Geoff Lacey.

A clash of values

The White-faced Heron hunts in the wetlands and along the Yarra River. John Hutchison.

Towards the end of 2017, the Victorian Government put forward a proposal to build a North-East Link Freeway. Their preferred route follows the Greensborough Highway south, and connects with the Eastern Freeway. VicRoads would use tunnelling in some of the ‘residential and sensitive environmental areas’. The tunnel would cross under the Yarra River at Banyule Flats.

The proposal has met with protests. In fact, we find here a deep clash of values. For a long time, governments and corporations have regarded the development of motor transport and the construction of big roads as top priorities. Particular values underlie such policies, values that promote the mastery of nature through the expansion of technology. Resisting such projects are people who consider that building freeways undermines the wellbeing of urban communities and their environment. They support values that affirm social equity and the intrinsic worth of the natural ecology.

What, then, constitutes the natural environment in this contested terrain of the north-eastern suburbs? To shed some light on this, I would like to describe what I saw and heard on two September walks along the Yarra Flats parklands from Heidelberg to Ivanhoe.

Walking along Yarra Flats

In September 2012, all the wetlands on the floodplain had water. Walking south from Banksia Street Heidelberg, I soon came to Annulus Billabong, a large round wetland, with an island in the middle.

When the flats were grazed in the past, there were few if any trees, but following several plantings since the mid-1980s by Riverland Conservation Society and other groups, there is now fairly dense growth of river red gum, silver and black wattle, and large shrubs around the billabong.

I sat for a while on the north side of the billabong. It was peaceful and beautiful, with the dense young gums and the silver wattles on the banks, fresh and green, reflecting in the blue water. Mudlarks and wagtails forage in short grass on the far shore. A white-faced heron lands and hunts in shallow water near the far edge. Lots of bush birds call from the trees, including the grey shrike-thrush, brown thornbill, blue wren, and grey fantail. A grey butcherbird sings beautifully, and a shining bronze-cuckoo calls in the distance, heralding the spring.

Birds help define the character of a site and its connections to other sites. Birds are links, as well as indicators telling us something about each site and its special character. The white-faced heron, with its blue-grey plumage, is characteristic of all the wetlands along the Yarra, and nearly always present whenever these have water. It is also frequently seen gliding gently, low over the river, or perched on fallen branches. The other birds present are characteristic of the riverside woodland, the mudlarks and wagtails generally close to the water’s edge.

Five years later, in September 2017, the mood was different. It was overcast and windy, and all the wetlands were dry. Around Annulus Billabong, the river red gum saplings and the silver wattles had grown somewhat. Even when dry, the billabong looks splendid, in tones of dull-green, yellow, and grey, wild and untidy in its quiet loneliness.

To the west of the billabong is an elongated ephemeral swamp. This was full of clear water in 2012, with much green rush growing at the edge. Everything was beautiful under the clear sky, with reflections in the water. Spotted and striped marsh frogs called. Moorhens swam. Wagtails and a pair of crimson rosellas came and went.

In 2017, there was much phalaris, a tall introduced grass, around the dry ephemeral swamp, and a some blackberry. A little further south along the floodplain, a large silver wattle and a blackwood were in flower.

Annulus Billabong.

I continue south along the river track. Much of the river bank is covered with tree violet, a large shrub with masses of tiny cream bell-shaped flowers, beneath the gums and wattles. Joggers and bike-riders pass me. It is exhilarating walking under the trees. In parts the floodplain is broad, and sometimes horses graze in fenced paddocks, or the tall grass is mown.

Birds were not deterred by the windy weather on this latter occasion. Magpies, butcherbirds, and pied currawongs gave forth their musical notes. Galahs and red wattlebirds called too. The smaller species were not so evident.

We come to a promontory, jutting out to the south-east, where the river forms a big bend. On the opposite side of the river is Bolin Bolin Billabong. That site was of prime importance to the Wurundjeri people. There used to be a great abundance of waterbirds, fish, eels, and edible roots in the wetlands, and scope for hunting mammals. Every year, the Wurundjeri used to meet the other groups of the Kulin nation for replenishing their food, for ceremonies, and for games. It remained a meeting place until the land was sold into private hands in 1841, its loss being a tragedy for the people.

Connecting across time, place, & people

Immediately downstream from the promontory, the floodplain on this side narrows for a short distance, and a charming stand of red gums of varying age and shape line the bottom of the slope. It was from high above the escarpment here that Arthur Streeton in 1890 painted Still glides the stream and shall forever glide. It was a pastoral landscape then; there are many more trees now.

Just past the promontory and also about 400 metres downstream, there are rocky bars across the river. These were once favourite swimming spots, and one was the site of some Heidelberg School paintings.

From here on, we begin to encounter a number of very big old river red gums on both sides of the river, some twisted and some quite tall. One huge old tree has many hollows – homes for many animal species – and jagged broken-off branches. A younger two-trunked tree intrudes right next to it. Tree violet forms an extensive thicket on the bank under the trees.

