A rickety bridge

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A slow sway pinches out a crying creak. It wavers and reverberates, motions in the belly as a slug of up and down. Yet there’s no whiff of breeze on a night where exposed roots choked by moss and lichen, and blades of grass tinged in dew sing in choral frets.

A stench of heavy fog squalls in as dense cumulonimbus clouds brimming in thunderstorms, lightning and intense, heavy rains, smothering everything two steps ahead. The way forward is only over worn, wooden slats of the narrow platform that vanishes into grey. Tattered, thin ropes tied to the platform and knotted for something to hold onto appear as mystical fraying fibres that float into that same invisible. Clutching them gives little confidence of their stability and peering into the nothing below that merges into the nothing above, spins that motion in the belly to groggy vertigo.

But in that empty unknown of underneath is a concealment that whispers magnitudinous esoteric breath. It’s there, somewhere, intentionally unseen but fused in super powers of nourishment and cherish.

Darkness becomes darker, a blackness of dull dread smothers the light of the moon. What it cannot do though, is hinder the fullness of energy from the orb of night that governs tides and emotion. It penetrates that dull of dread as the sun penetrates to suckle the earth.

Now to move, begin crossing these lopsided slats of old, no matter their dilapidated state or the huge holes in between. Move. There’s magic on the other side of the unknown. Trusting in that magic is imperative. One step forward, use the trembling to shift from a cement that’s cured beyond its use by date, beyond the malignant.

Such effort, such force needed when no force can be found. War drums hum stories of dire.

Breathe deep. Tune into those ropes and staunch buttresses standing quiet and resolute beneath. They’re there, powerful and strong as boulders rooted deep in love and care. Boulders of black and white … this is how it is. Boulders of nurture and coaching … you’ve got this, I’ve got you. Boulders stark with no qualms of question, all netted in silken thread studded in diamond particles.

A fibrous strand can sometimes loosen and the sway of the bridge swings to groans of pitching pain. Unicorns flounce and battle narwals in pristine points, ferrets flop up and down by the magic of a wand, round and round, tails curling over heads amongst schools of frenzy scattering at the circling of ominous danger, blurring all sight with a mass of silver-laced bubbles zapped by glints of moonlight … despairing gasps, desperate grasps … pushing through catches breath upon breath.

Breathe, draw from those stands of buttresses below when no sight can be seen.

Another breath. The bridge begins to steady. It’s now or never for that first heave of foot forward. Go. In shaking shimmy, the bridge steadies. The safety nets await amongst fairy flutters and flickers, regardless of how long or short the drop below might be.

A step forward and the tilt is greater than imagined, propels to clasp for ropes to stop from going over. Palms burn. Concentrated effort in the bracing for stability detracts from the alert needed of the gaping gaps. Sigh.

A glance behind to caressing fog, a sensuous tingle. The beginning’s obscured, gone. Silence blusters within the squeaks and groans. Moving forward is ominous and one foot steals the next step in quivering shiver without thinking or effort, without control. Dolphins battle lions battle sparrows on mass. There’s no turning back.

Knowing those quiet supports surround, even in the dreams of the gone, can prompt forward movement. Trust in the magic one cannot see or understand is all that can be and there comes a point where only doing will suffice and belief in the doing becomes the only way forward.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. ~ Roald Dahl

 

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Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp

Monika and Voldemar cottage 67 1962

Monika and Voldemar Steinbergs outside cottage 67 on the Farm, 1962

A writer nurtures stories, develops and grows them to be the best they can be. It’s a little like a parent nurturing a child or a gardener raising a plant from seed, laced in love and care. Each story is different just as each child or plant is different, unique with its own set of qualities and characteristics.

Writing an honest account of what life on the Farm might have been like requires immersion into that lifetime. Speaking to people within the Farm (the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Sewerage Farm at Werribee) community is one of the best ways of gaining that understanding of Farm life. Each person I speak with provides an account relevant and original to them and as a writer, each story provides the most fantastic insights. There are never any favourites.

But sometimes, there’s a click and you can see, smell, hear and taste a story to almost touch it. The connection might be to the story or with the person sharing their recollections. Either way or both together, every tiny fibre of their recall seeps into your bones, and it happens more times than not. Spending time with Gertrude recently, talking about the Migrant Camp on the Farm, was two hours of soothing seep.

