Fens, Rivers, and Droughts

Blue Gum Swamp, Booragoon Lake, and Bull Creek are remnants of the Swan River system or its surrounding wetlands in the Perth region of Western Australia. They are especially significant to me as a poet, as I grew up beside them and find myself constantly drawing on them for imagery and comparison. Likewise the wheatbelt area of the Avon Valley where my family worked the farm Wheatlands over a number of generations, my cousins and uncle still maintaining an interest in the region. Living in Cambridge, I find my focus on the river and wetlands honing itself. I’m in an environment that has been entirely altered by humans – the great fens now prime farmland, pumps working almost continuously to keep this foodbowl of England functional. The draining of the water has led to a bounty, but also the loss of a culture, or even cultures, and ways of life. Similarly in Perth, around the Swan River, the draining of wetlands has led to a change in demographics, but even more is symptomatic of occupation and erasure of previous “ownership”. When one compares the “unlanding” of Aboriginal people in South West Australia to the “unlanding” of fenlanders in Cambridgeshire there would seem to be something amiss. But there are more similarities than are obvious at a first glance. Inasmuch as the fenlanders made use of the water and its flora and fauna to maintain an existence – in terms of industry and protection and cultural sovereignty – so did the Aborigines. On the use of the environment around the Swan River, Sylvia J. Hallam, in A New History of Western Australia, has written:


“This is the orthodox view, but it is wrong. Where Stirling planted a garden by the river ‘the ground had been cleared by fire a few weeks before and was ready to receive seed’. ‘Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia,’ said Sir Thomas Mitchell. Settlers seeking pasture for cattle and sheep came on ‘fields of grass’ traversed by native paths, in a country ‘so clear that the farmer could hardly begrudge the fine spreading trees . . . the small proportion of the ground they occupied only to ornament’; land ‘swarming with kangaroo’ with also ‘the most numerous native population’ became ‘the most frequented part with the greatest number of settlers, the greatest quantity of livestock’. What was good pasture for kangaroos was good pasture for European stock. It had been made so by the work the Aborigines had put into ‘the systematic management of their runs’. Fire-stick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists had kept open for themselves and their game (and for the European grazier) a goodly land, which became choked with bush when its Aboriginal managers were displaced by Europeans. Towards the arid interior the interactions of Aborigines and landscape over time may have had less beneficent effects on both.”

However, a fundamental difference between between dispossession as a result of technological progress, improved farming techniques, and the general urge to occupy “untamed” land, is that whilst the language of the fenlanders gradually incorporated the discourse of the new, even if with aversion, the language of the Nyungar people of the South West of Australia was gradually eliminated. The dialect of the Perth region has almost entirely been lost, and an English-Eastern Nyungar hybrid is all that remains. The fenlanders shared a language with their occupiers (during the period of drainage), even if it had its own dialectical peculiarities. The languages and dialects of the Aboriginal peoples had nothing in common with the English of the invaders. Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus are interesting here:


“The unity of language is fundamentally political. There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language that at times advances along a broad front, and at times swoops down on diverse centers simultaneously.”

As a poet exploring the discourse between a “new” and an “old” landscape, ironically inverted in this case, I found that the “dominant” language dictates that its signifiers be used as orientating reference points. By “dominant language” I mean the language of the place from which one is making observations – in this case Cambridgeshire – and place carries its own specifics of landscape as much as linguistic variations. However, being Western Australian, the language I am most familiar with is obviously of that place, so the language here dominant becomes subverted – the jarrahs and karris grow through the maples and oaks. This trope runs, in a number of variations, through the poems that follow. It is a deterritorialising device. It aims to upset the post-colonial binary. The subversion leads to a kind of reverse colonisation, and so allows for the exploration of internal colonisations, such as happened with the fenlanders and the outsiders who coveted their land and destroyed their way of life.

Superstitious Bookes, the title taken from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, is a sequence of poems that explores these issues of place, occupation, the ironies inherent in post-colonial discourse, the shifts between the spoken and written, and the mobility of text. The poems also deploy a pastoral poetics in a post-modern or modernist discourse – be it ironically and with a deep skepticism.


