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February 3, 2023

Reminders of water’s power remain in the land

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Belongil Beach. Photo Mary Gardner
Belongil Beach. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

Real estate is often thought to be dry land. But long standing depictions of country in Australia focus on water. Aboriginal Australian artworks remind us of the locations and flow of water as a dynamic integrated presence above and below ground. Tex Scuthorpe told researcher Heather Goodall about Darling River country. Only when certain depths of water actually flow over rocks and other features of the floodplain does that flow itself reveal its hidden meaning. The pattern in the flow is the shimmering, fleeting shape of a mythical being.

When the flow subsides, results and reminders of that being’s power are there in the types of soil. They are also there in the particular trees whose roots suit these conditions. They are there in the animals: fish, prawn, clams as well as the birds, mammals and reptiles. They are also there in the knowledge and practices of water-wise people who always remember the full extent of flows.

In coastal places such as Cavanbah, where fresh and salt waters meet, the situation is quite complex. From the Clarence to Moreton Bay, a current close to the shore sweeps sand northward for some 300 kilometres of coast. Some of the sand has the effect of blocking the entrances of the waterways. The swamps and wildlife luxuriate in the standing fresh or brackish waters.

Shifting mass

Some sand is part of another cycle involving a shifting mass with three parts: dunes, beaches and subtidal zones. This mass moves in ever-changing ways around the bedrock, headlands and reefs. Seaweed, sponges, sea squirts and oysters anchor on reefs.

Seagrass sprawls and along with large dense beds of surf clams (Donax or pipi) stabilise the beaches as well as the beds of the waterways. Vegetation backs the dunes. The underlying trend is always erosion, so the marine and coastal life continue to readjust. Their existence is fertility, feeding fish, birds, dolphins, sea turtles and dugong.

Sometimes the dynamics change. Sand moves away from the entrances and the fresh and salt waters mix more thoroughly. This event triggers migrations and spawning for many species of fish. Some travel the waterways many kilometres inland. Birds and other animals gather or disperse.

This fresh and salt water mix, with its ever-changing flood and ebb, is also the sustenance of people who can see the estate for what it truly is. When new settlers dispossessed the first coastal people here, they favoured European livestock over wildlife. They saw money in dry dirt. The shared estate was cut into individual properties.

Settler law

In Byron Bay, settler law only manages the Belongil and its swamps as a network of sluices and drains for the sake of drying out land. But it remains a water place, reasserting itself with every rain and storm. The money poured into properties on the Belongil spit invests in an illusory moment between storms, floods and erosion.

In 1974, there was a correction: NSW engineer R Hincks reported that Council ‘rezoning has stopped any further development than that already existing on the spit’. Land values hit rock bottom. The northern part was ‘eroded by both sea and creek and is now worthless’. Council acquired ‘two blocks on Manfred Street’ for $800 in total. A property on Childe Street was ‘for sale for $25,000’.

In 2016, a property on Childe Street sold for almost $4 million. Another on Border Street sold for $10 million.

What truly changed over the last 40 years? Wetlands are less fertile. Fewer fish and birds. Loss of pipi and their beach systems. Ebbing, too, is knowledge of water country and the community will to rejuvenate and enhance their wet estate. What remains unchanged is flooding, storms and erosion.

Why are we investing in West Byron mega-developments? Or a coastal plan for a kilometre of more rock walls and ongoing sand pumping along Belongil spit?

How about we revitalise our wet real estate? In a world where living beaches and thriving wetlands are now rare, the presence of such country would be precious indeed.

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