Uncovering a story is like loosening the snib on the lid of a Pandora’s box swathed in layers of crumbling cobwebs and disintegrating dust. You never know what you’re going to hear when that lid pops open. It can as uplifting as it can be heartbreaking, and everything in between.

There are the charmers and the playful stories, the easy-going ones that smile regardless of what’s bubbling underneath and it’s not until chipping away at that sometimes gleam of gloss surface and pinching through the delicate fissures that you begin to understand the smile as hues of emotion.

The scallywags and jokers tell stories in streams of quips and weaving through the ‘you know, clocks fall into sheep dip to lose their ticks’ and ‘have you heard that sleeping bulls are bulldozers’ can sideline a deeper story. Centring and refocusing to decipher the banter and capture the snaking story can add insights to the fun and jovial.

Some only reveal what they’re comfortable to reveal, and that’s okay. Others tell the story as a stage manager directing a play or a tale that’s become a legend. Extracting its essence can be like trying to catch a Growling Grass Frog tadpole coated in thick slime and living amongst reeds swarmed in mosquitoes.

There are those with ideas and interpretations that sit outside of the box, sometimes the black sheep of the mob. Exploring those can be akin to mining for gold within an infertile reef, but oh the joy in striking that gold. And of course, there are the prickly, smothered in the finest of spines that have the ability to sprout as poisonous thorns if not handled carefully.

The honest that tell it how it is are the easiest to work with. No guess work required, only a thick hide. They’re in stark contrast to those wanting to cover up, where you can sense a teetering of not saying too much and watch eyes of distrust darting, lips quivering. Compassion and understanding for why that is, is be best here.

Ultimately, all are individual with their own self to contribute to a bigger story. There are never any favourites. However, speaking to Gertrude was without doubt, one of my favourites in a collection where there are no favourites. Gertrude Ropa. Even introducing her warms me.

Gertrude at 94, looks more than 15 years younger than her birth age. Whether it’s good genes or good living, I’m not sure. She has one of those permanent smiles, that gentle grandmotherly grin that’s seen a lot of life.

Gertrude motions me to sit beside her on the two-seater settee as soon as her son, Roland, finishes introducing me and leaves, before I could say anything or drop my leather bag loaded in notebooks and pens and a most kitsch bag adorned in European landmarks carrying my heavy-duty microphone and laptop, on the floor. Meeting with people and talking to them about the Farm takes me back to lugging baby things everywhere.

‘Gertrude, your accent, where are you from?’ I say as I ease beside her. Her soft words sing in that typical German way yet are fringed in a velvet lush, probably due to the combination of dialect and living in Australia for many years. It was more than familiar to me, charming me into a comfortability that over the next two hours, made me constantly look at my notes and questions to remember why I was there.

‘Bavaria, in Germany.’ Her eyebrows tilt up.

‘It’s like my father’s,’ I say. ‘And my family in Austria.’

Gertrude smiles more broadly; eyes of knowing lock in.

Gertrude is the wife of now deceased, Wally. Many linked to the Farm, whether as a resident, visitor, acquaintance or vagrant passing through looking for work would know the name Wally Ropa.

Wally, whose real name was Wladyslaw, was a teacher in Poland and an officer during World War II. He was captured by the German army early into the war in 1939 and remained a prisoner until 1945 in a camp near Gertrude’s village in Bavaria. It was in the camp that Wally learned how to speak English.

Gertrude and Wally met and soon after the war ended, had Marianne and Roland. Gertrude and Wally fled Bavaria with their children to arrive in Melbourne on Christmas day in 1949.

‘We had to stay on the boat because no one was working to get us off. We had lunch on the boat and the children couldn’t eat it. It was a single lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a piece of meat.’ Her words are considered.

The next day, the family was ushered onto a train to the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, along the Victorian-New South Wales border.

‘It was such a long trip, like we were going to nowhere. Villages at home were only a few kilometres apart but travelling to Bonegilla, we saw much nothing. And I was so homesick for my family. I left them all behind.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘It was impossible to live in Germany or Poland after the war.’ Gertrude’s always-smile fades as though a cloud passes over. ‘We couldn’t live there because the two countries were enemies.’

