present.

For most of history, humans have lived within the controls set by nature. Hours of activity were curtailed by the amount of daylight, and warfare was a summertime activity. As long as the changes in environmental conditions were reasonably regular and predictable, societies could prepare and survive. It was the unpredictable and unforeseeable changes in the environment that threatened survival. The amazing thing about the Victorian era was that for the first time it looked as if humans could be free from those ecological limits. Imagine the optimism such a thought created – the conviction that ‘nature’ was there to be mastered, engineered and trained, and not just in its local patterns but globally!

Recently, the concept of the Anthropocene has been formulated to account for the extent to which human activities associated with the Industrial Revolution began to significantly affect world environmental systems. This book – in dealing with an outpost of nineteenth-century imperial aspirations, capacities and experiences – has sought to understand the intersection of that faith in transformation and that accelerated impact. Through the figure of the hydrological cycle, it has sought to comprehend the allure and comprehension of water as a resource, the interventions in water management as a part of patterns of colonial settlement, and the enduring impact of such an amalgam of factors on a catchment system. And, as an integrated study, it has sought not to simply separate ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in terms of people’s mishandling of an ecology, but to account for the ways in which that ecology was made comprehensible in the first place.

From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, living the effects of those colonists’ optimism, we know they were wrong, just as we appreciate how much we have – in the short term – benefited from their faith in progress. We have the improved life expectancy and universal education, as well as the extinctions and the pollution, to prove it. But in 1838, the world was their oyster. This was the partly the gift that science and the Industrial Revolution gave our colonial forebears, but – as this book also shows – that science and industry were also meshed within rich cultural fabrics of faith, custom, labour and trade that are less easily separated out as ‘causes’ to be indicted. Rather, like the hydrological cycle itself, that optimism worked within a system that was hard to grasp in its entirety, and in which effects ran in wide and enduring channels. The combination of narcissism and undreamt of power the settlers of Gippsland carried with them transformed not only the Lakes catchment, but also the world systems in which they understood themselves.

What do people see? As Michael Cathcart writes:

The notion of ‘projection’ can imply that the world is merely a blank field, waiting to be imprinted with our landscapes of desire: That there is only language. The reality is that the world answers back. Project whatever you like. If you fail to find water, you will die.3

Yet people also see the world through filters, and those of the Victorian settlers included their belief in being the favoured parts of God’s creation and their belief in science and progress. Perception is as much a cultural act as it is a biophysical one. Sewall, in Sight and Sensibility, takes a tour through definitions of seeing across Hindu, Buddhist, ancient Greek, medieval Christian, eighteenth-century Enlightenment and twentieth-century neurophysiological versions of seeing. She demonstrates that perception is a cultural act. James Hillman has said that ‘we see what our ideas let us see’.4 This book is an extended excursion into the cultural perception of the hydrological cycle held by nineteenth-century white settler immigrants to Gippsland, seeking equally to engage with what shaped those perceptions – from the transitional mix of versions of the cycle accessible to them (as discussed in Chapter 2) – to the justifications given for profound interventions in that cycle in the name of commerce, comfort and certainty. And, in building on a reconstruction of that perception, this research has also traced actions that had an impact on the hydrological cycle of the catchment, with ramifications that speak to contemporary concerns about the integrity of ecological processes, of sustainability and ecological change.

What emerges from reading the sources is the settlers’ dominant narrative of lack and deficiency in the hydrology around them. The rivers were too sluggish, or too shallow. The banks were too steep. The bogs were too boggy or the sands too sandy. There was too much rain, or not enough. All of these were impediments to the flow of goods and people in the imperial economy. Millions of pounds of public and private money were spent to rectify perceived hydrological barriers in the pursuit of a connected imperial economy based on agricultural trade with Britain and her colonies. The evidence marshalled here for the multiple influences of water on colonial Gippslanders confirms the importance of water to every aspect of their lives – that there was no simple lack of ‘care’ in their actions. Gippslanders were as complex and dynamic as the hydrological cycle itself, as shown by the interrelationships between their economic, material, social, intellectual and spiritual lives.

As McNeill notes in Something New Under the Sun, ‘the health, wealth and security of any and all societies depended upon getting sufficient supplies of sufficiently clean water to the right place at the right time, without doing too much damage in the process’.5 But what is significant and worth noting, both in the particularities of a case study as well as the generalities of an environmental process, is the mix of available knowledge, technology and will that transforms a system to meet those ends, and leaves enduring impacts.

