Under this site was a swamp
The waters remain
only run deeper still
– Plaque at Perth railway station
A SMALL BOY is chasing a bird that is frantically trying to escape. The bird is darting into clumps of sedge and reeds at the lake’s edge. Only this is not a natural lake; it has been transformed from a chlorinated fountain pool into a re-created ‘wetland’ in the heart of Perth’s Cultural Centre. The bird has unusual colouring, with red eyes, grey eyebrows and an orange-brown band on its streaked breast. The face, cheek and hind neck are a rich chestnut colour with the upper parts streaked brown and the underparts black and white. I’m startled to see this shy and distinctively patterned bird in the middle of the city in this architecturally designed wetland that usually hosts stray seagulls.
This re-created wetland was designed and built by the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, as a kind of anamnesis of a chain of interconnected wetlands that stretched along the northern side of the city. The early colonists called the area the ‘Great Lakes District’. The bench that I’m sitting on is also a part of this remembering: the words ‘she-oak (Casuarina fraseriana)’ are tattooed into its boards. Today, Perth stretches over 5,423 square kilometres, almost to the limits of the Swan Coastal Plain. Only about a tenth of the original wetlands remain.
Few are aware of the city’s past. I had lived in Perth for almost twenty years before I realised the city’s swampy origins. In 2008, I was researching the origin of some place names when I came across an 1838 map of the city. This shows a chain of lakes just north of the city overlaid with the street grid of North Perth and Northbridge. Today this map seems foreign, a diagram of another place – surely not Perth, where water is hard to find and neither fresh nor blue. Looking into this grid and reading familiar street names, placed like bridges over water bodies, was disorientating. Using this map, I began walking the contours and traces of Northbridge, trying to get a sense of where the lakes had existed and how the topography of the city had held this water.
TODAY, THE ONLY visible trace of many of these lakes is in the names of streets: Lake, Mill, Spring and Orange, where citrus orchards once grew on the edge of Mew’s Swamp. As Perth’s suburbs continue to expand, the history of its lakes is still being traced in suburban streets. Watts Road Lake in Wilson, which was filled in and developed for housing in 1987, is now remembered by Old Lake Grove, River Bed Pass and Billabong Cove. This simulacrum of living water does not capture the diversity of the wetland system that has been usurped – Bywater Street is no longer ‘by the water’ and Old Lake Grove lies on the filled-in spaces of former swamps.
The unprecedented influx of people into Perth during the past decade has had a significant impact on the world’s most isolated city. Between 2006 and 2011, Perth’s population grew by 14.3 per cent. Senator Scott Ludlum is among those who argue that it is the design of Perth, with its sprawling, car-orientated suburbs and lack of infrastructure, that makes rapid growth difficult.[i] This pattern of growth, and the pressure of accommodating the fifteen hundred people who move to Western Australia every week, means that Perth is in danger of losing its unique flora, fauna, wetlands and open space.
There is an uneasy fit between being a mining boomtown, bursting at its suburban seams, and the capital of one of only thirty-four internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots.[ii] Perth is also the centre of the South-West Australia Ecoregion. The World Wildlife Fund argues that Perth may be the wildlife capital of the world, with over 2,100 plant species, seventy-one species of reptile, fifteen amphibian species and 156 native birds, as well as seasonal influxes of seabirds and migrating shorebirds (World Wildlife Fund, 2013).[iii] The way Perth develops will determine the fate of its endemic species – whether it remains a biodiversity hotspot. On the present trajectory this seems unlikely, in which case iconic species such as the Carnaby’s cockatoo face extinction. The Carnaby’s Cockatoo Population Viability Analysis Model Report of 2013 shows that with current rates of urban growth and land clearing, populations on the Swan Coastal Plain will be extinct within twenty years.[iv] The 2014 Birdlife Australia Great Cocky Count included a five-year analysis, which indicates the cockatoo population has been declining by 15 per cent annually since 2010.[v]
THE DRAMATIC LOSS of wetlands, which has continued since 1829, will determine whether Perth is able to retain its status as a biodiverse city. Wetlands are the most productive of all biological systems and support a heterogeneous range of wildlife, both aquatic and terrestrial.[vi] William Mitsch and James Gosselink describe wetland environments as ‘falling between the cracks of two disciplines’.[vii] Wetlands are neither water nor earth but exist in the meeting of these two, changing seasonally to become more or less of each element and blending the two elements to form mud. Perth’s wetlands directly or indirectly support most of its wildlife.
