Watershed

Beneath the pavers of North Melbourne, under road, and concrete, and gravel, and sand, lies a landscape in wait. Birrarang-ga, the River Country, as it is known in the first language of this place, is the largest wetland in Australia, currently buried under shops, houses, police stations, and playgrounds. There is a river that lives on the surface, known as the Birrarang to the Boonwurrung, those people of Bundjil, the lawmaker who flies on eagle wings. It is written on maps as the Yarra River, a word meaning moving water, the Boonwurrung language flowing onto the English tongue – diverted streams that find their way. The Birrarang is the trunk of a vast watershed, its snaking body fed by branching creeks and streams, like a great tree of water laid in earth. The Birrarang/Yarra flows out through Nairm, or Port Phillip Bay, to the sea.

The story of change is written onto the Birrarang-ga, the River Country. Nairm, currently a large bay, was a series of grassed plains, home to kangaroos and yam daisies. The Bass Strait that currently separates Victoria from Tasmania was dry and walkable. The Birrarang was longer, it flowed from the Yarra Ranges, through Nairm and then out through the northwest coast of Tasmania. This was during the last glacial maximum, 20,000 years ago, when the world was the coldest it had been for hundreds of thousands of years. The sea level was 120 metres lower than it is today, all the water sucked up into glaciers and ice sheets. Then, the rapid warming began, and the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria and Tasmania, once joined by a land bridge, watched their hunting and ceremonial land become inundated with wave after wave of water. They were cut off from their neighbours, and had to retreat back to higher ground. The ocean levelled off to current-day levels 7,000 years ago.

The Boonwurrung faced a second flooding, this one only 1,000 years ago. The Boonwurrung say that they were not looking after their Country, and were fighting among themselves. They neglected to care for the plants, animals and spirits of Biik, the land. The wurreeny, the ocean, became angry and began to rise. Nairm began to flood, and the Birrarang-ga, the River Country, was disappearing again. The creator being Bundjil proclaimed he would halt the flooding only if the Boonwurrung would promise to follow his laws, the Wurrungie Biik, and care for Country. The Boonwurrung promised that they would follow Bundjil’s laws, and would ensure that any visitors to their Country would follow them too. There are channels on the bottom of Port Philip Bay, deep etchings in the sea floor of where the Birrarang used to flow.

The Boonwurrung are survivors of climate catastrophe twice over. Now the Boonwurrung are being tested again. When Europeans arrived 200 years ago, they did not know the laws of Bundjil, and did not know the language of Country. The Boonwurrung offered hospitality to the settlers, attempted to teach them the right way to live on Country, the laws, the Wurrungie Biik. But the Boonwurrung were rebuffed, displaced, silenced, stolen, starved, murdered. Now the sea levels are rising again at the edges of the Birrarang-ga, salt-water coming in again to take more Country. Bundjil watches.

All the land in all the world was connected in different periods of the deep past. 335 million years ago there was only one continent, the supercontinent Pangaea, meaning ‘all earth’, and there was only one ocean, the superocean Panthalassa, meaning ‘all sea’. 175 million years ago this supermass of Country began to pull apart: pyroclastic forces boiling beneath the surface of the earth, irresistible, tore Pangaea to pieces. Now the continents drift on magma, and the one ocean has become many. The Earth is halfway through a supercontinent cycle, the landmasses are the furthest they can get from one another. But they will keep moving. The Atlantic Ocean is becoming wider, the Pacific Ocean is becoming narrower. The continents will meet again as a future supermass, coastlines cuddling together once more. Separation is only temporary in the deep history of the world.

Watersheds though, they are dynamic, they change in an instant. Under Melbourne the volcanic streams of Quaternary magma tell a story of the Birrarang/Yarra being blocked, then finding new paths through the landscape. The extensive wetlands were filled in by the European town planners and agriculturalists and the water diverted underground, but those lost streams thunder back to the surface during storms. Melbourne is dry in the present but in deep time it is saturated. Water lives in the spirit of place, a force for creation and nourishment, but also devastation and catastrophe if not treated with respect. The body contains watersheds, capillaries branching from veins, branching from arteries. There are branching rivers of air in the lungs, the breath. The branch and drain, the push and pull.

There are watersheds in space, the drawing together of rivers of galaxies. Our own Milky Way Galaxy is part of a stream that is drawing into the Laniakea supercluster, a great trunk of galactic water pulling toward an unseeable gravitational sink in space. Laniakea is our home in the universe, our cosmic neighbourhood, a Hawaiian word meaning immense heaven, named for the Polynesian seafarers who criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean, navigating by the stars. To the Polynesians the whole world was water, and they shared the rare green isles with plants, birds, reptiles, mammals and crustaceans. Out there in dark space, Laniakea means keeping the lights gathered together, and pulling stray galaxies into the stream.

Back in North Melbourne, that wetland landscape, the Birrarang-ga, the River Country, lives on. It peeks up through the pavers, flows through drains, grows around bus stop poles, sings from carport roofs. The Boonwurrung language continues to find new paths around the obstacles that seek to block its flow. The word Melbourne is everywhere but the name Birrarang-ga is behind it, seeping through.


Boonwurrung words and history from ‘The Journey Cycles of the Boonwurrung’ by N’arwee’t Carolyn Briggs. Permission to share and discuss Boonwurrung cultural heritage granted by N’arwee’t Carolyn Briggs.

Boonwurrung Wordlist

Biik – land
Birrarang-ga – River Country (place of the river)
Birrarang – Yarra River (River of Mist)
Bundjil – eagle/creator being
Nairm – Port Phillip Bay
Wurreeny – ocean/sea
Wurrungie Biik – law of land

Watershed was commissioned for Refuge, a key project of Arts House, as part of the City of Melbourne.


This piece is part of Assemble Papers 13 Mind the Gap, published at the beginning of February 2021. Find the print version of Mind the Gap at cafes across Melbourne, or order a copy from our webshop and pay only postage costs.


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