A river runs through me

My journey from birth to present isn’t very long and I haven’t travelled very far. My parents met in Canberra but both were born overseas, so I could claim to be a first-generation Australian.

I was born on the edge of the Molonglo River, near one of the corners of our nation’s capital’s parliamentary triangle. A hospital once stood on the peninsula between Commonwealth Avenue bridge and one of Lake Burley Griffin’s islands. That hospital was dramatically blown apart. The National Museum and a corresponding indigenous studies centre stand on the site now. It was a thrill for me at the turn of this century to be invited to play a DJ set in the foyer of the Museum, although the acoustics were terrible. Next I hope to make history there.

Looking south from the Museum you can almost see Scrivener Dam, named for the surveyor who has been characterised as “holding up” the vision Walter Burley Griffin had for Canberra. The American architect seems better placed for much of the blame here, as he’d arranged to work part-time on the city while undertaking private work — such as designing the towns of Leeton and Griffith, which are downstream in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

Some distance beyond Scrivener Dam is the Cotter Dam, where the river named for a banished former convict joins the Murrumbidgee. Last decade I felt surprisingly excited to meet a descendant of Garrett Cotter, when I visited his property near edge of the Snowy Mountains. I remember this Cotter had horses, at least he observed that if possession is nine-tenths of the law then the brumbies on his hilly land were his.

At university I went skinny dipping in the Cotter River with a descendant of Charles Throsby, who was one of the first white people to “discover” the Murrumbidgee River near where it now forms part of the border between New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. I’ve read that the River kept it’s indigenous name as a result of Throsby recording it in his journal ahead of sighting it for himself.

These rivers are landmarks but also part of my personal history. If the human body is around 60% water, then I must be predominantly Murrumbidgee as I have been drinking from it for most of my life.

The Molonglo River that flows into Lake Burley Griffin is tributary of the Murrumbidgee River, which in turn flows into the Murray and on to South Australia. After spending the first 27 years of my life in Canberra, I too flowed downstream. After drifting through group houses and university, I went to the country because I thought there would be better opportunities and I wasn’t wrong.

For nine years I drank the Murrumbidgee via the murky-tasting aquifer that supplies drinking water to the city of Wagga Wagga. They call it a city but, at around 40,000 people, it feels more like a country town — especially since my knowledge of country towns is informed by Canberra being described as one and it has over 300,000.

Nearly seven years ago I left Wagga for Leeton and continue to appreciate the heritage it shares with Canberra. The hill in Leeton isn’t anything like the mountains that form Canberra, but the interwar architecture and circling streets make it strangely familiar for me. This sense of deja vu continues now that I spend time working at a museum in Griffith, where Walter Burley Griffin had arguably a greater influence than his award-winning design for Canberra.

The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area is like the national capital in capturing a whiff of the modern spirit that must have intoxicated Australians around the time of Federation. The ‘foodbowl’ of the Riverina produces a significant amount of exports, as well as local produce. Irrigation was a massive investment but one that ensured food security and allowed the population to grow.

In my identification with the landscape I find it exciting to consider the water of the Murrumbidgee is becoming part of so many others. It is mind-boggling to consider the value being grown with this resource. This is part of our common wealth since before the commonwealth began and, to quote another American, we’ve all passed a lot of water since then!