Talking Shop: Re-imagining Port Phillip as country

The pandemic is bringing one phase of human history to an end. We must prepare for the next . . . We need councillors who understand Port Phillip as more than an economic and political unit. They need to understand it as a deeply-storied landscape.

Four invited guests—Janet Bolitho, Sharron Hunter, Isaac Hermann, Meyer Eidelson—joined Rhonda Small and Bill Garner for the first episode of Progressive Port Phillip's Talking Shop. The small Zoom meetings allow free-flowing discussion of ideas that may often go beyond immediate electoral issues. We took as our starting point the proposition from our website that 'No-one lives in Port Philip'. Is Port Phillip a place at all?

The participants brought long experience of living in and being active in a range of local neighbourhoods. While there was general agreement with the proposition that the 'City' of Port Phillip is an artificial bureaucratic construct and that the underlying community consists of its distinct neighbourhoods, there was resistance to the idea that Port Phillip therefore had no unitary existence. And while it was conceded that amalgamation had created a democracy deficit, there was little enthusiasm for the idea of de-merging.

Perhaps it was because the invitees were walkers and story-tellers whose interests were environmental and historical, but what emerged was that there were other ways of thinking of Port Phillip as a place that could give rise to a very different sense of identity from that of belonging to a notional 'city'.

Meyer, Janet and Isaac all run walks that allow residents of the district (and others) to achieve a deeper sense of connection to place. Through the EcoCentre, Sharron works with students, awakening in them their connection to the local landscape where they live and learn. The idea is through telling stories of the land to create a deeper sense of home and belonging. One form of knowledge this brings forward is an experiential understanding of what it means to live on Aboriginal land. The long littoral landscape of Port Phillip is a large part of traditional Bun-wurrung country. Knowing this as a grounded experience brings a very different understanding to the familiar incantation that 'we are meeting on the land of the Yalukit Willam...'

Connection to country is what enabled indigenous people to thrive here for millennia: it contains a great wisdom which we need to access if we are even to survive in the face of rising sea levels and probably unstoppable climate change. To survive, we are going to have to work with the natural forces we are unleashing.

A more knowledgeable walk along the Bay allows us to 'see' the topography beneath the streets and houses and to understand the way the water catchments have directed human habitation. When you trace the string of swamps that ran behind the sand dunes from the former swamp at Sandridge to the creeks of Elwood, you feel the shape of the country Port Phillip once was—and beneath the superficial remodelling of the surface, still is.

So much of our infrastructure is an attempt to control and remodel the natural shape of things. Previously that development was thought of as progress. Now, faced with the consequences of our own actions, we are consciously trying to rein it in and even back-track.  For while this 'lost' landscape can be recovered imaginatively it may even be recovered physically by bringing lost creeks back to the surface through the daylighting of drains.

Our remaining open spaces are crucial to fostering this understanding, as we can often still see and 'see' the old landscape. Even in a landscape buried beneath houses and pavement our legs tell us when we are going uphill, reminding us of the shape of the country beneath our feet.

The Bay (Nairm) itself is a dominant feature, is itself a flooded landscape on whose edge we perch, waiting for the water to rise. Global heating has brought underlying topographical realities sharply into perspective.

Add to this fresh understanding of our landscape a knowledge of the local plants and animals, fish and birds and the difference between living in the city and living in the bush (where people generally have a much stronger association with country) begins to dissolve.

We, too, are living on country—if only we can learn to see it. Doing so helps us to imagine a very different Port Phillip in the future; one not given to over-development but to ecologically sensitive development.

The pandemic is bringing one phase of human history to an end. We must prepare for the next. If we profoundly rethink our connection to place we change who we are, we can become people of this place—a place that is more than an artificial municipal construct.

Those, like Janet, Meyer, Sharron and Isaac who understand these things already inhabit a more meaningful Port Phillip.

Council does nod respectfully to these ideas through its recognition of indigenous history and its support for the EcoCentre, but it will need a much more expansive approach to draw the whole population of Port Phillip into this way of thinking. We need councillors who understand Port Phillip as more than an economic and political unit. They need to understand it as a deeply-storied landscape. Like the ecologically rich and life-giving swamps, these ancient narratives have been buried for too long.

The result of our conversation was agreement that, while the problematic city may only provide a 'home' in a fairly strained sense, there is another way—a much deeper way—of  thinking of Port Phillip as where we live.

The Talking Shop is an occasional online forum bringing together a few people to discuss topics of interest to Port Phillip residents. It is curated by Rhonda Small and Bill Garner.