I grew up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. As the years went by, I saw the remaining woodlands, orchards, pine plantations and pasture largely disappear under low density housing, dirt roads turn to asphalted streets, even that open country ‘over the river’ – towards Boronia and Bayswater – slowly shrink and be covered by factories and suburbs.
I never really understood what was happening, but I felt a kind of loss throughout my early teens as I saw forest being bulldozed into piles, revealing pale clay-based soils that ran in white sheets into the drains and then the Dandenong creek when it rained. Then came the roads, strange meanderings of cul-de-sacs, then power lines, then finally the first houses, slowly filling in as different blocks were bought up, until there was really only the floodplain of the creek itself and a few pockets of bush on private land. Even the building f my house helped clear out the old forests, and our backyard was full of silver leafed stringybarks and a few box trees. In the rockeries, poa and other native grasses would constantly appear and wattles would sprout every spring. Over the years, most of these trees were removed and slowly replaced by introduced trees. This was the 1970’s – the time of ‘native’ gardens, and so our house was slowly surrounded by elegant and beautiful tees from Western Australia and Sydney. At that time, the new days of native plants and pine bark, old railway sleepers and basalt rocks, this was a big step forward, away from neat lawns and English gardens. But deep down it didn’t feel right. I took to walking in the remnant bush and tried to learn the names and experimented with when to collect seed. Before I knew the name, or dreamed that anyone else might ever do it as well, I took to guerilla planting in parks and nature strips, then watched in horror as council workmen rode over my carefully tended trees on their mowers. The world seemed to be getting ever smaller and poorer, and I was slowly learning the names of the species as they disappeared: the silver leafed stringybark – a wonderful rough barked and elegant tree, sadly still falling before the bulldozers as the suburbs move east towards Nar Nar Goon. The silver and black wattles, varnish wattle, prickly moses, Acacia paradoxa, the lime green flashes of colour that come with the stands of Blackwood. The pale colours of Ballart Wild Cherries. The box trees and pale, smooth barked gums down by the creek that I now know as Manna gum. As my eye got better and I could recall the names, I got to know some of the other understory shrubs and finally even the grasses.
Just to have a sense of space, of horizons, was important too. Those pine plantations, dark and mysterious, that went for what seemed like forever. The orchards and fence lined pastures. Back roads and dead ends. Bike paths and foot tracks in the forest. These were all the sum and the vitality of my growing-up years.
Like many people, I went away, to the city, and life took a different course. But I felt a call to walk in that broad old valley of the Dandenong Creek, to see what had happened to the crumpled hills of my child hood. It was about 15 years since I’d been back. In those last few years of living in Heathmont, my interest had shifted to the distant mountains, to Wilson’s Prom, the Central Highlands, partly because the dwindling forests of the suburbs just weren’t big enough anymore. And what I found when I came back quite astounded me – it felt like something fundamental had changed. The forests were still hemmed in by suburban fences, but they were, finally, being respected. From being a drain, and the place where you could dump your household rubbish, the river system was coming back with healthy forest, even understorey species, with grass, riverine thickets and glades amongst the trees. Tracks and paths, lined with occasional benches, some areas fenced off for revegetation, the trees – the right trees – coming back. Walking upstream along the shallow and broad valley of the Dandenong Creek, under a glorious early spring sky, cumulus clouds bumping through slowly towards the Dandenong’s, the wattles in riotous bloom, with what seemed like hundreds of people out enjoying the early season sunshine, I felt hope. I felt that perhaps I would live to see our culture finally move from blind ‘progress’ and destruction to a more mindful, sensitive, enriching and sustainable future.