“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” Marcus Aurelius
I like it when people remind me of a goodness I knew was there, but had temporarily overlooked.
Life is busy. There are challenges to rise to, people to see, places to go. I live by a river. I appreciate that it’s there because of the greenery I look out onto from my window. Sometimes I walk or cycle along the path by the river to get somewhere. It’s lovely. But I hadn’t really stopped and thought about the river and really appreciated it for a while.
Last night I spent an hour by the river fishing. We didn’t catch anything but as I was reminded, it’s not always about catching fish. Being by the river in a city isn’t quite being away from it all, with the soothing sounds of the passing trams and cars and the occasional siren as background noise. But somehow at night, these seem more muffled. And down on the jetty, it was a little bit like being away from it all.
The Yarra is teeming with life. There are fish sliding by and insects dancing on the surface. A mother duck watched seemingly unconcerned as one of her 10 ducklings fell from under her wing and rolled down the bank into the river and then tried a few different ways of climbing back up the bank before reaching safety. A stealthy swimmer plopped in the water and torpedoed itself across the river. I wanted it to be a platypus. I’m fairly certain it was a rat. There were bats flying overhead, frogs croaking.
For the aborigines of the Wurundjeri tribe (part of the Kulin nation that had occupied the lands around Port Phillip Bay for at least 30,000 years) the Yarra River was a life-source that had been etched into the landscape by the ancestral creator spirit Bunjil – the wedge tailed eagle.
They called the river Birrarrung – “Place of Mists and Shadows” and it was the dreaming path they followed and camped beside through the calendar of countless seasons.
When white explorers arrived, they naturally saw the river as a means for getting what they needed, and not at all in the same way as the aboriginals saw it. For the white people, it was what made the land an eligible place to settle. They used it for drinking water, washing water, and a place to get rid of waste. It eventually provided them with gold during the gold rush years.
When John Batman met a group of aboriginals on the banks of the Yarra in June, 1835, he gave them scissors, shirts, tomahawks, knives, blankets and handkerchiefs, and in return, secured the signature marks of the chiefs on a grant of land.
As is often the case in such situations, there was a disconnect between parties in terms of language and cultural understanding. While Batman believed he was now the greatest landowner in the world because the grant of land gave him possession of 500,000 acres of land, including the Yarra River, the aboriginals believed they had taken part in a friendship ceremony that would allow Mr Batman temporary rights to cross through their country.
This riverside transaction signalled the beginning of the end of the traditional tribal life of the Wurundjeri.
I don’t know what we can do to change the many things that have gone wrong since then. I wish I did.
No river can return to its source, yet all rivers must have a beginning.
In a small way, and I understand, perhaps in a patronizingly white way, although that’s not how I mean it, stopping to appreciate the river and all that’s in it, fishing out an empty bottle to put in the bin and spending more time with it, might be a step in the right direction.
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home. “
Down by the river