Marita May Dyson and Stuart Flanagan
1 February 2018
The Orbweaver’s Newer Volcanics
Cheetham Wetlands is a former solar evaporation salt works established in the 1920s over a series of naturally occurring tidal lagoons along Skeleton Waterholes Creek in Altona. The site is crown land and became a bird sanctuary at the end of its industrial lease in 1993. It is an example of industrial land use which inadvertently contributed to habitat conservation.
Looking across the salt marsh, excising the petrochemical refinery and the distant silhouette of the city from view, it feels possible to imagine Narrm before European invasion and settlement. To see lost wetlands before industrialisation. Was the Birrarung delta like this?
For this poem we have used the repeated motif of burning. Stanzas 2, 3 and 4 begin with ‘Sun burns and burns,’ with one stanza drawing attention to the area’s history as salt works, another to the fact that birds are returning, while stanza 4 explores the localised impact of climate change causing the inlet to warm. Here the burning has multiple impacts: the sun’s rays can evaporate salt, welcome back birds to a sanctuary, or create a dangerously warming environment. Rather than becoming entirely a force for resistance or recovery, or for destruction, the sun’s rays instead complicate easy narratives of blame or consolation, demonstrating the complex interactions of nature, history, culture and behaviour.
The poem ends with burning as:
the sentinel flame of the refinery still burns and burns.
Here the flame is portrayed as standing and watching – or guarding – with the ambiguity of ‘sentinel flame’ adding a complex menace to the scene. A sentinel’s watch implies protection, but the industry being protected itself destroys. The parallels between the burning flame and the burning sun of previous stanzas draws attention to the complex relationships of agents in this land. What may be termed ‘good use of land’ in one decade may be opposed in another, and actions intended to preserve can also destroy. By contrasting and complicating the forms of burning across stanzas, we explore the interdependencies of history, environment, and human behaviour, embodying the living implications of creation, preservation, and destruction.