It was back in 2003 that I undertook the greatest adventure of my life, a pilgrimage from the sea to the source of the Yarra, the river of my home place, the city of Melbourne, Australia. It was a walk along the major Songline of Wurundjeri Country, along the river long known as Birrarung, River of Mists, within Country loved, walked, farmed and known for many tens of thousands of years. This place, usurped so recently, had yet been profoundly erased by the lies and the mythologizing of the colonists. It was only a three-week journey, yet during the walk me and my companions has an uncanny sense of living in an entirely different type of time, and another place, unlike the city we knew, for hidden depths were strangely revealed. I had no aspirations to write, yet I felt compelled to communicate something of what I glimpsed in my time as a pilgrim. It took a long time to figure out how to talk about it, but eventually there was a book, The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage (Transit Lounge, 2011). What follows is a little something from that tale:
The idea of a pilgrimage for the Yarra sailed into my mind one day, threw a rope and tied it securely to my heart. I’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing; there was no official path, yet this outlandish notion seemed at once utterly obvious and completely necessary. The notion of walking the length of the Yarra grew from my quest to live with clarity and sanity in the place I call home. To that end, I’d been learning about bioregionalism. From bio – life, and region – place, these are philosophies and practices of living within local ecological limits. Bioregional writers (Snyder 1990, Sale 2000, Berg 2014) encourage practical action; explore and learn about where you live, and let that knowledge guide your behaviour. Boundaries of bioregions are often drawn around river catchments, yet rivers play another role, a metaphoric one. Rivers are a symbol of the philosophy, as the river’s very nature tells of our interconnection and responsibilities to each other. We are all dependent on the health of the water in our rivers, yet that water is so vulnerable. All that is discarded on the streets or spread through the paddocks, the rubbish and the effluent of a society, eventually washes into a river. The river is witness, the river carries everything, right through the heart of the city.
Knowledge of place was once foundational; people lived more locally, and over a lifetime, rarely ventured far from home. Nowadays many of us live much of each day inside the screen worlds of television and the internet, inside the pages of books or newspapers, inside windowless warehouses, shopping centres or office complexes. Travel too is usually inside cars, trains and planes, where the particularities of the ground and the air are lost. Bioregionalism is about reclaiming what we have only just lost – an innate and inescapable sense of place. Writers in the field talk about knowing the ‘boundaries of home’ in geographical rather than political terms. Almost all of greater Melbourne lay in the Yarra River bioregion.
The almost-new culture and form of Melbourne did not emerge organically from this old land. We have here a colonial heart and ever-expanding rings of American-inspired, car- dominated suburbs. But there are cracks in the grid. The winding Yarra and her tributaries fracture the rigid forms, force accommodations. In these gaps the wild clings on in the city. These places I loved, yet I knew so little about them. With inadequate tools to understand my surroundings, a sense of displacement and an ache to belong gnawed at me. In my process of searching for a way to sink deeper into my home place, I was drawn to tales of pilgrimage. These journeys took place in other lands; often ambitious, often long, usually walked, they were undertaken by those seeking connection with something larger than themselves. The pilgrim was a seeker. These seekers sought that which is only revealed over time, through devotion to the task, through mental and physical effort. The period of pilgrimage was an immersion, a concentration, of heart, thought and intention; a preparation for a long- awaited meeting. Devotion bears fruit when finally the pilgrim arrives at the destination. Yet, like listening to a story, there’s no use in only knowing the ending. The journey, the whole story, is needed for the ending to make sense. And every step on the path is a word in the pilgrim’s story.
There are ancient cultures rituals of walking pilgrimage to holy places in many cultures, including the Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu traditions. Yet sacred walking resonated with what I’d heard of Aboriginal connections to land. The seasonal practices of hunting and gathering meant lifetimes journeying over country, along Songlines. These two different traditions; religions originating overseas, and local, ancient practices – neither tradition was mine. But for me to go on a pilgrimage in Australia, with all of this history in mind, felt like bringing them into some sort of conversation. I was interested in what, if I listened carefully, I might overhear. There has finally arrived a sense that we must stop affecting the earth in the way that we do, and do it urgently. The calls to change how we source our material needs are growing ever louder. Yet while society is slowly acknowledging the truth of this, there also seems to be a corresponding simplification and smoothing over of the depths contained in these challenges. It is as if change were an external thing, with all the holes in the web of the world fixed with a few new laws and a switch to ‘green’ buying. As if nothing needed to change on the inside. I feel the problems are far deeper than our culture seems ready to admit. I’d grown up in a family of environmental and social activists. I’d known about the issue of climate change from my youngest days. I kept thinking that awareness and action must surely be imminent. But in the intervening decades, despite growing awareness, we’ve gone backwards. Growing up, I struggled to communicate what I knew of the dire news, yet I saw bewilderment and dismissal in the faces of those around me. I’d often rail against the unfairness of knowing when so many around me seemed at peace with the way things are. I have come, now, to see it as both a gift and a duty, understanding that there was never a choice but to work for change. Knowing has given me purpose, commitment and clarity. There is great work to be done all over the world. How is it to be done here, now? In truth, the challenges are so huge that for us to adequately come to grips with them, they must enwrap our entire minds.
What does change look like, feel like? How is the change to be lived? How are we changed in the process? Our actions come out of who we are, how we think, what we treasure and what we fear. I feel that all of this must be explored if we are to know how to be and how to behave in this time. And I feel we must start with the land. Where, exactly, do we find ourselves? The Yarra was the site of first meeting between the whites and the Wurundjeri. It is still contested ground. The almost-new city of Melbourne is where it is because of this river. What, I wondered, did the old river know?
I sensed that walking the Yarra would help me. In a time when the web that holds together the world I love is unravelling, I hoped a pilgrimage along my river would give me courage. (Ward 2011:23-26)
I remembered what Ian Hunter, the Wurundjeri elder whom I had worked with for many years at CERES, had said to me a few days before; the way along the river is a Songline. A Songline is a path of the Dreaming, a narrative of the ancestors, which mapped the land in song. I imagined how stories would be alive in places all along the way, days and days of walking and chanting, walking and chanting, woven together into neural pathways, the brain grooved to the shape of the land. Paths of mind, heart and country, traversed over a lifetime. Stories passed down the generations, regenerated each time the song was sung. The ancestors, the people, the land, becoming one thing, enchanted through chant, grown together through song, and each singing made them anew. The singing of hills (now flattened), bends (straightened), billabongs (drained). To imagine such a web of meaning once alive in this place, to have read of its dismemberment and its forgetting, yet to be stepping out on a fine morning with the wind and the words of kind people, was to be emptied and filled, blown clear through, free and indebted and with the chance to be true. May I breathe through my feet, lay my skin open, and be there to meet it all. All that is left, and all that is new.
Maya Ward’s memoir The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage, published by Transit Lounge, is an account of her 21-day journey from the sea to the source of the Yarra River, Australia, following the length of a Wurundjeri Songline. Click here for more info.