[This essay is written by One River Reference Group member Sarah Moles, who visited the Augathella local project outcome, Treasures of the River, on Friday 12 July 2013.]
It was dark when we drove into Augathella. The town revealed itself slowly as dawn broke next morning, the peace shattered by a council street sweeper. Augathella is a very tidy and surprisingly hilly town. It’s also the first town on the Warrego River. From its headwaters in the Carnarvon Ranges, the Warrego is wild and free. There are no major dams or weirs to impede its progress and its waters spill over the banks according to the magnitude of its flow. Downstream the valley flattens. There, the river slows, dissipating its energy as it inundates broad floodplains tens of kilometres wide, triggering an explosion of life. The Warrego is the epitome of a boom and bust river. Anyone who lives along such a river knows you have to live with its many moods.
In many parts of rural Queensland it can take a long time to be accepted as a local. In some, an essential pre-requisite is having a grandparent buried in the local cemetery. Joanne Sutton is a recent arrival to Augathella who vastly accelerated the time requirement when she framed her contribution to the One River project by setting it firmly in the context of individual reminiscences of the Warrego. While face to face engagement with individuals who have spent their lives in long and thoughtful observation of the river was essential to her process, Treasures of the River reveals the power, richness and texture of collective memories. This multimedia installation has four main elements that work together to encompass several levels and a range of scales across both time and space. As a whole, the work has a wider and longer life than the duration of this particular exhibition and the One River project.
For Joanne, Treasures of the River was an opportunity to explore Augathella’s local history, to connect with long-term residents in the district whose connections to the Warrego are measured in multiple generations and, through them, to better understand her new community, the river and the landscape it defines.
As anyone who has lived close to a river – any river – knows, every flood is different. Almost everyone along the upper Warrego has photographs of the various floods they have witnessed and most were delighted to accept Joanne’s invitation to share them. Some were surprised to find that their old photographs evoked such interest and could be worthy of sharing, not just with friends and neighbours, but with people from across the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond. When pooled together, these images create a much larger memory of the river’s life, one that becomes part of a community’s history as well as a record of a flow event through a catchment and sometimes, into a wider Basin.
As an emerging artist, Treasures of the River allowed Joanne to immerse herself in the disciplines of photography and graphic design. For this primary school teacher with a commitment to nurturing creative and artistic expression, it was also an opportunity to collaborate with Brisbane-based photographer Don Hildred in working with Augathella’s primary school students. Digital photography lessons were an instant hit and the river became a classroom as children put their new-found skills and new ways of seeing into practice. Back inside, they were thrilled to see their work on a big screen and enthusiastically critiqued each other’s work. The best of it can be found in a beautifully produced book along with their poems of how and why the Warrego is so special to them.
The venue for the Treasures of the River exhibition is also a new arrival in Augathella. The Q150 shed is a 24 sided rustic, galvanized iron structure that toured south western Queensland before finding a permanent home in Meat Ant Park on the banks of the Warrego.
Postcards are probably the most popular souvenir of all time. It is a rare traveller who doesn’t buy a few postcards of the places visited to share the sights they’ve encountered on their journey with faraway friends. Embellished with their senders’ memories and impressions, postcards are readily transmitted across the country or around the globe. Inside the Q150 shed, hundreds of postcards were arranged on lengths of fishing line and hung like streamers around half the room. Gently spinning and flickering in the breeze, the postcards irresistibly drew the eye. Each featured a photograph from a resident’s personal collection, along with a caption and story credit drawn from Joanne’s extensive face-to-face interviews. Visitors to the exhibition receive a pack of 8 postcards, introducing an element of chaos and random chance to the sharing of images: which visitors will pin their mementos to their kitchen notice board? Who will commit them to the postal system and send those images, those memories, those personal stories far away?
Seven poster-sized versions of individual images hung around the enormous Q150 space while, between the two displays, a video played. It featured footage of Joanne’s interview subjects reminiscing, elaborating on the captions to the photographs she had chosen for the installation as well as showing others not included in the exhibition. High in the center of the space a poster sized image of a magnificent, ancient river redgum hung above a decaying dinghy resting on a bed of sand. Together they served as a reminder that the Warrego is the focal point of life in and around Augathella.
At night, the overall effect was almost cinematic with the small spinning images strobing against the larger, static posters across the room. The swaying streamers and twirling postcards were analogous to ripples and eddies in the river’s flow, baited hooks tempting passers by, luring them to make a close inspection.