By the late 1970s, academic and landscape writer George Seddon estimated that drainage and infilling of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain had reached half a million acres. Philip Jennings, professor of physics and energy studies at Murdoch University, wrote in 1988 that 80 per cent of wetlands had now been lost or ‘disappeared’. Drainage and infilling of wetlands still continues with the expansion of the metropolitan area. Added to this is the reality of the drying climate. In 2007, the then Federal Minister for Environment and Water Malcolm Turnbull described Perth as ‘the canary in the climate-change coalmine’.[viii] Less rainfall, coupled with over-extraction from underground aquifers, means less water available to replenish wetlands. The Gnangara Mound sustainability strategy of 2009 recommends ‘transitioning’ some wetland habitats to terrestrial management practices, meaning that in the near future these seasonal swamps and damplands will not receive enough ground water recharge to maintain their swampy identities and will become dryland areas.[ix]
The story of how Perth has lost its wetlands, and why we continue to destroy them, is multifarious, but three main points stand out: the fecund nature of swamps, of their extraordinary biodiversity and the functions and interconnectivities essential to maintain healthy wetlands; their significance to the physical and spiritual lives of the traditional owners; and the unique hydrology of wetlands, which filter and drain into underground aquifers to provide Perth with much of its drinking water.
Present-day Perth is characterised by drought, summer water restrictions and desalination plants. Australia’s first desalination plant at Kwinana opened in 2007 and another extensive facility near the southern city of Bunbury came online in August 2011. When James Stirling and the botanist Charles Fraser visited what would be the future site of Perth in 1827, fresh water was available from the Swan River above Heirisson Island and from nearby creeks, springs and lakes. Their map of the area noted ‘abundance of fresh water…many fresh springs…river water fresh here’.[x] Fraser wrote in his 1827 journal that he was ‘astonished at the facility with which water is obtained on this apparently sandy spot, for, on digging two or three feet, we found abundance of the finest Water I ever tasted’.[xi] In the 1840s Perth spring water was used to brew Stoke’s Albion Brewery beer, which was said to be ‘a wholesome beverage…far better than the trashy stuff generally imported’.[xii] The spring used to make this beer is also a sacred Wagyl (rainbow serpent) site for Noongar people, and was to become fiercely contested during a prolonged protest over the Swan Brewery site some 150 years later.
The original plan of the city of Perth was laid out in an elongated shape, restricted on one side by the Swan River and backed by a network of swamps, which were the main feature of the landscape that is now Northbridge, North Perth, Highgate and Leederville.[xiii] Markey, Morel-Ednie Brown and others suggest that Stirling also situated the city on this site for defence reasons: it would be difficult for enemies to penetrate the swamps to the north of the city and it was defendable from the river and Mount Eliza to the south and west. As the city expanded, the swamps were incrementally drained, filled in and sold off as town blocks.[xiv] The beds of these seasonal lakes or wetlands remain, buried beneath parts of the city. For commuters zooming out of the Graham (Polly) Farmer Tunnel that winds beneath Northbridge, a mural depicting the Wagyl heading into the tunnel is a cogent reminder of the layers of Noongar country that resonate under the modern city of Perth with its constantly changing skyline and re-engineered hydrology.
