Walking the Creeks: Field notes
Cameron Muir taking notes along Jerrabomberra Creek, 2020, Wouter Van de Voorde
We gather in fog beside planted she- oaks. The path we’re following tracks the edge of a wide pond that lies at the foot of the suburbs. This brown pool is fed by Weston Creek, a waterway that stretches the definition of ‘creek,’ as it courses a concrete stormwater channel that disappears underground in tunnels.
Our curator for this walk, Kirsten Wehner, tells us she stops here to listen to the wind in the she-oaks, intrigued by the contrasting sounds of the gentle whistling through their wiry branchlets and the thrum of cars tearing along the overpass just to our right. It’s a sort of natural music.
Kirsten’s story immediately reminds me of a soil conservation officer from far west New South Wales who told me he’d stop for lunch by a sandy creek in 40-degree heat and listen to the wind in the she-oaks, transporting him to the coast where he’d take holidays with his family. The arid inland, the beach, and the city, each radically different environments, connected by the sounds a tree makes in the breeze. Urban nature offers its own rich experiences.
The fog disperses as we walk, snaking around the hills and ranges in long white bands, and the sun warms our shoulders. Hannah Edwards, our expert guide, explains many of Canberra’s creeks and water courses were converted to concrete channels asan engineering solution to protect the suburbs from variable creek flows.
The channels allow developers to maximise use of the land by transporting water away as fast as possible. Rapid water also collects material as it goes – nutrients, silt, rubbish, heavy metals, and other pollutants.
‘Consider this next time you buy food in the supermarket,’ says Hannah. Water from here flows into the Molonglo River, the Murrumbidgee, Burrinjuck Dam, and into irrigation channels for watering pasture, food crops and orchards. We’re already thinking about what nature means in the city.
A flock of red-rumped parrots with their striking green plumage catches the attention of the photographers. I ask a few in the group what drew them to this walk. ‘As urban people, we’re only just starting to discover what’s right under out feet,’ Monique tells me.
Recently I read an essay in which the author posited that ‘the city is a lie that we tell ourselves.’ All that concrete, glass, steel, and bitumen is there to pretend we can separate the human world from the rest of nature. We learn a hole in the sidewall of the channel is a tributary. Kate Matthews disappears into subterranean Weston Creek. Her phone torchlight glints off the tunnel’s wet surfaces. ‘Come on,’ she urges a few of us.
Against our better judgement, we follow, and keep going until the graffiti stops and we’re sure we’ll drown in a rush of water or in the murky depths of a silt trap. We turn out our lights. ‘I’m happy to turn around,’ says James, a burly man in a trucker cap. It’s as far as we dare go.
Sullivan's Creek, 2020,
If Weston Creek is a site of engineering and order, Jerrabomberra Creek is a place of disorder, abandoned to agriculture, erosion, and encroaching development. We meet in an industrial lot and press into the south-easterly with Mt Jerrabomberra and the reserve looming ahead. It’s been pouring rain and we’ll receive 60mm over the weekend. The creek is already surging and tossing up pale foam.
Even in this deluge it’s impossible to forget what prompted these walks. Only six months ago Canberrans spent the summer indoors escaping smoke from fire fronts that engulfed swathes of a hot and parched south-eastern Australia. The smoke was a constant reminder of the loss and suffering along the coast and south towards Mount Kosciuszko and of the intransigence of our politicians. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced us into isolation. It seems an important time to learn about our local nature. Walking it now feels like a privilege.
The edge of Jerrabomberra Creek is strewn with rubbish and discarded machinery. Strips of plastic tangled in tree branches flutter and slap in the wind. ‘It’s a wasteland,’ I overhear one of the fellow walkers comment.
Wild fennel will grow anywhere, even in bitumen and cracks in concrete, and here it’s taken over. We part the fennel’s feathery leaves like we’re walking among shoulder-high carrot tops. Jerrabomberra smells of aniseed. ‘It reminds me of a sweet shop,’ says Wouter Van de Voorde, the photographer leading this walk.
We clamber past briar and thistles and down steep, crumbling banks to the creek bed. Our expert guide, Mark Butz, points to the surrounding valley and explains ringbarking, clearing, grazing and drains caused water to run faster over the floodplain and cut a narrow channel through the surface.
Much like other Canberra waterways, Jerrabomberra Creek used to range over the floodplain, constantly shifting, supporting a mosaic of wetlands, ponds, billabongs, and swamps. Now the creek runs in an erosion gully. We’re standing a few hundred thousand years below the flood plain. ‘It suited the European landholders,’ says Mark. Wet feet can cause problems for livestock.
A mystery emerges: a U-shaped impression in the mud suggests a one- legged horse has walked the precarious ledge between the eroding cliff and the barbed wire fence. Speculation ensues. We descend again into a wide gully growing a dense forest of leafless and towering bone-grey poplar trees.
