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