The site of Perth city, with the river on one side and the chain of swamps to the north, was an area much frequented by the original inhabitants of the south-west of Western Australia. Noongar elder Cedric Jacobs eloquently expresses the spiritual and ecological significance of wetlands to Noongar people:
It is through the lake system. There is a water serpent down there below which is extremely important and the water on the surface is really the marks where the Waugyl wound his way through and came up after making the streams and the waterways. It’s all part of the ecological system to purify the land and the family. Once it was surrounded by waterways and if they fill them up with rubbish then the land begins to die.[xv]
During the Noongar seasons of Kambarang (spring) and Birak (summer), Noongar people camped at the wetlands as part of their seasonal migration to and from the coast. The wetlands were places of abundance to Noongars who lived off the water birds, frogs, gilgies (freshwater crayfish), turtles and plant foods so prevalent in the swamps. In the 1830s, when the explorer George Grey came across wetlands north of Perth he describes seeing:
…swamps producing yun-jid, a species of typha, served by well established paths and supporting abundant populations in clusters of well built, clay plastered and turf roofed huts…these superior huts, well marked roads, deeply sunk wells and extensive warran grounds all spoke of a large and comparatively speaking settled resident population.[xvi]
Wetlands were, and are, sacred places connected to the creation spirit and were meeting places for ceremonies. In 1850, the Inquirer reported a gathering of some three hundred Aboriginal people, from a wide circuit around Perth, at Lake Henderson on the edge of the town.
On Friday evening a grand corroboree was held at Anderson’s Lake [sic], at the back of the town, by upwards of 300 natives, belonging to the tribes inhabiting the country for a circuit of 200 miles from Perth.[xvii]
As Noongars were marginalised and moved out of their country by the colonists, lakes and swamps became important campsites, where many families lived on the fringes of white settlement, supplementing their diet with wild foods so abundant in the swamps.[xviii] A swamp known to the colonists as ‘Third Swamp’ was a deep wetland surrounded by dense ti-tree thickets and was apparently a favourite Noongar hunting ground. This swamp became a duck shooting area for the colonists and was reserved in 1873 as a public park. Renamed ‘Hyde Park’, it underwent an extreme makeover into walled lakes with lawns and European trees that provide open space on weekends for many relaxing human families, but offer little habitat for birds, animals and reptiles. Bibra Lake south of Perth was also an important campsite, which some Noongar families also recall as a place of trauma and pain, as under the Aborigines Act 1905 their children were forcibly removed from them at this place.[xix]
The draining and filling in of swamps was a cause of great concern to the Noongar people. In the late 1800s, a Perth Noongar woman known as Fanny Balbuk protested furiously at the destruction of her food gathering places and campsites. Balbuk was born on Heirrison Island in the Swan River, near the present day Causeway, and from there a straight track had led to the place where once she had gathered turtles, gilgies and vegetable food. This swamp, named Lake Kingsford by the newcomers, now lies buried beneath Perth railway station. Daisy Bates describes how Fanny Balbuk would break through fences and climb over them, continuing to walk her traditional bidi (track) to Lake Kingsford. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms. She was often arrested. She would stand at the gates of Government House, cursing all within, because the stone gates guarded by a sentry enclosed her grandmother’s burial ground.[xx]
The disappearance of most of Perth’s wetlands has had several contributing factors, one of these in more recent times being the drying climate. Equally significant is the relationship that colonists of the Swan River developed with freshwater sources. In 1827, Fraser also recorded in his journal that ‘between the Darling Range and the coast there are a few salt-water lagoons, and many fresh-water lakes, the majority of which are nothing more than swamps during the dry season, and none of them are of any economic importance’ (my italics).[xxi] Fraser’s comment is critical when attempting to understand the aesthetic and physical relationship that the colonists formed with the great chain of seasonal lakes (wetlands), which spread from Yanchep in the north to Mandurah in the south. The newcomers to Noongar country in 1829 had not encountered this kind of environment in their home of England and had few resources to understand the seasonal nature of wetlands, many of which completely dry out in summer. One correspondent to the Swan River News in 1847 wrote:
At home a lake is known only as a sheet of water which seldom if ever is dried up, and is naturally associated in one’s mind with pleasant and picturesque scenery…there was an air of desolation about these lakes, which strikes the spectator at once…it is completely still life without one point of interest in it.[xxii]
My exploration of the lost lakes of Perth inevitably led me to seek out some of the remnant wetlands that still exist on the fringes of the city and suburbs. It was a particularly good year for rain in 2009. As I wandered around the edges of North Lake (Noongar name: Coolbellup) in Perth’s southern suburbs I heard the extraordinary trumpeting of more than four hundred swans nesting on the lake. Ducks, coots, herons and egrets were all ranging on the lake margins, and the surrounding woodlands of Melalueca littoralis (paperbark) and Banksia menziesii (firewood bansksia) were blooming white, red and gold. Looking across the expanse of the lake I found it hard to believe I was in the middle of a busy suburb bordered by roads, houses and a freeway. This was the wild, going about its business of nest building, feeding and breeding.