PrologueAs the discourse opens,
hawthorn, birch and sallow,
hazel, ash, field maple,
and standards of oak high over bluebells,
unsettle stands of karri or jarrah,
mountain ash or blackbutt,
stars of bethlehem
and rashes of scarlet runner
in those sylvan glades
of settlement where the climate
would turn every bit of fen-peat
to dust, outdoing even the anti-nature
of Cambridgeshire. Here, you can
talk “convincingly” about history,
the original layout scrubbed away
and remodelled – now the wealthiest
farming land in the country,
land that could, it is said,
survive without subsidies.
You read of peat fires that smoulder
up to two years and how plastic tanks
will be used in the harbours
around the coast to store water
from Scotland and Norway
should the present drought persist.
You recall from childhood your Uncle
fighting off the urge to use
poisonous water from saline wells
to save his dying sheep. How daily
he’d take the truck to the stand-pipe
twenty miles away and cart water back,
how, in the end, it was falling
from a water tank that led him
to turn his back on generations of heat.
You are familiar with the codes of drought.
Though you live here and one side
of your family traces some kind
of lineage through these parts,
or almost, it doesn’t feel right.
So you talk to yourself, selling out
only to self or scholarship.
A bad joke that fills another
gap in the index – as you churn it out
almost nothing comes in to replace it.
Hell is a place that’s been emptied entirely,
like the eroded farmlands north-east
of antipodean York, cathedrals of salt
impressing only themselves
and scientists with their architecture.
And an empty place is one
where the wood can’t be seen
for the trees. Where even
the transparency of others
gets in your way. The language
of observation decays into self
and the lyric voice becomes a parody.
In the faceless figures that grace
the Lady Chapel walls at Ely,
in the brass-rubbing studios
that keep them busy on weekends,
in their superstitious books
that’d keep darkness
to the outskirts of Empire.
“Thou shalt admire no woods or Citties there,
The unjust seas all blewish do appeare.”
As in deserts where explorers lie,
where nomads are hoaxed and left to die.
Yes, in this landscape
the pumps constantly
suck water and power;
fenlanders await the collapse
of the power grid (“why shouldn’t they tremble and howl”),
that only birds and eels and themselves
might in instinct know the way
through channels of water and growth,
or augur the storms that would
have driven six-foot waves
against a small king and his mobile hoard.
Somewhere out there, in Centralia,
they find the wrecked boat of an explorer,
so sure of finding that greatest
of inland oceans.


For the moment, ignoring the subtext of environmental determinism (that is, that it’s all here for us regardless) Sylvia J. Hallam’s premise is a good one: that land management takes on different guises, and that the capital-profit orientated production values of European agriculture are only one face of it – that Aboriginal management “schemes” were just as practical, useful, and in their context “profitable”. So too with the fenlanders’ fishing for eels and harvesting of waterfowl. Though the profit to the “state” of course was comparatively minimal. And this is the issue.

As a child I used to explore the bush surrounding Blue Gum Swamp – my primary school backed onto it. My invasion unquestionably contributed, unconsciously of course, to its decline. But even greater was the effect of that Scout Hall (which I attended), the Squash Courts (which I played in), the Tennis Club, and so on. A pumping station was installed to keep the water clean as the numerous bores, sunk through the surrounding suburbs, would lower the water table and take the swamp with them. As the wealth of the neighbourhood increased – its proximity to the city centre having much to do with this – so did the number of bores. As I grew older I learned to associate Blue Gum Lake not only with a variety of water birds, wonderful spider orchids and a broad array of flora generally, but also with botulism. Summer became a season of poison. Most of the wetlands of Perth ended up being drained not for agricultural purposes but for housing and small-scale industry. To quote Hallam again:

In the Perth area suburban and industrial development have stripped large areas of vegetation and exposed them to investigation; but on the other hand large portions are covered inextricably by factories, bitumen, houses, gardens and parks; and the total topography of whole areas may be changed by bull-dozing of hills and filling of swamps.”


