Pilgrim at Oakley Creek

Where can the city dweller look for the inexhaustible wild? Perhaps it lies closer than we think, on the flipside of the ordinary, along the unkempt edges of the familiar. An urban green space can become a site of pilgrimage, a place to discover a waterfall by moonlight.

Written by       Photographed by Kennedy Warne

It started with a puppy, left in a card­board box on the vet’s doorstep. My wife went to buy cat pills and came back with Harley. The name was my idea. Harley was a four-legged substitute for the two-wheeled machine I was unlikely to own. He was a blue heeler crossed with some­thing we never figured out. Whatever it was, it was big, because Harley shot up, developing a deep chest, a broad bat­tering ram of a head and an insatiable appetite. One year, he found and devoured my entire Christmas “gunpowder” fruitcake, unfazed by the abundant green pepper­corns it contained. He had a habit of sneaking into our daughter’s bedroom and chewing her precious Sylvanian toys, a trespass for which she never forgave him.

Harley was born to run, and running brought us to the creek, and the creek flowed into our lives.

Oakley Creek—Te Auaunga, the swirling waters—has its origin as a series of innocuous pools near the Akarana Golf Club, in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill. It meanders under the South Western Motorway, past two schools, through several parks in Sandringham, Owairaka and Mt Albert, and eventually empties into the mangroves of the upper Waitemata Harbour. Mostly it is channelled and culverted, only occasionally running between banks of its own making. Its character is that of a canal, controlled and directed by human agency. Then it reaches Water-view, and abruptly it becomes a wild, unpredictable thing, a true creek of restless energy and intrigue.

Commonplace sights—a mallard in flight, dainty lollipops of orange-peel fungus, a cataract of falling water, a tree’s reflection in a muddy puddle—become treasured encounters when woven into a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage approaches nature like a student learning a new language, wrote American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.”


This wilderness reach is the creek that beckoned me, beside which I ran with my silver-haired dog, and still run today. It has become the place I go to be enfolded into nature and woven into the world. It is where I lose myself, and where I find myself.

Here I stuff my fingers into the craggy bark of hulking pines that flank the path like pillars of Hercules. Here I drop to my hands and knees to smell the startling, disgusting, miraculous stench of stinkhorn fungi, pink-fleshed femmes fatales of the mushroom world, which use their foul odour as a siren to flies. Here I watch for a solitary carp, which, one visit in ten, may rise from its cloudy pool like an orange submarine, scull insou­ciantly at the surface for a time, then dive once more.

Here, standing at the lip of Te Auaunga waterfall or, once, edging on slippery rocks behind the waterfall, to view the world through a sheet of tumbling water, I understand Thoreau, that champion of the transcendent life, when he wrote, “I hear the sound of Heywood’s Brook falling into Fair Haven Pond—inex­pressibly refreshing to my senses—it seems to flow through my very bones . . . What is it I hear but the pure waterfalls within me, in the circulation of my blood—the streams that fall into my heart . . . Thus I am washed, thus I drink—& quench my thirst.”

Thus I, too, am washed, and thus I drink.

All thanks to an unwanted dog.


Just before midwinter 2010, during an afternoon run beside the creek, I decided two things. As often as I could, for a six-month period from the shortest day to the longest day, I would photograph the creek. And I would join the group of vol­unteers called Friends of Oakley Creek, to assist in the pres­ervation of the land.

Concerning the photography, to the degree it was possible for an outcome-oriented person, there was to be no outcome. No agenda. No thought of publication downstream (so to speak)—though clearly that has happened: you’re reading it. No, my hope was to meet the creek on its own terms, whatever they might be. Oakley Creek would be my Walden Pond, a place I would seek, if not to live deliberately, as Thoreau did, at least to walk deliberately, and to engage with the landscape to see what it might have to say.

What I was hoping was that the land would disclose itself, rather than me prising something from it. The interaction would be based on relationship, not transaction. Pictures, if they came at all, would be incidental. The conversation would be everything.