From their first night in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, the family was separated: Gertrude and the children stayed in one part of the camp while Wally was allocated a bed in another section with the men. The camp began two years earlier when the first intake of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived, many fleeing their country and looking for a fresh start. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, migrants would work for the government for two years. They were processed and allocated jobs from the camp.

Employees of the government visited the Bonegilla Camp regularly and in January 1950, within weeks of Gertrude and Wally’s arrival, Wally accepted a labouring position the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works offered him to fix fences on the Farm. That meant Wally moved into the Migrant Camp on the Farm to live with other migrant men.

‘It was hard for my husband,’ says Gertrude. ‘Wally didn’t know how to use a hammer very well. He stayed on the Board of Works Farm while we stayed in Bonegilla, until we had a house in Werribee.’

The Migrant Camp on the Farm was set up in the old barracks used by the air force during World War II on the air field at the top of Farm Road. The barracks included a kitchen and dining room where meals were prepared and served to Farm workers. When Wally moved in, ‘Bill’ was managing the kitchen. It’s believed Wally Steinbergs helped Bill cook in the kitchen while Wally’s (Steinbergs) wife, Monika, and son, Ventis, remained in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla also. Wally and Monika went on to live in a few homes on the Farm with their four children and were one of the last families to leave the township by 1971.

Over the next few months in 1950, the number of men moving into the Migrant Camp on the Farm increased and Bill decided to retire.

‘They asked, who wants to help in the canteen,’ says Gertrude. ‘Of course, my husband straight away, put the finger up. And the boss, Mr Speckman, he likes Wally because he spoke English and most people couldn’t talk English.’ Gertrude’s love for Wally sings in the tone of her voice.

The Farm management however, changed the job somewhat and Mr Speckman asked Wally to manage every aspect of the kitchen as a business. That meant Wally had to resign from his labouring position on the Farm and Wally Steinbergs leaving his role as helper in the kitchen to return to other Farm work. By now, it was 1951.

‘Did Wally teach English to the other migrants too, if he spoke English so well?’ I ask.

‘No. A woman came from Werribee at night to teach the men English.’ Gertrude pauses. ‘I don’t remember her name, she came once a week. But Wally … he would help the men with their English. He would buy soaps and cigarettes, washing powder, some razors and special drinks like lemonade for the men, and they paid Wally for those things.’

For the next four years, Wally managed the kitchen with 3am starts. He’d ride his bicycle the almost two kilometres from his home the family had moved into in Werribee, to the Migrant Camp on the Farm each day. He’d make breakfast, lunch and dinner, for which the men living at the camp would pay for.

‘He would make the breakfast what old Bill made, I think bacon and eggs. And he had to make sandwiches on a big bench. Three sandwiches for each person, in the beginning for about 20 people. One sandwich with cheese and two with sausage. He had a little bag, he put one spoon of tea in that bag and a spoon of sugar. And that was wrapped and when the people came to get their breakfast, they take the lunch already made and the tea with them to work.’

The number of men living in the camp increased over time and Wally would feed around 80 men each day.

‘It was a lot of work, we didn’t have a helper, nothing. Only my husband did that.’

Wally would place food orders and clean the kitchen and dining room while the men worked, and once Marianna and Roland went to school, Gertrude would walk to the camp to help Wally in the kitchen and prepare dinner.

‘I didn’t do the cooking, Wally did that. He’d make soup for tea. He’d fry the meat and make a sauce with it, and sometimes spaghetti. He’d make pudding and on top of the pudding was fruit from the tin. I peeled lots of potatoes and pumpkin. We had to slice the bread and put it on the table with the butter. Sometimes, we had some bosses coming from Melbourne, they went visiting the Farm, like vets, and they would come and have lunch and I have to serve them.’

Three or four times a week, Marianne and Roland would ride their bikes to the kitchen after school.

‘They used to have milk churns and we’d have a cold glass of milk and milk arrowroot biscuits,’ Roland recalled when I’d met him, before introducing me to his mother. ‘It was a treat my sister and I enjoyed. We’d sit there while our parents were working. Sometimes we’d ride to the village to swim in the pool.’

Once Gertrude finished helping Wally prepare for dinner, she and the children went home.

‘The boss had a son who made university and he picked him up on the station. I would get a ride sometimes, he took me home.’

