Issue 7 Feature Article

THE YARRA: Still glides the stream

Geoff Lacey

The source of the Yarra River is near Mt Gregory on the Great Dividing Range, 100 kilometres east of Melbourne and far from any town. The tributaries flow in narrow, forested valleys, the easternmost ones into the Upper Yarra Reservoir. Further downstream, the river forms a more definite valley and flows through both gorges and floodplains. After Dight’s Falls it becomes tidal and flows slowly to the sea.
Europeans first encountered the Yarra in February 1803 when Surveyor Charles Grimes and a small party rowed up the river to Dight’s Falls. Grimes wrote:
Came to a fall, where we could not get the boat over. We went inland a little way. It is stony, about six inches black stiff soil, white clay at bottom. Mr Robbins got up a tree; saw it to be gently rising hills, clothed with trees, for ten or fifteen miles . . . The timber in general is gum, oak and Banksia; the two latter are small; the gum two to four feet in diameter, and from ten to thirty feet high; on some of the low ground they are somewhat larger. We were not more than half a mile from the river.
The land was cared for by the Wurundjeri people, though Grimes knew nothing of this. Their spirituality formed an intricate fabric and they called the river the Birrarung. Grimes’ brief account gives us just a glimpse of that powerful landscape. Yet we do not have another European account for three decades.
I would like to reflect on part of the history of the Yarra since 1803. I will examine in particular our relationship with the land, European perceptions, and what we have learnt about the Yarra and ourselves.
Australia Felix
There is a persistent myth that early immigrants disliked the Australian bush. Perhaps some did. However, the written accounts of Victoria were generally enthusiastic. It was not for nothing that Major Mitchell called it Australia Felix.
A description of the Yarra in the early days of European settlement is provided by George Gordon McCrae. He was a boy when in 1842 his family settled in a house located on the river at Abbotsford. McCrae describes the river bank at the site:
Between the front of the house and the river, the slope, at first gentle, became more or less abrupt, and this portion lay entirely among boulders… Along our part of the bank of the stream, as indeed both above and below us, stood the grand belt of white-stemmed river gums, many on the very brink with their roots stretching down into the water; and between these, thorny myrtle tea-tree of different varieties, wild hazel and dogwood…
So here we had a bit of the original Yarra in a state of nature; the grey volcanic boulders just where they had fallen ages before. Amongst these grew in profusion a tall white-blossomed native tobacco, quantities of a remarkably fragrant pink and white storksbill, as also the Rodney pelargonium with a great thick brown root and handsome crimson flowers… [Lizards] scurried about among the wild raspberries, myrtle, white wood violets, and the coarse grass that grew between the rocks.
Everywhere the valley of the river echoed to the note of the bell-birds, and numerous other voices contributed to the success of a water-piece which seemed forever in rehearsal. Great lavender-coloured cranes would flap lazily past or, alighting, stand on one leg on a stone just clear of the water.
Original ecology
To examine the patterns of original ecology and European settlement I will take the Heidelberg district as example. There are only a few descriptions available of the original vegetation and these contain some apparent discrepancies.
Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Alexander Brown), whose family settled in Heidelberg in 1840, spoke of heavily timbered flats, with trees of unusual size and straightness. He described the lagoons on the east side of the river at Bulleen as being surrounded by dense thickets and full of waterbirds.
However, John Hunter Kerr in 1839 said the country ‘presented an ever-varying succession of lightly-timbered hill and dale, well grassed downs alternated with groups of tall, handsome trees’.
A clue to the contradictions is provided by Robert Dundas Murray writing that same year. He said: ‘Wherever the axe is bid to pause, there the primaeval forest rises to view, showing a front of dark foliage, which, as far as the horizon extends, wraps hill and valley in its gloom.’ The river flats, for example, are ‘heavily cumbered’ with timber. But he also said: ‘Everywhere but on these fertile spots the trees straggle away from each other, or form themselves into picturesque clumps; sometimes leaving wide plains untenanted by a solitary shrub… Rarely do they stand so close as to prevent a free passage between their trunks.’
Combining such observations with modern ecological studies, we can be pretty sure that different vegetation communities occurred on different components of the landscape.
The floodplain was a woodland dominated by River Red Gum. This was where Boldrewood observed the tall, straight trees. Smaller trees include Silver Wattle (that flowers all along the river in August), Tree Violet, Prickly Currant-bush, River Tea-tree and River Bottlebrush. Much of the understorey was open and grassy, with the Tussock-grasses dominating. There were many small herbs, including beautiful wildflowers. Naturalist Samuel Hannaford in 1856 provided a description of these plants, further downstream at Collingwood. (In this account I have changed the names of some of the plants to familiar modern names.)