These were heady concepts, and I was a newcomer to them. But I had already had some nudgings in the general direction. I had been thinking about human alienation from the natural world—the lamentable story of our times for most European cultures. A friend had sent me a paper by American ecological psychologist Will Adams— “Basho’s Therapy for Narcissus”— in which the author suggests eco-centred encounter of nature as the antidote for ego-centred exploitation and estrangement.

Adams’s thesis is this: When mythical Narcissus looks at the world he sees only himself. When Zen poet Matsuo Basho looks at the world, he sees what is truly there. Basho listens as the earth speaks; Narcissus can’t hear that sound—it is drowned out by the noise of his own self-preoccupation.

In Basho’s poems—composed in the highly distilled haiku form—the particulars of encounter become portals of enlight­enment. Like William Blake seeing the universe in a grain of sand, Basho sees holiness in a green leaf and heaven in a humble flower. “I am one / who eats his breakfast / gazing at morning glories,” he declares.

Basho loved pilgrimages, and made them throughout his life. One of his sayings became my motto for the creek quest: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” But no one sowed the seed of pilgrimage in my mind more firmly than Annie Dillard. She wrote the modern classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1973, when she was 28. That someone so young could write a book so luminous with insight is beyond understanding.

Hers was the spirit I wanted. “I walk out,” she wrote. “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”

So, on the shortest day, I took my pocket camera and walked the narrow concrete path that runs beside the creek from sub­urbia to sea, waiting for the cosmic bellringer to pull my rope. That day, and for many that followed, I had to resist the old imperative to acquire, capture, manipulate, possess. To come back with trophies of the quest.

Is this the legacy of consumerism, that we require a return on investment for everything? It is not enough to share a com­panionable silence with nature; we want shining moments of serendipitous disclosure. And when we’ve had one, we want more.


As an aid to dialling back that clangour, I recited various snatches of poetry and thought. I became fond of the mesmeric Lakota song of the White Bison Woman, a perfect rhythmic match for steady footfalls on the path:

With visible breath I am walking.

A voice I am sending as I walk.

In a sacred manner I am walking.

With visible tracks I am walking.

In a sacred manner I walk.

I sought the sacrament of encounter, and was surprised how generously it was granted.


As it happened, the annual meeting of the Friends of Oakley Creek was held the very night of the shortest day. I joined the group of 30 or so who had gathered to listen to reports on rodent monitoring, possum control, tree planting and motorway hear­ings. Then came something so surprising I still can’t believe the serendipity of it. Robin Kearns, a professor of geography at Auck­land University’s School of Environment and a fellow friend of the creek, gave a talk entitled “Landscape as Therapy: The Impor­tance of Green and Flowing Spaces for Community Wellbeing”. The heart of his message was that Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs has a direct applicability to urban green spaces. These spaces, redolent with nature, nurture our mental health.

I could barely stay in my seat. As he traced the five levels of Maslow’s pyramid—physiological security, emotional stabil­ity, social belonging, personal esteem and self-actualisation­ Kearns was outlining the trajectory I had experienced in my encounter with the creek.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist, active in the mid-20th century, who championed the idea that human potential is linked to mental health. He has been called the anti-Freud, because while Freud focused on what makes us psychologically sick, Maslow focused on what makes us well. Even so, Maslow was under no illusions about the chances of achieving self-actualisation. Fewer than one per cent of people reach their potential, he said. The rest remain contentedly trapped in the cage of normality.


To be fully human, Maslow believed, requires the fulfilment of several fundamental needs. At the top of Maslow’s list (or the bottom of his pyramid, depending on how you prefer to visual­ise these things) are physiological needs: food, exercise, sleep, warmth—the non-negotiables of human existence. Green spaces provide for some of these, as I had found in my years of exercis­ing the dog, and also in my occasional foraging for wood ear and oyster mushrooms. I had observed other creek walkers gather­ing armfuls of puha, or a bag of watercress.

