Edges

7 October, 2021

Day 7 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

Reeds at the edge of the lake

I walk along the edge of the lake. It’s not yet warm enough for me to startle at every rattle in the long grass, but there are creatures everywhere. I can show you photos of trees and herons and the lake, and I will. But the horizon here is speared by a mobile phone tower and sports field flood lights. Behind me is a high factory wall. And on the edges of my hearing, forklifts, a truck beeping backwards, and a Council worker with a whipper snipper.

Marion Shoard has described the ‘edgelands’ of Britain: the edges of cities, the ignored interfaces where cities meet the countryside, where factories sprawl and spill into farmland and trees are cleared for housing developments. I think the word can apply where development meets remnant bush or regenerated places. Like this one.

My first job was nearby in Bundoora, a thousand years ago on the campus that is now RMIT, before the tram reached so far out of town. I can remember that feeling of passing from established suburbs built in the 50s and 60s, with shopping strips and the odd pub, hitch-hiking from the last tram stop or trundling on the bus past Mont Park and Larundel, through more recent housing developments which clung along Plenty Road. Beyond it was countryside.

So this was once on the edge, but the city now spills well beyond this place, gobbling up Mernda and sprawling out towards Whittlesea. As Shoard writes:

Although yesterday’s interfacial zones are often swallowed up by subsequent building, sometimes they survive as edgeland within built-up areas.

‘Edgelands’, in Remaking the Landscape ed. J Jenkins, Profile Books, 2002 (p124)

I grew up in a place like that – out on the eastern edge of town, in one of those housing developments ringed by bush and old orchards and big new roads. My childhood was marked by bushfires and droughts and blackberry-picking and either mud or dust. There was a filthy creek that ran dry over summer, and horse paddocks dotted with thistles, and an old stone settler cottage where we ran wild. (It’s all beautiful now: Mullum Mullum creek is regenerated, the cottage houses the Historical Society, and like here, it is no longer the edge of the city.)

So these places feel familiar to me. They are many things at once. An edgeland can look like a rubbish dump or a forest of weeds, but it can be a refuge for wildlife and indigenous plants, an escape for people who need it, or a green or blue patch of wild. And in many places, like this, they are being brought back to beauty. Or perhaps they always have an edgy beauty (to my eyes anyway) and regeneration is more about recreating biodiversity and creating urban spaces that are truly interfaces – between people, wildlife, plantlife, aquatic life, wind, water, sky, earth. The Nangak Tamboree project calls it ‘blurring the boundaries’, and I like that idea, but it’s also informed by the Wurundjeri community’s understanding of interconnectedness.

Today, I watch a simply enormous turtle warm itself on the far bank, right next to a football field. A heron struts along the bike path, refusing to pose for a photo.

White faced heron (I think)

Later I hear the heron shouting at something and silently salute Lian Hearn for naming her novel The Harsh Cry of the Heron, because it sounds like it’s being strangled. Such elegant legs and such a honk.

It’s one of those days that my mother would call ‘brisk’ and I would call bloody freezing. A bloke rides by and asks me the name of the lake and he, like me, considers ‘Sports Field Lake’ to be somewhat inadequate. Two handsome wood ducks preen and graze in the grass right in front of me, not in the least worried when I move closer.

Wood duck

They’re not listed in my Gould League series handy pocket guide to birds. It has let me down. But I do see that I have misidentified that fantail the other day. It’s actually a Jacky Winter, which I find thrilling for some reason, perhaps because Jacky Winter sounds like a saxophonist in a jazz band and not a tiny flittery thing.

Here we all are – me, the odd jogger and cyclist, a heron, a turtle, blokes on smoko from the factories, and who knows who else is going about their business in the treetops or under the water or in the long grass. Exploring edges.

Nesting

6 October, 2021

Day 6 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

I’m sitting on a fallen log by the lake. It’s a bright, clear, breezy morning after days of grey sky and rain. After something like 245 days of lockdown over two years (and I managed to get locked down in Auckland as well over summer), we could do with a bit of blue sky. Light ahead, all that.

One small but seemingly significant aspect of lockdown is extreme hair length. None of us have been to the hairdresser or barber for months. So last night I hacked off all my hair. Had to happen. And this morning, out here, my ears and forehead are cold and it’s all my own fault.