Spanning about one hundred years of local history since white settlement, images of flood events dominate the collection of photographs. Every flood is different and everyone along the river has their family record of those they’ve experienced. Circling the room, other themes reveal themselves: Fishing – whether a relaxing pastime, a favoured site or a bountiful catch, everyone has a fishing story; Animals – wildlife in natural habitats, graziers and jackeroos working stock along the river, pets in or near the water; Family fun – swimming, kids swinging high above the water on tarzan ropes or leaping from a verandah into the flooded main street below, picnics, birthday parties, even Christmas dinners on the sandy river bed.
In the language of the traditional owners, the Bidjara people, Warrego means ‘river of sand.’ The sand comes from the Chesterton and Carnarvon Ranges at the river’s head and the sheer volume of it on the banks and in enormous drifts along the river’s course is truly a testament to the erosive power of water. Like its sister river the Maranoa to the east – and indeed like many of Australia’s ephemeral rivers – the Warrego runs when it runs. When seasons are consistently good it can flow for two years; when they are not it can be dry for five years or more.
What seems remarkable about the images of the dry river bed is that even when it is reduced to dust, it is still the river that runs through peoples’ lives, shaping them and binding them to the land. By contrast, those depicting floods convey an atmosphere where adrenaline and anxiety are palpable. When the river is up there are potential dangers everywhere – Augathella is high enough in the catchment that the flooded river can become a raging torrent – yet daily life continues. These flood images also highlight the resourcefulness of individuals, getting on with the job, making do and celebrating the fact that – danger, flood damage, even personal heartbreak notwithstanding – the long bust is finally over and the cycle can begin again.
Joanne’s project seeks to engage visitors to the region and to connect them to the Warrego landscape. Its position near the junction of the Landsborough and Mitchell Highways means Augathella sees a lot of travellers. Geo-caching, which is very popular with grey nomads, is a real-world outdoor treasure hunt. Players try to locate hidden containers called geo-caches, using a smartphone or GPS, and then share their experiences online. In this case, the hidden treasure is a booklet featuring some of the postcard images and school children’s photographs. Joanne chose six locations along the river that, through this project, emerged as particularly significant and special, and hid a geo-cache at each. The geo-caches also contain a ‘visitors’ book. Anyone finding one can record their impressions of the special place where they are standing and the photographs of special places within, to share with future successful seekers and online followers of the hunt. In a year or so they will be retrieved for sharing. These wider views will become another layer of memories of the Warrego as well as a surrogate for those people who live outside the Murray-Darling Basin but may not realize their dependence on it.
The dearth of indigenous perspectives demands comment. It is certainly not due to a lack of trying on Joanne’s part for she was aware of this gap and worked hard to fill it, ensuring that indigenous school children took part in the digital photography workshops. A single photograph depicting indigenous people was contributed to Treasures of the River – by a Charleville historian. It shows a group of men and women on the river bank and describes them as ‘the Royal family’. The men are wearing brass plaques that the new settlers were wont to give to those they regarded as leaders or with whom they could negotiate. The caption indicates they were camping on the river.
It is the local indigenous historical perspective of the river that proved so hard to find. Augathella has a small indigenous population but very few are Bidjara and culturally, it would have been totally inappropriate for them to even appear to be speaking for country to which they do not traditionally belong.
This is unfortunate as traditional owners’ ecological knowledge of how our rivers function and nourish country may offer priceless insights relevant to implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. On the other hand, indigenous people have lost so much that a reluctance to share such important and powerful information is understandable. Nevertheless, it is tantalizing to wonder not just how they lived with the river’s many moods, but how that relationship extended to the wider landscape and how the role of water, in all its uses and functions across country, was valued. This is particularly pertinent in a society that tends to place a river’s economic values above all others, a society that is still finding its way and its place in this land. Treasures of the Warrego documents the Augathella community’s journey towards such an understanding and the relationships forged with the river and wider landscape to date.
For decades, traditional owners across the Murray-Darling Basin demanded not just a voice in water management, but a right to be heard. It was a long time before governments actually listened. Since then, indigenous people have consistently spoken about the central role of rivers in their lives and of the need for adequate flows of water for practicing their culture. Culture – how to live on and in country – cannot be transmitted to a new generation without adequate water. Culture and country are alive: like all living things, they need water to survive.
The concept of ‘cultural flows’ is hard to define and even harder for white Australians to comprehend. For years we struggled to fully appreciate how river flows are essential for environmental health and wellbeing – perhaps the concept of river flows as something essential for cultural well-being is the next frontier of understanding. As Basin communities prepare to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is interest from scientists and an increasing number of people ready and willing to listen. An indigenous perspective from the Warrego may yet help us to develop an even richer understanding of this country. For now though, this knowledge of country remains in the keeping of its traditional custodians, an enigmatic treasure buried in the river’s sands.