At this season of the year, the flat grounds are one vast swamp, yet even here springs up the simple little White Purslane, and the surface of the water is covered with the minute inconspicuous flowers of River Buttercup . . . Overhanging the river the pendulous flowers of the various formed Acacias drooped most gracefully, emitting a most delicious perfume, interspersed here and there with the delicate spike of pink flowers of Indigofera sylvatica; and the beautiful, almost transparent flowers of Hemp Bush, nearly hidden amongst its rich green foliage. Everywhere the ground is studded, as with snow, with that little exquisite gem Early Nancy, its petals circled on the interior with a band of brown; and various species of Sundew . . . Mark the beauty with which Clematis microphylla twines airily around all the shrubs . . . What handsomer carpet would you expect than Kennedia prostrata, with its bright red shaped pea flowers and the spreading blue clusters of Hardenbergia coccinea mantling the ground on all sides.
Above the floodplain, the shallow soils are founded on the ancient Silurian sedimentary bedrock. At steep escarpments we can see the patterns of layers in the rock. On gentle slopes the vegetation was an open grassy woodland, dominated by Red Gum and Yellow Box. This was Kerr’s ‘lightly-timbered hill and dale’, with ‘well grassed downs’. Nearly all of it has been cleared, first for farming and then for residential development.
On steeper slopes and exposed aspects, we have remnants of another kind of Grassy Forest, dominated by Long-leaved Box, Red Stringybark and Yellow Box, with a shrub layer that includes Lightwood, Golden Wattle, Gold-dust Wattle, Sweet Bursaria, Shiny Cassinia and Narrow-leaf Bitter-pea. There is a rich groundstorey that includes several species of grasses and herbs, including lilies, orchids and other wildflowers.
Early European settlement
The land was surveyed in 1837; then much of it was cleared very quickly—in particular the floodplain and the Red Gum grassy woodland. A set of drawings in 1846-47 by the artists Francis Guillemard Simpkinson and John Skinner Prout depict the Banyule Flats environment. The slopes around Banyule House appear covered in open forest. However, the flats below are shown as much more open and grassy, presumably reflecting not the original state but the result of clearing. Moderately spaced gums line the river, together with shrubbery and some sedges along the river bank.
Farming was diverse. Wheat, oats, potatoes and other crops were grown on the flats. Orchards and vineyards were planted on both slopes and flats. Some sheep, cattle and horses grazed there. Exotic plants were introduced; these included Willows, Hawthorn, Boxthorn and pasture grasses.
The Wurundjeri maintained a strong presence in the area until the early 1840s. The Bulleen Flats, on the other side of the river were of prime importance to them. There was a great abundance of waterbirds, fish, eels and edible roots in the wetlands and scope for hunting mammals nearby. The area around Bolin Bolin Billabong was a favourite meeting place, where the Wurundjeri used to meet the other groups of the Kulin. Various games were held too.
This site remained a meeting place until the land was sold into private hands in 1841. However the Indigenous people have survived in the Melbourne area. They continued and adapted their culture. The wider Australian community is now becoming more aware of their genius.
The artists
The dominant view guiding settlement was the utilitarian one, where the land is seen as a set of resources to be developed, to supply human needs and desires. It shaped the pattern of settlement and the accompanying ecological history of the Yarra.
However, an alternative tradition, in which nature is understood as having its own intrinsic value, was always there, running alongside the utilitarian view. The writings of McCrae and Hannaford are examples of this, and it was beautifully expressed by the artists.
In 1865 Louis Buvelot arrived in Melbourne from Switzerland and he painted a number of scenes on and near the Yarra. His 1866 painting, Winter Morning near Heidelberg, looks east from the Heidelberg side of the river. A group of people are preparing a fire on the opposite bank in front of a cluster of moderately tall River Red Gums. There is a fairly dense understorey of wattles, shrubs and ground plants. Part of the bank is cleared near a homestead and cows are grazing. There are clouds in the sky but the whole scene is bathed in a clear, warm light.
The full flowering of art in this area came with the Heidelberg School. The artists painted the familiar landscape in a new way, especially in their treatment of the Australian light. Following their European predecessors, they identified themselves as Impressionists and they set out to record the transitory effects of nature. Following completion of the rail service to Heidelberg in 1888, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder took up residence at Mount Eagle estate and began their famous series of paintings.