The wetlands systems were integral to the survival of the Noongar, as they are to our health and wellbeing today. Perth still draws on the underground aquifers that feed the wetland systems for around 40 per cent of its drinking water.[xxiii] Rod Giblett, an academic who has been living on and writing about Perth’s wetlands for many decades, argues that it is difficult to accurately state how many hectares of wetlands have been drained and filled since colonisation; he concludes that ‘there has been a massive loss of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain and the process is continuing’.[xxiv] When Cedric Jacobs comments that if rubbish is dumped into the lakes the land will die, he is articulating what science now knows about wetlands: that they act as groundwater filters, which slow down the velocity of the water and take up toxins and contaminants.[xxv] Many drains are now being planted with reed beds and sedges as a way of rehabilitating contaminated post-industrial areas and preventing contaminants flowing into rivers.
In 2014, there are several major developments planned in Perth that place pressure on the remaining 10 per cent of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain: the federal government’s proposed freight superhighway, incorporating the Roe Highway stage eight extension through the Beeliar Wetlands; the Mangles Bay Marina at Rockingham; and the Perth Airport extension all threaten rare ecological areas, Noongar sacred sites and wetlands. One of the conundrums of this continuing destruction of wetlands is the inability of planners and developers to learn from past mistakes. Despite current knowledge of their cultural and ecological importance, wetlands are still considered to be impediments to development.
Internationally, rewilding movement developed as a methodology to preserve functional ecosystems and reduce biodiversity loss, using research in island biogeography and the ecological role of large carnivores. Cities such as Singapore are spending billions of dollars on regreening urban spaces. In the South Korean city of Seoul, authorities have actually demolished a freeway in order to liberate the Cheonggyecheon River from a brick lined drain to create a linear river park through the city. Here in Perth we still have pockets of extraordinary biodiversity, and yet these small remnant wetlands and woodlands are situated squarely on development plans for highways, marinas, airports and housing.
In Openings: A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake (MQUP, 1997), Laura Cameron suggests that while many people are aware that global environments are facing unprecedented degradation, a deeper, more important issue is the ‘real human capacity to forget a disappeared environment’.[xxvi] When a landscape such as the Swan Coastal Plain has been so thoroughly altered and re-engineered, the flora, fauna, lakes and rivers that connect people to the cultural history and stories of a place are easily forgotten. As newcomers continue to arrive, the remembrance of past landscapes continues to be lost.
There are several groups in Perth, including the Urban Bushland Council and the Save Beeliar Wetlands coalition, who are working hard to preserve the last of our wetlands. Thousands of people have joined protests and signed petitions asking for the wetlands to be made into conservation reserves. A rethink about the way we accommodate ourselves in our home place of Perth would allow us the opportunity to leave space for wetlands and banksia woodlands, and the flora and fauna that inhabit them. Their presence enriches us as humans and offers a chance to engage with the real nature of Perth instead of mere simulacra.
The sight of a timorous buff-banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis) in the city centre is a solemn reminder of how Perth’s growth has affected its flora and fauna. These birds were once much more common at places like Heirrison Island in the Swan River near East Perth, before the loss of wetlands and fringing vegetation impacted upon their populations.
There are smarter solutions than building bigger and wider roads; updating public transport infrastructure, putting freight on rail, building active transport systems such as greenways with cycle paths, and focusing development around transport nodes all lead towards more liveable cities. With intelligent planning that incorporates the needs of our endemic species, Perth can both grow to meet its burgeoning population needs and retain its unique status as a biodiverse city of international importance.
[i] Ludlam, S 2013, Transforming Perth. Regenerating Transport Corridors as a Network of High Street Precincts, T. G. Property Council of Australia, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, Perth, Australia, p 6.
