An Illustrated Supplement to Deep Water

Part Three: Australia

A Healthy, Working River

Photographs by Jacques Leslie



On a long driving trip from one end of Australia’s River Murray to the other, I turned off the highway near the town of Loxton to stretch my legs, and found myself at a riverside campsite, staring at a singular river red gum tree. It was surrounded by irrigated lawn, and distinguished from other red gums closer to the river by a square log railing around it. Red gums are the continent’s emblematic tree, the most prevalent of more than six hundred eucalyptus species that have thrived by evolving strategies to cope with Australia’s sere surroundings: the red gum’s advantage is its intricate root system, both shallow and deep, that enables it to take water from floods in the minority of years when they occur and to absorb groundwater the rest of the time. They’re hardy trees that live hundreds, possibly thousands, of years; the sweep of Australian history, from Aboriginal to European domination, is etched on their trunks. Though still living, some are called “scar trees” because they bear the vacant outlines of canoes, shields, and plates that Aboriginals carved from their trunks, and others display the survey markings of the Basin’s nineteenth-century European explorers.


The tree I beheld was a majestic specimen, eighty or ninety feet tall; its branches were wide enough to create an amphitheater’s worth of shade, and its thick trunk, in the midst of a peel, resembled an urban wall layered with weathered posters. The storied Murray some 25 yards beyond the tree looked disappointingly tame: the pale green water that moved through it at a stately pace would never be confused with a torrent, and the red gums along its shallow banks were dwarfed by the tree in front of me. Murray Bail, the author of a novel called Eucalyptus, tells of red gums that “worm their way greenly into the mind, giving some hope against the collective crow-croaking dryness.” This one looked grandfatherly, as if protectively extending its limbs over the campsite’s inhabitants. “Tree of Knowledge,” a wooden sign said, and beneath that, in smaller letters, “Flood levels.”


When I moved closer, I saw that the trunk’s lower third was arrayed with small metal placards, each labeled with a different year: the placards, 15 all told, represent three quarters of a century of significant River Murray floods, and each placard’s location on the trunk denotes the height of that year’s flood. “1970” was posted just a couple of inches off the ground, barely visible beneath the wooden sign. A cluster of placards appeared up to a yard above the sign, connoting the small and medium once-a-year to once-every-ten-year floods, the engines of biological health that replenish the Murray Basin’s creeks, lakes, and groundwater. Further up, six or eight feet above the ground, loomed the big flood years of 1974, 1975, and 1931, and, towering over them, at the astonishing height of twenty-five feet or so, the placard for the once-in-a-century 1956 flood, which in some places lasted two years.


It’s indicative of Australia’s breath-swallowing aridity that the Murray constitutes the largest channel of the only major river system on the continent, yet its yearly flow is less than a day of the Amazon’s. Nevertheless, the Murray Basin is Australia’s heartland, its Narmada, its Mississippi Valley, where Aboriginals lived for fifty or sixty thousand years before colliding disastrously with European settlers, and where the settlers’ farms and ranches overtook the landscape to the extent that many Australians still think of their country as agricultural. I’d already noticed that quite a few riverfront towns possess some version of the Tree of Knowledge, usually in the form of flood years and heights posted on building exteriors— they reflect an understanding that floods and droughts write the region’s history. Staring up at the 1956 sign on the Tree of Knowledge, the most casual onlooker might have tried to imagine how water could rise so high over the broad floodplain’s flat terrain. A more attentive observer might have noticed that the last flood memorialized on the tree occurred in 1993, more than a decade earlier, but without an understanding of the Murray’s recent history, he could not have appreciated the ominous significance of the gap.


 


Along a six-hundred-mile reach of the Murray, trees are dying: the floodplain is turning into a graveyard of red gums, whose brittle, gray, hollow, and leafless trunks seem to serve as their own tombstones. At Chowilla, erosion has exposed some trees’ roots; others are surrounded by their own snapped limbs. The ossified roots and limbs resembled bleached bones, as if they’d passed a point beyond death where plant and animal matter reconverge; in some places, the roots and limbs were intertwined, as in a charnel house.


 


As we drove down the middle of an entirely dry creek bed whose shore was lined with hollow, spectral trees, Harper said, “Back in the ‘90s, no one thought this creek bed would ever die.”


 


In chess terms, Hume is still regarded as the queen of the Murray’s system: it’s the system workhorse, relied upon to send water down the river to meet the system’s intricate downstream obligations. If the regal title has any applicability to Hume’s appearance, it’s in suggesting a Botoxed and face-lifted dowager, for in the last four decades Hume has been both enlarged and radically repaired. Hume is a blunt instrument, an earth-rock-and-concrete barrier dam, whose downstream face, topped by a row of gates and supporting superstructure when the dam’s height was raised by 27 feet in 1961, seems to smile luridly, and whose spillway is streaked with mascara-like water stains.