True, none of us would die through not having access to our local park or reserve, but the value of connection to the out­doors at this most basic level should not be underestimated. Kearns spoke of urban green spaces being leptogenic environ­ments—environments that promote healthy lifestyles. He quoted studies that show that those living near green spaces are more likely to be physically active and less likely to be obese. As open space in urban areas declines (in Auckland, a 25 per cent drop since 1993), the implications for community health need to be emphatically stated.

The next level of Maslow’s pyramid is a need for security­ physical, emotional and economic. We cannot flourish in an atmosphere of threat. How do urban green spaces help us meet this need? Consider, said Kearns, the role they play in provid­ing respite from city stresses. This had also been my experi­ence. What started as exercise for the body became, in time, therapy for the mind.

How many poets have told us this same thing? The psalm­ist knew it: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” Wendell Berry knows it:

When despair grows in me

and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things . . .

The city, saturated in its human agendas, can tilt us danger­ously out of plumb. The natural world, with its seasons and rhythms, the ancient order of things, restores the soul’s even keel. Parks facilitate this encounter with wildness, said Kearns, and often a smaller space is more useful in this regard than a larger one. A small space allows for a greater famil­iarity and sense of security. You become accustomed to the way the light shifts during the day­ the way it slants through the pines in the morning or fills a pool with dancing reflections in late afternoon, when the wind ruffles the leaves of a plane tree. You become attuned to the timetables of creatures­ the baby kingfishers peeping in their holes at midday, the croak­ing herons circling towards their twig nests at dusk.

Scruffy, undomesticated spaces such as Oakley Creek allow a more direct, dare I say edgy, encounter with nature than more lovingly tended parks. Te Auaunga is no manicured Domain with its battalion of gardeners mowing lawns, clipping borders and planting floral clocks. Weeds prosper here. Head-high thickets of hemlock stroke the skin of the off-piste walker with their feathery branches. Nasturtiums and morning glories cover whole valley sides with apricot, mauve and white, and broad, uninhibited dock leaves turn radiant shades of claret and gold. Gerard Manley Hopkins—the Jesuit poet who exclaimed, “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”—would have loved this place.

Maslow’s second level seems to come with cognitive side ben­efits. Normally, I run in the late afternoon. After a day of staring at words on a computer screen I take a section of recalcitrant prose with me in my head as I run, letting it roam on a long leash as I take the familiar creekside trails. Times without number the sentences have rearranged themselves into a more promising order, or new ideas have arisen, startling in their unbiddenness, like the pheasants that take off from their thickets just as you come abreast of them, almost stopping your heart with their sudden fortissimo cackle. The creek, my editor, my muse.

Level three on Maslow’s pyramid takes the focus away from the individual. Here the need is for acceptance and belonging— the recognition that we are hard-wired for identity within the human tribe. Urban green space helps foster social capital, Kearns told us. Chance meet­ings and casual contact in green spaces generate a sense of familiarity and predictability.

Initially, I went to the creek for my own purposes, happy in my own space, one-on-one with nature. But I soon found myself drawn into interactions with others, grunting gidday as I met a runner on the path, stopping to chat with fellow dog-walkers, even as our dogs conducted their own social interactions. There was a feeling of shared membership in an exclusive club—a feeling enhanced by the fact that the reserve is somewhat hidden from view, in a deep valley between the commuter route of Great North Road and the campus of Unitec polytechnic. Many times I have looked up at the rush-hour traffic creeping home to the western suburbs and thought, “You have no idea what’s down here, do you?”

At Oakley Creek there was a feeling of shared membership in an exclusive club, writes Kennedy Warne. “I found myself drawn into interactions with others, grunting gidday as I met a runner on the path, stopping to chat with other dog-walkers.”
At Oakley Creek there was a feeling of shared membership in an exclusive club, writes Kennedy Warne. “I found myself drawn into interactions with others, grunting gidday as I met a runner on the path, stopping to chat with other dog-walkers.”

