Don Garden is President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, author of many works including the book "Heidelberg: The Land and It's People" and is an Enviromental Historian at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
His main interest then is the landscape in which we live. How we are shaped by the enviroment and how we alter what is around us. The site on which we settle, its climate together with soil condition, availability of water and building materials, all influence the way we live and our belief systems.
In both Melbourne and Sydney the people live around a body of water but viewed from the air the differences between Port Phillip Bay and Sydney Harbour are very marked. The geography, geology and climate, make for two quite different cities.
Melbourne developed around the Bay, slanting towards the east, along the Yarra River, but because of population growth it is now spreading westward into drier, less aesthetic areas.
About 15,000 years ago when sea levels were lower there was a land bridge to Tasmania. Since then water levels have risen a couple of metres. Emerald Hill became a small island, but then the water levels dropped leaving wetlands, such as Carrum Carrum Swamp and West Melbourne Swamp. About 1,000 years ago, the entrance to Port Phillip Bay silted up and the Bay shrank to the size of a small lake. When water levels rose, the Heads were again open, the Bay filled with water and the land around it looked much as it does now.
Albert Park was made up of swamps and lagoons, the term 'swamp' describing areas which early settlers disliked, places where there were diseases caused by the miasmic vapours said to rise from them. In reality these wetlands, the river systems and the coastal areas provided good conditions for the native population. The early white settlers however polluted the rivers and used the swamps as rubbish dumps. They let cattle into them and destroyed them. In 1879 the Carrum Carrum Swamp was drained or 'reclaimed' and although today there are some wetlands close by, the wetlands are covered by houses.
Despite being insignificant by world standards the Yarra River catchment area with its tributaries the Plenty River, Darebin Creek, Merri Creek, and Gardiners Creek was vital to the development of Melbourne. Where Melbourne was settled the Yarra River had a rocky bar, above which was fresh water. Below the bar, which was near Elizabeth Street the river widened out into a pool which provided a good turning point for sailing vessels.
Fresh water was the most important prerequisite for the new settlement. Other necessities included the availability of timber for building houses, fencing, and for firewood. Along the coastline most towns are found at the mouth of a river which provided access to the interior. The ability to build bridges or make use of punts meant that a settlement could develop on both sides of the river. In 1835, Fawkner's party initially established itself on the south side of the Yarra. Batman chose the north side, on a hill above the pool in the Yarra. This hill does not exist now. It has been flattened and is covered by the Southern Cross Railway Station.
When surveyor Robert Hoddle set out a plan for the Melbourne settlement he also designed a township for Williamstown as it was more accessible as a port. However Williamstown didn't develop as the major city as it didn't have fresh water.
The site of Melbourne was very attractive but changes happened immediately. Trees were removed from the river's edge to make way for shipping and industries. With open drains and no sewerage system, the river water was soon unfit to drink and the tanneries and abbatoirs fouled the air. Not surpisingly there were outbreaks of diseases which resulted in many deaths.
With the construction of Yan Yean Reservoir on the Plenty River, engineer James Blackburn declared that the Yarra River would now become the principal drain and sewer for Melbourne. The Plenty River itself was much diminished.
Navigation up the Yarra to Melbourne was very difficult. In order to straighten and widen it a loop near to where it met the Maribyrnong River was truncated and the Coode Canal was built to join up the river, removing the loop. Thus Coode Island was created, although today it is no longer an island. Nearby on the West Melbourne Swamp, Victoria Dock was constructed, backing on to the railway yard in Swanston Street. Today it has been transformed not very successfully into the Docklands area.
The look of the landscape also changed because of the introduction of exotic plants like thistles and blackberries which spread everywhere. Food crops like wheat changed the landscape entirely. Animals such as cats and rabbits, work animals like horses and bullocks have all caused devastation to the landscape and the native wildlife.
Don referred to Alfred W. Crosby who has written a book called "Ecological Imperialism - The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 - 1900." Crosby talks about the expansion of Europeans around the globe being not just about firearms against spears, but about the introduction of invisible pathogens like smallpox and influenza.
As an enviromental historian Don sees Melbourne's beginnings as multi-faceted. History will show how we manage our ever increasing population and possible changes to our climate.
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