Not as we know it: A precolonial Port Phillip Bay

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth. 

The city of Port Phillip is an area that feels as though it’s made for warm and lazy summer nights, the perfect place to meander through tree-lined streets and markets to watch the sun set over the bay. Places like South Melbourne Market, St Kilda Esplanade, and Albert Park Lake are iconic pieces of Melbourne’s history. It is difficult to imagine these places as they originally were – a mix of rare and wild landscapes, thriving with life and biodiversity.  

Let’s start in Port Melbourne - a hub of cruise ships and coffee shops. Walking down Bay Street now, the path is lined with trendy cafés and apartments. Two hundred years ago, most of this area was overgrown with dense shrubbery, with species such as common heath and broom spurge dominating the area with gnarled branches and bright flowers. The taller trees were few and far between, a mix of species such as rough-barked manna gum and saw banksia sprawled across the landscape. Closer to the coast, the nutrient-poor soil won out, and the trees are replaced with thick shrublands full of coast wattle, seaberry saltbrush, and spear grasses. These reached down as far as they could into the sand dunes. Beaconsfield Parade and the Bay Trail, areas now busy with cars, skaters and sun-bathers, were once a mess of sharp, prickly shrub and heath.

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like?  Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like? Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Albert and Middle Parks are similarly transformed, streets now lined with old Victorian architecture and large, non-native trees. When you come across Albert Park Lake, lush grass sweeps the ground, perfect to picnic on. Pre-colonisation, the coastal regions of these areas were similar to the environment seen in Port Melbourne, but at Richardson Street, the dense shrubbery lessened. Small plant species such as small poranthera, ivy-leaf violet, and weeping grass were scattered across the exposed ground. In spring and summer, the flowers and grasses popped in bright reds, pinks, whites and yellows. In the centre of Middle Park, extending from Boyd Street to West Beach Road, was a band of brackish wetland, which also surrounded what we now know as the Albert Park Lake.  These areas were poorly drained, full of salty soils that prevented taller plants from growing. Low-lying herbs and grasses such as the common reed, streaked arrowgrass and creeping monkey flower poked through the parts of the ground that were slightly more habitable than the rest.

In South Melbourne, starting along what we now call Nelson Road, the soil became more fertile, and grassy woodland took hold. Here, trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses and ferns were found in almost equal prevalence, each of the forest layers clearly represented by species such as common Heath, honey-pots, kidney-weed, and common apple-berry. Drooping sheoaks and species of eucalyptus emerged sporadically from the landscape. This place was bustling with a diversity of plant life in intense competition for resources. It was a different sort of intensity when compared to the bustling South Melbourne Market of today, but for the plants that lived here, it would have been a constant struggle for access to nutrients and sun.

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.   Image:

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.  Image:

St Kilda, a favourite evening haunt of Melbourne, has become a hub of trams, restaurants and bars. Two hundred years ago, we would see grassy woodlands stretching out across the majority of the area. Acland Street, full of quirky stores and cafés, would have been an undulating plain of trees and grasses. Gippsland red gum and river red gum were common, with the dense shrubbery surrounding the coastline thinning out into tufted grasses such as kangaroo grass and common bog-sedge. Between St Kilda and Elwood, there was a band of sedgy, swampy woodland, dominated by herbs and grasses that could withstand occasional waterlogging. What we now call Marine Parade was surrounded by a thick scrub of low trees, such as woolly tea-tree and swamp paperbark, the shrubs so thick the ground rarely saw light.

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after.  Images:  Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after. Images: Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

Walking along the Bay Trail now, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time, sightings of wallabies, wombats, and native mice and possums wouldn’t have been uncommon. Birds of all shapes and sizes, from rosellas to fairy-wrens to New Holland honeyeaters, would have been seen flitting around the area. Now, the most common animals that dominate the City of Port Phillip are cats and dogs.

It seems, at a glance that our human-made environment has pushed out all that once lived here – but walking along the trail and looking up into the palm trees, it’s possible to make out nesting rosellas and roosting parrots. If you look out into the water surrounding Princes Pier, native water rats can be found swimming through the shallows. Native bushland is being restored along the coast, to protect our beaches from erosion.

It is not as it once was, but parts of once-wild Melbourne can still be found, if you know where to look.