In 1890 Streeton painted Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide. The picture looks down from high ground with a group of sheoaks, over the winding river in its broad floodplain, to rolling hills and the distant hazy Dandenongs. The flats have been mainly cleared and a few cattle graze. However, there are two densely wooded areas on the Bulleen side, while a further thin line of trees extends out right along a creekline. The late-afternoon light provides a pattern of long soft shadows. The title of the picture comes from a line in Wordsworth’s sonnet, After-Thought.
In their understanding of the land, the artists inherited a tradition; they integrated it with their own experience of the land and then helped shape the way that later Australians would perceive nature and value it.
Today the Yarra Flats still have something of a rural atmosphere. In places one can still experience the special local quality of the light and something of the changing moods that were so well captured by the Heidelberg artists.
Twentieth century developments
On a number of occasions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, farming on the floodplain was disrupted by major floods. As a consequence, cropping was largely replaced by grazing on the river flats. However, there was a revival of market gardening, largely by Chinese, who began to arrive in Heidelberg in 1912. Their gardens suffered severe damage from a flood in 1924 but they were re-established.
However, the greatest flood in the recorded history of the Yarra occurred in November-December 1934. A surprising event during that flood involved a house at Rudder Grange, Fairfield. The house was uplifted by the flood-waters and carried downstream until it crashed into the Fairfield Pipe Bridge, destroying it.
The Chinese gardeners were completely devastated by the flood; they lost everything and departed. The flats reverted to grazing.
Construction of dams and other works have caused reduction of the Yarra River flows. The biggest storage is the Upper Yarra Dam, completed in 1957. One effect has been a reduction in frequency of the small floods that fill the billabongs.
The reduced flows have also affected the stream form. Formerly, much of the river bed was sandy, with several small beaches in the floodplain. However, in the 1960s, following completion of the Upper Yarra Dam, nearly all of the sandy beaches disappeared and the bed now consists mainly of silt and clay. Several of the beaches were once popular swimming spots.
Most of the billabongs survived the long period of farming and grazing. However, from the late 1950s to the 1970s, some of them were filled in for golf course development and playing fields.
Conservation movement
While there were always people interested in conservation in Victoria, the 1950s witnessed a new impetus for the conservation of the Yarra Valley. In Heidelberg, this was partly a response to proposals to subdivide Banyule estate, thereby posing new threats to the floodplain. The dynamic Save the Yarra League was established in 1958.
Community awareness of the importance of the Yarra and its floodplain developed. Banyule Flats were proclaimed as parkland in 1967 and land was progressively acquired by Heidelberg Council and Melbourne Water. Some billabongs were saved—mainly where conservation groups were most active, that is in Heidelberg and Ivanhoe. From the 1970s the movement built up steadily, and a number of groups became intensively involved in revegetation.
Banyule Swamp
To examine the changes over the years, let us look at Banyule Swamp, situated on Banyule Flats, one of the most beautiful sites along the Yarra Valley. The Swamp has an elongated shape, with a very shallow northern portion and a deeper southern portion.
An aerial photo in 1945 shows a line of River Red Gums in the southern part of the swamp. A few more trees are clustered on dry land. A two-metre diameter stump can be found today near the cluster of gums, a remnant of the great trees on the flats, described by Rolf Boldrewood. Apart from these trees, and a few exotic trees and shrubs, the swamp and the surrounding paddocks appear to have been completely cleared. There are a number of drains too, that were constructed to empty the swamp. The whole area was grazed at that time.
In 1984 Heidelberg Council fenced off Banyule Swamp from cattle grazing and converted the site to a wildlife sanctuary. Warringal Conservation Society began extensive revegetation around the edges of the swamp in 1985.
The old agricultural drain from the southern area of the swamp used to keep the depth of water low. The deeper parts of the swamp generally remained inundated for most of the year, whereas the peripheral areas dried out in summer. In 1999 Banyule Council blocked the drain and built up the level of the west bank, enabling the swamp to hold water permanently, at a higher level than before. The effect of the new hydrology and the revegetation is a very beautiful wetland, extremely rich in bird species.
The Swamp since revegetation
A good overview of Banyule Swamp can be obtained from the northern end. The foreground is a tangle of grasses; beyond is a vast area of bulrushes and an area of thick, wet grass on slightly higher ground. The bright sunlight on this vegetation brings out a subtle gradation in tones from yellow to light green. The east bank of the swamp is bordered in part with thick clusters of indigenous trees and shrubs.
