In Tony Birch’s 2015 novel Ghost River, two teenage boys befriend a group of homeless men who live on the river of the book’s title. It is the Yarra River, as we now call it.
The boys live in the working-class suburbs along the river. It is the late 1960s. The river is really the central figure of the story. The boys build their friendship around it. Events – adventures featuring local gangsters and corrupt coppers, domestic dramas and marginalised river communities – play out in and around the river.
At one point, the homeless men tell stories of the ‘ghost river’ – the river running underneath this one (the Yarra/Birrarung) – that flows all the way under the Bay to the Heads and out into Bass Strait. This story is the telling of the existence and fate of the river prior to sea level rise thousands of years ago. It is in Wurundjeri lore. It is an ancient vision of the river that is common to lore and science.
As the novel’s character describes, that ancient river is still there. There is another river overlaying it too, Birrarung to Wurundjeri and the Yarra to Europeans, one that has been significantly altered since colonisation: the river that is there now.
In 50 years or 100 years it will be a different river again. Or perhaps, the same river lived and living differently. The stories in Re-imagining Birrarung: Six radical restoration ideas for the iconic Yarra River are visions of a revitalised, restored river. They imagine what the river can be like when benefiting from the maxim wilipgin Birrarung murron: ‘Keep the Birrarung alive’.
Each account comes from communities involved in caring for the river. They are snapshots of ambitious and bold visions for the river.
We need such visions. We need also the collective will to insist on them and insist on the means to achieve them: laws, projects, resources, organisation, policies, the commitment of public authorities at all levels, stories, involvement, lessons, tasks to pass on to the next generation.
These accounts represent themes that, in our view, are integral to the hard work of planning, negotiating and institutionalising change: the ancient river, a clean river, a healthy river, a connected river, and a place of river communities.
This project of change is embodied in the Yarra River Protection (wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Vic), which received Royal Assent and became part of the law of Victoria on 26 September 2017.
This law establishes a moment of opportunity, if well implemented and embraced, by which long-term visions can provide powerful, effective pathways for how we manage and govern the river. And the state in which hand it on to our children.
We hope this report stimulates your imagination about Birrarung and its future. Because imagining can spark not only ideas and visions for the river, but also measures on how we might achieve them.
Image: Native Fish Association volunteers in the Yarra River at Warrandyte (Pic: Anna Carlile, Viola Design)