This is a favourite sitting spot. I often see people here, resting mid-ride with bikes scattered everywhere, or feeding kids in pushers. There’s a young man who often practices tai chi by the water of an evening.

Dead trees in lake

It seems to be mowing time, after the rain. I walked along freshly slashed tracks to get here. Across the lake, on the sports fields, someone’s pushing a mower, leaving stylish lime green stripes in their wake. How strange, all these not-quite abandoned places, standing empty for so long during lockdown but kept on life support until the return of the (vaccinated) hordes in slightly-too-tight sports gear.

A jogger slogs past, puffing, feet slapping on the bitumen. I feel like cheering them on.

The water glitters in the early morning light, reflections rippling up under dead tree trunks. Three ducks zoom past, arguing about something. My handy pocket guide tells me they’re Pacific black ducks, although frankly up until now all ducks look the same to me. It’s the same handy pocket guide to birds as I had when I was a teenager, though. Do birds go out of date? (Don’t worry: I also have an app.) Some, at least, are extinct – more all the time – and some have taken over the world. When I first had my handy pocket guide (Gould League series, published 1969, though I bought this 1990 edition for an entire dollar at an Op Shop), ibises were dead exotic and Mynahs hadn’t yet pushed every other bird into the margins.

I spend quite some time trying to photograph a pair of Little Lorikeets before realising that the Rainbow Lorikeets on the other branch are taking it in turns to swoop at me. They’re nesting in a hollow. Everyone’s got the swoops lately. I move back so they don’t have to worry.

Rainbow lorikeet

A decent nesting hollow is as valuable as beachside real estate. They take years to develop. Here, and all through the parks around the area, trees are dotted with nesting boxes to compensate for all the nesting hollows lost in land clearing years ago. There are different designs for different birds and creatures (I have one at home for microbats).

nesting box high on a eucalypt

This one’s been colonised by bees. Not great for the intended occupant, but it does make an excellent mini-hive.

I’m sure they’re very cosy if you’re a possum or flying fox or rosella. It seems a sad business to be making plywood boxes when you could have just left the trees in the first place. But that’s where we are now – regenerating vegetation that’s been lost, cleaning up waterways, reintroducing species and keeping them safe.

See? Light ahead.

Familiar & unfamiliar places

5 October 2021

Day 5 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

What does it mean to know a place?

Are there places you really know?

And what does that knowing feel like?

At the weekend, I rode my bike around Port Melbourne. That’s where I was born, where I lived – all of us together in my grandparents’ house – for the first part of my life. Everyone we knew lived within a couple of hundred yards and we were related to half of them. All our family stories revolved around Port. I knew it better than I’ve ever known any place. It’s still lovely, but I don’t know it anymore. Our old house is done up and fancy and worth millions. They all are. The factories where my grandparents once worked have been turned into apartments where I couldn’t afford to live. But they knew that place, deep in their souls. Never lived anywhere else. It was part of them. It’s part of me, too, but in memory.

So maybe knowing places is about memory as well as about now.

I’ve lived in lots of places, different cities, different landscapes, even different countries. I’ve felt at home in places and homesick, unsettled and excited. There are different types of knowing.

One of the great nature writers, Nan Shepherd, lived most of her life in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, walked out on the mountain in all weathers, and watched them season on season, from the highest peak to the smallest insect. She felt, walked, listened her way into the mountains. And she wrote them, and in the writing was her knowing – or a way into knowing. And in the writing, she made one of the best books about a place: The Living Mountain.

On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of travel books by people who feel they know a place well enough after a few days or weeks to write a whole book about it (spoiler: they don’t).

Here, I walk on colonised land and the idea of knowing places is complex and conflicted. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have different traditions of knowing and being with country and in the past the way that has been privileged has been the European tradition – seeing country as landscape, or more often as resource. That’s changing. It has to.

I’ll write more about that another time. For now, what I’m trying to do is slow down and really look – for moments, for telling details – and feel my way into this place that I don’t know at all: Nangak Tamboree.

Rain drops on casuarina leaves

Wondering

4 October 2021

Day 4 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

I walked quite a long way today: from home, meandering along the Darebin Creek to the Sports Field Lake, then almost completely around a huge section of grassland that’s fenced off for plant regeneration. work. I thought I could circumnavigate it, but there’s been so much rain I couldn’t get through the watery sections closest to the sports grounds. These are, after all, wetlands. And it is very wet.