‘What time would Wally come home after he’d finish for the day?’

‘When he was in the camp, he done the kitchen, cleaned all the plates. He had a big trough and put all the plates and cleaned them and washed them all, filled up all the bottles for sauce, cleaned the table and the floors and he come back home at seven o’clock.’ The kitchen ran seven days a week.

‘When the people left slowly, there were less and less, and my husband said I can’t do it anymore, I must do the same work for a hundred people for what I do for 20 people and 10 people.’

Wally finished managing the kitchen when it became unviable as a business. He returned to the Farm as an employee, taking on the role of security. He worked in that capacity from the mid-1950s until he retired at 65 years of age in the early 1980s.

We finish talking about the Farm and I pack my books and equipment back into their bags. ‘Thanks very much for all your stories,’ I say to Gertrude. ‘I think we’re finished.’

‘Do you need to go back to work?’ she asks. ‘I have some photos, but they’re not from the Board of Works. They’re of Wally.’

‘Okay,’ I say, sensing Gertrude wasn’t ready for me to leave yet. Gertrude shuffles over to a cupboard and pulls out a photo album. She almost trips on the way back and I instinctively put my hands out to catch her.

‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘These slippers, they catch.’ She plonks back beside me and leans into me to show photos of Wally in the album: Wally running in athletics carnivals, skiing too, in the prison camp with thousands of men, looking fit and healthy to my surprise.

Gertrude’s stories about the kitchen in the Migrant Camp provide such insight into an area with so little information. Finding any photos or people to talk to about living in the Migrant Camp has proved difficult to date.

Certainly, spending time with Gertrude was a delight and is something I would repeat any day. It wasn’t a-twirl-around-the-kitchen one, two, three, four salsa, hip to a maraca type of chit-chat, or a choppy waters foaming at their tips in curls of white kind of ponder over the 1890s.

No, it was more a laze in silken grass under a grandmummy of a maple tree splaying an umbrella of lush green from a wise trunk in Stadtpark in Vienna, licking bitter chocolate and apricot gelato dripping down the side of a cone, with humidity kissing the nape of my neck type of natter.

No favourites though. Ever. Even a cactus thrives and allures in its succulence and flesh and magnificence of pinks, reds and blues flowers.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on the sewerage farm. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board of Works is another term used for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee.

 

Farm Reflections: Truth

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Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well … words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.

Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.

Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.

‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.

‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’

‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’

‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’

And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.

Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.

People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?

I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).

Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.

Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.

He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.

Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.

L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed.

Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.

Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?

Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can’t be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of ‘non’ recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.

Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can’t be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people that are part of the Farm community become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.

Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.

Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Farm Reflections: A land faraway

Mavis & Keith Warfe with Shep the dog

One year and one day to the day, I began this PhD research of the community once living at the Metro Farm, also known as the MMBW Farm, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works at Werribee and fondly, as the Farm.

One year and one day to the day has seen many recollections shared and some intimate memories provoked to prompt nostalgia and expose emotion that has been locked away for many years. A few tears have been shed too. It’s been an honour to be privy to those.

I never expected to know what I know today about the Farm or have met the people I have met, encountered such warmth or be affected in the way that I have, both professionally and personally. But that’s the beauty of life – full of life-changing surprises. It’s to the credit to all that support this work that knowledge is emerging of what it was like to live on the Farm and that it is being recorded today.

