Rediscovering meaning in the Campaspe

River sources provide not just a source of water, but also inspiration. Here in the Campaspe’s upper reaches, the forest is softened by a light misty rain that doesn’t seem to actually fall from above, but gently wafts about us. The river murmurs and slides past lichen-tattooed boulders as we duck beneath the contorted limbs of blackwoods, clad in their finest bryophyte greens. On this wintry afternoon I’m accompanied by a dozen university students who are learning about river health. From the volcanic soils of its origins in the Wombat southwest of Woodend, the Campaspe flows northwards through Lake Eppalock then wends its way across flat sedimentary plains to its confluence with the Murray near Echuca. Seven tributaries meet the river along its course, the Coliban being the largest. During its 175km journey the Campaspe drains a catchment of just over 4000km2.

The Campaspe River

The Campaspe River (photo by Alison Pouliot)

Downstream of Lake Eppalock the river’s flow is regulated, largely for irrigation, inevitably reversing summer-winter flows with a consequent succession of impacts. The river’s biodiversity has been reduced by these changes but several FFG-listed* fish including Macquarie Perch, Golden Perch and Murray Cod still eke out an existence in the river. Like most central Victorian rivers the Campaspe bears the brunt of agricultural and mining practices that have reduced river health through loss of catchment vegetation, changes to channel morphology; increases in erosion, nutrient inputs, sedimentation, turbidity and salinity as well as changes to flows and temperature regimes.

Any internet search of the word Campaspe will provide quantifiable descriptors from water ‘authorities’ similar to those you’ve just read. These typically anthropocentric descriptions portray water as a quantifiable commodity and rarely as a source of life. This quantification of water as a consumable resource has enabled its extraction while overshadowing its necessity to the river’s biota. Largely absent are the genuine ecological or cultural dialogues that explore either the river’s inherent values or our relationships with water beyond its perception as a resource. The disruption of the Campaspe’s seasonal rhythms, cycles and flows has not only severely compromised its potential as a life source but has also eroded the less tangible qualities of its power and vitality, of its sentience. This is not something that can be measured.

However, if you shut down the computer and go for a wander along the Campaspe, your experience will likely surpass that which is quantifiable. By engaging with the river and its catchment, connecting with it and experiencing it through the senses, you might just feel its pulse, hear its poetry and awaken to its agency.

As we push through the wet understorey welcome rays of weak sunshine illuminate a labyrinth of spiders’ webs jewelled with water droplets. The students heave a swag of equipment; buckets, nets, laptops and a great jumble of meters to measure flow, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen and the like. They clamber about dropping probes into the river and cranking up machines in a discordant whir of beeps and flashes. After a few moments of frenzied activity, the students perch along a log, faces strangely pallid from the reflected glow of laptop monitors.

‘So what did you discover about the health of the upper Campaspe?’ I ask. The students stare mesmerised by the sequences of numbers and graphs appearing on their monitors. ‘How does the water quality seem?’ A head appears above a monitor. ‘It’s nine’, a student replies. Nine. I’ve no idea what nine means; whether it’s a good or bad sign or something in between. I wondered if the students had a really good look at the water and observed whether it was clear or turbid, or whether they smelt or saw anything unusual. I wondered whether they perhaps turned over a rock and noticed any creatures clinging to the underside or if they noted any water plants. I was curious whether they heard any frogs or the buzzing of insects. Or whether the river was simply nine.

The Campaspe River

The Campaspe River (photo by Alison Pouliot)

During the course of the afternoon I have some profound realisations. It seems there’s a belief that a cluster of meters and gauges has greater potential to inform us of our surrounds than our own senses. Certainly they are useful in confirming what we glean through sensual perception but no meter can compete with the human body that is so superbly well designed to perceive our world. Given we exist in a three-dimensional world with five senses with which to experience it, it is odd to think that we’d reduce it to something so much less. Technology has undoubtedly brought us tangible innovations and benefits but the growing conviction in its capacity to tell us about our world, especially when we place greater trust in the data it spews forth than our own perceptions, means we risk losing track of our senses, of our common sense. When technology is elevated to the fore, we jeopardise the deeper concepts of meaning, of possibilities for transcendent experiences.

To experience something with the senses enhances its potential to become memory, especially when charged with curiosity. This in turn becomes knowledge which may spark interest and passion. Sensual connections with a real world, with the Wombat, with the Campaspe in all their dimensions including those that aren’t quantifiable, provide opportunities to connect with what is larger than ourselves.

The Wombat and the Campaspe need us to advocate for them because they don’t speak our language and our waning memories mean we perhaps forget how to speak theirs. As our world increasingly beeps and flashes around us, take time to just be, to connect, to engage with the forest, with the river, to contemplate their greater meaning. In one of life’s compelling moments, there’s a rustle behind us and a wombat, nose twitching, stumbles blindly into our party. With heads behind monitors, only a few notice its presence, their delight apparent.

Words and images

Footnote *: The FFG is the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and is Victoria’s key legislation for the listing of threatened species/communities.