But one advantage of that – more frogs! (This time featuring the distant roar and rattle of the Plenty Road tram for a touch of authentic Melbourne.)

This is the area I barely knew was here before a few weeks ago – I certainly didn’t register how enormous it is. It runs from the Darebin Creek bike path turn-off and pedestrian bridge through to Plenty Road. The majority of it is grassy Eucalypt woodland, spreading over undulating hills from lake to creek.

Stump in foreground, grassy woodland

It’s not untouched, by any means. It seems to me there’s an old house site at the top of the hill – perhaps a farmhouse – as there are old pine and fruit trees circling. Further down near the creek, you can see fragments of rusted metal sticking out of the mud – perhaps where cars were dumped decades ago. I skirted around what must be a huge pile of landfill, perhaps dug out for the lake or sports grounds years ago.

Galah in tree

There was nobody at all around, besides the usual feathered suspects (rainbow lorikeets, magpies), a galah nesting in a high hollow, dusky woodswallows, and some kind of thornbill in the paperbarks by the creek. I had to remind myself to stop and write instead of wandering about staring at things and wondering.

But I am wondering, so now I’m off to absorb a bit more history of these places.

Carol

3 October, 2021

Day three of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s swooping season here.

In other words, it’s magpie nesting time, when eggs and young must be defended at all costs from interlopers.

Swooping season was never a thing when I was a kid, even though magpies were everywhere near our house. I first remember hearing about it from people who grew up in Canberra, where children apparently lived in terror of springtime and everyone had a theory about how to prevent your eyes being plucked from your head by a marauding maggie.

I have been swooped a few times since, and it is freaky. But you know what is deeply unnerving? Being watched solemnly by dozens of magpies as you walk along. They’re on the ground. You’re way bigger than they are. They don’t care. They don’t shuffle aside. They follow you along the creek path to make sure you keep walking. Move along, pathetic human. This is our place.

So you do.

Don’t look back.

Darebin Creek track, on my way to Nangak Tamboree

But generally speaking, when they’re not psyching me out or swooping at my head, I love magpies. Most countries have birds called magpies, but they aren’t as gnarly as ours. And they don’t sound the same.

The carolling of magpies is one of the most familiar sounds of my childhood, along with a cricket broadcast on a distant radio and suburban lawn mowers. When I first moved back to Melbourne after a few years in NZ, I woke up and heard the magpies and wept. (In NZ you wake up to the distinctive warble of the tui, which is beautiful but not the same thing.)

If you’ve never heard it, here’s an adolescent magpie carolling by the creek. It has a few friends in the background.

The day of the turtle

2 October 2021

Day two of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Different site today – one that is familiar, and yet not. Nangak Tamboree waterway stretches through the campus where I work. I’ve been coming here – first as a PhD student and more recently as a lecturer – a few days a week, for years. But of course for much of the past two years, the campus has been closed except for critical research (keeping plants alive in greenhouses or lab work) and we’ve all been working and studying from home during lockdown. So I haven’t seen it much lately, and I certainly haven’t sat about scribbling.

Ours is a classic outer suburban campus, built in the 1970s on old farmland, with buff-brick buildings of an era anyone who studied at Monash or Macquarie will recognise. The site is dotted with magnificent old River Red Gums, landscaped beautifully, and also has another layer of life as a massive sculpture garden.

Statue of rhino
Run For Your Life, by Gillie and Marc 

But one of its most famous features is the Moat, which flows through to the lakes south of campus, circling the buildings and grounds. It’s the vital link in the waterways between Darebin Creek and Greswell nature reserve, and it is – normally – a legendary part of campus life. There’s an amphitheatre overlooking the moat, an annual Moat theatre festival, a running track alongside it, picnic tables and lawns and community garden, and different disciplines use it for applied work – studying water quality or aquatic life, regenerating plants or whatever those mysterious science people do, wading about with equipment and serious faces. In the early years, it used to host boat races and all kinds of high-jinks, but I think the water quality studies may have put paid to that. (I just made that bit up.)

