Lismore. Monday, 7.30am
The Wilsons River is brown, solid and muscular, shouldering its way through parts of Lismore it’s not supposed to go in. And the peak of the flood was yesterday, while I was nestled in my shack in the clouds, flooded in by a tributary, listening to the drumming rain and Harry Belafonte.
Today, the river is still wrangling with human habitation, dancing in retreat, but the river don’t care. The sun reflects off its smooth skin; the rain has moved south leaving three birds surveying the changed landscape from their vantage atop a streetlamp with no street. Everything is cleaned. Lovely.
And the river is the prettiest thing that ever lived.
Even though it looks pretty, the river ripples with power. It’s Muhammad Ali, bobbing and weaving around brick barbecues, marooned street lamps and ‘No skateboard’ signs, taunting them: ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be.’
I like it when the river floods.
The river lunges out from its corner in the Nightcap Range and mounts an attack against the structures and strictures that humans have punched into the landscape.
If modern life is a bout between human expansion and the environment, then around here the flooded river is the environment’s pugilist. It’s Muhammad Ali, floating like a butterfly to land a stinging hook to the glass jaw of human endeavour in Lismore.
Lismore, a town that largely ignores the river, has to take notice when the river flexes its muscle. Lismore turned its back on the river (literally) when roads became the arteries of commerce and the last ships left the river in the ’60s, leaving the wharves to rot away, their stories leaching into the river like so much fertiliser, to end up in the Ballina tales old people tell.
Before Lismore (ironically named after an island in Scotland), the Wiyabal people knew the power and glory of the river. They didn’t dirty it, neglect it, push it around like some punch-drunk has-been. It was a mighty waterway, healthy and strong, according to Henry John Rous who sailed up it in 1828. Then the fight began…
I like flood time. The river breaks free of its banks (I wish I could) and takes a walk in the park, a stroll up the street, spends the night in the gutter. People gather at the water’s edge to watch the emancipated river jab at suburban foundations, go toe-to-toe with municipal infrastructure.
Council doesn’t like people to be out and about enjoying the flood. ‘Stay at home,’ it says. ‘Check the website.’ Well, bugger that. Unlike internet updates, radio reports, and television news, the flood is real. Thousands of smartphones were flooded before the flood even existed; before the first raindrop fell. For many people, reality is an anticlimax, a shadow of the main event. And not just with floods. That’s sad.
Go look at the flood, I say. Touch it. Gather in groups, bring an esky. Behold the power that country has – despite the bruising we give it. The more we brawl with it, the more punishment it takes, the weaker we get. Now check out the river, coming off the ropes, saying, ‘I am the greatest.’
A levee was built to protect business assets in the CBD, and, so far, the river has not KO’d the wall. It has toyed with the levee, though, reaching up to its ear to whisper, ‘Is that all you got?’
But there are more rounds to come. The ‘Melee in the Valley’ ain’t finished yet, and with ‘Climate Change’ Dundee in its corner, I’m putting my money on the river.
If I was a whitegood in the CBD, I’d be peeing in my pantry.