How Language Shapes Our Landscape

Theodore Roosevelt first encountered the writings of John Muir in his book, The Mountains of California, published in 1894. In its pages, Muir painted the San Gabriel range north of Los Angeles so vividly that Roosevelt was moved to contact him. Over the course of a three-day camping trip, a Scottish-born vagabond and the President of the United States explored the Yosemite Valley together. On the final night, Muir convinced Roosevelt to list the valley under governmental protection as a national park. Roosevelt went on to create over 230 protected sites during the course of his presidency, ranging from national parks to bird sanctuaries and covering roughly 230 million acres.

The story of Muir’s impact on Roosevelt is one of many shared by Robert Macfarlane in his fifth book, Landmarks. It is a powerful example of the influence of language in changing the landscape, both literally and figuratively. From the first line it is clear that Macfarlane shares a similar intention: ‘This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.’ Each chapter functions as a thoughtful essay on a writer whose works have shaped Macfarlane’s perception and articulation of the natural world.

More fascinating still, between these chapters is a series of glossaries grouped by theme: Flatlands, Wetlands, Northlands, Edgelands - every conceivable kind of ‘land’ in the British landscape. For years prior, Macfarlane had collected striking words for features of the environment as he encountered them. Gradually, it became a mission in itself: to seek out and curate place-terms ancient and modern, from every language that has been brought to Britain over centuries of ‘invasion, settlement and migration’. The glossaries are an exhibition of Britain’s linguistic evolution, ranging from archaic Old English terms like wæter-fæsten (place protected by water) to remnants of regional dialect like shuckle (icicle, Cumbria) and even mysteriously poignant coinages by children like honeyfurs (soft grass seed-heads).

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Though Macfarlane is necessarily limited to a survey of the British Isles, the scope of his book extends much further. From the outset, he calls with urgency and sincerity for ‘a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world – a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. To his mind, this cataloguing of place-terms is not nostalgic, but urgently contemporary. Landmarks is a reaction to a changing literary landscape, in which dozens of words for nature were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of technological terms: acorn replaced by attachmentbluebell by broadband. As we lose our ability to articulate the landscape, so the landscape begins to lose its meaning.

The idea of a world-encompassing glossary of natural terms is ambitious, but the value in its attempt cannot be understated. In Australia, approximately 250 indigenous languages were spoken at the time of colonisation, including 40 in Victoria alone; across the country, this comprised 600 dialects. When the colonists arrived, the English language was not adequate to articulate the country, leading to frustration. A ‘hideous blank’, declared one white settler, chronicled by Macfarlane: ‘everywhere the same dreadful, dreary, dismal desert’.

Over the years, as the colonists began to find ways to express their awe of the ‘sunburnt country’, indigenous languages began to disappear. In less than two centuries, more than 150 languages were lost and today, all Australian indigenous languages are in a critical state. How many ancient, apposite terms to describe this unique country have already vanished in the scope of a much greater tragedy?

Australia must answer the call for a linguistic return to the wild. In 2007, the world’s urban population overtook the rural population for the first time in Earth’s history; three-quarters of Australians live in the country’s urban centres. If cat comes more readily to our tongues than quollmyna before galah, how long before we cease to consider these animals altogether? Without these words in our collective vocabulary, it is only a matter of time before they are lost from our collective consciousness.

Today, Victoria is a place of great linguistic diversity. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages promotes the revival and documentation of languages for the benefit of the Aboriginal community. Italian is the second most spoken language in Victoria after English, followed closely by Greek, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. Each distinct speaker of a language is finding new ways to express their country. As old place-terms are salvaged and rediscovered, so too can new words be collected and stored beside them.

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The final chapter of Landmarks is ‘Glossary X’. These blank pages are left for the reader to fill with his or her own terms for the world around them. It is time to begin filling that blank space. Let Dorothea MacKellar’s ‘stark white ring-barked forest’, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s djilawurr, Banjo Patterson’s ‘wild-hop scrub’, Judith Wright’s ‘blue leaves’ and ‘paperbark swamps’ and Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s ‘dark lagoon’ populate its pages.

Landmarks is a life’s work, but it only begins to scratch the surface. It is an accomplished piece of nature writing and a fascinating examination of the place-terms of Britain, but its greatest value is in its role as a manifesto. Language is an instrument of our connection to the landscape: lose the language, and the connection will be broken.

Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh