An evening visit today, after a long walk with a friend and a greyhound nearby at Bundoora Park (we saw ducklings!).
The waterhole near the front of the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary is called Fozzie’s Wetland (apparently after the first Ranger who worked in the sanctuary). It doesn’t even show up as blue on my Google map of daily writing spots, which I guess is OK as it’s more on the green side. Verging on dark brown.
It’s not huge, and half of it is behind the predator fence that guards the sanctuary. There are roads on two sides, a roundabout, and a normally busy campus carpark over the way. But it’s important for a few reasons: it supports a population of endangered freshwater Dwarf Galaxias fish; it’s home to turtles and my favourite frog, the Pobblebonk (or banjo frog); and to be honest it’s a bit of a showcase (to my eyes at least) for the revegetation process that’s going on.
Careful mulching and planting around the edges of the water is having an effect – the Running Postman (Kennedia prostrata) look happy enough, creeping across the wood chips and ready to take off, and the paths are lined with wreaths of the local Clematis (I think it’s C. microphylla) blooming and self-seeding all over.
There are pockets of Poa and other grasses swaying in the breeze, Hop Goodenia in bloom, and the waterhole is ringed by established trees in which a host of different birds are having a wild old time. I tried to record the frogs for you, but they got drowned out by ravens and other ratbags.
I’ll try again in a few days. I came by the other morning, and found a poor turtle squashed by the roadside. The pobblebonks were going off that day, but for some reason I managed to record nothing but wind blowing. Mysterious. Maybe they’re like vampires who don’t appear in mirrors. Nothing would surprise me.
Today I’m in a spot I really didn’t know existed before we were locked down and unable to travel more than five kilometres from home for exercise.
I haven’t set foot here before. These are a couple of large ponds, or maybe small lakes, forming part of the Gresswell wildlife corridor at the northern end of the Nangak Tamboree waterways. They are carefully landscaped and nestled into what is now suburbia.
But it wasn’t always.
The original inhabitants were the Kurnaj-berring people of the Wurundjeri clan, and before the British invasion there were Brolgas (yes, Brolgas!) and platypus, freshwater mussels, eels and plenty of other creatures. But once the colony expanded, the land was cleared for farming, with only a few pockets of remnant bush left intact.
This specific area was once the Mont Park complex, which opened in 1912, at which time it was called the Mont Park Hospital for the Insane. It was an isolated spot then, surrounded by farmland. My great-grandfather worked there. His Army enlistment file records his occupation as ‘Warder, Lunatic Asylum.’ I hate to think what life was like in the hospital then but it was about to get a great deal worse. War broke out in 1914 and from then on the hospital had to deal with huge numbers of returned soldiers suffering from what became known as shell-shock, and other war-related traumas. My great-grandfather, after years as a stretcher-bearer in Palestine and on the Western Front, returned to work here.
After the war, in the hope of helping the patients feel that the world was not a complete horror, they built cricket grounds and tennis courts, in what is now the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary. The land stretching to the south, where the university campus now sits, was the Mont Park farm, growing food and grazing dairy cattle to help provision the hospital. It doesn’t sound like a great spot for a picnic:
…desolate, run-down farm in a swampy valley, devoid almost of trees or of views less depressing than the encircling panorama of mental hospitals, a cemetery, school yards, gasworks, and industrial backsides.’
Roy Simpson, Master Planner, quoted in Breen, W., Salmond, JA (1989). Building La Trobe University : Reflections on the first 25 years 1964-1989. La Trobe University Press. (p. 39)
There are still buildings from Mont Park and its sister institution Larundel dotted about all over here – many were derelict for years and some have now been turned into apartments or townhouses, and a few house university departments or accommodation. They are very stylish – Arts and Crafts or later 1930s brick and stucco. I wonder what stories those walls hold. I remember visiting a friend in a ward in Larundel when I was about twenty and it was pretty stark. But eventually people grew to understand mental health and illness better (and the language around it evolved too), and these hospital-based institutions were closed in favour of (in theory, if not properly supported with funding) community-based health services and supported housing.*
And this huge swathe of land was set for re-use. The Bundoora Mental Hospital became the magnificent Bundoora Homestead art centre & gallery, surrounded by spectacular parklands. The university opened in 1967, and the moat and southern waterways dug over the next decade or so. The housing estates around here are much more recent. Beyond the ponds (look, I can’t call them lakes, seriously) stretches a golf course and the Gresswell wildlife corridor and nature reserve, which I have yet to explore properly.
We have never needed these places more than in these last two years, have we? We’ve never so intimately explored our neighbourhoods, noticed the seasonal changes in gardens and parks and our own backyards, chatted over front fences (at a safe distance), counted the birds, pounded the pavements and followed the bike trails.
I wonder if we’ll keep doing it, when the pandemic is over. Or will our horizons shift outwards again?
* Note: There are still hospitals and clinics, of course – just not here, and not enough.The pandemic has laid bare the great need for responsive and accesible mental health services of all kinds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.