Reviews and Responses

In The Weekend Australian, 2nd July 2011

Walking manifesto traces the Yarra to its source

YOU know that urge to holiday, to escape the city’s abrasive friction and head off-road or outback, beyond the rapacious sprawl of the urban fringe?

What you are actually seeking, Maya Ward suggests in The Comfort of Water, is the way home.

In this urbanised country, we endure a form of exile. “Home” might be a sterile box, serviced by a huge television and internet access, and infinitely extended by a car, but this is not the real thing. Home, Ward says, is about knowledge of place, a visceral sense of connection to the ground beneath your feet and the air you breathe. It is a whole-of-body experience.

This is the true story of an eccentric journey, on foot, from the mouth of the Yarra River in Port Phillip Bay to its source: a long walk and a hard slog. It is partly a quixotic manifesto for walking. More significantly, however, it belongs to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage. Ward’s journey is an act of penance, a spiritual education for our times. If you are throttled by grief at our bad habits, well, this is for you. It is an ecologically inspired divine comedy.

Starting out, the scenery is rubbish, literally. Birdsong is drowned in the roar of freeways. Ward passes docks, building sites and industrial estates. The river functions like the digestive tract of this massive urban organism. With sacrificial courage, she swims between a sewerage “purification” plant, and a pumping point downstream (recycled drinking water is nothing new). Further upstream, there are atavistic, baptismal plunges into the river’s purifying depths.

Ward, who was born and has lived most of her life in Yarra River country, is a permaculture teacher and environmental educator, an acolyte of Melbourne’s Centre for Research and Education in Environmental Strategies community park and the Moora Moora co-operative. Her pilgrimage is neither religious nor a lecture on the rape of the earth and the dispossession of Aborigines. And yet, in the sweetest, humblest and most extravagantly poetic fashion, it is all of these.

Seeing past this nation’s perennial struggle with being waterless, or waterlogged, The Comfort of Water is about a yearning spirituality. Nature is held sacred. The Aboriginal name for the Yarra was Birrarung; it is an unimaginably ancient phenomenon.

Ward sees pilgrimage as “preserved from the wisdom of the hunter-gatherers, from people for whom the entire terrain was home”. Aboriginal people lived like pilgrims, tracking and singing Songlines, developing forms of wisdom many thousands of years old, all along our rivers. Despite the sullied landscape she moves through, Ward explores a vision of our proper place in this environment.

In order to approach the Yarra at all, she discovered that she would have to negotiate fences, and needed permission from property holders whose ownership extends to the middle of the river. The longest continuous culture on Earth lived without fences.

In a short, sharp, history lesson Ward traces the modern fate of the Yarra region back past industrialisation in Britain, to the acts of enclosure, explaining how settlers imported the violence of mapping, the mania of ownership, the degradation of the earth.

Her pilgrimage is difficult logistically, physically and emotionally. Food and shelter are offered by friends and riverside dwellers, a form of support associated through the ages with the spiritual gesture of pilgrimage. This invests her account with hope and optimism.

Now and then, her gentle traveller’s discourse is punctuated by vignettes of utmost poignancy. There is a brief account of how her father tried for a decade to re-vegetate the banks of Moonee Ponds Creek, only to see his efforts bulldozed in the widening of the Tullamarine freeway. He stood beside it with a placard saying “You killed my garden”, and left the country forever.

Her vision is not naively nostalgic, sentimental or idealistic. She has a great affection for Melbourne and its people and a strong sense of her place in a modern community.

This book belongs to a genre that runs back through Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau in America, and the peripatetic tradition of romantic poetry in Britain. It is seeing a revival, as Mark Tredinnick, author of The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir, suggests in his introduction to this book.

Nature writing, until recently, was associated with a dissenting politics, characterised as a subculture. Now, due to global warming, it seems increasingly mainstream, an ideological avant-garde in the endgame of Western industrial societies.

What does it take, Ward asks, to initiate our wrong-headed, blow-in culture into “living in balance and attaining sufficiency without excess?” Hoards of wilderness pilgrims may not be the answer; but it’s a very good question.

Stella Clarke has lectured on cultural and literary studies in Britain and Australia. She has a PhD in English literature from the University of Warwick.