It has always riled me that while claiming the Swan River as Perth’s great asset, town planners and Main Roads Surveyors have spent much of their time “reclaiming” land from the river. This has been to fit freeways and roads into already-established urban frameworks. Every piece of land filled in is lost for good. Blue Gum Swamp and Booragoon Lake are maintained as reserves for recreation and notionally areas of “preservation” – encircled by houses and bores, they attract the detritus and garbage of suburban life. Only a couple of years ago I discovered piles of garden refuse actually dumped around the base of a “No Dumping” sign at Booragoon Lake. Surrounded by paperbarks, edged by suburbs and Leach Highway, Booragoon Lake is a favourite for twitchers. There’s a walkway built out into the lake, a sign showing species of birds that might be seen at particular times of the day. There’s intrusion, but also a bizarre sense of the pristine. As the cormorants and ibises wheel in at dusk to settle in the limbs of dead trees, or the night herons step out to stalk the darkish waters with primeval statuesque lurches, you become aware that this kind of land “management” is the most obscene form of tokenism. There is no mention of the indigenous peoples; there is a self-satisfying appraisal of the lake’s necessity and worth in the face of a diminishing natural landscape. In Cambridgeshire I find the same with Wicken Fen, which has actually been reconstructed to imitate an original landscape. Motives don’t really have to be looked for!

One of the great difficulties I have had in creating a place in a new enviroment has been how to relate to the landscape. In the South West of Australia I have a lifelong familiarity with place, and have inherited through my family the codes of place, or more realistically of occupation. It is interesting that most post-occupation inhabitants of Perth have almost no knowledge of the Aborigines who lived and moved through the area extensively. There’s a kind of gesture toward understanding in school, but it too is token and little more. There is a tendency to think of Aborigines as being from “out there, in the outback”. The occupation has been ruthless and efficient. There have been recent “cases” which have focussed on local peoples’ links and inheritance to the region. The Wagyl-Swan Brewery protest is probably the best known example. The local people claim that the Wagyl, or dreaming serpent, sleeps beneath the surface of what is known now as the “brewery site”, just below King’s Park on the Swan River. For them, and for the river, it is catastrophic to disturb the Wagyl. A former government wished to develop the brewery site, turning it into taverns and entertainment facilities, which would have meant disturbing the foundations. The Aborigines and other protestors wished to see it turned into parkland. As has been often the case, the dollar has won out and the protest has been crippled through the courts. Work on the brewery building has gone ahead.


HarmoniumSandspit at low tide
taloned in the lower reaches
of the Swan River
as the atmosphere condenses
to a single spark, a son et lumiére
entertaining only itself
as upstream they fill in just a little
more of the river, burgeoning freeways
forcing their pylons deeper into
the settlement’s sludge,
knocking on the door
of landbridges that link
the place with Empire:
that up there, beneath the fens,
they find buffalo and lion,
elephant and rhinoceros,
and poets are offered residencies
at museums, oblivious
of the subterfuge: but all of this
is off the map and everything
leaps from th’Antarticke world
into the sky, as from here they
head to Bali or India,
in search of temples and karma,
lomatel taken regularly
and also consistent doses
of anti-malarial concoctions,
in their busy search for pleasant fruites
as if the world is hypertextual;
so too in language of the primal,
linking druids to the Wagyl
and claiming kinship,
like domesticating the dingo
and talking of pedigrees,
while the sandpaintings spiral –
not vanishing but rearranging endlessly
at least to the poetic eye.
So this sandspit, or at high tide
“sandbar”, that’d grip the hull
of a drunken sailor’s yacht,
or catch a corpse drifting
up from the harbour,
might well be the inverted
signature of a sluice
draining excess water
from the shire, as drought
addles the senses, or simply
a memory of this.
If harmonium is a busy sprinkler
casting rainbows to the sun’s
determined backdrop,
the greens greener than green,
(down here the blue
is bluer than it should
really be); then you might consider
the river the source of prosperity
and rather than filling it in
dredge it deeper, recast its course
and send it inland, calling it snake
and naming it Protector,
making the desert sprout
and fill the Nation’s coffers,
fuel calls for succession.
CY O’Connor,
State Engineer, went some of the way,
linking Goldfields with Mundaring Weir,
driving water into desert,
quenching the thirst of gold diggers,
washing the finds:
the pipeline a concrete and metal river,
of a precise depth and volume
and almost consistent flow.
In early paintings of the Swan
natives reclined or stood fixed
against their spears
as industry and commerce
terraformed the flows; as the protests
at the old brewery –
built over the Wagyl (river serpent,
guardian of the local dreaming) Ð
raged on into litigation
the art market kept its head
just above water,
though collapsing prices
in the late eighties
had sellers wary – it was still
a buyer’s market.