One year and one day to the day and I never expected to encounter a very living Farm community.

~~~~~~~~~~

A land faraway

A living town in a life at honey speed, a calm and peace unwavering in the howl of withering leaves. Crested cockatoos cascade between trees of bare, shrilling whistles of a time unmoved, of a life once was in a land faraway.

Cannon balls in the swimming pool and escaping a wrath after hiding knickers … playing cards into the morning and women scuffling for the football on the MCG …

Ghosts of yesterday dance to a squeeze box on the thread of glistening webs. They guard over full-as-bulls battles that spike in the dark near homes trimmed in baubles of roses and hydrangea, and stems of gladioli rivalling to be the best.

Families play and explore in a back yard of a vast faraway.

Today is little of the physical, of faded plum trees and pumpkins entwining along drains, of cream lilies and milk coffee and the horse and jinker tearing its sleeping traveller home as the epitome of the driverless car.

No. It’s not gone, not this life in a land bewitched on an elixir of memories, not within the dusty veil of isolation and cone of connection, where children mushroom and play hyekio and stockman call to their dogs.

Ghosts rejoice from sleeping ruins at the telling of their tales, from the tops of date palms and cypress trees and while watching football and sipping beer behind the goals, from under the water tank in a bass of riff, within a place oozing smiles more spirited and permanent than the Mona Lisa.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed, wistful of lands faraway.

To some, it’s an honouring that’s grounding in subliminal bliss and stark in harsh reality, of little boys and girls scattering and fleeing, some in the clan ducking and weaving … a devastation that can coil as molten lead in sludge fused in hues of rotting seaweed.

All box tight in an infinity of recollections more fertile than the most precious, a box that holds the pause to remember a life that pulses through the veins of the salt bush, in the cooling dip in the bay under a biting sun where friendly flies line tent walls as a film of black or in the darkness of a waning moon with only a fire on the sand. Sea birds call on bellies plump and ripe … pretty and pristine in smashings of greens and tints of blue.

Through the feathery tufts of yellow as a roadside guard of honour is a house and two cows …

A life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed in a land faraway.

Hinged in a haunting of melancholy is a place that once thrived. Listen carefully and you’ll hear it, the deep gloating of lifelong love, of wood being chopped for the stove and to heat the copper, feeding the pigs and milking the cows, churning the cream and butter to a one, two waltz in the Farm hall, a chasse to the Pride of Erin.

Amid this place of serenity are the giggles of mirth from boys peering behind bushes at men searching for their bottled stash, and scallywags scramming after pulling handbags tied to strings from the grasp of the inquisitive unsuspecting … the freedom to be without fear.

Bachelors living together, women and their cottage industries, ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps and picking peas … the rose-gold worn as a cherished adornment of never-ending love that connects souls over lifetimes.

The sun prods for its always opening above foaming curls of white, rhythmic in their crashing and laced in the emotion of Antarctica. This space of breath, expanse of clarity of sight reveals the full beauty of perfect imperfection.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, in a life at honey speed, of a house and two cows in a land faraway.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Heart or brain

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If creator asked me, however creation occurs, would I like to be a heart or a brain, without hesitation my answer would be a heart. It’s not that I have anything against a brain, it’s just that hearts have more fun, more of a wild life-ride.

My cousin married on the weekend while her father lay dying in his bed. That cements my heart choice.

Weddings and watching someone you love die can be highly emotional. Weddings for the glorious euphoria where it can feel as though you’re in some kind of mooshy bubble soaked in joy on steroids. Everyone revels inside the protective sac, shielded from harsh realities, whether you’re the bride, groom or guest. You can forget at a wedding, leave everything outside to be in the deity of the day.

Watching someone die, which is very different to death, takes you to a whole other extreme where torment exceeds pain to induce an excruciating helplessness. Being out in cyclonic seas that regurgitate scrambled eggs in one dip would be far simpler than riding the tumult of emotion in dying. Watching those you love, watch their dearest fade away adds a whole other layer in the scuttle to catch breaking hearts that drip through your fingers.

The two together, a wedding and dying, become a whammy of intensities. Extremes escalate as the bubble suddenly hosts the world’s scariest roller coaster to flip revellers over and over, manoeuvring double corkscrews and cobra rolls in the dark while dodging shooting, zephyring sparks that ricochet inside the bubble. Sudden moves exaggerate and juxtapose happiness and hurt and confrontations can bite in as the antithesis of pleasure and heartache.