‘‘Melburnians have taken the Yarra for granted, as a murky, brown fixture. Environmentalist Maya Ward sees it differently. She has explored the Yarra extensively, and one day determined to walk to the source of the river. It took her and a group of friends three weeks, walking from docks to bushland. For much of this time the travellers were off the beaten track, their only path the river bank. Told as a diary, the narrative covers much ground: historical, ecological and what the future of the Yarra might hold. Once the river was an open sewer – more recent concern about water quality saw Ward and her friends shut out from catchment areas. The book opens eyes into the indigenous history of the river and the radical changes made since European arrival. This story of an eco-pilgrimage is luminous, informative and rather beautiful.’

The Sunday Age June 5

‘… this is an important book simply because no one appears to have done this trip and written about it for more than 100 years. Ward’s description of the closure of the Yarra‘s headwaters is a reminder that the simple joy of following a river from the mouth to the source is no longer easy and is often a heartbreaking disappointment.’

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday June 25

‘Ward is often candid and self-revelatory in describing a journey which may not be epic in a physical sense … but in terms of the thoughts that it allows to percolate to the surface, The Comfort of Water could be ground breaking or even life-changing. This book will challenge or reaffirm you belief systems as it explores the impacts of human behaviour on the environment.’

John Cannon, The Sunday Tasmanian , 3 July 2011

Ever wondered if you can complete a pilgrimage from the sea to the source of the Yarra River? Well, here’s your answer. Part travel memoir, part environmental history and commentary, part spiritual journey, Maya Ward’ The Comfort of Water gives you a little taste of four friends epic walk from river mouth to source. This is first and foremost an Australian Story if there ever was one. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a little more about the country, the land on which you live, from natural to Aboriginal history The Comfort of Water will teach it to you. A fascinating prospect, this book is set out in an intelligent readable way, where prose is instructive without you even realising. Already buzz-worthy, now its actually been published this is a title to watch.

Fairfieldbooks on Station

As you know the Yarra River is Melbourne’s most important natural asset
but it continues to suffer from our lack of care.  We extract most of its
water and dump our waste into what remains.  We continue to destroy more
of the riverside habitat and smother the banks with roads and buildings.

But your story shows us a way ahead.  The strong and intimate connection
that you and your fellow “Long Yarra Walkers” have with the river is the
key.  I wish that every Melburnian would undertake such a pilgrimage or
failing that to at least read your book.  Because it is by having a close
relationship with the river that we will really understand it, take better
care of, and live in harmony with it.  As the French oceanographer,
Jacques Cousteau said, “people protect what they love”.

So Maya, you have not only written a wonderful, lyrical book, you have
done a great service to the river.  Those of us who love the river thank
you.  The Yarra thanks you.

Ian Penrose, Yarra Riverkeeper

13 thoughts on “Reviews and Responses”

  1. Thanks Maya, This is one of the most significant, wonderful books I have read for a long time. You have woven the stories of the Birrarung and its history over centuries into your narrative, with side paths to many different areas – India, interaction between people and most important of all – if those who need to will read it – what must be done to preserve the river and the land through which it flows.
    Judith Williams, Metung, East Gippsland (formerly of Eltham, Lower Plenty and Whittlesea).

  2. I am finding reading your book a real exercise in “meditation”,Maya: I take it down to “my” to “my” beach – a spot on Port Phillip Bay in St Leonards…read a liitle,breathe,smell…Ahhh
    Meanwhile i ma in contact with Transit Lounge’s Barry Scott re having you on my rdaio program [ “The Blurb” every Tuesday 2-4 pm on Geelong 94.7fm…where I talk about books.
    Thank you.

  3. Hi Maya,

    The Healing Walk (the lead-up to the lake Bolac Eel Festival) has walked most of the Hopkins River, Mount Emu Creek and part of the Wannon River, spending a week each autumn engaged in this process. Being part of its organisation for some years, I said “touche” so many times during your book, re-reading some parts just to go deeper into your experience which mirrored parts of the Healing Walk over the years.

    Is there a chance that we could meet some time when I am in Melbourne?