[ii] Conservation International 2010, ‘Biodiversity Hotspots: Hotspot Science’ Conservation International. Viewed at http://www.biodiversityhotspots.org/xp/Hotspots/hotspotsScience/Pages/default.aspx.
[iii] World Wildlife Fund 2013, Perth – Wildlife capital of the world? Viewed at http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/australian_priority_places/southwest_australia/the_perth_metropolitan_area/perth_wildlife_capital_of_the_world/.
[iv] Parsons Brinckerhoff Australia Pty Ltd 2013, Carnaby's Cockatoo Population Viability Analysis Model Report, Department of Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities, Perth, Australia. Viewed at www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/cf20889c-9651-4594-841d-fdbfd1c5a031/files/carnaby-pva.
[v] Birdlife Australia 2014, Cockies Pine for a Future in Perth, Birdlife Australia, Perth, Australia. Viewed at http://birdlife.org.au/media/cockies-pine-for-a-future-in-perth/.
[vi] Jennings, P 1996, ‘A Decade of Wetland Conservation in Western Australia’ in Giblett, R & Webb, H (eds.) 1996, Western Australian Wetlands, pp. 149–167, Black Swan Press and Wetlands Conservation Society, Perth, Australia.
[vii] Mitsch, WJ & Gosselink, JG 2007, Wetlands, 4th edn, John Wiley and Sons Inc, New York.
[viii] Sullivan, M 2007, ‘Australia Turns to Desalination Amid Water Shortage’, National Public Radio (NPR), June 18, 2007. Viewed at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11134967.
[ix] Department of Water 2009, Gnangara sustainability strategy appendix 1: Gnangara groundwater system zone plans –– Draft for public comment, Government of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.
[x] Yiannakis, J Nile, R & Morel-Ednie Brown, F (eds) 2007, Northbridge Studies Day Papers (Vol. 1, pp. 5-34), Network Books, The API Network, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia, p 10.
[xi] Yiannakis, J Nile, R & Morel-Ednie Brown, F (eds), Northbridge Studies Day Papers, p 7.
[xii] Stannage, CT 1979, The People of Perth: A Social History of Western Australia's Capital City, Perth City Council, Perth, p 50.
[xiii] Giblett, R & Webb, H (eds.) 1996 Western Australian Wetlands, Black Swan Press and Wetlands Conservation Society, Perth, Australia, p 127.
[xiv] Yiannakis, J Nile, R & Morel-Ednie Brown, F (eds), Northbridge Studies Day Papers.
[xv] Laurie, M (ed.) 2003, ‘Interview with Cedric Jacobs’, Town of Vincent Local History Collection (oral history collection), Perth, Australia.
[xvi] Grey, G 1841, Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North West and Western Australia During the Years 1837, 38, and 39, T. and W. Boone, London, pp 12–38. Viewed at http://freeread.com.au/ebooks/e00055.html
[xvii]The Inquirer, 23 January 1850, ‘Corroboree’, Perth, Australia.
[xviii] O'Connor, R Quartermaine, G & Bodney, C 1989, Report on an Investigation into Aboriginal Significance of Wetlands and Rivers in the Perth–Bunbury Region, Western Australian Water Resources Council, Perth, Australia.
[xix] Egan, S 2010, Interview with Shayrn Egan, in N. Chinna (ed.) Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.
[xx] Bates, D 1938, The Passing of the Aborigines, University of Adelaide, Adelaide. Viewed at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bates/daisy/passing/index.html.
[xxi] Shoobert, J (ed) 2005, Western Australian Exploration (Vol. 1), Hesperian Press, Perth, Australia, p 192.
[xxii] George, J & Webb, E 1847, ‘Our Western Australian Home; Being Sketches of Scenery and Society in the Colony’, The Swan River News and Western Australia Chronicle, February 1, Perth, Australia.
[xxiii] Heath, J 2007, The Water Supply in Perth, Viacorp.com, Perth, Australia.
[xxiv] Giblett, R & Webb, H (eds.), Western Australian Wetlands, p 136.
[xxv] Laurie, M (ed.), ‘Interview with Cedric Jacobs’.
[xxvi] Cameron, L 1997, Openings: A Meditation on History, Method, and Sumas Lake, McGill-Queens University Press, Quebec.