The river red gum defines the character of river and creek banks and floodplains throughout much of Australia. Matthew Colloff, in Flooded forest and desert creek, points out that the river red gum ‘connects across time, place and people, land and water, desert and forest’. This species gives the impression of a wild and anarchic character, often twisted and broken. It is hard to find two specimens alike. The bark peels, leaving smooth and rough patches in every shade of brown and grey.

River, creek, or wetland, bordered by river red gum, is the environment in which I have always felt most at home, and which I feel as most characteristic of the land of Australia.

We soon come to a billabong, the subject of an 1890 painting, Moonrise Heidelberg, by Emanuel Philips Fox. In 2012, the wetland had plenty of water. A few ducks and moorhens were swimming around. There were many birds in the trees on the adjacent river bank, including a number of small species – silvereye, eastern spinebill, brown thornbill, and white-browed scrubwren.

On my 2017 walk, many birds were calling near the dry billabong, mainly large species. They include the rainbow lorikeet (making raucous shrieks), black-faced cuckoo-shrike (a gentle churring sound), and yellow-tailed black-cockatoo (a weird and far-carrying call). An olive-backed oriole, a spring-summer migrant to Victoria, emits its quaint ‘o-ri-ole’ call non-stop from the opposite bank. A common bronzewing takes off from the ground. There are fewer small species on this occasion than before.

There are many big trees between the billabong and the river, some with branches thrusting way out. On the opposite bank, there is one big dead tree with lots of large hollows, suitable for many nests. The big trees, sometimes in a cluster, continue along the riverbank as far as a big loop near Burke Road Ivanhoe.

An ecological corridor & its functions

The Yarra River and its parklands constitute an ecological corridor, one of the most important such corridors in the Melbourne area. Running through the metropolitan landscape, this corridor is rich in remnants of the original ecosystems.

Many such corridors criss-cross the suburbs and the countryside. They run along rivers and creeks, roadsides, and railway reserves, forming a rich ecological network, connecting up with the national parks and other bushland reserves. These corridors make possible the spread of indigenous plant species and the daily foraging and migratory movements of mammals and birds. The old trees are of special importance: they provide a protective environment for the small plants and for animals.

Matthew Colloff points out: ‘The presence within an ecosystem of trees with a diversity of sizes, shapes, and biological characteristics provides a wide range of resources for other organisms… (These include) the habitats available to animals in the layers of shed leaves… under the bark, in hollows, and within the canopy foliage, and the food provided by sap, pollen, nectar, fruits, leaves, seeds, flowers, and woody tissue.’

The tree roots capture nutrients from the subsoil, and these are returned to the surface soil through fallen leaves and litter, building up fertility. The trees help mitigate extremes of temperature through transpiration, and mitigate climate change through sequestration of carbon in the wood and the soil.

Wetlands are very productive ecosystems, carrying out a range of biological functions. They capture and cycle nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the inflowing water. They sequester carbon. They convert energy, nutrients, water, and gases into living biomass. This becomes food for the multitude of small invertebrates. These in turn become food for the waterbirds, that are enabled to build up their numbers and spread out over the land.

The ecological corridors help define the special character of a city and help form the particular culture of the community. They are part of a commons, providing places for events that bring diverse groups of people together. Access to these green spaces is beneficial to people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

The ecological network is threatened by such developments as the proposed North East Link Freeway. Details such as the tunnel are not available, and the exact impacts on the Yarra River and its parklands are not yet clear. However, an alternative approach to transport planning is long overdue. Rather than building freeways, our planners should be looking for ways to scale down motor transport. This would be one step towards a decrease in carbon emissions and a sustainable economy.

The wildness in the suburbs

As we become familiar with this landscape, we find it opens a window to possibilities. Enhancing the ecological corridors is a key step towards a sustainable economy – one that works within the cycles of the ecosystems. This economy will have a local emphasis, with reduced need for travel, as the city becomes attractive again, and people re-engage with its environment.

Moreover, the remnant ecosystems give a deep meaning to our living in the land and in the city. The natural environment is at once familiar, yet evokes wonder. It has a quality of wildness; it is given to us; it is not something we own. We can experience this wildness here, even in the midst of the suburbs. There is something majestic about the great trees and the many species of birds – sights that would have been witnessed again and again over the millennia of human habitation.

Thomas Berry, in The dream of the earth, reflecting on his own place, the Hudson River Valley, writes:

(We are returning to) the world of life and spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset… of wildlife dwelling among us, of the river and its wellbeing… Here we experience the reality and the values that evoke in us our deepest moments of reflection, our revelatory experience of the ultimate mystery of things…

That the valley will be healed where it is damaged, preserved in its present integrity and renewed in its creative possibilities, is the hope that is before us… Just now we are, as it were, returning to the valley, finding our place once again after a long period of alienation.

Notes on sources

River Red Gum. Matthew Colloff, Flooded forest and desert creek: ecology and history of the river red gum, CSIRO Publishing, 2014.
Wetlands. S. Wratten et al., Ecosystem services in agricultural and urban landscapes, Wiley, 2013.
Hudson Valley. Thomas Berry, The dream of the earth, Sierra Club, 1988.

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