Once Upon a Riverbank

Wednesday 5 – Saturday 22 October 2022

Once Upon a Riverbank DL Flyer

Once Upon a Riverbank is a re-imagining of the history of the Musca Street Reserve in Balwyn North. On the surface the reserve appears to be no more than an appealing place to walk: council-mown grass, a variety of native trees providing shade in the summer, an undulating topography with a soundscape of buffered noise from the Eastern Freeway and the Burke Rd Bridge that edge and span the reserve. Cyclists use the paved bicycle track running through it to commute to and from the city, and for leisure. Local residents walk their dogs through the seasonal changes of clusters of native trees: the acacias in June, the yellow spider flowers of the grevillea robustas between September and November, the melaleucas early summer, the callistemons in summer and autumn.

Multiple walks across its expanse and around its perimeter during COVID lockdowns provided solace then curiosity about its history, the wide variety of trees, their planting in clusters and in particular their barks, especially that of the eucalypts whose deep red sap crusted into black canyons. Why were there so many different trees? What was there before the construction of the freeway? Why were there so many traces of drainage throughout the reserve? Why were the trees in the park different to those on banks of the Yarra River which once edged the reserve land?

Research revealed a complex history of multiple incarnations, many self-serving, and further changes are planned for the future. The land comprising the reserve once sloped downhill to the Yarra River Flats which stretch from Ivanhoe to Templestowe. Prior to settlement it was on the edge of series of billabongs that were rich in aquatic life and provided both a source of food and ceremonial grounds for First Nations People. Successive changes since settlement in 1835 have altered the topography and nature of the land, one of the most significant being the completion of the Eastern Freeway in December 1977 which separated the reserve from the river flats. A tunnel running beneath the freeway now allows movement between the two. What is immediately apparent is the difference between the scattered and copsed trees of the reserve and the spindly mix of wattles and adolescent eucalypts on the river bank. Further upstream, past the Freeway Golf Course and the private-school playing fields, rests the secluded Bolin Bolin Billabong. Here, evidence of the past remains intact: huge, red river gums with their broad girths stand firm, roots sunk deeply into the earth and water of the billabong. One senses what might have been.

The exploration of the history of the reserve revealed the transformations: wetlands, tilled farm land, grazing land, stud farm, tip, freeway with a built-hill noise buffer (a berm) and in the coming five years, under the control of NELP (North-East Link Project), 50% of the reserve will be used for storage and equipment. Finally, after the project’s completion, the Boroondara Council has decided to develop the reserve as an arboretum.

Traces of these changes in the past and those to come can be seen and felt. During winter, sections of the lower grassed area continues to be water logged; feet squelch and puddles form in the dips and undulations in spite of the extensive drainage systems throughout. Water laps the northern entrance and runs through the tunnel when the river floods. On the well drained berm rising above the reserve on its northern side a narrow clay path, formed by the narrow tyres of bicycles, dries and cracks in the summer, the grass browns off and along the wire mesh fence separating the freeway from the reserve the  casaurinas struggle amongst a scattering of paper and plastic debris. Below, amongst a copse of melaleucas at the base of a drainage outlet, a single cherry blossom flaunts its white flowers in spring suggesting a once domestic planting. During the past two years new young trees have been planted, carefully mulched and staked, perhaps with the future arboretum in mind.

Aspects of the history of the Yarra River Flats are evident in the paintings of Arthur Streeton. By way of background, in 1859, a mere 24 years after the settlement of Melbourne, ninety percent of the cargo carried by the two punts crossing the Yarra River to the Melbourne side was timber. Evidence of the extent of clearing can be seen in Streeton’s Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide (1890) which looks across the river flats towards the Dandenong Ranges. The area to the far right of the painting could be that of the reserve. Cattle graze on the cleared land, the river banks are devoid of trees. Perhaps the large cluster of mid-distance trees is the Bolin-Bolin Billabong.  Streeton’s The selector’s hut: Whelan on the log (1890) speaks of the trees that were felled and split for the post and rail fences that stretch up the hill in his At Templestowe (1889).