And yet being in that bubble holds the nurture and care to get through, to nourish the ache that transcend all other aches and comes from a bed of barren more mangled than a thousand, old gnarled trunks entwining as taught rope, all pulling as tourniquets on everything within scent and sight.

Of course, a heart must be stripped bare to feel, to attune to the spiralling emotions and slivers of tenderness, to accept without question and give an ease of friendship and support while taking care of one’s own needs … it’s the essence of giving without any expectation.

An open heart delights in the greatest sprouting, boundless and enriching. It comes with sacrifice and compromise, of hidden tears and no judgement.

It comes with patience. And genuine kindness.

It allows the whole gamut of everything to flow free, with no boundaries or barriers. Pain easily enters and you’re exposed to the bottomless swirl of eruptions without restraint, fighting uncontrollable and unreasonable as the ones you care about or love the most are the ones that will make you cry. It’s a pain that can’t be touched or pinpointed.

An open heart can grip without warning and lock in as a monolithic stronghold rooted from sky to earth. And yet it’s that grounding that sanctions an experiencing of vastness and to take risks, to be caught in a safety net when falling.

Sometimes you might wonder whether life would be easier by simply closing one’s heart, boarding it up to protect from all and everything. And yet the energy it takes to be closed can far exceed the energy for uncovering, to be oneself without hiding. Sometimes the fear of being hurt is more painful than being hurt.

The alternative of living with a closed heart, afraid to chance, to live in a lingering starkness where loneliness can reverberate in a wallowing chortle of superficial fluff, desolate, confused in the staccato of dark, fatigued and impervious to feel all that life is … no, that’s not for me. That’s not life.

I’d prefer to wear the silky lingerie that catches on jagged cliff faces, confident of the buoyancy from those around me as we bounce in and out of our bubble.

Opening up is an endorphic lift that sucks in the bubble bliss and pitted sadness and digests it, processes it into a deep understanding of the polarity of life and an ultimate gratitude for it. An open heart accentuates the happiness and knows empathy, especially for the closed hearts.

It’s a nunu kiss of true, deep and honouring love that shines past the deepest and darkest. It’s the kind of kiss a grandparent plants on the forehead of a grandchild where nothing else matters but the kiss.

What would you prefer if the offer was presented to you, to be a heart or a brain?

Hands of lifetimes

holding hands kara braithwaite

Breaking through any veneer takes time. Prodding and poking, gentle rounds of pounding and soon enough, a fine fracture appears. Time and patience, compassion to allow sees the shellac of mask crack and eventually shatter.

And yet, it’s not always so, not when years of layering in plutonium and gold, wedged in between toughened steel and encrusted in diamond particles for added strength, teeters in brittle balance to become a complexity seemingly inconceivable to penetrate.

Trying mustn’t stop, pushing with the gentlest of might to pry into the tiniest of miniscule fractures that clam shut to protect its pearl. The harder the push, the tighter the molecules bind. These walls of lifetimes unite as secret societies with the most stringent passwords and handshakes of multiple dexterity. Breaking through takes time and is more laborious than sharpened chisels rasping day and night at the rock of hardened lava and the spiked-up engraver etching in more profoundly with each scratch. A labour of love that can take forever. Or never.

Digging too deep though can strike a fissure that turns suddenly south. The cleft snaps to a chasmic abyss, where erratic fireworks clash with shooting debris, all while caving in on itself.

Inside and out collide and draw into a coiling twist, a vortex sucking up every me, me, me. I’m here, he’s there, the divide is great … I can’t but you can, she has more and I have none. He cares, she cares most definitely … you know, they all know the truth.

Until there’s a discrete tickle that comes from these walls of lifetimes, prompting an instinctual recognition. Yet it retreats as quickly as it appears. Or does it?

The shifting between one and the other, and then both, the betrayal in a pool of liquid whispers. Leaded boots hook into a mirrored room kissed by Judas, reflecting as a brilliant cut diamond. Any glimpse of sight is too stark, any grasp is of liquid mercury.

The tickle takes a form, a shadow in those walls of lifetimes. The energy is undeniable, as the breath of life passed to Adam by the lightest of touch in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Those boots begin to unhinge from their crimped claws.

Churned pitting begins to ease and the idea that some things must be, falls as a veil of solace. A hand of being takes mine, grounding in more might than any wall of lifetimes, even against the wet fallen from a blanket of darkest grey where the sky and road ahead merge as one mantle of colourless drab.

Hands weave to help wash away caustic tears. They build an intangible strength impervious to the demands of everything. Unusual in structure and more intricate than a brain brimming in full seismic thought dancing with a heart flushed in erogenous fervour.

