It’s late afternoon and Andrew Hull is punting lanterns down the Darling River in a dinged-up ex-military boat. This will be his last rehearsal before tomorrow’s performance of ‘Remembering the River’. Five pelicans fly low in front, between steep banks, tracing the river. The sun is about to dip and the evening cool presses against our faces as the boat powers us downstream. For Andrew this is all about the light.
As part of the Centenary of Canberra’s One River project, Andrew will float two hundred lanterns on the Darling at Bourke. It’s not a simple exercise and will involve two boats and a host of volunteers. The lanterns aren’t store-bought objects of wispy fabric on thin wire frames. These are custom built by Andrew and his family, made with pine boards, dowel rods, and screws, and are closer to the size of an old street lamp than a dainty silk lantern. These are solid bits of kit whose heft seems to cast doubt in the minds of some of the others here.
‘And these will float?’ one person asks. ‘Didn’t the prototype have more foam on the base?’
Andrew is busy manoeuvring the boat, and examining the conditions he expects for the main event –there’s only the slightest breeze and no current because the river is barely spilling over the town weir. When the river is flowing the lanterns can spread and glide by the huge three-tier wharf at Bourke from which people will view the performance. No flow means the boats will have to get much closer to the viewing area, and even a gentle breeze could send the lanterns away upstream.
‘That’s the river for you,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s always changing. You have to work with it, live with it.’
The Darling has one of the most variable flows of the major rivers in Australia. In the dry it can become little more than a series of ponds, but when the water comes down from the north east it spreads over the plains and fills anabranches and billabongs, creating a river fifty kilometres wide, and encouraging an explosion of wildlife. The boom and bust ecology here has shaped the lives and economies of the western landholders and towns. Learning to live with uncertainty is a constant and demanding process when ‘extreme’ climatic conditions can persist for a decade, or almost half a working life.
We’ve reached the wharf and it’s time to do the test run with lit lanterns. Andrew tells us he has noticed three distinct transitions in the changing light. At the beginning of sunset the lanterns appear an opaque milky white, in mid twilight the warm glow of the candle seems to make the lanterns appear solid, and by dusk the lantern lenses become translucent, revealing stories and illustrations marked on them.
It’s a slow, entrancing change that encourages contemplation and stillness. Indeed, the idea for the lanterns emerged from such a moment of meditation. One afternoon Andrew was walking beside the river, and folded a piece of paper into a boat, like a mini sombrero.
‘I put it in the water and I watched it,’ says Andrew. ‘I just watched it for what seemed like a couple of minutes but by the time I looked at my watch again it had been twenty-five minutes.’
The boat and its journey along the river, the total absorption within his thoughts – this was compelling to Andrew. Here was a way to use the power of the river itself to express some of its importance to the people in the west. Over several months Andrew collected the drawings and stories of school children living on the Paroo, Warrego, Culgoa and Darling rivers. The children wrote on the translucent paper of the lantern lenses. The stories are illuminated and reflected in the surface of the water. It’s a hybrid work of story, text, visual aesthetics, community cooperation, and public performance. The floating lanterns and their messages meld memory, place and time. The performance emphasizes people’s shared connections to the river that has shaped their land, home, and lives. This bringing people together, creatively and compassionately, is so critical after years of division that have plagued the river towns of western New South Wales.
More than twenty years ago the Darling River threw up a distress signal, a ‘flaring green ribbon’, across one thousand kilometres of inland Australia. That’s how Eric Rolls described the toxic blue-green algae bloom that choked the Darling in the summer of 1991/92. Aerial images of a motionless and atrophied green river scribbled across grey plains made international headlines. It forced the New South Wales government to declare a state of emergency, while the Federal government rushed to mobilise the army. Rural communities and landholders living along the river were warned not to touch or drink the water for fear of severe eye and skin irritations and ‘horrendous internal injuries’.
Many people began to blame irrigation. The former owner of some cotton properties in western New South Wales wrote a letter to the editor declaring the Darling was a ‘national disgrace’ and that the brazen and domineering culture of cotton meant that although ‘many people in Darling River towns had been aware of the problem for years’ they were ‘intimidated into silence’. Allan Amos, who had worked for the Department of Water Resources in Bourke in the 1970s, told historian Siobhan McHugh that his wife began to fear for his safety when he started trying to enforce water laws. The local police wouldn’t offer protection, telling him until someone had ‘taken a shot at [him] with a rifle’, they were not going to get involved. Social relations were strained in small towns across the plains.
Bourke residents told historian Heather Goodall a story about how the ‘the river runs backwards’ whenever the irrigators turned their pumps on. Even though this was unlikely, the phrase expressed their anxieties about the power of the irrigators’ machinery to interfere with the plains environment as they had known it. Goodall reported that whenever the story was told it always sounded the same, ‘spoken in a worried, uneasy tone, or with a disgusted shrug’. It was, ‘no admiring boast of the power of modern technology’. People were distressed about the changes to their home environment and concerned for their own wellbeing. They had no real say over the changes that were taking place.
The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined a word for this type of feeling – ‘solastalgia’. It combines solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain) and in contrast to nostalgia – the melancholia or homesickness one feels when separated from home – it refers to the distress one feels when the environment of home itself changes. As Albrecht explained, ‘it is that feeling you have when your sense of place is under attack.’ Cotton became a target even if it wasn’t the only cause for the poor ecological conditions that were apparent in the Darling. It was the most visible industry affecting the western rivers. It arrived with an assortment of new chemicals, large machinery, and different values for managing the environment.