In the forest there are random slabs of concrete and a sinking cache of rusting vintage cars. There’s a damp, compost odour from the leaf litter floor. ‘It’s a secret garden,’ says Kirsten, gazing at the trees. Then she adds, ‘Of invasive species.’
We learn that Wouter collected the horseshoe from the mud, leaving behind its intriguing trace. He’s carrying it in his belt. It doesn’t matter, the point is that we’ve entered a landscape where strange beasts might exist, where wild hybrid species could thrive, where both urban and natural are out of kilter. We’ve found wonder in probably the most disregarded and forlorn of the three creeks.
Sullivan's Creek, 2020,
It’s been raining since the night before when we meet at Haig Park Nature Playground and we’re a rabble of colourful Gore-Tex jackets and big umbrellas. In contrast to the fringing Jerrabomberra Creek, Sullivan’s Creek runs through the heart of Canberra’s busy inner northern suburbs.
Thousands of people commute on the paths that follow the creek line. Here in Turner and Lyneham you can smell wood heater smoke and the cosmopolitan scents of cafés and takeaway food. Sullivan’s Creek, like Weston, is mostly a concrete stormwater drain but it was the first to benefit from the constructed wetlands program. As we walk, we encounter wattle in mid-winter bloom and aesthetically pleasing established native gardens around large bodies of water.
‘Technically they’re not wetlands,’ says Dr Fiona Dyer, our expert guide today. ‘They’re ponds because they hold water all year round.’ Looks can be deceiving as Sullivan’s continues to have some of the worst water quality in Canberra. There’s only so much the ponds can do to remove nutrients and other pollutants in a dense urban area.
Landholders cleared much of this area for grazing, timber, and firewood, while stock destroyed many of the native grasses and shrubs. Most of the lower reaches was eucalypt forest with kangaroo grass, wallaby grass and wildflowers such as the Chocolate Lily.
Native animals were shot, trapped or poisoned and native birds were regarded as pests. Many animals and birds became locally extinct, including the brolga and brush turkey. Suburban and industrial development further transformed the catchment and degraded its biological condition.
We huddle under casuarina and box trees as Kate Matthews, our lead artist, introduces us to a new term, ‘drain pixels.’ These are the grey squares painted over graffiti. Kate wants to renew the creek corridor’s cultural landscape.
Urban design choices can exclude some people. The drains are a concrete canvas, a venue for expression. We continue north and circle the Lyneham Wetland where vulnerable blue-billed ducks have made their home. I run my fingers through the water at the edge of pond and feel slippery grasses. Fragments of sedges and grasses cling to my skin.
I ask Fiona how we build communities that want to know and care about the natural world. ‘That’s the key question,’ she says. Fiona gestures to the apartment blocks around us and explains dense urban development is great for reducing the area the city takes up, but it further removes people who live here from the rest of the natural world. ‘But that means places like these wetlands are even more important.’ My fingers grow stiff with damp after hours in the rain and I need to use two hands to position my pencil to write in my notebook.
Wetlands and riparian corridors are the most productive of all ecological systems, supporting a rich and diverse array of wildlife. They’re also a source of drinking water, a sink for carbon, and provide protection from floods.
In the last hundred years, human activities such as agriculture, urban development, and industrial pollution, have destroyed half the world’s wetlands. Around two-thirds of the world’s major rivers have been dammed, and tens of thousands of smaller rivers lost entirely. Aquatic ecosystems have lost half their living communities of plants and creatures since the 1970s.
This astonishing decline has plunged the Earth into a mass extinction event. Some scientists argue we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named for us because of our influence over our planet’s natural systems.
The philosopher Deborah Bird Rose proposed ‘slow writing’ as an antidote to ‘our impossible position as participants in and witnesses to catastrophes beyond our comprehension.’ Perhaps we can include slow walking and slow photography among the many creative practices that can help renew connections.
The waterways here were an important pathway for the Ngunnawal/Ngunawal, Ngambri and Ngarigu people of this region and many other Aboriginal groups who came from as far away as Queensland for Bogong moth ceremonies and feasts. Pathways allow physical movement, trade, ceremony, and access to food and materials, but they also carry knowledge embedded in places.
Walking the creeks allows us to experience our surrounds at a pace that fosters close attention and observation, alive to our senses, and aware of the movement of our bodies through place. Over the three walks with different groups I’ve watched people share neighbourhood memories and knowledge of species, history, ecology, and photography. With Maurice, an experienced orienteer, and Sarah, a grasslands ecologist, I’ve tried to work out how to read the muddled Canberra urban landscape.
Previously, the mountains at the edge of the city were ‘over there’, but now I see them differently, the work they do, pushing water and animating the valleys with lively creeks. Through our creative walking and close looking, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the local ecologies, places, and neighbourhoods that I’ve previously little noticed, and a better sense of how we are all part of the ecology of the city.
Jerrabomberra Creek, 2020,