The southern half of the swamp consists of open water, reflecting the blue sky, with patches of Water Ribbons and sometimes green and red floating vegetation. Dozens of waterbirds are slowly swimming around, occasionally taking off and landing. There is a line of dead River Red Gums in the water and there are some mature healthy specimens on dry land. The live gums are splendid in their dark green foliage, with the sun shining on their light trunks. Ibises and Cockatoos rest in the branches and occasionally fly from one tree to another. To the west is the steep escarpment, with Banyule House standing out above.
Some bird observations
A view of bird life at Banyule Swamp, under its former hydrological regime, was provided by Howard Jarman in 1980:
The two sports ovals attract White-faced Herons, Masked Lapwings and Magpie-larks . . . Parties of morose-looking Cattle Egrets often appear there in the winter months. They are usually gone before the end of October, but not before acquiring some handsome buffy-orange breeding plumage on head, back and breast.
In the adjacent wetlands, various ducks dabble. Herons, including the occasional White-necked species, and the Great Egret stalk and stab and spoonbills scythe from side to side. This is a favourite resort of Latham’s Snipe, which arrive from Japan in August and stay till March, providing the swamp has not dried out . . .
The muddy margins of the billabong, as well as the other two large ponds on the flats, support two or three pairs of Black-fronted Dotterel. January 13, 1980 was a red-letter day when three Red-kneed Dotterel pattered in the shallows, but they were apparently in transit, because they have not been seen since. Seven Black-winged Stilts in October 1978 were also only fleeting visitors.
It is interesting to compare these observations with the rather different pattern today. The species seen previously are present now but, with the deeper and more permanent water, there are many more species and a much greater number of birds. For example, on a cold, windy day in September 1999, about six months after the drain has been blocked and the swamp filled, I noted the following:
100 Cattle Egrets are feeding at the edge of the water and flying off and returning in groups. Six Black Swans and a Coot swim lazily around. A Purple Swamphen and some Pacific Black Ducks appear. A Black-fronted Dotterel flies across the water, calling. Most wonderful of all, a little Bailon’s Crake emerges from a near patch of rushes, furtively moves, feeding in the open shallow water. It then hides in another patch and slowly and furtively moves on again and is joined by a second one.
At the end of January 2001 species present included a Great Egret, a Royal Spoonbill (in a dead tree) and 7 Black-winged Stilts. In April 2002 Red-kneed Dotterels were present, the species that so surprised observers in 1980.
It is wonderful to be in such an ecosystem, where we can sense our relationship with all these creatures and the intricate web of connections. We are drawn in to explore deeply this community and its landscape.
What have I learnt from my study of the Yarra?
From my ecological study I have learnt something of what the Yarra was like at the time of European settlement in this area—a variety of rich ecosystems. In the words of Ivanhoe naturalist Christopher Bailey:
The river wandered across the river flats, sometimes touching the hills on one side of the valley, sometimes on the other side, thus gradually widening the valley. It was in this country, the Birrarung of the Aboriginal, that ‘the river flowed through mist and leafyness’, a land of great beauty. As the river meandered across the plain it sometimes shortened its course by cutting across a bend, the old section of the river becoming a billabong. It filled with reeds and rushes, the natural home of the waterbirds, where they built their nests on platforms… Within an hour of hatching, I have watched the little ducks swimming around the nest.
I have traced the changes since that time, from Banyule Flats to Yarra Bend Park. Much of the original richness was lost. But much has survived in remnants, and much has been regained over the past 30 years through restoration, even with small numbers of people.
I have learned a great deal from the places where I have done my ecological work and where I have enjoyed myself. In particular, I have spent a lot of time along one stretch of the Yarra; walking, recording the condition of wetlands, counting the bird species, and taking part in revegetation at one site. Each place has its own special character, its own mystery, that we can explore, yet never know completely.
One Sunday in July 2003, after a morning of revegetation, I was having lunch at Deep Rock terrace, Yarra Bend. I noted:
A few Grebes, Moorhens and Coots swim by. An Azure Kingfisher flies over from Galatea Point. It stays about 10 minutes on dead willows over water, occasionally diving for food—a deep blue flash of light.
The Azure Kingfisher was once common along the Yarra, but it declined. Now it is coming back along this part of the river. This is in part a consequence of all the restoration work. It is wonderful to witness this.