A large section of the land extending to the river prior to the construction of the freeway was dedicated to a council tip which was available for refuse from 1962 to 1978. One of its visitors, having dismantled and delivered a shed to the tip, noted the swarms of house flies. He saw the irony in the road to the tip being Musca Street because the name of the common house fly is musca domestica. In fact, the street was named after a small constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere called Musca which, ironically, does mean fly. The rubber block cut used to print the back panel of Shoe-fly was inspired by this story.

Interventions also occur on a small scale with individuals making the park their own: a couple of dog walkers have placed chairs and water bowls in one of the melaleucas; young mountain bike riders have dug out and built tracks and jumps beneath the bridge and around the curve of the berm. Council interventions continue. A heavy black rubber cover has been installed over a sewerage storage unit to stop the escaping smell and the dead branches littering one copse of trees were recently removed.

Coincidence and serendipity collided with such discoveries in the development of Once Upon a River Bank. The unexpected availability of two black organdies, one more transparent than another, opened up the possibility of using their transparency and stiffness to suggest the layers of interventions and led to the making of three pairs of shoes for the installation Tread Softly which also originated in walks through the reserve. The trope of shoes and their soles lent themselves to multiple re-workings and interpretations.

Once Upon a Riverbank is an intensely personal re-imagining of the trampling of many footsteps in particular place. It embraces new understandings of what lies beneath a surface and how a connection to place can be formed and remade. It also draws upon a childhood shadow-land of fabric, beading, stitching and pins. Unlike an Indigenous understanding of country based in a living history practiced for thousands of millennia and woven into a way of life and culture, this work grapples with a personal struggle to understand and reconcile an attachment to a place with its history, a history of reshaping to fit purpose without respect for its pre-settlement state. A deep sense of loss comes with the understanding that there is no return to the essential topography and nature of this site.



Wayward CaravanWayward Caravan

like a wayward caravan
on a gravelled road
the past swings behind me
to be caught in glimpses
in my rear view mirror

packed neatly inside
the contained baggage of
misguided intent
remains firmly secured
behind snibbed doors

on opening
the dark tentacles of
men with axes
gifting infected blankets
reach out to

strangle those dreams of
golden pastures and force
a roadside stop
as my heart beats falters
with the stillness of death


Tears for the Ring-barked


Tears for the Ring-barked

pointed scissors rent
the warp and weft
laying open wounds
of the past

red gums ring barked
grubbed for huts
split for post and rail fences
stacked for burning

tears fall into
an abyss of French knots
in mourning


Divine Rectangles


Divine Rectangles 

we conquer
rectangle by rectangle
new settlements
new subdivisions
the documents we sign

they shape our cocoons
our long-life brick walls
our paling fences
the drawers we fill
the rooms we inhabit

in here I cook
in here I eat
in here I bead
my small neat lines
into rectangular blocks


Relentless Rain


Relentless Rain

relentless rain
fell last night
scattering the leaf litter
sending rivulets of clay
down the slopes
the black soil
beneath the spring grass

traces of eucalyptus
hover in the cool air
the dripping leaves
as my feet sink into
the last traces of
the once-was
river flat

thoughts flick to
a hidden creek
past wetlands
tiger snakes
eels weaving between
old tree roots
gripping the bank
of a billabong




cockatiels forage with galahs
on mown grass
magpies strut
the dark damp patches
swallows swoop
the clay-bound puddles

buried deeply below
the detritus of the past lies
crushed and crumpled
no longer home to
the multitudinous
and ravenous musca domestica

grids and grates conceal
an underground network
multiple pipes redistributing
torrents of water
ensuring there will be
no wayward wetland here



Stitch and Step

sewing was our ‘quiet time’
heads down
focus on needles
piercing the waft and weave
each measured stitch
a step towards completion

the samplers
the thread green

now stitch

hold the edge with blanket
link with chain
emboss with satin
decorate with cross
extend with stem
hold firm with back
hold up with herringbone
stipple with French knots
make a line with running

each stitch
each breath
another step



And we will build …

… once there was a river bank
… once there were billabongs
… once there were river gums
… once there were wetlands
… once there was ring barking
… once there were split rail fences
… once there was a settlement
… once there were rectangular plots
… once there were prizes for potatoes
… once there were cattle grazing
… once there was a stud farm
… once there was a tip
… once there were bulldozers


… now there is a freeway
… now there is a berm
… now there is a bicycle track


 … there will be a storage lot


 … there will be an arboretum