The Kurnai had permanent access to good-quality fresh water, in the same catchment, and their changes were minimal. Warner describes the contrast between hunter-gatherer societies and modern ones as moving ‘from low, slow impacts associated with small populations with low levels of technology to large, high consumer populations, with a technology where almost anything is possible’.6 All the problems facing the catchment now, such as eutrophication, salinisation and erosion, can be traced back to changes set in motion within the first 70 years of settlement. The near collapse of the entire Lakes ecosystem in closing decades of the twentieth century is attributable to a significant amount of organic pollution generated by various physical alterations such as drainage and agricultural development, combined with the stratification of the water column created by the permanent entrance.

Before the arrival of Angus McMillan, the Lakes were a fresh to brackish water system fed by five rivers that flowed through a largely vegetated catchment. At the turn of the millennium, there are still five rivers, but some bear little resemblance to their former selves. The Latrobe in particular is not the Latrobe of 1838, having been dredged, channelled and dammed along its course. In addition there are miles and miles of drains, delivering stormwater and its toxicants into the rivers and lakes. Whole ecological communities have been destroyed or remain critically endangered.7 The entire assemblage of fringing vegetation species around the lakes has been changed, from fresh/brackish species to saline species.

The full scale of change apparent in the health of the catchment cannot be fully laid at the feet of nineteenth-century colonisers. There was a 100-year time lag in the system for some of the changes, which, incidentally, makes the GLC a handy analogy for the current debate on the need for climate change mitigation and adaptation. But everything was well underway, clearing, draining, dredging and snagging. The twentieth century merely intensified the effort. Seemingly small and positive changes in human lifestyles combined synergistically, and over the long term, to bring about a near collapse of the lakes aquatic ecosystem. Driving those changes was a conflict between the catchment as it was and the catchment as the colonists thought it should be.

Modern Australian society is as much in thrall to the glamour of progress and development as colonial Gippslanders.8 Because we now have laws, policies and programs to protect water and biodiversity, and a science that more readily understands and accommodates systemic effects, we like to think we have moved on. Yet by almost any indicator or framework for assessing impacts on ecological processes, the situation, both domestically and globally, is getting worse.9 The World’s Water Report for 2008–09 suggests that many catchments around the planet have reached their ‘peak ecological demand’, defined as the point at which the benefits delivered to humans through abstraction are outweighed by the cost of the damage caused by the abstraction of water.10 At current rates of consumption (unevenly distributed between developed and developing countries) of natural resources, by 2030 we will need two planets.11 Yet, as the Biosphere II project showed so unflinchingly, our capacity to replicate ecological processes is inadequate. There is no second planet, and we can’t do as good a job as Nature does.

How does an environmental history of a regional catchment in the nineteenth century help us when faced with such a situation? It helps by providing that proverbial mirror for ourselves. The mirror shows that there is only a sliver of difference between then and now when it comes to thinking about growth, progress, development and all those other superficially good things about Western civilisation. So, what is that hair breadth? It could be summed up in a single word. Connection. We live in a connected world, and there are profound differences between which connections different cultures value.

Colonial Gippslanders did want to live in a connected world. They appreciated that they were in an increasingly sophisticated and complex web of global economic and political connections (sound familiar?). They were, after all, one of the more far-flung outposts of British imperialism, although none the less patriotic for their distance from Queen Victoria. They were indefatigable about becoming better connected with that world, primarily though transport infrastructure and communication technology. Again, sound familiar? To build such infrastructure networks frequently involved major engagement with the hydrological cycle. To sell their apples and butter in a London winter involved the hydrological cycle at every stage, whether as an input or impediment. That kind of input/output thinking is characteristic of their quantitative and volumetric vision of hydrology. They couldn’t see the hundreds of litres of water that went into the butter, and the cow that produced the milk. And they definitely couldn’t see the rising groundwater caused by the clearing of forests to make the pastures, or lament the homeless birds and incinerated marsupials in their clearing fires.

It does matter that colonial Gippslanders replumbed the catchment. Nor were they the only ones. Just about every catchment in Australia is degraded somehow, whether that be through low flows, over-clearing or weed infestation. To rectify the damage, national, state and local policies on integrated catchment management require millions and millions of taxpayer funds.12 Ironically, many of the actions are the absolute reverse of what colonial settlers thought of as progress – for example, the Victorian River Health progress report released in 2009 shows large woody debris being placed back into rivers, to rebuild instream habitat.

