Words & Images by Molly Schmidt
It was raining at the Beeliar Wetlands yesterday. The people were crying. All I could hear, as I walked along the fence line, was the high pitched, grating sound of the bulldozer.
There were no birds. There were no frogs. No lizards, no snakes, no possums. The only animals left were us. The bulldozer churned the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the leaves, the bark to dust. Spitting it out, into a pile, discarded. Thousands of years’ worth of history, in the gum leaf, in the paperbark, in the soil – gone.
This is what it looks like at the site of Beeliar Wetlands. I bet you’ve heard about Roe 8 one hundred times. I bet you’re sick of hearing about it. But do you know anything of the significance of that land?
The land around Beeliar Wetlands is sacred to the Indigenous people. Noongar people travelled from all over the region to Coolbellup (North Lake) and Walliabup (Bibra Lake), which were main campsites, and meeting places. These sites were used regularly until the 80s’, and are still visited and cherished by the Noongar people today.
“This place here has a big significance to our Noongar people – a very spiritual place. You can feel the spirits of yesterday in this land. Their voices become our voices,” said traditional land owner and long-time Cockburn resident Reverend Sealin Garlett.
Yesterday I witnessed the destruction of part of the sacred women’s site. It was known as the Birthing Place. It was a place of new life, a place where women from all around came to give birth. “Fresh water provided a place women could come and stay for days or even weeks and be provided for. The land provided sustenance and the women never took more than they needed. They cared for the land, and she cared for them,” said Rev Sealin Garlett.
“It’s more than a place of birth, more than a place of origin. The Birthing Place – it brings the deep identity that Aboriginal people have with the land.”
The Birthing Place was lost yesterday. I understand it is important to ease the freight passage to and from Fremantle. I don’t understand how we could possibly be doing so in a way that not only disregards native bush land, flora and fauna, but that destroys a place of utmost significance to the rightful owners of our land. There are other options – such as moving the port to Kwinana where the industry will continue to grow, or enhancing the existing railway to Fremantle. But instead, we repeat history. We turn our backs on the people who rightfully own this land. We put our hands over our ears, and we turn away.
It was so clear to me yesterday. The land and its people are hurting, very much. And the people are tired. I asked questions because I so desperately want to share with others what even I did not know before. That this place we are destroying is infinitely special, holds incredible significance. It is so much more than a wetland.
Some told me stories of bushwalks and campfires, others told me of the Birthing Tree that stands in the middle of the birthing grounds. One brave soul Julia… spent three nights in the tree in an attempt to save it, but today, I am unsure if it still stands. I was told of the four hundred year old Christmas Tree, protected for by Amy Lee-Wilks, who stood for seven hours thumb locked to the tree. I stood beside Emma Moyses as she shouted in pain for the land. Emma spent nine days in a red gum trying to protect it, but was removed by police with a cherry picker. “The people of the land have taken seeds from this magical place. We have not given up hope,” she said.
I was struck by the fact that the people down there, the people standing in the rain and standing up for what they believe in, were a vast mix. There were elderly people, leaning on sticks, hobbling through the bush, there were young mums with babies strapped to their backs. There were lawyers, school teachers, doctors, scientists. So many people who care.
A long time wetland defender who cannot be named for legal reasons, described the scene; watching the Birthing Place go, tree by tree. “Right up to the fence line is dense, ancient bush. You can feel the memories in the Melalueca trees. Normally I hang back from the fence, but today I could feel this pull right from the base of my womb, calling me to the fence line. The ground was hot from the rain, there was smoke in the air from the hills. The smells were so pungent. The fence line was completely silent. The protesters were in shock. All you could hear was the bulldozer, and every single woman was crying.”
Local artist Sharyn Egan is one of the stolen generation. She spent much of the first few years of her life with her parents at the wetlands, before she was taken away. She told me she took her children back there, and wanted her grandchildren to be able to visit the same place one day. “We were always around the area, walking and enjoying and playing. Just being in nature. They played games, and pretended to be hunters.”
The areas of significance stretch further than the Birthing Place. There was the men’s site, where young men were taken to learn and become a man, there was a burial site, and the fresh water lakes where children were raised. Much of these places are now gone.
I stood there, a bystander, a protester, a white person. And I felt so ashamed. I wanted to cry, but felt it would be disrespectful to the people around me, the rightful owners of the land that was being destroyed.
There is so much to learn, so much that we, as Australians, should already know. To learn is going to take time. But today I needed to pick up my pen. I needed to call on you.
There are things you can do. Below are the numbers of ministers of parliament who have the power to stop this destruction with the flick of a pen. You can call them, and tell them how you feel. I feel concerned, ashamed, sad. How does it make you feel?
Minister Josh Freydenberg (Federal Minister for Environment) - 02 6277 7920
Premier Colin Barnett - 08 6552 5000
Minister Albert Jacob (Local Minister for Environment and Women) - 08 9305 4099
You can also educate yourself, you can take the time to learn about the area we have been destroying. Here are some links you may find helpful.
You can go down to the wetlands. You don’t have to shout, to break things, or be offensive. You can offer your support. You can do so quietly with thermoses of tea, and hugs.
Perhaps you still think Roe 8 should go ahead. I’m sorry if you do. But please take the time to educate yourself. There is so much to learn, and it’s not too late. The election is on March 11, and a change of government may mean the wetlands are saved. If you’ve never been down there, I highly recommend you do, while some of it still stands. It is such a beautiful place. Walk amongst the trees, listen to the birds. I sincerely hope my children will have the chance to do the same.