What about the physical form of the river? Mary White, who has written on Australia’s evolution through geological time, notes that the flow in the Yarra has been effectively halved and its water quality has declined steadily downstream. Yet the change in physical form of the river seems to have been minimal. Unlike many other rivers, it has thus ‘proved to be resilient, to have maintained a balance which is indicative of channel stability’. So in both physical form and ecology the Yarra indeed still glides.
The mystery of the landscape
Thomas Merton once suggested that ‘it is essential to experience all the times and moods of one good place’. Yes, I agree. To explore the mystery of nature and our human place in it, it is in fact best to become familiar with a local site. I have learned a great deal by spending time along one stretch of the river, and through working at one site.
Each place has its own special character, its own mystery, that we can explore, yet never know completely. And then there is a paradox. In becoming familiar with our local site, we discover something universal: the laws, patterns and beauty of the natural world.
The present time of global warming and the extinction of species is a time that calls for deep cultural change. Up till now the dominant organizations in our culture have regarded the natural world and its biodiversity merely as a set of resources. Furthermore, nature is seen as needing to be developed, brought into the economy, if it is to have value and meaning.
Of course we are dependent on the land, and we make use of its riches for our sustenance. But it is essential to live sustainably on the land. And there is yet further to go. In the words of Veronica Brady:
We need also to make the ‘journey of the soul’, to find out who we are by learning from where we are, by finding ourselves in place and time…
I have learned from the land and the river that it is not a matter of making nature, or anything else, more perfect, but of returning to nature, to the local site, to ourselves, to God, in the Spirit.
We do not need a lot of commodities or to consume a lot of energy. Life in the Spirit is a life of fullness. It is not negative or austere. But this is often unacceptable because we feel we have to rush out and do something. It is hard to accept ourselves and accept nature in all its simplicity. It is a matter of accepting a gift, learning from ‘the lilies of the field’ that ‘neither toil nor spin’ (Matthew 6:28).
Many have failed to see what the gospel is teaching us here. It seems too simple and commonplace to be noticed. The lilies point us to a vision of a natural world in which we can feel at home, without anxiety and without any need for domination, but rather with a sense of what is sufficient. We wake up and see the immediate world in a new way, in all its richness and potential. Everything happens in the present moment, at the local place. Only here can we encounter the truth and find the Kingdom.
In this process we also come closer to other people and their struggles. And, in the words of Veronica Brady,
… We will discover an affinity with the land’s first peoples. The land put them in touch not merely with the present but with the primordial order of things, the events of the Dreaming…
The challenge for our civilization is not what many think, namely to find fulfilment through technological progress. It is more important to experience nature again, in its power and beauty, and to articulate an ecological vision and practice. And we have to convey this vision to others, to awaken a will to conserve the treasures of the biosphere and heal the damage done to it. This is one of the great tasks of our time.
Bailey, Christopher, c.1971, The Yarra Flats, unpublished notes.
Boldrewood, Rolf 1884, Old Melbourne memories, George Robertson & Co., Melbourne.
Brady, Veronica 2003, Journey into the land, in Changing places: re-imagining Australia, ed. John Cameron, Longueville Books, Double Bay, NSW, pp. 264-271.
Grimes, Charles, in Shillinglaw, John J. (ed.), Historical records of Port Phillip, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1972.
Hannaford, Samuel 1856, Jottings in Australia, Blundell, Melbourne.
Jarman, Howard 1980, Warringal Conservation Society Newsletter, March.
Kerr, John Hunter 1821-1874, Glimpses of life in Victoria, by a Resident, Melbourne University Press, 1996.
McCrae, George Gordon 1912, Some recollections of Melbourne in the forties, Victorian Historical Magazine 2(3):114-136.
Merton, Thomas 1968, Conjectures of a guilty bystander, Image Books, New York.
Murray, Robert Dundas 1843, A summer at Port Phillip, William Tate, Edinburgh.
White, Mary E. 2000, Running down: water in a changing land, Kangaroo Press, East Roseville, NSW.

Geoff Lacey – Biographical notes
Dr Geoff Lacey is an environmental engineer, naturalist, and honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. Over many years, he has combined the methods of the earth sciences and the field experience of natural history in interpreting the landscape. He has a special interest in the ecology of stream banks and wetlands. In 2004 he published Still glides the stream: the natural history of the Yarra from Heidelberg to Yarra Bend (Australian Scholarly Publishing). He is awaiting publication of another book, Reading the land.