 


If Hume is the workhorse, Dartmouth is the dam of last resort, whose water is held in reserve for dry years like 2002; it’s the king to Hume’s queen. Dartmouth’s role is largely dictated by geography: its watershed is only a fourth as big as Hume’s, which means that its reservoir takes much longer— up to ten years— to fill. The water in Dartmouth is therefore more precious, so it’s released less often. Dartmouth Dam is even larger than Hume, and remains the tallest of Australia’s five hundred large dams. Dartmouth is a sleek earth-and-rock-filled slab that points like an arrow into the ravished bed of the Mitta Mitta River, a Murray tributary near the top of the Basin— it looks like an aboriginal spear turned on itself, skewering the earth. The dam’s clay core is invisible; all onlookers see is a seeming pile of neatly stacked rocks, nearly 600 feet high, that holds the core in place. The dam’s downstream face is so steeply pitched that the rocks seem on the verge of tumbling down, but never do.


 


We stopped for a few minutes at Lock Six, the lock-weir complex across the Murray that so emphatically rearranges the Chowilla water table. On the northern side, where we stood, the lock is bounded by a broad, preposterous swath of imported, irrigated lawn; the growth is so luxuriant that trimming it requires a tractor-sized lawn mower with a driver perched atop it; he puttered by as we looked on.


 


The river looked a wan green, and was narrow enough to toss a baseball across. The red gums near the banks looked healthy; you had to look past them to a band of trees beyond the shoreline to see evidence of ecological crisis. As we watched, a houseboat from downstream entered the lock, and was slowly lifted upwards. The campers we’d previously passed will see the dieback, Harper said, because they’re surrounded by it, but “the general tourist in a houseboat like this one won’t even notice.”


 


In a book published in Sydney called Watershed: Deciding Our Water Future, Ticky Fullerton describes Blackmore as “suave almost”: both words are apt. The suavity is evident in his steel blue eyes, sandy hair combed straight back in neo-George Hamilton fashion, and cheeks pleasantly puffed as if sated with nuts. The suggestion of self-confident urbanity extends two-thirds of the way down his nose, until it meets the “almost” point, where it gives way to a modest but perceptible asymmetrical bloom, reddened and partitioned, intimating working class roots and pugnacity.


 


In mid-autumn, when I visited the Barmah Choke, the river’s flow should have been near its annual low, but of course it wasn’t: the water lapped at the Choke’s diminutive brim as it hurried down the channel to meet all its farming and municipal drinking requirements. “Barmah” is an Aboriginal word meaning “meeting place,” and the reason for the name is obvious: it’s a forest of red gums straddling the river just upstream from a major fork, a natural gathering place. The trouble is that in the regulated Barmah, springtime is perpetual. During the current drought, when land a few miles away was sere, the Choke looked exaggerated in its greenness, as if caked with make-up, a Hollywood version of itself, headed towards becoming an eco-Disneyland.


The road from Hume to Dartmouth, from the queen to the king of dams, leaves behind the desolate Hume Reservoir, from whose exposed floor the hollow remains of long-drowned trees still rise, wraith-like. In the midst of drought, the water level was so low and the reservoir so flat that its waterless portion went on for fifteen or twenty miles; as I drove by, I could identify the reservoir’s edge only as the point at which the dead trees stopped and the live ones began.


 


 


Paton, who is in his late-50s, is fair-haired, ruddy-faced, and strapping, with Northern European looks that are complemented by Australian congeniality. “We were the victims of a dam here,” he said, without seeming to bear a grudge.


 


On Saturday morning, we got off to a late start, and found ourselves standing on a secluded crescent of sandy beach, looking for worms. It was already mid-morning, past ideal worming time, but some worms still lingered a few millimeters beneath the sand’s surface, waiting to catch the scent of a morsel carried over them by the waves.


 


The property had the feel of a ghost town. I looked inside an ancient, sprawling sheep-shearing shed where the holding pens and shearing tables were rusted and dusty but still in place. The structure was dark and shadowy, except where shafts of light penetrated holes in the corrugated tin roof— the place felt archeological.


 


The lake startled me. It’s a shallow, nearly perfect ellipse, eight miles wide and less than ten yards deep. It looked real and unreal, beguiling and repulsive, prehistoric and contemporary, dead and alive. Looking across it from its southern bank, all I could make out of the opposite shore was a thin, pinkish-brown line, seemingly all that kept the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake from merging. Over it, a wispy cloud reiterated the horizon. Trees that once lined the lake’s shore, having drowned in the 1940s and ‘50s after a decade or two of permanent inundation, were now reduced to wizened, leafless trunks and limbs, which rose out of the water like Neptunian tridents. Though dead half a century, those trees still provided hollows where small birds nested, and raptors conducted raids. Closer to us, in a neat row, we saw the top portions of vertically arrayed logs that engineers stationed in the lake as a screen, keeping broken tree limbs from floating into the regulator and jamming it. We saw pelicans, glossy ibises, and water hens. We heard the screech of a spur-winged plover, the honk of black swans, a frog’s bellow. As we walked along the shore, we saw half-buried plastic tarps placed over exposed burials. Without even trying, we found on the ground an Aboriginal grindstone as big as a fist.


