In the wake of the flood.

There’s a mark, a line really, along the banks of the Yarra at Studley Park where the flood water flowed. It pulled out the creeping plants, pushed over smaller trees and took them all downstream. Some trees are hung with a flood washed tat, like dowdy, unloved Christmas trees, trimmed with junk. Bottles are lodged in the crooks of branches, ragged sheets of plastic flap. When the river was pushing through, heavy with soil and waste, you could hear the collisions of the river junk on the tree branches - it sounded like a low pitched rattle buzz. Where branches fingered the water the abandoned consumer crap built up in moving layers. Water bottles, possibly bought by the health conscious, seemed to be the most common items, followed by the smashed remains of polystyrene packaging. They hissed and fizzed on the surface, constantly in motion. Sometimes, they organised themselves in a way that convulsed the whole surface of the water and a breakaway raft of junk would be swept downstream. Larger items, trees, barrels and the prow of a canoe, pass by. The viewing platform buzzed with collisions, and occasionally it shook as larger, unseen, objects rammed into it. The hire boats were heaped up, partially submerged. The ducks looked lost, having probably never seen anything like this before. Our rain gauge filled and it kept raining. People were being warned not to swim in swollen rivers, which was clearly good advice, but it was also remarkable that it was needed.

Around the river a grey green sheen had been laid over plants and paths alike. It looked like some huge slug had left a slime trail over the world and now it was drying out. Drying to dusty powder that made you sneeze, clogged the gears of your bike and stuck like glue to your shoes. The flood’s edge was marked by a shift from grey to green, and its height showed in the snaggle tangle of plants on fence wires and gate rails.

The rain has gone now, but not its impact. I went north and west - towards the Grampians - to see what was about, to see what had happened in the wake of the flood.

“Drive 109km, then keep left” - not even turn left, just keep left. That in itself was enough to tell me this would be a dull drive. Not even the novelty of changing gear or actually moving the steering wheel. An arm droops from a truck window, an elbow from another. A tradie in his rust bucket ute drinks a beer, his dog pokes its head around the cab, mouth open catching flies, ears flapping like flags. At the end of a long driveway a green wheelie bin sits without a home in sight. Taking out the rubbish must be a real chore.

I head west, out of Melbourne, towards Horsham and into the sunset. In places smoke drifts across the road turning the world pink and grey. Fire trucks with flashing lights park up by the side of the road. The lights finger through the thickening air. They wait for a fire that today, does not come. This is a controlled burn, a “fuel reduction burn” as if there could be any other type of fire. Knocking down next summer’s fires with an autumn burn, fighting fire with fire. You can taste the acrid smoke, and even in the car your eyes sting a little. To the left of the road a pillar of smoke rises and grows, but I follow the setting sun instead. The world fades down to grey, a world of tone rather than colour, but at the same time the sky comes to life. Flaring out of the west. Silky fingers of cloud seem to flow from a hole at the horizon’s edge, from where the road meets the sky. A cloud fan of colour fills the sky. The Sat Nav becomes redundant as I follow this celestial guide. Even in the fading light you can see water. Roadside ditches flow, dams are full, fields are flooded. Lakes that have always been a distant spectre lap at the roads edge.

The hotel in Horsham is clean, efficient and utterly anonymous, although I do have a fine view of a local roundabout. The fire fighters from down the road organise beer and dinner, the roundabout attracts teenage drivers with money and rubber to burn. As ever, sleep comes slowly in a strange bed.

The next morning shows no sign of rain or flood and I go to have a look at Lake Hindmarsh. For most of the last ten years Lake Hindmarsh has not been a lake at all and it’s barely been a marsh either. But the waters from local rain and the more distant floods have reached this lake. It’s a stopover on the way to other things, but at present the water takes a pause and fills it. You would have thought a lake of this size would have been easy to find - but that was not the case. Roads were still closed from the recent floods and I only found out about this when I arrived at the ‘road closed’ signs. This was not good for the blood pressure, but it did mean I did far more exploring than I had anticipated.

The landscape was flat and dominated by agriculture; fences, broken down gates, mysterious buildings seemingly dropped into the fields and paddocks at random. Some seemed to have been long abandoned, filled with rusting material and mouldy bales of hay. On some of those fence lines there were the remains of foxes, caught and hung up to rot. The tails moved slightly in the wind, a counterfeit of life. Proof that somewhere in this seemingly empty landscape farming still went on. The fox is not native to Australia and it has been justifiably demonised, so on fence wires and in the middle of the road their bodies are left to rot.

