I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which I produce and share stories. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
Silted River Revisited
When we first faced COVID Corona, I headed to the salt water, my place of refuge, myriad inlets of deep harbour blue and muddy mangrove fingers of brown. Open-mouthed Sydney rock oysters gaped up at me from the silted lulled mud, fully submerged, hiding, hidden. Underneath the Anzac Bridge at Rozelle Bay, Parramatta River, Baramada River, Gadigal and Wangal land, where women for thousands and thousands of years sat making middens of oyster shells, carving fish hooks on the bright white sand, under rock shelters, casuarina trees, fishing.
This is not the first epidemic these waters have seen. I cry for my Gadigal and Wangal sisters who only just survived the smallpox that rowed in through the harbour heads and then again influenza, measles, tuberculosis. I cut my foot on a razor sharp edge and my red blood runs into the sand.
Push pulled by wind and invisible currents, the water surface cracks up and tessellates, mirrors and fragments and throws back the sun in my face. Squinting from the dancing bright sunlight stars, I try to ignore the swathe of walkers, joggers, bike riders, families behind me, who must walk in public in no more than pairs.
A white faced blue grey heron picks across the muddy flats exposed by the ebbing tide, obscured amidst the shells. A leaf floats, casting its shadow onto the concealed oysters still covered by water, oblivious.
Confirmed world COVID cases 8 July. Ten million, four hundred and fifty thousand, six hundred and twenty eight. Deaths five hundred and ten thousand, six hundred and thirty two. And rising.
I’m not in a tower block, not in a slum. I’m privileged to be alive and to be in Australia. For now.
Underneath the fractured surface in the grey brown ancient muddy Baramada low tide river water, the oysters continue to cluster, defying the 1.5 metre social distancing rule. Silenced, sharp edged, stopped in their tracks, clinging to each other, breathing the incoming tide. Impenetrable, obscure, persistent.
We wonder what it will mean and how long we can spend time with ourselves in our own head. It is too deep for oysters. They need sunlight and low tide.
Further out, clear waters wash back and forth back and forth against the rocky outcrop.
Ocean green, ocean blue, ocean green, ocean blue.
Performed by Bellatrix Scott for CLEARWAY (Corona), 2020, filmed at Articulate Project Space. Thank you to the First Nations women who provided their wisdom and experience on ‘Silted River’: Deborah Lennis, Jannice Packer, Tracey Cameron and Gayle Kennedy.
NOTES ON SILTED RIVER
Developing words from image.
I SILTED RIVER
gaping up from silted lulled mud
submerged, hiding, hidden
‘There is no secret to the formula of working out where Aboriginal people originally lived. A 1989 excavation at Lilyvale on Cumberland Street uncovered a campfire (radiocarbon dated to about 1500 AD) with the remains of a meal consisting of snapper and rock oysters.’ (Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, (2020) Sydney Barani)
‘There is a great quantity of shell fish in the Coves that have mud flats at the bottom, Oysters very large.’ (William Bradley, (1792) Journal : A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 – May 1792)
Hen and Chickens Bay. Wangal land.
II CLEAR WATER
The swamp of horror, the fight to underscore reality and death, escaped momentarily
Out to sea
Clear waters wash rock oysters
Back and forth back and forth.
Milk Beach, Birrabirragal land.
III WHITE FACED HERON
In the wave washed water suspended in mud the oysters defy the government order to avoid clusters, and stick together, their sharp exterior belying a soft underbelly. They meet in groups larger than 500. Submerged in sunlit waves, covered up, hacking at passing plastics with a sharp knife-edged shell. A leaf floats by, casting its shadow, oblivious. White-faced blue crane heron picks through and blends in it disappears amidst the shells.
Jubillee Park, Cadigal land
‘One of the Women made a fishing hook while we were by her, from the inside of what is commonly called the pearl oyster shell, by rubbing it down on the rocks until thin enough & then cut it circular with another, shape the hook with a sharp point rather bent in & not bearded or barbed.’ (William Bradley, (1792) Journal : A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 – May 1792)
‘The harbour was exploited for food using fishing line made from the inner bark of the kurrajong and hibiscus trees and multi-pronged spears tipped with bone. The many varieties of fish and shellfish – oysters, mussels and cockles – were supplemented with vegetables, grubs, birds, possums, wombats and kangaroos.’ (Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, (2020) Sydney Barani)
IV TOO DEEP FOR OYSTERS
Too deep for oysters. Plunged into social isolation, world cities empty, what will, who will, what it will and how. How long, how much time, ourself, yourself. The oysters need time out of the water, they need to breathe. They can’t be left int he deep swallows of ocean green ocean blue.
Friday (today), day five (of social isolation(, one week (I haven’t been out), ten days (since the last time I went out in a group), two hours (I have been awake), eleven days (since I last had a coffee in a cafe).
‘Around Sydney there were three main groups of First Nations people – Dharug, Kuringgai and Dharawal – each comprising of a number of smaller units called clans. The area between the southern shores of Port Jackson and Botany Bay, including the area that is now known as Sydney’s central business district, was populated by the Cadigal and a sub-group, The Birrabirragals. Their territory extended east to around Petersham.’ (VisitSydney.com).
‘In less than a year after Captain Philip and the first fleet, including the ship called Supply, landed in Sydney Cove, over half the indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died from smallpox. The region, once alive with a vibrant mix of Aboriginal clans, now fell silent. Every boat that went down the harbour found them lying dead on the beaches and in the caverns of the rock.’
V FRACTURED REFLECTIONS, SURFACE INTERRUPTIONS AND PEARLS
Water surface, like wild grass ready for harvest, pushed and pulled by wind and invisible currents crack up and tessellate, mirrors and fragments the sun, as squinting I peer into the muddy shore, ignoring the swathe of walkers, joggers, bike riders, families behind me.
Underneath the fractured surface in the grey and brown river water the oysters continue to cluster, still clinging to the rocks breathing in the tide, defying the social distancing instructions of our new silent ruler, SARS COV 2, the new king of the human race.
Nestled inside the feminine folds of an oyster, slowing turning in the muddy river, a pearl. Its birth an irritation to the oyster, its transforming orbit a spherical beauty.
In amongst the death and suffering, the pain, anguish and sadness, is the new love we find for simplicity, connection and understanding a way out? This disease this world slow down, this challenge to what we value and how we relate to each other and how we distribute goods and services – can we find any part of that expressed in a pearl?
In Australia the pandemic heralded the devastation of one culture that has survived but in extremis. In Europe, the Black Death has been attributed to the commencement of the Renaissance, one of the greatest eras in art, architecture and literature.
Saturday (today), day 28 (of social isolation), four weeks (I haven’t been out to a public event), one hour (I have been awake), seven (since I last had a coffee with a friend).
The Black Death marked an end of an era in Italy, its impact was profound, and it resulted in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and religious changes. These changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history. (www.learner.org)