This desire to be in contact with the original codes of presence, and the inability to connect legitimately, have allowed me to lay some kind of roots in my new landscape. There’s a kind of reverse occupation going on. An undoing of the colonising binary, possibly. One learns to look for the landscape under the one we can see. And this is so much the case with the fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. In his wonderful book, The Draining of The Fens, H.C. Darby writes, regarding drainage and the late eighteenth century:

“One local character who lived in the Kyme Fens of Lincolnshire during the latter half of the century has left an account of the methods by which fen employments were carried on. His writings have little intrinsic value but are interesting in that they preserve some of the rare and local expressions of the fens. His first pamphlet professed to give an account of the mysteries of “a simple, fullbred Fenman”.

Such as born in a coy, and bred in a mill,
Taught water to grind, and ducks for to kill;
Seeing coots clapper claw, lying flat on their backs,
Standing upright to row, and crowning of jacks;
Laying spring nets for to catch ruff and reeve,
Stretched out in a boat with a shade to deceive;
Taking geese, ducks, and coots, with nets upon stakes,
Riding in a calm day for to catch moulted drakes;
Gathering eggs to the top of oneÕs wish,
Cutting tracks in the flaggs for decoying of fish;
Seeing rudds run by shoals Ôbout the side of Gill sike,
Being dreadfully venomÕd by rolling in slike;
Looking hingles, and sprinks, trammels, hop-nets and teanings,
Few parsons, I think, can explain all their meanings;
In theory, no doubt, they may pretty nigh do,
But the practical part they have never gone through.

Many of these occupations were to disappear in his own lifetime, for the Kyme Fens were drained by the end of the century.

Of course, there is great “intrinsic value” in the quoted poem. What we have is a key to the codes of a particular language, or at least approximation of a language. As farmers now benefit from the rich peat exposed by drainage, and as adulation of drainage engineers elevates them to a quasi-mythical status, doubly interesting in the mystifying through time and the “humanising” of scientific triumph, so too the “indigenous” idenity is neglected. The language of this poem allows me as much entry as anyone, other than someone of direct fenlander stock, to place. The value of the “word itself”, its ostranenie, brings place to life. In it I can read the wetlands of the Swan River, the universal drainage.


