Goulburn River. Wednesday, 7.25am
The reflected light ripples across the overhanging rocks. Up on a ledge, a red-necked wallaby lifts its head, stops chewing, and looks down at me with some grass still hanging from its mouth. I’m standing up to my thighs in the waterhole. My sarong floats around me like I’m a Balinese pond lily. I’m no threat (sarong), and the wallaby recommences chewing.
This is beautiful. It’s a dry time and the river is a series of waterholes set in the sandy riverbed. They’re bordered by bulrushes and sheoaks, and overseen by rocky escarpments of Narrabeen sandstone. Beautiful.
But behind me are many exotic weeds (noogoora burr is particularly punishing on my bare feet), two old VB cans and an empty plastic Coke bottle half filled with river sand. Ugly.
There’s a loud rumble, which makes the wallaby look up again. Then another rumble. Maybe it’s thunder. Another rumble. It’s not thunder; it’s blasting at a coalmine over the range.
I’m alone. My camp is out of view behind the river bend. Actually, I’m not alone. There’s the wallaby, previously mentioned, and tiny birds with red beaks that dart about, on foot, looking for tucker in the sand. A turtle potters about the bulrushes.Two fish have jumped since I’ve been standing here. (What is chasing them?) Behind me, a goanna is making indigenous art in the sand.
I had to travel a long way to get to this remnant of natural beauty. I pulled my little caravan from the trendy vineyards of the Hunter Valley, through degenerating treeless wastelands (farms), around huge smoking gouges in the ground (mines), into this national park, and finally to this waterhole.
This is beautiful. I can feel the beauty, like I feel the wetness of the river, but I don’t understand beauty. What is beauty? What is it for? Well, beauty is a feeling, that’s all I know. Beauty is not thinking, it’s a sensation.
I lower myself into the water. It’s beautiful here, but so much of Australia has been destroyed. I sink into a nostalgia for what was.
In just 230 years, since that fateful day in 1778 when Europeans landed on beach about 200kms to the east of here (and a bit south), a continent-wide sophisticated system of land management, tweaked over millenia, that honoured natural beauty and produced reliable abundance, has been replaced by a ugly stupidity so pervasive it passes for normal.
Oh great. Here, where a few seconds ago I was immersed in beauty, no questions asked, I now feel melancholy. I submerge completely to drown my thoughts, but my thinking doesn’t drown; it explodes like dynamite. I know what beauty is for! Beauty indicates worth. It’s that simple. Beautiful is good; ugly is bad. It was no coincidence that beauty and reliable abundance existed together before the Brits barged into Sydney Harbour.
I come up for air – and to test my hypothesis. Let’ see: Coal mine, ugly, bad. Wind turbine, beautiful, good. Hundred-acre treeless cattle paddock, ugly, bad. Healthy forest, beautiful, good. Erosion gully fast-tracking topsoil to the sea, ugly, bad. Healthy river, beautiful, good.
You don’t have to do the figures; you just have to ascertain the beauty rating. I know coal mining is bad (for the planet and all those who ride upon her) because it’s ugly.
This waterhole here in the bush is beautiful, therefore it’s good (for the planet and all who ride upon her). Lying back on the water, I see a wedge-tailed eagle circling above the river bed. Beautiful. Good.
What a place. It should be cherished and cared for, so it can be visited by pilgrims from the increasing ugly searching for the good.