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Escaping the colony

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Fifteen RMIT students came out to Barrm Birrm last month, on a short course titled ‘Farming the Future.’ The trip was put together by Fiona Harrison from RMIT's School of Architecture and Urban Design, with the aim for broadening students' understanding of the concept of 'sustainability.' What does that mean on the ground, to the people who live and work there?

Traveling across the western side of Melbourne for three days, they met with farmers, conservationists and planners to see and think about how sustainability is getting worked out in practice, as the juggernaut of Melbourne rolls across the grasslands and farms of the plains and up into the valleys fringing the city.

They stayed overnight at Treetops Scout Camp here in Riddell, and spent half a day in Barrm Birrm. I showed them how the grasslands and forest overlap, and told them the story of the 1890’s subdivision that no-one thought much about until locals in Riddell said ‘Hang on, development here is a bad idea. Let’s do something different!'

What is that something different? Barrm Birrm is a bush park for a growing town. We have the Lions Park and the recreation reserve and Wybejong along Riddells Creek. To that we can add 120 hectares on a hillside 3 kms out of town which hasn't changed much. Barrm Birrm is a place to be in nature.

That's the future we are working toward in Riddells Creek Landcare, but for a little while yet, Barrm Birrm is still part of the colony, and colonial attitudes are difficult to shift. We think that the bush is dangerous and alien, when a short walk reveals it is lovely and generous. We think it’s my land so I can do what I want, and natural systems suffer from our ignorance or willful abuse. We think that the bush will always be there, but a little snip here and a little snip there mean our wild places are shrinking.

That's the theory - we picked up our mattocks and walked deep into the hillside to find out what it takes to shift colonial attitudes. I set the group to work on a big patch of agapantha, planted maybe 40 years ago, beside a nicely made concrete barbeque. The patch has been slowly spreading downhill.

Digging out agapantha is no easy thing. The roots are multiple, tuberous, persistent. Leave any remnant and the plant regrows. You have to get down on your knees and figure how the plant works, sift the soil with your hands to be sure you’ve really got it out.

The remedy requires as much persistence as the plant itself.

After their labour, the students carried back their spoils, well pleased with themselves.

Some imagined another hour would have knocked over the problem; some were thoughtful about this reckoning with the past. One asked to go on our mailing list.

She'd like to come back and work again.

That’s progress.

Ross Colliver Riddells Creek Landcare

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