The Opening Scenes of Doctor FaustusObey’d in their severall Provinces
premiers slice up the mineral wealth,
keeping the boundaries of their codices
intact, wives busy as hansard reporters,
writ in iron-tannin ink as down by the creek
ti-tree stains the waters,
night heron hunched in the shadows
permanently, burning into
parchment mise en abyme,
that Goddamn reflection
coming back at me,
thriving in the glass in this place’s
all quills dipped in oak galls
and iron salts, drunk on the urine
of a visitor from the old country,
rendering shadows
lampblack and calling death
something else, and everything else
externall trash.
B-text they uttered in the stalls
as if authority need not be intoned,
as divinity falls by the wayside
and the poet becomes a demi-devil
in the restoration of Valdes and Cornelius
who had long back lost their Narcissism,
despite appearances;
the Scholars and Wagner
chewing the fat, refusing to conjure
textus as godspellara,
authenticating through vademecum,
inscribing endpapers with likely
outcomes while Caius drank deeply
milk straight from the breast –
the medical text – as in raising
Mephostophilis Faustus is incredulous
that Meph misses the green fields
of heaven, the world endlessly
revolving with wealth and expanse;
on the membrane indenture
knifed severally as authentic,
a hooded bird recalls flying
into a plate glass window,
confronting English glass
in a Danish frame,
“Zounds, boy in your face!”
gurgles Robin, the clown, Zounds!
architecture whose quiddity
is the integrity of the sails
on Sydney harbour, O splendid
Opera House, in which the parallels
of Said might be drawn at an honorary dinner,
but probably won’t, while in Melbourne
theyÕll have none of it, protecting best
what the centre cannot hold,
pathetic remnant of empire!
Zounds says Robin, come again,
who’ll drive back the floods threatening
these islands? Bishop Cox of Ely
backs him up: “And because he doth
intend to bestow cost to drain it, and bank it,
to keep it hereafter from drowning,
I was willinger to let him have it.”
You little bastard! says Wagner,
transliterally, almost in Roman-style
typeface: Quasi vestigiis nostris insistere;
dead nettles crowding the Heidelberg school’s
expected revival, the rubrication
of scarified desert.
Decoy in the dwindling
water to grind,
or deteriorating hand
as if there were an age
of science, concentrated in pools
of teal, brand geese, widgeon and mallard,
or in the lens of Booragoon Lake –
sacred ibis, cormorant, egret, or blue heron,
determinative symbols against
a city backdrop, interlopers
indicated by caret marks:
guides for twitchers where
feathered membranes are
endorsed as Ouse Washes SSSI –
the drainage enterprises of Dutchman
Cornelius Vermuyden: “The spirits
tell me they can dry the sea,
And fetch
the treasure of all forraine wrackes”
redshank and ruff
roughing it in grassland:
Washes acting up a floodwater
in laden storage areas;
chronologically high water
rivering and flooding the Washes
preserving settlements,
suspensions of peat and reed
scripted by mongrel free-hand,
coots clapper claw lying flat on their backs!
having avoided hingles and sprinks
and the humanistic hand
hurling a saucer-shaped earth
into the postcard, John Dyer
double-checking the force
of Nature’s rigour, or the materiality
of angels in shellac seals, Miltonic
scorn almost entertaining Empson
while desiring machines
chatter far below the Hebrides,
moving across narrow bridges
towards the minims of Perth.


And with the fenlands, though the geography has changed and the “language” altered, it is water that still remains at the core of the vernacular – where specific names of drainage engineers, such as Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, replaced local associations as their “inventions” re-scaped the region, and the people described in William Camden’s Britannia in the 1610 English translation, had given way to the “modern” farmer. It is worth noting the following passages when considering how the occupation of place introduced a new language of landscape, how the names of marshes and wetlands were overlaid, if not replaced, by new geographical features, examples of engineering works that became part of the “natural” landscape; and how the original inhabitants were defined as part of a rude and unmodern past, out of touch with the realities of modern needs and technologies:


“a kind of people according to the nature of the place where they dwell rude, uncivill, and envious to all others whom they call Upland-men: who stalking on high upon stilts, apply their mindes, to grasing, fishing and fowling. The whole Region it selfe, which in winter season and sometimes most part of the yeere is overflowed by the spreading waters of the rivers Ouse, Grant, Nen, Welland, Gelene, and Witham, having not loades and sewers large enough to voide away”


“A cut near Ely, now called Sandy’s or Sandhall’s Cut, 40 feet wide and 2 miles long.”

What is doubly fascinating is how in an environment like Perth’s, which is extremely vulnerable to drought, where water restrictions during the summer, and even winter, are far from unusual, where people describe themselves as living on the edge of the desert – there is a desire to preserve a notion of the well-watered and yet sensibly engineered lushness of England. Thus the bores, keeping those gardens green and lush just like “home”, maybe even Cambridgeshire, where William Cobbett in 1830 observed “Between Cambridge and Ely ‘was a country of corn and pasture, of fat sheep and fat oxen.'” Back “home” they keep the pumps going to ensure that water doesn’t triumph and undo their good science.

It has been an interesting year, in the sense that drought has been threatening in the fenlands. I’m not sure how the winter in Perth is going, but I do know that people will be hoping for steady rainfall to keep the crops in good shape and ensure there will be no water restrictions in the following summer. Dams, with names that are part of the community’s identity, part of its overlaid and self-authenticating history, will be on everybody’s lips – Canning Dam, Mundaring Weir, Serpentine Dam, Churchman’s Brook, and so on.