The lives of the people around Bourke are deeply embedded in the commodity industries that have dominated the region.
‘There’s no black and white,’ says Andrew. ‘There are a lot of grey areas’.
Andrew Hull spent ten years working in the cotton industry doing contract laser levelling and earthworks. He built three of the four large storages on one well-known property.
‘Cotton was celebrated here,’ he says. ‘It brought real money, real paycheques.’
Not everyone felt the same, even if the town benefitted as a whole economically, and Andrew acknowledges some of the fears. He wrote a song about the river called ‘My Darling’, which he sings to crowds of locals and tourists three nights a week. It tells the story of an ancient and powerful river, but one that is challenged by the demands people make of it:
My Darling struggles bravely with the changes she has faced
The pieces taken from her that can never be replaced
The memories of landscapes now centuries erased
The efforts that are made to bend her will
. . .
She knows the greed of men and their capacity for waste
While changing plans are forced upon her still
Andrew now works for the Catchment Management Authority but the switch from cotton contractor to environmental manager was not what prompted an interest in the land here. He has written about local places and local stories since he was a child.
In fact, it was sitting on top of a tractor that Andrew first began to share his poetry publicly. ‘I annoyed a lot of people on the UHF radio’, he recalls.
When mobile phone networks began operating he would call radio stations from the tractor and recite his poetry. He wrote a new poem every week until he became known as ‘the tractor-driving poet’. His inspiration was the short stories and poems of turn of the twentieth century Australian writer Henry Lawson. This is the sensitive, gritty writing of the Australian outback, not the sentimental ballads and humorous popular verse that is often associated with bush poetry. Before Lawson, he’d only been exposed to British poets. Discovering stories about Hungerford and Bourke, about the Bogan and Darling, was ‘just a watershed mind-blowing experience’ for Andrew.
‘You could go to the spot that it was written about, you’d be walking through this landscape that I’ve always known, this was the landscape where my toes go into the ground like an old gum tree, and these words belonged here, they were written here, for here’.
It’s not surprise that story would play a fundamental role in the ‘Remembering the River’ artwork for One River. Andrew interviewed Ian Cole, the head of a major irrigation business in Bourke. Ian’s first relationship with the river was not about how much water he could extract as an irrigator, but rather about the places he used to swim and memories of the catfish he could catch. For most people in Bourke there are layers of values. It’s these multiple values that Andrew wants to tease out in his art project.
He invited the residents of Bourke to the old three-tier wharf on the Darling on Saturday 6 July to write their own stories on the remaining lenses. By mid-afternoon, on a clear and warm winter’s day, people begin sitting at park benches writing down their memories and stories inspired by the river. Volunteers plunk away with mallets, tapping the lids on the finished lanterns, while crowded markets sell everything from cake stands and fudge and from second hand books to ‘abflexes’. A band is setting up on the lawn-covered levy, children hold red, yellow and aqua balloons, and there are at least nine prams just on this side of the tree. Here is a community coming together to pay homage to their river. It’s a stark contrast to divisive arguments over environmental change and degradation.
Andrew didn’t want a standalone artwork, but something that was more of an open dialogue with people in his community, and with the broader public who might see the work online or on a lake in Canberra when it is re-presented there in August.
‘If we can get them to come down to the river and they have a look at it, and they write something on a lens for their own lanterns, they start to think. . . well I’m part of the river, this is my country,’ he says.
Overwhelmingly, the words were dedications to family, and many were to loved ones who had died. For the participants, imagining the lanterns floating down the river invoked deep cultural associations with memory, loss, and honouring.
‘To Opa, Thinking of you every day. We miss you.’
‘Dad xxx A true Bourkite, RIP.’
The power of art and story is in its recognition of how our emotional connections with place shape our ecological relationships. This is what has been missing from the top-down project-managed reforms of river management and legislation. It’s in a different realm to bureaucratic consultation meetings with stakeholders. Andrew sees the art project providing local people with agency, with an intense and intimate connection with the river. It provides people with a voice at a time when conversation and connection has been lost. Its focus is on bringing people together by exploring their common interest in the river.
At five o’clock around two or three hundred people have gathered for the welcome. Phil Sullivan, a Ngemba traditional owner and cultural heritage officer, stands on the levy and addresses the crowd.
‘Today we celebrate not just my story, or your story, but our story about the river,’ Phil says.
Andrew slips away to meet his helpers down at the boats. The crowd moves across to the top of the old wharf. Now at twilight, gathered on the pale surface of the Darling, are two hundred and twenty softly glowing stories. Tranquillity spreads through the crowd. No voices shouting over others here. No contrived outrage. No privilege for the well-resourced few. Just the dusk chatter of roosting birds, the shuffle of three hundred townsfolk, the awesome stillness of river red gums gilded by the last light, and the stories – stories sharing the river.
One of the most important moments for Andrew was just after his team had floated the lanterns and they were sitting in the boats and heard the crowd go silent. An old friend from Bourke in the boat downstream from Andrew said, ‘From this day on, we’re all river people’. That encapsulates the heart of this art project. They are not irrigators or environmentalists, mountain dwellers or city people, they are river people.
Is this an elegy for a river, or a new communal beginning? Andrew Hull hopes the project will evolve and become an annual event. In this way it will be become a ritual.
People will celebrate what unites them. New generations will grow up with shared values for the river. You can’t protect a place if no one cares about it. For years Phil Sullivan has been urging Australians to create a ‘foundation’ for working with caring for our rivers. Andrew’s project is one way of contributing to that task.