‘Art matters, just as the environment matters, for its own sake.’ Harry Saddler says the rehabilitation of Merri Creek is a vivid reminder of how community action can create a different future
On the eve of lockdown – in those early days before boredom and frustration set in, when Australia was fuzzy with panic and worry – I was riding my bike back home from my local farmers market. It was a Sunday morning, one of those early March mornings in Melbourne when you first start to feel the seasons turning. There was a new crispness to the world and the freshness of recent drizzle hung on the bushes, smudging the air.
Like the exponential curve of viral spread that we all stared at in those early days, Australia’s cultural events and institutions had started shutting down in an accelerating pattern, the first signs of what was to come. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival announced its cancellation on the March 13; on the same day the Sydney Writers’ Festival suspended ticket sales, followed by full cancellation on March 16, which was the same day that the State Library of Victoria was closed to the public; on March 18 the Canberra International Music Festival was cancelled. Events large and small, everything from theatre runs to bookshop appearances, were abandoned, with nothing to replace them.
I watched as friends and acquaintances realised that their work had vanished, work which in many cases had been in preparation for years. Nobody knew what would happen next, seemingly not even our governments. On social media I saw more than one person comment that artists had been at the forefront of fundraising efforts for the bushfire crisis only months earlier, and now were among the first to lose their livelihoods to the pandemic. The generosity and precariousness of the arts community were tenuously balanced, a situation not unlike that faced by the environment so recently re-devastated: constantly a comfort to people; and constantly under threat.
That last weekend before lockdown, my housemate and I stocked up on items we thought we might need, unwilling to succumb to the panic of buying a room full of toilet paper but uncertain, like everyone else, of what the imminent lockdown would mean. Would we still be able to buy groceries? Would it be necessary to have two weeks’ worth of food in the house, in case we got sick and had to quarantine ourselves? On the way back from the market I’d detoured via my local bulk foods shop and seen there a queue of people down to the end of the block and round the corner, and a hand-written sign in the window proclaiming that the wait to get in was estimated at 45 minutes. On the sign the number 30 had been crossed out.
I rode past the queue and kept going to a similar shop in the next suburb, there to buy enough rice, enough flour, to see me through a fortnight of I-didn’t-know-what. Shelves were already starting to empty: everyone had the same idea. It was hard not to feel as though I’d unwillingly been entered into some great game show with everyone else in my area, Supermarket Sweep with unknowable consequences. I was already used to weekends being an exhausting slog of food preparation for the working week ahead, domestic chores I wouldn’t have time or inclination to do after getting off the train back from work on Monday through to Friday. The pressure of having to prepare also for a global cataclysm that we had no cultural memory of how to prepare for was an extra weight I didn’t know how to carry. The tension of viewing everybody else in the community as both potential competitor and mortal threat was grinding me down to a nub.
After buying everything I thought I might need, trying with mixed success not to cross the threshold from preparedness into panic, I was riding along the Merri Creek Trail, past Rushall Station. The creek at that point passes through a small gorge, and from the station the Trail swoops down a hill into a long patch of tall red gums and manna gums, an understorey of sapling trees and also correas, tree violets, sweet bursaria, hop goodenia, spiny mat-rush, and other local plants filling out this stretch of bush. After the trail passes beneath a road bridge over the creek where Queens Parade becomes High Street there’s a thick stand of wattles, above them clusters of flax lilies and more young red gums, and above those along Heidelberg Road at the top of a recently constructed bike ramp young yellow boxes.
On the other side of the bike path, lining Heidelberg Road, and along the creek below it, the vegetation becomes more European – willows, poplars, elms – before reverting, after a couple of bends of the creek, back to native bush, and after that for a kilometre or two along the creek you can forget completely that you’re in the inner suburbs of Australia’s fastest-growing city. Frogs sing from ponds, honeyeaters, scrubwrens, thornbills, currawongs, rosellas, even sometimes yellow-tailed black-cockatoos call from the trees along the creek. At night microbats flit like memories around the treetops, and tawny frogmouths, silent and sudden as ghosts, fly from perch to perch, silhouette to silhouette.
I’ve ridden and walked along the creek hundreds of times. Perhaps thousands. Until my day job relocated into the city from Docklands this was my daily commute, on days when I felt like riding. Sometimes if I feel the need for running water to soothe my senses I’ll detour along the creek on my way to or from home, on trips to the local shops and cafes. Sometimes I just walk along the creek for its own sake, following a loop down through the red gums, past the Clifton Hill labyrinth nestled under the cliffs of an old quarry.
I’ve lived in the vicinity of the creek for nearly a decade and it’s where I go more than any other place to get my nature fix: it’s become part of the furniture of my life. Riding along the creek on that cold March morning though, I was suddenly taken anew by this familiar scenery. There was nobody around – for the first time that weekend, there was nobody around – and I stopped my bike, and opened my lungs wide, and I breathed. Big, hungry, gulping, gasping breaths, in and out, half a dozen times, filling my lungs as much as I could on the smell and taste and feel of the bush after rain on a cold, grey morning.
You don’t realise how much you’re holding your breath around other people until you do. When breathing itself becomes the way you might die, each breath feels like danger, each breath is tight and tense. Walking around my suburb – taking my dog for a walk, or just stretching my legs to take my daily exercise – I scan the footpath ahead for other people, cross the street to the other footpath or walk on the road or if neither of those is an option just turn my head and hold my breath until they’ve passed, until I’ve walked a distance in my mind where I can imagine the vapours of their breath falling to the ground. Is any of this necessary? I don’t know. It turns out that it’s hard to stay rational in a pandemic.
But it’s hard, in another way, to walk around viewing everybody else as a threat. In a video-call with friends – in which, as it happens, I’m the only straight, white man – we talk about what we’ve found most difficult during lockdown, and for me it’s this: suddenly assessing everyone I see as a potential threat to my safety. I acknowledge to my friends that this is an answer that perhaps only a straight, white man could give: that only for someone like me would it take a once-in-a-century pandemic for me to feel that other people might be a danger to me, that in an instant on a normal day everything I know could be destroyed.
Like other waterways everywhere, Merri Creek was once, not so long ago, faced with obliteration: it was going to be turned into a concrete drain, a freeway built overhead. The Tullamarine Freeway had been opened less than a decade earlier and was still being extended. The Eastern Freeway had begun construction, cutting through the heart of Yarra Bend Park, the largest area of bush in Melbourne. In response to this threat to the creek, and to the degraded state of the creek and its adjoining land, community groups and local councils formed the Merri Creek Coordinating Committee in 1976.
In an oral history documentary made by Jessica Ferrari for the 2017 Melbourne Fringe Festival, Bruce McGregor, former Vice President of the Coordinating Committee, discusses what they did. “Tree planting was the most important thing, we felt, to start with,” he says. “And so we worked out what the local indigenous plants were and wrote a planting guide for that and then the different groups would be running their own plantings.” The early plantings had mixed success: councils couldn’t control the weeds which grew quickly and which smothered the native plants, killing most of the plantings. “So the whole thing was reset,” McGregor says, “and it was felt that the best thing to do was to encourage passive recreation… you needed people there and get them to appreciate it. So the focus moved to establishing the Merri shared pathway.”
In the same video Ann McGregor, President of the Merri Creek Management Committee and Vice President of Friends of Merri Creek, takes up the story:
State government funding for Victoria’s 150th anniversary [in 1984-1985] paid for a design to be done by consultants for the pathway… that was a really important catalyst for bringing the local community down, local residents could get access to the creek and see its potential and start enjoying it, and that increased the support for further revegetation and parkland development. We eventually decided that you needed skilled people doing the job as a job, not just relying on volunteers to do this revegetation work… so part of the activity was to encourage councils to put money into what became the Merri Creek Management Committee and employ staff who’d do the revegetation but also act as advocates and a central hub for information about the creek, educate the community about the values and how to look after the creek.
Decades later the work is ongoing. In February this year alone, the last month before lockdown, Friends of Merri Creek held twelve events, from litter collection to bird surveys – including four on one day, Sunday February 2. Yarra Council continues to plant trees and smaller plants along the small section of the creek near where I live – even in a place seemingly so fully revegetated, there are still pockets to fill.
You can see the tracks they use to get down to the creek’s edge. They flow like water down the slope from the concrete Merri Creek Trail, cutting through grass, just wide enough for one person at a time to walk down. I’ve been walking down them myself, sometimes, to escape the crowds on the Trail: to maintain physical distance from all the other walkers and runners and cyclists. In this age of lockdown the Merri Creek Trail seems more popular than ever, so desperate are people to get out of their house and take advantage of the government’s dispensation for exercise. So I’ve been looking for other paths, other pockets of solitude and quiet where I can breathe deep. At the end of the planting tracks where the native plants give way to weeds plastic sleeves protect recently planted trees and bushes, seedlings and saplings pushing slowly towards the sun.
It can take two hundred years for a eucalypt to form a hollow large enough for a possum to sleep in, or for a parrot to nest. In the face of the near instantaneous destruction wrought by freeway construction, by concrete enclosure, the planting along a creek of a tree that won’t reach its full habitat potential for several human lifetimes can be thought of as nothing else other than a gift to the future. An act of pure generosity.
It’s true that I’ve been struggling with perceiving other people as a threat to my wellbeing. But the reason I’ve found it a struggle is not just because of the danger other people may pose to myself: it’s because I’m just old enough to remember a time when Australia wasn’t the relentlessly self-centred, I’ve-got-mine society that it is now, that decades of neoliberalism and race-to-the-bottom politicking have made us. It’s because I want to believe in the possibility of a society that doesn’t view a person’s only two options as work or starve, as contribute to the economy or die. I want to live in a society in which a person’s ability to live in safety and with dignity is completely unconnected to their ability or willingness to make money.
Now, two months into lockdown, more and more writers, actors, musicians, and artists of all kinds are moving their work online – too often for free – only to be neglected and ignored by those in power. I know, with absolute certainty, that I want to live in a society in which it’s still possible to make a living in the arts, and in which artists’ work is truly valued. In which art matters, just as the environment matters, for its own sake, even to people and governments who never think about it. But I want a society in which nobody has to be scared of what will happen if they can’t make a living. I want to live in a society of care, compassion, and consideration – not competition. And I don’t want to view the people in my community and beyond as enemies, as threats.
In this pandemic it only takes a small turn of thinking to change fear into kindness, to change loneliness into community. When I leave my house, when I take my daily walks along the creek, when I veer out of the way of someone coming the other way or turn my head or hold my breath, I imagine: I’m the threat, to them. I remind myself that I do these things not to keep myself safe, but to keep others safe – from the viral load I may be carrying without even realising it, from the fear in another person of what proximity to me, a stranger, might entail. I turn my thoughts not inwards, into my own anxiety, but outwards, into my care for strangers.
I’m not always good at it. Fear creates its own weather. But as I walk under the trees, past the wildflowers, along the burbling creek, among the chattering birds, I’m reminded at every moment of what true and selfless community action looks like.