It’s quiet today. It’s a rainy weekend, and anyway we’ve been locked down for months now, so there’s hardly anyone here most of the time. Some students are still living on campus and I feel for them – it is usually alive and filled with people, cafes open and the evenings filled with the thunk of tennis balls and distant laughter. But not now. I walk along the gravel path, slippery after the rain. There are a few cyclists, the odd jogger, all probably passing through from nearby suburbs.

path with beware of snakes sign

Here the water is edged, in some places with bluestone blocks, and guided on its way. I’m on the lookout for ducklings, but today they’re hiding. Coots scud along, heads bobbing back and forth like pistons. I creep up on a turtle warming itself on a rock – I think it’s an Eastern Long-Necked (or snake-necked) turtle, and I’m told they can walk for miles and miles.

Turtle next to water

This one has no interest in moving anywhere. Two more surface in the water nearby, and – at the risk of anthropomorphising them – kiss. Then all three spot me at once, and vanish, leaving me, and the water, and the sky.

Not Monet’s waterlilies

First steps

1 October 2021

Day one of a new project: writing Nangak Tamboree.

As it happens today is also about Walking the Land’s Watermark project, an international collaboration about walking and making art. So I’ve joined in, to be part of a (sort of) synchronised walking and making moment, this month on the theme of flow.

Today is about starting, about walking, and about flow.

I walk the long way around. No short-cuts today. In fact, I squelch my way along the creek bank. It rained yesterday and overnight, so the creek is way up, flowing fast, and my feet slip on muddy gum leaves. There’s nobody else here. I spot a Noisy Miner tucked into a nest, a lone currawong, and red wattle birds sweeping. Frogs fall silent when they hear my footsteps.

On the far bank, someone stands alone in the bush practising on their trumpet, the notes long and low over running water.

Darebin Creek
Darebin Creek

It’s spring here – tadpole season, or Poorneet in the Wurundjeri calendar, as I have only recently learned. The wattle blossom is finishing – even the Prickly Moses is browning off – and the leaf tips show bright new growth.

It takes me a while to reach the corner where Nangak Tamboree meets the Banyule North grasslands. I wander along the creek a little further and then uphill to the Sports Field Lake (which really needs a more glamourous name). And there, in spite of the mud and the little black ants, I sit at the water’s edge and watch and listen and write.

There’s no flow in me right now, but that’s fine. There’s flow in the water, the reeds, the swooping swallows, and the wind flicking at the eucalyptus leaves. I listen.

A pukeko (or Purple Swamp Hen) flies ungainly as a freight plane across the lake and crash lands in the reeds. Welcome Swallows dip and arc. Gulls croak high up and gather on the footy ground, before someone startles them and they scatter, screeching.

Things I don’t know today:

  • What is the roaring overflow thing in the middle of the lake?
  • How old is the lake and is it man-made?
  • What did it look like before?
  • Where are my binoculars?
  • How will I write this place? Can I?
View of lake and grass edges

There is a flock of fairy wrens skittering about me as if I’m not here. I stay still, and I’m so busy watching them I’m not looking at the lake when an enormous fucking fish leaps out of the water and splashes back down – I see a glimpse of white belly and white water. That’s all. The water subsides until its skin is still unless rippled by light.

This is the edge of the place I’ve chosen to write. From today on, I’m going to come and write around here somewhere every day for a month. But don’t worry: sitting and staring and cataloguing birds is going to get very dull very fast, for all concerned. Every day will be different. I don’t know how yet. I’m trying not to plan it, or not to do too much research beforehand. I think of all the other people walking and creating today, finding watery edges and flows, capturing sensation and space. I wonder what they’ll make, where they are. I’m not sure, given the time zones, whether I’m ahead or behind. I’m on the other side of the world. I’m here, always here, in the same place – five kilometres from home, masked up – that I’ve been all through this lockdown, and the many lockdowns before that. But it’s still new to me, this place.

I walk some more, skirting around a section of grassland that is fenced off as part of the regeneration project, and climb up on to a tussock. This is not a wild place. It is edged by busy roads – I can hear the traffic murmur to the north – and factories – someone’s hammering somewhere – sports fields, schools and my own university. There’s a flash of red as someone ride by on the bike path. If you look in one direction you see only eucalypts and grasslands and the water. Turn your head, and there are gulls scattered across carefully mown fields, goal posts and floodlights and the silvery new stadium.

At my feet, wallaby grass but also dock and wild fennel. Nearby, in an area that looks like it’s been burned, blackberries are shooting up from the earth. The regeneration of this place is going to take a while.

