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Knowing River

There are many ways to know a river. Geographically, topographically, ecologically. But what do rivers know? In Aboriginal cultures like my own, Gamilaraay – we’re freshwater mob – rivers are alive and deeply inspirited. They are both known and knowing. I grew up with the belief that rivers – throbbing circuitously through Country, connected to everything – can sense, guide, warn and provide. Gali (water, in my language) is life.

Of Dyarubbin I knew only a few things. I knew Dyarubbin was a mighty, long and winding waterway. Even in 2D aerial maps I’d seen, the river seemed to sluice powerfully across all other shapes and colours around it, saturating everything beyond the borders of its own flat blue line. Foreign placenames pinned uncomfortably along Dyarubbin’s length spoke something of its colonial past: Castlereagh, Richmond, Pitt Town, Windsor, Wilberforce. They far outnumbered Aboriginal placenames like Maroota: place of many springs. While Darug people have lived along Dyarubbin for millennia, the river is most widely known for its settler history. Well-worn are the tales of ex-convicts making new lives for themselves on a wildly beautiful and mysterious river prone to the kind of volatile flooding that could swallow dwellings whole. And so, like most people, I knew the Hawkesbury River. I didn’t know Dyarubbin, and Dyarubbin didn’t know me.

Early last year, I visited the river for the first time. There I was fortunate to meet with Darug artists, educators and knowledge-holders Jasmine Seymour, Erin Wilkins, Leanne Watson and Rhiannon Wright, who told me that Dyarubbin is intrinsic to Darug culture, language and spirituality. Like Country, they’d explained, the river is encoded with meaning. We stood at the top of a steep rocky outcrop at Sackville Reach, the river sweeping below us in a spectacular hairpin bend. I learnt that the most dramatic turns in the river are also some of the most spiritual sites. This stretch is called Durumbuluwa: ‘zone of the rainbow’ or ‘path of the rainbow’ and is connected to the story of Gurangatty, the Great Eel creation ancestor spirit who tore across the land to create Dyarubbin before resting, finally, in the deepest parts of the river. Jasmine and Leanne described him as a half-human, half-eel creature with shimmery golden-green skin and eyes like stars. His face appears in the cliff just downstream at Wuwami, where he watches solemnly. I felt very small there, physically diminished by an immense and palpable energy. The speedboats doing wheelies in front of Gurangatty’s face now looked perverse, or funny, or both. I wondered if he found them an affront or a cosmic disturbance, rolling his great starry eyes like I imagined our ancestors do to keep from crying. The Sackville Ferry persisted on its linear journey between opposite embankments, soundless until the reliable metallic crash of car ramp on bitumen every three to ten minutes, twenty-four hours a day.

PEOPLE SAY THAT SOME parts of the river have a strong emotional resonance. It is not uncommon to hear Dyarubbin described as being ‘moody,’ ‘mysterious’ or ‘eerie’. I thought of the way Country holds memory, including sorry memories. Historian Professor Grace Karskens – who introduced me to Jasmine, Erin, Leanne and Rhiannon – writes that from 1794 to 1816, Dyarubbin was the site of one of the longest-running frontier wars on the continent. Darug people fiercely defended the most spiritual parts of the river, as well as their sovereign rights to their lands, their culture, their livelihoods – all inseparable from Dyarubbin. The process of invasion and colonisation was slow and cumulative, writes Professor Karskens in People of the River, marked by “violence, trauma, betrayal and disease, the theft of Aboriginal children, and the ongoing expansion and annexation of the river lands”. Settlers took land along Dyarubbin and the rich alluvial soil of its floodplains to grow maize crops, blocking Darug people from not only accessing the river but the prime fertile land of riverbanks where yams were grown. Darug women harvested yams using their gunira – yam digging sticks – individual in shape and pattern carved by their owners. Yams can refer to any type of edible tuber: milaan, in my language; midyini in Darug. Although not typically found on Dyarubbin, the most well-known across the continent is the yam daisy, which nods its yellow head in a kind of famous resignation that it is ready to be eaten. Twice when I’d visited the river, Jasmine had found and dug out bush carrots with her hands as she’d been taught by her family. They were pale and long and equal turns earthen and sweet, tiny and filling, dimpled and bulbous.

Directly below us and deep in the river, Gurangatty rested. I was told that the whirlpools swirling on the water’s surface were a telling sign of his presence. I didn’t know Gurangatty very well – at least, not like Darug people know him – but I liked knowing he was there. We sat on a flat rock high above the water. Rhiannon collected grass fibres. Everyone talked over the cicadas, tidal in the rising and receding of their droning. Erin mentioned that this site was a gathering and ceremonial place for Darug people until at least the early to mid-1940s. As I thought of those ancestors, I was reminded that there is so often a disruption – punctuated by a literal date range – to the way our special sites are experienced in time. It was a deeply saddening thought, but an inescapable one when darkness is always perceptible at the edges of colonised land. Anyone can feel it; the despairing wail of our ancestors worrying at the skin like wind. The feeling is most pronounced in places where something bad has happened, or in places holding other sorry memories. Dyarubbin, we know, holds many.

THERE ARE POCKETS throughout dugga – Dyarubbin’s dense brush forest – that Jasmine, Erin, Leanne and Rhiannon call wirri nura: bad Country, sick Country. One site in particular – a neglected reserve – is home to a family of paperbark scar trees, bush foods, tools and medicines. There’s an uneasy feeling about it. Invasive weeds carpet the ground – a dark sanctuary for insects and rats – twisting up tree trunks and binding them together. Grasses grow as tall as people. Tyre marks churn up the earth. Strewn rubbish drifts limply down the creek.

Dyarubbin. Photo: Joy Lai, for the NSW State Library’s Exploring Dyarubbin exhibition

Jasmine’s family’s stories recall an entirely different creek of some decades ago: her aunties swam with native orchids and native lilies; her uncle watched perch darting through water that ran clear to the bottom. Fluctuating pollution levels in Dyarubbin and its tributaries from runoff, agriculture, mining and sewerage are today a recurring problem. Leanne spoke of the negative impact this has on natural birthing pools, national parks and other cultural sites reliant on the health of a complex network of waterways. And yet, sometimes inexplicably, important resources cultivated by Darug people for thousands of years continue to grow in these places. In a few minutes Jasmine and Leanne had collected warrigal greens, native raspberry, wombat berry vine, sandpaper fig for sharpening tools, paperbark for cooking, and star-shaped native geranium, used as a poultice for arthritis. I ran the scratchy sandpaper fig leaf gently over my palm and took a photo of it in my hand, as if to prove to myself, twice, that it had survived. Sadly, other aspects of Darug cultural heritage in this area had not. It’s said that, in the 1930s, a local settler family tore up a nearby rock engraving of the Great Eel on their property with a tractor, a terrible act forever disturbing the story of Gurangatty told in sandstone along Dyarubbin, which is to say; the story of Dyarubbin itself.

THERE WAS A PRINT OF A PAINTING I recognised hanging in shops and hotel lobbies in Windsor. When I searched for information on it later, I’d found that it was a watercolour by George William Evans, who was known as a surveyor, painter and explorer. It was titled The Settlement on the Green Hills, Hawksburgh River N.S.Wales. In the Green Hills of 1809 in the painting, river boats in the foreground pass by terraced crops neatly lining the hill behind, which is dotted with small houses. Brush forest presses in at the right of the frame (or maybe the colony presses out). I thought of it as Evans’ reflection of the colony as it would have liked to see itself: peaceful, prosperous and brimming with a contained natural beauty. To me, it seemed to bely the sense of unease that must have been felt across the colony at a time of heightened frontier warfare and violence. But I had found it most unsettling, I realised, because like so many colonial paintings of the era, it was a vision only legitimised through the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty and custodianship of place, which was total.

The Aboriginal placename for Green Hills, later renamed Windsor, is Bulyayurang. Rhiannon spoke of its significance to Darug people, and the corroboree ground situated on the ridge above the river where Thompson Square is now. The last recorded corroboree was held there in the 1840s, she had said; another special site with an end date bookended quietly in time. I searched for more stories of the corroboree ground along with the Evans painting but found very little, maybe a few references. I learned instead about the convict floggings at the Bell Post, as Thompson Square was formerly known; the heritage value of its Georgian buildings; and the historic Windsor Bridge that ran off it. I’d hoped to come across some reflections on the co-option of a special Darug site for those purposes, but didn’t.

The corroboree ground had been gradually extinguished by the built environment, and the clamour of colonial history making.

Jasmine, Erin, Leanne and Rhiannon told me about the harmful and persistent assumption that Darug people no longer exist, or that many or all aspects of traditional Darug culture are ‘lost’. While the devastating impact of colonisation on the First People of the river is clear, and ongoing – the notion is obviously untrue. Darug people still live on the river, still practice culture, and still connect with their river Country. The language of ‘loss’ in First Nations contexts often is problematic, too, in its passivity. When something has been ‘lost’, it is the usually the fault of the person who did the losing, there are no perpetrators. Lost children; lost stories; lost language. All of these are euphemisms. Language, for example, didn’t ‘get lost’, ‘fall asleep’ and then ‘wake up’ as it’s so often said to have done. Language was brutally and systematically diminished in the process of colonisation by the state. And yet, ‘loss’ as a word is all-encompassing; useful in distilling a complex set of processes and emotions to a singular noun expressing an experience that is, to some degree, recognised by all First Nations people.

ERIN TOLD ME THAT, since 2014, she and a group of local people and organisations have been involved in a project to revive the ancient practice of cultural burning at Yellomundee Regional Park. Supported by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Rural Fire Service, the group started conducting controlled burns to assist with clearing excess weeds and flammable undergrowth (called biomass, I learned), and the regeneration of native plant and wildlife species. It was, on one hand, about wildfire hazard reduction and the restoration of ecological balance. On the other, it was about people. Erin said it was about so much more than “putting a match to dead grass”, and that the benefits – both intended and unintended – were far reaching. People’s fear of fire subsided. Erin recalled the babies on hips watching the fire, their parents’ unafraid. The children safely running through the cool burn. The coming together of community and mobs from all over. The reciprocal wellbeing in caring for Country, for each other. The healing of the smoke. Dyarubbin, not yet thriving but closer, both known and knowing.