Landscape loss + nostalgia

One of the frequent responses to the common experience of landscape loss  in Australia’s industrial modernity –eg.,  salt ladened landscapes, dried out wetlands, low flows in our rivers, on-going land clearing and the loss of biodiversity  in Australia—is that of nostalgia,  or a yearning for what has been lost in the  Anthropocene.  The rivers used  to flow with clean water, the wetlands teemed with bird life, there were plenty of fish in the rivers, there was rich  biodiversity etc etc.

What has been lost in this  destruction of nature is  connected to issues of location and place of river communities. Nostalgia involves  a sense of unhappiness with the present, against which the past, or  often, an idyllic  past, is favourably compared. Lewis Bush in his  discontinued Disphotic: Writing on Photography  blog  puts it this way:

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to.

This response to industrialized landscapes is often characterised  as a ‘defence mechanism’ for those who are uncomfortable with change. Finding comfort in looking back  is seen to  reflect parochial  concerns, which  are often conservative and backward looking. Nostalgia, as a yearning for yesterday,  is seen as  passive and reactive and contains  melancholic ideas and practices. 


Yearning and nostalgia are uncomfortable and personal emotions and themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and grief  bought on by the loss of home, community and landscape when the rivers stopped flowing.

For many the past in the late 20th,  and increasingly in the early 21st century,   has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. The past, with its rivers boats and flowing rivers   is seen to be  attractive because people find the present state of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin upsetting and bewildering.   They question the idea of progress,  namely the view that historical time is a  progressively improvement on the world of  the 19th century.   Continue reading


salty landscapes

Clearing the land of vegetation  for agriculture can often mean salty landscapes and salt lakes as well as  salty ground water  that flows into the River Murray. The felling of  billions of trees (approximately 15 billion)  to make room for the farming in the Murray-Darling Basin, which  has  led to economic growth and national prosperity,  has caused, in just 150 years, a salinity crisis.

The gradual loss of farm and grazing land to rising salt is known as dryland salinity. It looks like this landscape near Lake Alexandrina: 


It is true that  salt is a natural feature of the Murray-Darling Basin’s landscapes and rivers as it is  derived from ancient ocean sediments, the weathering of rocks and deposition by rainfall over millions of years. However, human activities such as irrigation development and land clearing often exacerbate salt mobilisation, causing it to concentrate in certain parts of the landscape and rivers.  Continue reading

at the Stockyard Plain Basin

When I was working in the Senate as a policy/political advisor  prior to 2006 I realised that one of the crucial aspects of the management of the River Murray  in South Australia was  the salt interception schemes (SIS) with  their associated disposal basins.

The current salt management in the Murray-Darling Basin  aims to intercept  the saline groundwater before it enters the River Murray,  and then dispose of, or rather store,   the salty water  in a  basin. The water then slowly evaporates, concentrating the salt in the basin, or gradually leaking it back into the groundwater systems.

There are 3  SIS’s in South Australia namely,   Bookpurnong (near Loxton) with its Noora Disposal basin,   Woolpunda  (between Waikerie and Barmera),  and Waikerie with its Stockyard Plain disposal basin. These are part of the Riverland Salt Disposal Management Plan.

In 2004/5  I  visited   Stockyard Plain, which  is a broad, low-lying area, that is  located 15 km southwest of Waikerie:


The two primary reasons  for the continual flow of the saline groundwater into the River Murray are the clearance of native plants and drainage from irrigation. The latter, in   adding water to salty groundwater aquifers, contributes to the elevation of salinity in the River Murray.
Continue reading

at Tolderol Game Reserve

Towards the end of the Millenium Drought  (1997-2009) we visited the Tolderol Game Reserve, which on the northern shore  of Lake Alexandrina  and  is east of Pt Sturt.   We wanted to see what had happened to this migratory bird sanctuary as a result of this  decade long drought. This was more than a  standard dry time  which are the settings of  the state and government’s drought policy responds to: ie., –immediate drought relief measures for people on the land who have been suffering with the reality of a  dry period.

The  various shallow basins in this game reserve are linked by  connecting channels and levee banks, thereby  enabling the manipulation of water levels to create rich foraging habitat for migratory wader birds.


We visited the reserve in  2009, and  the shallow basins and channels in this wetland were bone dry.  No birds were to be seen.  It was a silent landscape.  No water could be seen. It was a desert landscape.

It was very depressing walking around  this part of Lake Alexandrina.  Continue reading

Lake Alexandrina

During the Millennium Drought I did some  photography around the edge of  the shallow freshwater Lake Alexandrina, including the the seaside towns of Clayton and Milang. At the time, given the absence of sufficient flows dredging was undertaken to keep the Murray Mouth open and to ensure salt and other pollutants could be flushed out of the river system.

With minimum to no flows in the River Murray  during the drought,  the lake was drying out, as can be seen in these photos made of the foreshore of the lake at Milang:

boat + pier, Lake Alexandrina
boat + pier, Lake Alexandrina

It was a sad sight seeing a lake dry up. I understand that it  was much worse at Lake Albert as water had to be pumped into the lake to mimimize the extent of  the ex[posed   acid sulfate soils.

The history of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin has been one where the focus has been on maintaining sufficient flows to maintain regulated water levels, water allocations for irrigators, and sufficient quality to meet irrigations and drinking-water requirements.  Continue reading

Point Sturt

I have been invited by Lars Heldmann  to participate in a   project  of selected photographers who are being asked to respond to selected images in the  Godson Collection of the State Library of South Australia.  The project’s working title is called Our Waters,  and it is being driven by Lars Heldmann acting as a de facto curator.  This approach is one way to deal with the vastness and complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin.

It is early days:   the photographers are still to be selected;  no exhibition venues have been selected;  no grants have been applied for; and  no curators selected. It is envisaged that the exhibitions and the associated website would act as a hub for conversations about art, history and  the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. One possibility for the first exhibition  is 6 photographers responding to 6 images from the Godson Collection.

Whilst the project gets off the ground I have decided to kick things off by going back through  my archives to look at the images that I’ve made of the River Murray. This is Pt Sturt.

Pt Sturt
Pt Sturt

The Sturt Peninsula  juts out into Lake Alexandrina, which is one of the Lower Lakes near the mouth of the Murray River.  The Ngarrindjeri name for the end of Sturt Peninsula is “Tipping”, which meant “the lips”. This  picture was made in 2008, which was just  before the Millennium Drought broke and prior to the formation of the  Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Continue reading