This region has been damaged by drought and then in the first year of recovery, inundated by flood. Crops lie damaged and unharvested in the fields, fence lines are battered and hung with dead plants, with branches and logs forced through the wire. Under the flush of new growth you could see the way the dead grass had all been been laid flat by the flowing water, neatly combed like a child’s hair.
Grasshoppers sprang in large numbers from the long roadside grass. They would smack into the windscreen, lodge in the radiator grill, and die in a splattered mess on the front of your car. Locals have spread a layer of shade cloth over the fronts of their cars - letting the air through, but keeping the bugs out. Red Rumped Parrots fly in flocks and a Brown Falcon hunts by the road side. A pied butcher bird flies in front of the car, and then dives off to the side and sits on a fence post. Its call is mellow and clear. The last time I saw one of these I was in Brisbane and the floods had yet to flow. You could see life and death in one glance. Ruined crops and natural growth side by side.
It is a Cartesian landscape, dominated by straight lines, with roads disappearing into distant vanishing points. The paddocks are squares and rectangles, the road junctions meet at right angles; seen from above the only curved lines would be creek lines, and many of these have been reduced to little more than canals. But next to the roads are strips of wildness that are unplanned and ragged, like the muscular plants that push through the gaps in the pavement, steroid dandelions, roided up hawkweeds, feral plants, wild plants. These edges are thriving, when the laser planed paddocks are empty. They are unseen places, sitting between the realm of road and agriculture. In many places they are the last common ground, unwatched, neglected and thriving. Human intervention seemed rare in these places and when it was visible it seemed to be about the celebration of ghosts. A large boulder with a metal plaque marks the point where a school once stood - years ago, life-times ago. But now there is no sign of people or place. The names of the maps are ghosts as well, as you drive you pass road signs that have nothing near them. They exist only in the historical and flat world of maps and records.
When I eventually get to Lake Hindmarsh I don’t recognise it. As I drive over a slight rise, acres of rippled brown are laid out before me. I don’t recognise it as a lake. It looks alien and imposed. It’s the wrong colour, it’s the wrong texture; its just wrong. Apart from the fact that it’s huge, it looks misplaced. For a short while it looks like some huge installation art work that doesn’t really work. A good idea misplaced, many dollars misspent. Where I gain access to the lake is a camp site. And like most camp sites, it is filled with a combination of beauty and destruction, broken bottles and shiny yellow flowers, rusty tins and the glitter flash of the wings of dragonflies. But most of the lake itself is empty of all but water. Two white faced herons stalk the margins, and swallows hawk for insects. A mouse spider, red and blue, stumbles over the sand. I had expected more. I had hoped for more. But the abundance of water seems to have spread living over the land. After I short while I leave, but this time the slight rise of the land shows something else.

Flooded paddocks flanked the road and in them were birds aplenty. Here was the abundance I had thought I would find. But it was not anywhere special or designated, it was on some old rough pasture, a flooded field, a piece of edgelands. Such places are important because they are often overlooked and neglected, they are places people pass on the way to elsewhere. In the damp and flooded grass Red Kneed Dotterels and Black Tailed Native Hens ran and fed. Red Rumped parrots perched on the wire fence and flew down to drink from puddles and pools. Ducklings splashed and chased in the ditches. Welcome Swallows hawked over the grass and along the road. Whistling Kites flew overhead and scared the other birds. Other cars pass by, with driver and passengers looking at the strange man with a telescope. They park by the full but empty lake and then they leave. They don’t see the Australasian Hobby, they miss the dragon flies but they do leave a pizza box and cola bottles. Sometimes despair is hard to avoid.
On the way home I pull over to look at Green Lake. Six months ago this was a field, as it had been for the best part of ten years, but not now. The boat ramp seemed to be covered in weeds - but this made no sense, the lake would have been over the road if it was weed. On closer inspection the weed turned out to be the discarded cases of dragonfly nymphs.

The piles of the pier and the nearby trees were thick with them. Sometimes they were linked together in discarded streamers, one case on another and another and another. The water’s edge was thick with cases and the bodies of the dead and the malformed.

A few dragonflies were still pulling themselves from cases, eyes first, then the body and wings. Dozens of adults were trapped in spider webs, or caught somehow on branches and twigs. The numbers were astounding.
If the lake really has been dry for a decade, where did these weird, alien creatures come from? It felt like an ecological resurrection, a real reason for celebration. I left the lake and headed home, away from the floods lands, away from the wake of the flood.


Anonymous said...

Interesting contrasts - nature besieged by herself and by all us humans.

Incredibly flat and straight out there, isn't it? Reminds me a bit of parts of the western US, where they use longitude and latitude to name the streets.

Interesting, too, about the egrets. I worry about what's no longer coming to the area now that it's gotten warm enough to welcome the new visitors.

Dharma Chick said...

Oh, those sky photos are marvelous! and a wonderful collection of photos.

Mike B. said...

Amazing dragonfly photos. I still haven't seen any nymphs, though they must be around here somewhere.

Carola said...

I came here from sky watch, from your other blog. Glad I found you. Beautiful nature photos. Love that skys.

somu sekhar said...