Gregariousness had never been my strong suit, but down at the creek I found social tendrils sprouting in unexpected directions. If I saw him, I would stop and talk to Faisal, an Ethi­opian student at Unitec. I asked him to phone me if the Ethio­pian community had any special celebrations. I would have liked to eat their fermented pancake, called injera, again. I had it many years ago in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s upstart neighbour. Faisal looked as if he could use a few injera; he was as skinny as a pencil. I told him that I would like to be more his shape. He said he thought I looked in pretty good shape myself. I pointed to my running shirt (which has, in large capital letters, “I’M IN SHAPE” and in smaller letters underneath “Round is a shape”) and shook my head ruefully.

“Too much coffee?” he asked. “Too much beer?”

“Only a little beer,” I said. “Lots of coffee—from your country!”

From such random meetings comes the thickening of social bonds that builds a sense of community. Kearns quoted research that shows that neighbourhoods lacking in local parks provide fewer chances for interaction and opportunistic encounters, the raw materials of social cohesion and identity.

Step up one more level on Maslow’s pyramid and you breathe the necessary air of esteem. Recognition from others, knowing one’s worth, a sense of mana—these are as essential to human wholeness as food, security and companionship, the previous three. Kearns gave Maslow’s category a further spin, speaking of the mutual esteem that grows between people and place. He spoke of how repeated engagements lead to pride and care of a space, further creating a sense of belonging. In time, an ethic of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, develops.

Of all nights to hear that message—only an hour earlier I had thrown in my lot with the Friends, paid my membership and offered my services. I could see a direct cause and effect at work. As fondness, indeed almost reliance, on the creek had grown, I had felt keenly a desire to assist its protection. At the time, that was no idle concern. There was still a possibility that the space could be compromised by the Auckland motorway extension. The direct threat of the reserve’s being sacrificed for an above-ground road had been averted; the connection between New Windsor and Waterview was to be by way of a tunnel. But the details of how the construction would be managed with ecological sensitivity were still being negoti­ated. It was a good time to be thinking about kaitiakitanga.

The capstone of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualisation, one facet of which is a desire to give artistic expression to our expe­rience of place. I had within my camera the first tentative images of my six-month photo project, taken that afternoon, for that very purpose. For a moment I felt rocket-launched to the apex of my personal pyramid. I doubted I would enjoy that rarefied atmos­phere for long, but, while it lasted, the view was exhilarating.


If urban green spaces perform all these roles in meeting fundamental human needs, it would be folly to let them be sac­rificed to the god of development. Yet frequently they are. In 1993, there was 5.1 ha of open space for every 1000 Aucklanders. In 2004, there was 3.8 hectare per 1000. In 2017?

Oakley Creek itself was on the chopping block. Though I was largely ignorant of the threat—I was still pounding the pavement at the first level of Maslow’s pyramid—there was the prospect that the final connection in Auckland’s western ring route of motorways would see this paradise paved. Signs demanding “Tunnel or Nothing” are still visible around the creek today, a reminder of the outcry against the potential loss of the reserve. The tunnel advocates prevailed. As I write, machines are gath­ering at the New Windsor portal, ready to begin bur­rowing. The creek has been saved, and with it not just a living environment of plants, animals, rocks and rapids, but also multiple strata of history and collective memory.

Indeed, one of the hidden consequences when open space is turned into built environment is a break in the continuity of memories that accrue about a place, and deepen with time like a rich tilth. Psychologists speak of the problem of “gen­erational amnesia”—a kind of cultural Alzheimer’s that destroys the links between generations that foster a sense of shared community and identity.

“Parks are repositories of memory,” Kearns pointed out that winter evening. “The more we visit, the more memories we acquire.” Like precious stones, these shards of the past turn up unexpectedly. At the bottom end of the creek are the abutments of an old bridge, with a cast-iron pipe connecting them. I like to test my balance on the pipe, crossing from one side of the creek to the other. Recently, an old friend told me he used to fish from this bridge after school. The fish he caught smelt of cucumber. He thought he was the only one who knew of these cucumber fish, until another old resident responded to a note in the Avon­dale Historical Journal, writing, “Cucumbers are older season whitebait. Wherever you get baiters the older ones love to have a feed of cucumbers cooked the same way as normal whitebait.”

