A Tribute to the River Swan
I am gradually settling back into the scheme of things after a nice long trip to the UK and the US over my mid-semester break. I visited the Leeds International Medieval Congress and the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society in Portland, Oregon. I had a lovely time, my life is feeling fresher, more one track and my research even feels more interesting to me. A good holiday really is a great cure for what ails you. I had a wonderful time at New Chaucer, and won’t talk about it here because I think Anne Harris, Jeffrey Cohen, and Steve Mentz have pretty much said it all. I would like to say thanks to all the great people I met or met again in Portland for making my trip so much fun, and for generally being awesome.
At the Congress, we talked a lot about Oceans, and when I returned to my home city of Perth I was feeling (other than jetlagged) very sensitive to the aqueous environment. This was just as well, because it started raining promptly as soon as I returned. I did, however, spend some time in the last week walking along the foreshore of our resident river, the swan. It is on the topic of the river closest to my heart that i’d like to focus today, for it has long supported, fascinated and inspired me. After seing Portland’s pleasing Willamette, I felt a new gratitude for my home river.
This is a view of the river that I took while sitting on a favourite bench of mine on the way to the University of Western Australia. It was flat as a mill pond, reflective and a pearlescent sapphire. I have rarely seen it look so beautiful. It made me think about all of the interactions I have had with its waters. I swam in it as a child. I have collected jellyfish. I have sailed on my father’s boat. I have fished in it. I have caught prawns. I have floated on it for a river cruise. I have watched it as I walked by on many mornings. I sit down by the foreshore, only a short walk from where I sit now. I have picnicked by its banks many times and in many locations. My school, Helena College, is named for a tributary of the Swan, the Helena river, flowing past the school grounds in the hills of Perth.
The Swan is a river of beauty, diversity and history. It is an entity of great and enduring importance to the indigenous inhabitants of the area that is now Perth, the Whadjuk Noongar people. The river, called the Derbal Yerrigan by its traditional owners, is associated with the Waugal, the great rainbow serpent who protects the rivers, lakes, springs and wildlife. It is thought that it was the writhing of his body that scoured the earth and formed the rivers. The river, for the Noongar, was carved and shaped by the undulating vitality of a great and powerful guardian spirit. This website compiled by the State Library, drawn from the accounts of Noongar elders, is a better account of the story and one that I encourage you to read.
Unfortunately, our Anglo-Australian forebears had a very different idea of what constituted power. The European history of water management in Perth has not always been a pleasant one, featuring the the all-too-familiar colonial melange of rampant manipulation, environmental degradation and misguided science, and yet the Swan remains. The site of the city was once part of its waters, a vast tract of swampland drained and built up for the construction of what is now the Central Business district. The alterations continue, for it is the latest project of our State Government to carve out an artificial inlet in the Swan to ‘unite the city and the river’. I will refrain from expressing my opinion on this matter, because nobody likes a rant. My colleague Ruth Morgan has recently published an article in the Conversation on the hydrological misadventures of our premier Colin Barnett, and I think that she says it much better than I ever could.
This is a view from the shore of the river next to my University, and was taken from the bench where I like to sit, breathe in the fresh air, and write notes about ideas big and small. This post is for you, Swan river. Long may you flow. And hopefully our state government doesn’t mutilate you (you’ve endured quite enough). I hope that when I return home, you will always be there to delight and surprise me. You teach me that sometimes, despite all of the complex distractions of life, it is nice to just sit and look at the river flow by.
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