 


May’s lips were chapped, his hair was tousled, and the top three eyelets of his work shirt went unbuttoned, but he looked at ease in his rumpledness. Farming here is a seriously straitened profession with diminishing prospects, but May remains enthusiastic about his profession. “I’m the sort of person,” he explains, “who likes growing things.”


 


The next morning, May took me on a drive through his farm. The farmhouse is surrounded by trim green lawn, and the willow-lined irrigation canal behind it brimmed with water the color of milky green tea, but the rest of the farm looked as featureless as the moon, as if agriculture, instead of complementing nature, erased it. No rain had fallen in four months. The grassless land looked bald and exposed. The farm was a relentlessly geometric universe, as lifeless as parking lots; even the farm reservoir is an oval indentation enclosed in a rectangle of land.


 


After the tour, we met the rest of May’s family and assorted friends for a picnic at a bend in the Wakool River, the Murray anabranch and irrigation conduit that forms the May farm’s southern boundary. The bend marks a family gathering spot, where May’s father has fished for sixty years. Here, no agricultural fields were in sight, and the country resumed its vestigial stately character. Thanks to the Wakool’s artificial abundance, the trees looked healthy, and the landscape was daubed in a spectrum of soft greens, golds, and browns. The river barely flowed. Its banks were steep, and red gums with gnarled, exposed roots leaned halfway across the channel. From one of them, a rope dangled; Campbell and half a dozen other boys used it to swing over the river, then let go. Add a straw hat, and there was Huck Finn: it looked more like a Mississippi swimming hole than any place on the Mississippi now does.


 


“There’s the river in front of you,” Dole said, and I beheld a broad sward of carefully mown grass, and beyond it, the lock, the weir, and the flaccid Murray. The opposite bank was lined with willows, which, compared to the softer palette of the native eucalypts behind them, looked garish in their neon green. Clouds, putting in an infrequent appearance, lent the river a slate-blue cast. Upstream from the weir, a single horizontal pane of water glided almost imperceptibly towards the structure, then, sliced into identical arced slats by the weir’s twenty or so gates, descended smoothly for a few feet to the bottom step on the Murray staircase: from Blanchetown, the Murray met no more man-made barriers until the barrages near the river’s mouth. A yard or two downstream from the weir, bobbing pelicans and cormorants, having adapted to the altered regime, waited patiently for their prey, fish stunned by running upstream into the weir or tumbling downstream over it.


 


We drove towards the salt  disposal basin through concentric zones. The outermost ring is the “buffer zone”— the land intended as a barrier to keep basin salt from escaping into the river system, to my eye no more or less degraded than the terrain outside the gate. The buffer is supposed to keep the basin’s salt out of the Murray for 1,500 years, according to the plan; after that, the concentrated saline groundwater beneath the basin may begin leaking back into the Murray. The next concentric ring is the “salinized zone”— the land already poisoned by salt. As we approached the salt lake it surrounded, we could see the salt more and more easily: it looked as if the brown ground was flecked with snow. The mallee trees were long dead, with gray, brittle limbs that will eventually snap; only salt-tolerant mini-shrubs survived.


 


As we proceeded along the boardwalk, we found evidence of the conquered: an expanse over hundreds of yards of sandy hill and swale that glistened with shards of shells: we were standing on an Aboriginal midden. The Coorong was once so bountiful that as recently as two centuries ago, Aboriginals lived semi-permanently here. From the lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other, they extracted cockles, oysters, and crabs, and gathered just beneath the peninsula’s sandy ridge, on its lee side. Here, they ate, and left their shells on the spot; at my feet, shell remnants formed a mosaic in the sand. “This is one of the biggest open-air cafes you’ll ever see,” Pete said, and I tried to imagine Aboriginals perched on the hill, picnicking.


 


Our last stop was at a crest overlooking the lagoon. Trevorrow pointed in the distance to a point abutting the shoreline, where stones had been piled on top of a reef to form a nearly perfect circle: it was an ingenious, effortless fish trap. When the tide rose over the stones, fish swam inside the circle, only to be snared as the water ebbed; a single tidal cycle could yield hundreds of fish. The site was near one of the Ngarrindjeris’ seasonal camps, which they visited for a few months out of the year; when they broke camp, they breached the wall so that no fish would be trapped in their absence. Now the trap contained nothing but a puddle. Piles of stones lay on either side of the gap in the wall, right where the Ngarrindjeri had considerately placed them, perhaps not knowing it was for the last time. In the seven or eight decades since then, the Coorong has lost nearly everything, but the trap remains intact, as if awaiting the return of fish, the return of the Murray, the return of deep water.