Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. Shakespeare
The secret business of Byron Bay is sea-change. Only some is physical.
The Wollongbar wrecked here in 1921 and settled into life as a surf break. Nearby, the submerged wreck of Tassie lll from 1944 became an artificial reef for marine wildlife and human snorkelers. Beyond her hull are a few broken wharf pilings, crusted with sponges and coral.
Everything else from the two enormous jetties, each about 400 metres in length, is gone. The 1885 jetty was removed in 1945. The 1928 jetty was blown up in 1974. Now, the settlers’ ambition itself is changing.
Once in 1897, Henry Lawson wrote that ‘the hearts of rovers hunger for the Ports of the Open Sea.’ Byron Bay was one such port and many came aboard ships such as the Wollongbar and its replacement Wollongbar ll.
Such adventure came at a price in blood. Red of Aboriginal Australians and others. Gold sap of cedars. Gold and later rutile from inside the heart of the beach sands itself.
The next payments were in cows, first boiled down for tallow, later milked for cream for butter, butter and more butter. The skim milk fed pigs later turned into bacon. The fat of the land for Sydney and from there, the British Empire. Such wealth was literally the region’s ‘capital’, a word originally meaning ‘heads of cattle’.
More was paid with fish. Some were reinvested in banana crops. Others were put into the buildings of town and ironically, the draining of the very wetlands which nursed baby fish. Still more was paid with the enormous bodies of whales themselves.
In the 19th century, their oil became fuel for lamps. In the 20th century, it became margarine made in Germany. The carcasses became chicken feed and fertilisers for crops.
By 1962, no more was extracted from the whales, their numbers greatly diminished. By the 1980s, no more was taken from the beach sand, the dunes all flattened. Dairy farming was over. The wealth of primary production all paid out. What’s a port to do?
So far, Byron Bay has taken up tourism and real estate. These bubbles distract us from coastal problems and marine opportunities.
The mega-development proposed for West Byron is suggested in Ewingsdale and Sunrise too.
Making real estate of the coastal strip will close out an even more important opportunity which would make us wealthy again in primary production with a twist.
The Belongil and Tallow waterways, with their tendrils through West Byron, Ewingsdale and Suffolk Park are an interconnected fertile zone.
Where is the tally for the blood price paid here: coastal emu, wallaby, possum, goanna, birds, snakes, sugar gliders and more? The remnants here make one of Australia’s wildlife ‘hotspots’.
With the help of Arakwal people, parts are protected in the Arakwal Park and the reserves of Cumbebin, Broken Head and Tyagarah. To successfully build this wealth, more of the fertile zones plus their openings to the sea must be managed with this kind of capital in mind.
Gary Nabhan is a US leader of the international movement in ‘place based foods’ supporting indigenous and cultural food traditions. (http://garynabhan.com/i/)
He helps people identify their unique regional foods and organise the conservation and rehabilitation needed to rebuild fish, shellfish, crops, orchards, birds and other animals.
One pathway is from ‘rarity to community restoration to market value’, creating local livelihoods and food security as well as renewing productive ecosystems.
This planned retreat, from beachfront living and marginal farming, will return to the community an enduring wealth.
Some tell me it’s impossible here in Byron. That people here only look to the short term gain to be got from inappropriate development and large scale tourism, to hell with the consequences.
That there is no halting mega-development or changing tack towards sustainability.
Is that us – Aboriginals and newcomers, investors and council, project managers and employees? Haven’t they heard of the sea-change?
The collective imagination of Byron is no longer dreaming of ports or the British Empire. The spell of this place is making of us ‘something rich and strange’.
We can invest our wealth, private and public, physical and mental, away from the nightmare of drowning with our feet locked into the concrete blocks of mega-development.
With every letter, submission, concept plan and investment, we can keep our feet steady in the rich coastal mud.
Residents of the future will find that, unlike so many other places, the wealth here is edible, drinkable and breathable.