Look closely. The hand is there, tucked into the rock facade hiding a thousand stories. They’re there, laced in tenderness and sprinkled in kindness and with a depth that can reach any heart’s core. Those hands come from near and far, at any most unexpected time, and can illuminate as pure gold from those walls of lifetimes.

It’s the only way to warmth yet unknown, to feel the lightness of hands of lifetimes.

 

Farm Reflections: The Hickeys

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Choppy waters foam at their tips in curls of white, churning waves into shore as a milkshake blending in the darkest, richest chocolate. They break against small, jagged rocks strewn over a bed of shell grit, rhythmic in their crashing, rousing a deep pondering. In skies of heavy murk and gloom tinged in highlights of mauve as the sun prods for an opening, I gaze out to Portarlington in the distance to the west. What a day to be out here. I scan over the bay through sheets of fine mist, to the east at Werribee South and further around to Melbourne.

Ice cold flinches off the water, spearing breezes that swirl in Antarctica emotion and blend with shades of rotting seaweed. It’s the kind of chill that gets in, biting at my jaw and bare neck, sneaking in under my thick beanie knitted for Alpine conditions. Thankfully, the thermal socks I’m wearing are keeping my feet warm, although I don’t know for how long after wading through ankle deep water that flooded the road and trekking through sodden salt marsh after heavy overnight rain.

Anyone that knows Melbourne would say it’s a typical winter’s day.

Finding the flattest rock to sit on is almost impossible. They’re all pitted after having been spat out as molten lava millions of years ago and cooled to popped pockets of air bubbles.

I wonder how the Hickey family coped, living here along the foreshore of the Farm.

Annie and Michael Hickey arrived at the Farm in 1898 looking for work. They lived here on the foreshore in tents with their children: 10 under the age of 15, including a set of twins, within a year of their arrival. They were offered a house and two cows for milking in 1911. It’s unclear yet whether they remained in tents until that point or when Michael was offered employment.

Back then, the sewerage farm was a prime place for work. It was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century and provided job security for many farmers during the 1890’s economic crash and 1930’s depression.

Up until this point, Melbourne’s only system for disposing sewage in the 1800s was to throw it into the streets, giving it free reign to meander into waterways. A typhoid and diphtheria epidemic broke out and British journalists were dubbing Melbourne as Marvellous ‘Smellbourne’. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed to set up a sewerage farm at Werribee to treat Melbourne’s sewage. Interestingly, Werribee was chosen over the other option at Mordialloc, which was closer to Melbourne and already gentrifying Brighton in Melbourne’s east. That’s another story for another time. The Farm still treats sewage and is known today as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. It’s about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce required to manage it. Work was plenty at the Farm and Annie and Michael understood that. They knew too, that because of the distance between Melbourne and Werribee, and between the Werribee town centre and the sewerage farm, that those who worked at the Farm were offered a house and two cows to rent, to them and their families to live in.

Michael came from County Clare in Ireland, Annie (Welham) from Ballarat via a convict ship from England that landed in Perth. They must have been accustomed to the cold, but I wonder about the landscape. It’s pretty and pristine out here in its tints of blue and grey, but that can change in an instant. The Australian landscape is known for its chameleon dexterity. It can arouse the harsh and extreme in all hues of a brash and unsettling that many writers at the turn of the 1900s attempted to capture in a most lyrical romantic form. Sitting here wearing two jumpers, a coat and corduroy jeans, beanie, thick socks and safety boots, I wonder how the Hickeys managed, how the children handled living here.

Food and water was plenty: fish in Port Phillip Bay and the Werribee River, eels, rabbits and ducks to catch, chickens and their eggs, pigs reared for meat, sometimes sheep too, cows for milking and making cream and butter, and for producing cheese. People ‘lived off the land,’ as many have said. Water mains across the Farm and into Cocoroc South, also known as the bottom end, provided fresh water. I’m still piecing the story together but I can see from a recently, very generously donated 1906, hand drawn and painted map of the Farm that these were established. Two cottages and the Cocoroc South School with a teacher’s residence are also marked on the map in this area.

Sitting here with the sun now radiating on my back, water resolute in its reeling in that rhythm that you can lose yourself in once you tune in, no one else about, quite secluded considering Melbourne is around 25 kilometres away … it’s quite a place to be. Those Hickey kids would have coped, in a most wonderful playground of salt marsh and grass to run through and play, swimming and fishing. They most likely attended Cocoroc South School, which opened in 1906 nearby. Cocoroc West School in the north-west of the Farm opened in the same year. Cocoroc School in the township had already been operating for 10 years after a residents’ petition to the education department requesting a school be established, considering 40 children lived on the Farm at that time, was successful. It was a sign of the Farm’s rapid growth.