The Native Tribes of Western Australia, edited by Isobel White, in the general context of tribal territories in Western Australia (primarily inland – north-east of Perth), we read:


“Every pool, spring or lake in every tribe is associated with the family or group occupying the vicinity, or with some individual member of that family, whose birth occurred beside the pool, etc. Such pool belongs to the family of the person born there as long as the family exists. Should every member of the family die out, the pool or pools which belonged to that family or group become kutu-wanna, or kuta-burna (dead ground, country whose owners are dead). In all tribes there is a dialectic equivalent for this expression, and I have only met one instance where such country has been “jumped” by a member of another tribe. That is in the Meekatharra district, whose local groups have died out since the advent of the white people. Sometime in the late [eighteen] nineties a rather powerful Lake Way district native who made his own country too hot to hold him went with his family to Mardong-ga-yuara pool and took up his residence there, relying upon the white people as well as upon his own known prowess and magic powers for protection from the relatives-in-law and the friends of the dead group who lived north, south, and west of Mardong-ga-yuara. There he resided with his family, passing from pool to pool according to the seasons, and fighting his tenureship of the district, until he contracted venereal [disease], when he was sent to Bernier Island. As soon as the man had been removed, his family at once fled from the district. I obtained his release from Bernier after my visit there, and he died near his own people’s ground some time afterwards.”

The myths of place have much in common. Language, in all its variations, is the shared link. A desert and a river define each other. Cambridgeshire and the Swan River, the fens and the outback, have more in common than is recognised – not only in the sense of colonial mimicry, but in the context of processes of occupation and landscaping. A post-colonial discourse that doesn’t recognises internal processes, that doesn’t look back at the defining pre-colonial territorial processes of the dominant culture, will establish false or corrupted paradigms.


EpilogueHigh forest and understory
converge with the ruin of day,
the collapsing narrative thread –
traffic never far away –
earshot merely a colloquial hum
as songbirds contract with scrub,
the collation of gunblast beyond
the jurisdiction of the Wildlife Trust;
etiquette of castigation in a pastoral voice
barely showing through
as Major Mitchell enters the interior
of Tropical Australia and quotes Ovid:
“Communemque prius ceu lumina solis et auras
Cautus humum longo signavit limite mensor”
and steps up the veracity
and range of the Voice,
confirming enclosure,
the haptic integration of sense organs,
their turbulence across
oiled waters of survey data,
hydraulics of boundary machines
in the “Gothic hypothesis” of Outback –
that sea for depressives
who would die unsatisfied
if they actually found a reef of gold –
“O soule be changÕd into little water drops
And fall into the Ocean, ne’re be found”.
With the draining, the water Brethren
assembled against the drainers
and Pastor Albrecht was heard to utter
from deep within Centralia:
“When we came here
we thought we had found
the only people in the world
without religion. Now
we have learnt
that they are among
the most religious people
in the world” as yet again
the monks at Ely
refuse to toe
the party line.


“It’s what you don’t have that counts!”
yells the Capitalist, while you –
wanting soule as the radio “blasts”
and diminishing woods struggle to coppice –
peruse missives from the last settlers,
uncomfortable in their paradox,
while sheep are trucked to market
and seed bins emptied,
the sunset ashen and sentimentality
left stranded on a dirt road
going nowhere. An echidna
is crushed by a stranger
coming to grips with the edges
of what is now his paddock –
“All beasts are happy, for when they die,
Their souls are soone dissolv’d in elements . . . ” –
it being neither here nor there
that the first badger
and hedgehog you see
in this, your New Country,
should lie dead upon the road –
at night you might say “At least
there aren’t any kangaroos
to worry about!” the impact
potentially fatal.


John Kinsella


H.C. Darby, The Draining Of The Fens, CUP, 1956 (rep. 1968)

C.T. Stannage (Ed), A New History Of Western Australia, Uinversity of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1981

Daisy Bates, (Ed by Isobel White), The Native Tribes Of Western Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1985

G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, (trans Brian Massumi), A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994