“Are they still there?” my friend asked me. “I see movement in the water but can’t identify the source—old age creeping up on me.” I believe they are still there. I once watched a shag pursue small freshwater fish nearly up to the waterfall—the sleek bird covering long distances under water; me running along the path, periodically pushing through the vegetation to track its progress.

I connect this morsel of aquatic knowledge with others acquired from newspaper archives—the treasure trove that is Papers Past, on the National Library website. In January 1883, for instance, I learn that a 25-metre whale was herded into the shallows of Oakley Creek by workers at Garrett Broth­ers tannery, which stood near the current motorway inter­change. There it beached itself on the outgoing tide, and the newspaper reported the prospect of “a good yield of oil”.

120_oakleycreek_bodyimage6 120_oakleycreek_bodyimage7

An economic windfall of a different kind created a flurry of interest in 1880. During a period of low flow in the creek, Benjamin Gittos, another tanner in the district, claimed to have discovered pearls “far more brilliant than those found in the South Seas” inside shellfish living in the creek bed—native freshwater mussels, perhaps.

It is not difficult to see how such fragments of lived expe­rience, clustering around each bend in the river, each path, each bridge, each spreading oak, create a matrix of memories that binds present to past and weaves the lives of today’s creek walkers into a larger neighbourhood narrative. Not difficult, either, to see how individually and socially nourishing this would be. Or, then again, how simply curious. I think of a stone lying in long grass near a bamboo patch which has B-L-A-R-N inscribed on one side and E-Y on the other. No one seems to know who decided Oakley Creek needed its own Blarney stone, or how long it has lain there.

Generational links go back much further than Pakeha memory, of course. According to some traditions, the Mataatua waka, which planted its people in the Bay of Plenty, voyaged north and may even have been portaged across the Auckland isthmus at Oakley Creek to the west coast. Whether on the west or the east, the waka travelled north, where its captain, Puhi, became the progenitor of the great northern tribe Ngapuhi.

Near the main administrative building in Unitec is a spring named Te Wai Unuroa o Wairaka, the long drink of Wairaka. Wairaka, Puhi’s niece, is the great heroine of Mataatua. It was she who famously cried “Kia whakatane au i ahau” (“I will act as a man”) when the canoe began to drift ashore at the place now named for that utterance, Whakatane. With all the men ashore, the craft would have been doomed, for women were pro­hibited from paddling. Wairaka seized the moment and claimed immunity from tapu, grasping a paddle and propelling the waka back out to sea. Today, her slender likeness, cast in bronze, stands at the entrance to Whakatane Harbour, a consoling sight for boat captains crossing the difficult harbour bar.


I cup my hands and drink from the spring Wairaka drank from centuries ago. I pick watercress and let the sharp peppery tang fill my mouth. The cress grows luxuriantly, almost hiding the water from view. Body and soul, I aim to connect myself to this place and its long history.

One of the creek people I take care to honour is Beverley Price, an Auckland schoolteacher and mountaineer who cam­paigned in the 1970s to have a walkway built at Oakley Creek— the path on which I tread. Two plaques, at two of the entry points to the creek, salute her foresight and resolve. I often pause in passing to place a leaf or a puriri flower on one of the plaques, whose inscription speaks starkly of tragedy. In November 1979, at the end of Price’s first year of retirement, she and her mother gave each other an early Christmas present: tickets on a scenic flight to Antarctica. It was the ill-fated flight 901, which crashed on Mt Erebus with the loss of all 257 lives on board.

Another stream of history that laps at my consciousness is the association of this place with the mentally ill. A psychiat­ric hospital was the defining presence at Oakley Creek for more than a century. It was opened in 1867 as the Lunatic Asylum at the Whau and closed in 1992 as Carrington Psychi­atric Hospital—the very words mirroring society’s changing attitude towards mental illness.

My father-in-law was committed here for a short time. I recall the intimidation I felt when visiting, the institutional imper­sonality that seemed part of the architecture, part of the bricks themselves, cold lumps of Avondale clay. Those austere brick buildings still stand today, now in the service of academic learn­ing as lecture rooms and offices of the polytechnic.