I hope I get to see it.

I hope I can show you.

Before I begin…

I write, work, and live on stolen country.

This place was for millennia the home of the Wurundjeri willam people of the Kulin Nations, speakers of the Woi-Wurrung language, and it always will be. This country was never ceded.

I want to acknowledge that, before I start writing about Nangak Tamboree.

Reeds and water - Sports Field Lake, nangak tamboree

Nangak Tamboree (pronounced: nan-ynack tam-bor-ee) means respecting, sharing and looking after the waterway in the Woiwurrung language. The naming of Nangak Tamboree was a collaborative process with the traditional owners of the land where La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus now sits, through the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Cultural Heritage Corporation and the University’s Indigenous Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy (University statement, 15 April, 2019).

In their own words, this is how the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung Cultural Heritage Corporation talks about its community’s relationship with country:

For the Wurundjeri community the natural world is also a cultural world; therefore the Wurundjeri people have a special interest in preserving not just their cultural objects, but the natural landscapes of cultural importance. The acknowledgement of broader attributes of the landscape as cultural values that require protection (encompassing, among other things, a variety of landforms, ecological niches and habitats as well as continuing cultural practices and archaeological material) is essential to the identity and wellbeing of the Wurundjeri people.

Statement on Corporation’s website, 2021

The community is deeply involved in planning, naming, reimagining and regenerating the place that is called Nangak Tamboree, including conducting cultural burning as part of the regeneration process.

As I write and walk here I acknowledge this and honour the Wurundjeri people’s past and ongoing cultural connections to country, to building community, and to story. I promise not to harm this place, and to respect the incredible knowledge of Elders and experts like the Narrap Rangers involved in caring for country.

New project: Writing Nangak Tamboree

We’re still deep in lockdown here. I’m OK with that if it saves lives and keeps our vulnerable communities safe.

I’ve got four books and three papers to finish writing, we’re all working from home, and teaching online (at present, anyway) takes three times as long. But we wouldn’t want to be bored, would we?

So.

I’m starting a new writing project. I don’t know yet how big it will be, or where it’ll go. It’s about water, and place, and walking in place – lately we haven’t been able to go more than five kilometres from home, although our circles are widening ever so slightly soon.

I’ve written more about it here. It’s called Nangak Tamboree.

So for the next month, I’ll be writing here more often and posting on Instagram, exploring in detail a place I normally charge by on my way to work.

Instead, I’ll be resting there a while, recording and scribbling, walking and watching.

Let’s see what happens.

Coming up: Historical Novel extravaganza

One of my favourite events is on the horizon: the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. Very sensibly, it’s entirely online this year – an excellent bit of foresight on the part of the organisers since Sydney, Auckland and Melbourne are now all in lockdown and borders are closed.

It’s always a terrific event, for writers and for readers. This year it’s spread over two weekends – 16 & 17 October, and 22-24 October. Here are all the details and the full program.

And I’m going to be rather busy throughout. Here’s what I’m doing.

Bootcamp

On 16 October, I’m running a full day Bootcamp for writers, focused on the processes of drafting and revising, and crafting the key elements of good historical fiction, with lots of exercises, tips and tools.

Details and bookings here.

Scrivener for beginners

My Scrivener workshops appear now to be part of the fabric of these conferences, and this year it’s on again. We’ll learn the basics of this software program created especially for writing: what it does, and how to get the best out of it. October 22.

Details here.

Biofiction panel

On October 23, I’m chairing a panel with Sienna Brown, Kelly Rimmer and Sue Williams, on one of my favourite topics: Biofiction, or the biographical novel.

Details here.

LGBTIQ characters panel

Also on October 23, I’m part of a panel with Nigel Featherstone and James Worner, chaired by Greg Johnston, discussing representations of queer characters from the past.

Details here.

There are lots of great panels for people who love reading historical fiction, and terrific guests (including Geraldine Brooks!); and for writers – especially emerging and aspiring writers, there are workshops, online manuscript assessments, masterclasses and bootcamps run by some of my favourite people.

And the good thing is you can attend from anywhere, and in your pyjamas if you want.

The bad thing is you have to do your own catering.

But we’re so used to that now, aren’t we? Let’s hope by the conference after this one, we can all gather again in person.

In the meantime, hope to see you there.