    I have recommended it to a number of now ex colleagues at Southern Rural Water, as well as anyone else who listens to me.

    Thank you for your book.

    Lou Hollis

    1. Hi Lou
      I’d love to -I’ve heard about your project and would love to know more.
      Give me some notice and yes, I’ll meet with you in the city when you are around.
      Cheers Maya

  4. Hello Maya,

    Congratulations on an obviously inspiring and necessary work, hope to read it soon, you’ve captured people’s attention in all the right ways it seems, receiving some great reviews! Hope the launch tour goes well as your message is evidently as important now as it has ever been. Thanks for showing such leadership – in walking, writing and sharing. Tashi

  5. Thank You so much Maya. Your journey has touched a deeply running river within me about country, life
    and understanding our place.

    And inspired a longing to walk this generous land i dwell within.

    Your book to me was pure poetry.

    It’s being passed along through a series of friends, family and loved ones.

  6. Hi Maya
    Thanks for the copy of the book. A great read about a great challenge. I’d much appreciate a call from you for a chat. Currertly, I’m on a Wurundjeri Council sub-committee charged with planning the Barak Walk from Healesville to Parliament House this coming August and am in urgent need of your advice.



  7. Dear Maya, Ilan, Kate and Cinnamon,

    What an inspiring journey, project and life changing experience. I grew up in Warburton and have a very strong sense of place because of the role of the river in my childhood and teens. I loved your reports of the forests, the changing nature of the river, the moods of the weather and the people you spoke to.
    The Yarra requires protection and we must all do our part. Thank you for making this abundantly clear in the book.
    Best wishes for the future,
    Lindy Kohut

  8. Hi Maya,

    Am living in Brunswick. Plan on making a film about the Murray. Now i have a source of inspiration! Thanks. Just finished the book and a friend tells me of meeting a guy called Ilan. And i said “he’s famous!” And in my eyes you all are. Well done!

    Rgds, Brendan

  9. Dear Maya,

    Reading this book (given to me by Kari)has been deeply inspirational for so many reasons. I’ve cried and laughed and wondered. Thank you for your poetic way of revealing things I think I knew all along. Your words have music and honesty that strips the irrelevant away and leaves you with you, the river and your companions. For the companions are so important. Alone, the pilgrimage would not be the same. I now see I’ve been on a pilgrim’s path for 20 years since leaving Williamstown and coming back to my heartland on the Sunshine Coast. Though I haven’t walked a river’s path sequentially from sea to source, my somatic learning has been over time. Telling your journey as you have done has helped me to know what deep ecology is at a level most people don’t know exists – a treasure beyond all else you have shared. Thank you Maya.

  10. This book so absorbed me on train trips that I didn’t even realise how far that journey had progressed at times.
    I’ve been to both Herring Island/Lotus gardens in Warburton with a photography group, and loved your vivid descriptions of the entire pilgrimage.

    I’ve recently walked a few closed train lines and look out for telltale signs like sleeper/pole/rail remnants, as a reminder of what once was there.

  11. I have just heard Clare Dunn speak and bought her book My Year without matches and so have found a link to you.
    For 15 years I have walked and cycled in the bush along the trail next to the Yarra from Chelsworth Park Ivanhoe to Westerfold it has been my spiritual inspiration and muse for creativity as a visual artist. It is in My Pschye. Sadly I had to downsize and now live in a tiny flat overlooking the Yarra in Melbourne CBD. Every day I walk and sit by the billabongs in the Royal botanical Gardens drawn to reflections of sky and greenery. I am still searching for my real home and may move to the Murray as intuitively I must have river, mountain and forest to feel connected and in flow. Recently reading sinning along the Camino and the Year we seized the day both pilgrimages, I considered a walking pilgrimage along the I will now read your book.

  12. This book was recommended to me by a Richmond Tweed Regional Library patron. I’ve just finished reading it and I think lots more people would do well to read it too. Maya Ward and her companions walked the Yarra River in Victoria, a pilgrimage from the mouth to its source. The prose is the most beautiful that I have read in years. Maya Ward is an environmentalist and a magnificent writer. It’s a book that I didn’t want to end. (I shared this on facebook)

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