Our colonial forebears realised how essential water was for their own lives and livelihoods. They failed to see that every other species had the same needs. The majority of Gippslanders were incapable of perceiving the breadth of ecological connections that supported them. Not that they are to be judged harshly for this. Their personal and collective history was about maintaining human life in the face of the exigencies of nature. Ours is opposite. We need to maintain nature in the face of the exigencies of human life. In the 119 years that have passed since the arrival of the twentieth century, the inheritors of the Western rationalist tradition are trying to learn what the Kurnai already knew. Humans are only one species among many, sharing a living world where life is only made possible by the presence of water. ‘However slight,’ suggests Stephanie Dowrick, ‘any shift in perception to a more inclusive and respectful vision is always significant – and never for our own sakes only.’13

Fig 8.1

Figure 8.1: Swans feeding at dusk, Lakes Entrance, November 2011.

Source: Author.


1 From the song ‘Teardrop’ on Newton Faulkner’s album, Handbuilt By Robots.

2 St Francis of Assissi, Canticle of the sun, c. 1225, webapp.stthomas.edu/recyclingquotes/catagory.html?catagory=15, accessed 4 September 2007.

3 M Cathcart, The water dreamers: The remarkable history of our dry continent, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, p. 3.

4 L Sewall, Sight and sensibility: The ecopsychology of perception, Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam Books, New York, 1999, p. 54.

5 JR McNeill, Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world, WW Norton and Co., New York, 2000, paperback edition in 2001, p. 5.

6 RF Warner, ‘Do we really understand our rivers? Or rivers in the pooh-semper in excreta’, Australian Geographical Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, 1996, p. 11. doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8470.1996.tb00099.x.

7 I Lunt, ‘The distribution and environmental relationships of native grasslands on the lowland Gippsland Plain, Victoria: An historical study’, Australian Geographical Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, July 1997, pp. 140–52. doi.org/10.1111/1467-8470.00015.

8 For example, see H MacKay, What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us, Hatchette, Sydney, 2010, ch. 8.

9 The cumulative impacts of settlement lead to the introduction of the Victorian River Health Strategy in 2001. The 2009 audit demonstrates the comprehensive level of rehabilitation required, e.g. ‘Seventy five percent of the lower Nicholson River is now excluded from stock, with 60 per cent fully revegetated. Works are continuing to establish a stock free riparian zone connecting the mountain reaches with the Lakes by 2013. Two other systems are nearing completion: the Wonnangatta River above the Wongungarra River confluence (Mitchell River catchment), and the Thurra River’. Victoria, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Securing our rivers for future generations: Victorian river health program report card 2002–2009, the Department, Melbourne, 2009, p. 18. The 2008 Victorian State of the Environment report showed that ‘only one fifth of major rivers and tributaries in Victoria were in good or excellent condition’, that ‘21 fish species, 11 frog species and 29 species of waterbirds are threatened, and only 14% of riverside vegetation along major rivers and streams in Victoria was found to be in good condition’. An assessment in 1994 found that one-third of Victorian wetlands had been destroyed, with most of that loss, fully 90 per cent, occurring on private land and largely drained for agriculture. Commissioner for Sustainability and Environment, State of the Environment Victoria 2008, Summary: Living well within our environment – Are we? Can we?, the Commissioner, Melbourne, 2008, p. 9. Globally, biodiversity loss rates have not slowed, protection for key habitat is insufficient, more species are being driven towards extinction, 13 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water and fully half of the population of developing countries do not have sanitation. United Nations, Millenium development goals report, United Nations, New York, 2010, ch. 7.

10 PH Gleick, H Cooley, MJ Cohen, M Morikawa, J Morrison & M Palaniappan, The world’s water 2008–2009: The biennial report of freshwater resources, Island Press, Washington DC, 2009.

11 The footprint network, footprintnetwork/org/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint, accessed 10 December 2010.

12 In 2008/09 spending on the Avon and Perry rivers and Freestone and Valencia creeks (draining into Lake Wellington) was $537,500, plus commencement of a $1.2 m project to protect farmland along the Avon from flood-induced erosion. For the Latrobe catchment, the 2008/09 spend was $2,509,500; $803,500 was spent in 2008/09 on the Thomson catchment. All the above from West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority website. See also, for a broader view of investment into remediation, LTH Newnham & JJ Drewry, Modelling catchment scale nutrient generation, Technical Report 28/05, National River Contaminants Program of Land and Water Australia, CSIRO Land and Water, Canberra, 2006.

13 S Dowrick, Seeking the sacred: Transforming our view of ourselves and one another, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2010, p. 69.


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