I recently took a different jogging route that passed the main entrance. In all my years of visiting the creek I hadn’t been up here, to obtain the full impression of the hospital’s facade. Black-and-white photos from the 1900s show nurses in white aprons and frilly white hats standing like wraiths or angels at this same portal.

I thought of the night of September 20, 1875, and the fire that gutted much of the original building. During the struggle to control the blaze, many patients were chained to the fence to prevent them escaping. One patient died. She was Irish, a Napier baker’s wife whose name was Fortune. The fire was started by a patient named Morrow. She lit a mattress in protest, she said, at being confined to a cell with a Maori woman.

There is little overt recognition by Unitec of the history of the site. As with other former psychiatric hospitals, the past is not necessarily something to advertise. Perhaps not surpris­ingly, it was within a Maori context, where history of all shades is respected, that I found the most moving reference to troubled souls in this tranquil landscape.

When I first entered Ngakau Mahaki, the wharenui that is the heart of Unitec’s marae, I was surprised to see, among the 30 carved poupou that form the ribs of the building, and which traditionally frame the narrative that the whare silently dis­closes, one decidedly un-Maori subject. A young man with a blank, childlike expression is depicted standing in front of the brickwork and downpipes of the old hospital buildings.

The man’s name, I learned, was Rolfe Hattaway. He had been attacked and savagely beaten while visiting Sydney in the 1920s. This misfortune may have brought on the illness for which his parents sub­sequently had him commit­ted in 1937. He was diagnosed schizophrenic, and remained at Oakley Hospital for 17 years. He said little. He communi­cated through drawings, which he made obsessively on the pavement of the exercise yard with lumps of dried clay. At the end of each day, orderlies turned fire hoses on the work and sluiced it away.

We would probably not know of Hattaway’s talent were it not for the interest taken in him by the artist Theo Schoon, who worked briefly as an orderly at Carrington in the 1950s. He supplied Hattaway with paper and pencils, and preserved the results—geometric patterns, gridded maps, mirror images, words, letters, camels, the Sphinx. (Could Hattaway have seen himself as the Sphinx, an enigma marooned in a desert? So one critic has wondered.)

Writer Kennedy Warne recalls looking up at rush-hour traffic creeping home to the western suburbs and thinking, “you have no idea what’s down here, do you?
Writer Kennedy Warne recalls looking up at rush-hour traffic creeping home to the western suburbs and thinking, “you have no idea what’s down here, do you?

Schoon and another modernist painter, Gordon Walters, drew on Hattaway’s imagery in their own subsequent work. A 1997 exhibition of the three artists was subtitled ‘madness and modernism’. An accompanying booklet asked: “Did Schoon see in Hattaway a link to creativity and the unconscious that he didn’t have? Something one could have only by being mad?” Schoon himself admitted he was “getting art lessons from a lunatic”, and added bitterly, “Culture is a loony bin, where some patients are more charming than others.”

There wasn’t much that was charming about mental health care in that era. It was assumed that recovery was either impos­sible or unlikely. Care was custodial rather than therapeutic. Staff were referred to as keepers; patients as inmates. It is as if the institution were mistaking itself for the one along the road, at Western Springs—the zoo.

Dr Fraser McDonald, a former medical superintendent, described nurses in those times as “like kindly farmers who looked after their flocks of strange animals in the most humane way they knew. The possibility of treating them like other human beings often didn’t cross their minds.”

However, they did take them for picnics to the waterfall. The path they used is still there, as are rock walls and some towering puriri that would have given them shade. With other Friends of Oakley Creek, I have pulled weeds and planted native saplings along this path, and imagined patients watching the cascade of creek over rock, the coursing of water to the sea.

I wouldn’t want to lose this connection with people whose inner tumult overwhelmed them. It’s part of the conversa­tion of this place. They came here for treatment, and, in a way, I do too.