The paddock I walked through to get here is known as ‘Loozy’s’ by many, after the fisherman, Mr Losevitz. He paid an annual licence fee to the MMBW and was appointed Ranger of the foreshore and jetty reserve between 1922 and 1946. Mr Losevitz also cared for the MMBW boat that was moored at the jetty here. Many enjoyed Loozy’s and school sports between the four schools (Murtcaim School was established in 1939) were often held here.

This place is peace, even if parts of me have become numb. It’s a place to think and process, digest all that is this Farm … the Hickeys living here in tents, with 13 children. Summer would have been very different to today: flies lining tent walls in a film of black, gathering as a sheath on warmed water in the copper. And sweltering under a 40-degree Celsius day … cooling with a dip in the sea under a stark summer sun or a full moon on a hot night, in the darkness of a waning moon with maybe only a candle or fire for light.

And the next generation of Annie and Michael … riding eight kilometres on horseback to the town pool or on push-bike with a dog that guarded the bike to stop every kid at the pool from riding it, games of ‘hiekeyo’ (not sure of its spelling) and handbags tied to strings placed on the single-lane highway to Geelong. Inquisitive motorists would stop to check on the handbag, only to have it drawn away from them by a group of scallywags hiding behind bushes on the roadside, who then bolted when that person of unsuspecting chased after them. Then there were the mischievous boys who moved the bottles of beer that men at the weekly dances would stash in bushes outside, and those boys hiding and watching in mirth of giggles as those men searched for their beer … the freedom to play and wander, to explore without fear.

Three to four generations extend over the Farm. Some children walked or rode five and six kilometres to and from school each day, some hitch-hiked from the highway into town … there’s Uncle Frank who never married and lived in a caravan on the foreshore near the Werribee River while working as a waterman. He fought in World War One, got shot, returned to Melbourne to recover, went back to the front line, only to be injured again and returned to Melbourne to recover. He remained a waterman at the Farm and eventually moved out of the caravan and in with his brother and family until he retired. There were ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps, bread and mail delivered in the same box down near Murtcaim, picking peas at Little River … and the little boy that sits in my gut as a weight of unwant, the devastation of him.

Then there’s the granddaughter of Annie and Michael who lives in the home her grandparents once lived in, an old house relocated from the Farm into Werribee … and Annie’s rose-gold wedding ring still worn today, a precious adornment of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes.

I didn’t think it possible, but I’m thawing out. That Melbourne winter warmth that comes from a southern hemisphere sun is turning on its toasty charm. Winter here is different to anywhere else I’ve been, different to the European winters of bleak and fog that can choke to a breathless gag, laced in a pollution that permeates every pore until you can taste it in your every swallow. This space of breath is undeniable, a vast expanse of clarity of sight where nothing can hide and every skerrick of flaw is revealed in full beauty of perfect imperfection, and when cleansed by a sweeping of rain, sharpens in pristine splendour. The veins in the leaves of the salt bush, the life pulsing through them … the shrilling whistles of crested cockatoos streaming between bare-leaved trees, sea birds calling on a belly plump and ripe, waders stealing over mudflats … the stirring of senses in full flight.

The tide’s rolling in. Annie and Michael would have understood those tides, how far they came up and down, where to perch their camp to be clear of even the occasional king tide. The overnight rain too, and the impact of that rain on their camp.

While today with all our mod-cons, living in tents on the foreshore might seem full of challenges, sitting here is this cacophony of crashing waves, bristling breeze and trilling glee, it’s gloriously serene. And with the privilege of time to stop and think, it’s incredibly insightful. Life here was full, and simpler I imagine to some extent, with fewer distractions and an abundance of personal, sensory pleasure.

It’s time to move off the volcanic rock of hard, time for the blood to pump back into those damp parts of numb. Back over these rocks I climb, unsure of my footing sometimes with the wet and dense bush covering, through the salt marsh and over squelching mud beneath my boots, over a wire fence, careful not to knock my laptop. I look for the fine line of gravel on the road that breaks the water’s surface, but am soon in ankle deep water again. Back to my car, covered in dried, tawny mud, back to this mod-con world.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

 

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