Perhaps Rolfe Hattaway would have been among the picnick­ers at the waterfall, before being transferred from Oakley to the infamous Lake Alice hospital near Bulls. He died there in 1970, having spent 33 years—more than half his life—in psychiatric institutions. I would not have known this man’s story had not the tohunga whakairo (master carver) of Ngakau Mahaki, Lyonel Grant, chosen to honour him in carving. When the wharenui was opened in 2009, Grant addressed the former patient in a beauti­ful mihi: “You left my building an anonymous lunatic, and when I first hung the picture of your poupou in the corridors, I thought, ‘Welcome home, Mr Hattaway. You return to be remembered as an artist and the inspiration of artists.’ But I was wrong. It is here in the house you belong, and here you are remembered and wel­comed home. Welcome home, Mr Hattaway.”


Welcome is a beautiful word in any language. Haere mai. Bienvenu. Willkommen. Does the land itself welcome us home? Is that possible? It depends whether you consider, as modern Western cultures do, that the land is subjectively inert, having no intrinsic meaning, only the meanings that humans apply to it. Most indigenous cultures hold a different view. For Aus­tralian Aboriginal people, say, the land is exquisitely expres­sive and personal. It sings to them, and they sing back.

How does someone steeped in European rationalism begin to approach this level of engagement? Melbourne philosopher Freya Mathews, herself a pilgrim of Melbourne’s Merri Creek, has advice for that journey. Bind yourself to the particular place you inhabit, she says. Give it your loving attention. Become a locaphile. Go native.

“To belong to the land is to uncover its layers, discover its story, and weave one’s own identity into that story,” Mathews writes in her book Reinhabiting Reality.

“Through a particular place, [the world] agrees to become our world, attentive to us, attuned to us. We become its people.”

This is what Aboriginal people do, says Mathews, “singing and dancing the stories of the primal jour­neys, reinvesting the land with meaning and coherence, bringing it to life”.

One way of reinhabiting and re-enchanting a place is to festoon it with names. Fond names, playful names, names that tell of the encounters we have had. Perhaps the Blarney stone writer had this idea in mind. The Friends of Oakley Creek have unofficial names for some of the bridges—the Plane Tree Bridge, the Troll Bridge—and I have coined one or two of my own. Trombone Lawn, for a shaded space where a young Chinese student used to practise the Grand March from Aida, filling the valley with sweet sound. Herons Rest is my name for a copse of tall balsam poplars where white-faced herons build their nests. I have watched spellbound as they return from feeding at dusk, uttering their hoarse, harsh cry, as if someone were torturing the sound out of their throats, as if their voicebox had been replaced by a nutmeg grater. Privet Way even has a place in my pantheon of place names. Despite those trees being a despised exotic interloper, the tunnel of green they have produced is a lovely stretch along the creek path.


My way of becoming native was by treating my outings as journeys. Something seems to click into place when we engage feet and mind at the same time. “In walking a waterway we are repossessing all that it has gathered into its narrative terrain,” writes Mathews. “In retracing its primal story, we not only renew that story but expand it, in our turn gathering all that we encounter into the story net of our own journey.”

In September 2012, a few of us staged a neighbourhood cer­emony at the waterfall to “expand the story” of that place by welcoming the shining cuckoo back to the creek. Pipiwharauroa, the native shining cuckoo, spends its winters in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, then flies some 5000 kilome­tres—the longest migration of any songbird—to breed in New Zealand over the summer. Its arrival on our shores has long been recog­nised by Maori as the harbin­ger of spring. We wanted to mark the bird’s passage—and the year’s passage from one season to the next—with an event, rather than let those passages go unnoticed and unremarked.

So we sang cuckoo songs, made pinecone cuckoos and launched them across the creek with a catapult, held egg-and­spoon races, planted a puriri to mark the occasion and cast kowhai blossoms into the stream, acknowledging that our lives, too, were flowing out to their end.

We were adding another line to the story of Oakley Creek, which grows letter by letter, drop by drop, towards some con­clusion none of us will live to see. And I believe the world inclined towards us and whispered, “Welcome home.”

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