To 1787 driver, and step on it!

I’ve never actually pursued it formally, but I’ve got a serious penchant for historical ecology. It’s because I’m a bit of a bleeding heart I suppose, but I long for the environment of the past. In fact, if the Devil presented himself to me tomorrow, carrying a time machine that could whip me off to Murray River circa 1787, I would think very seriously about offering my soul in return. To walk through a Redgum Forest that hasn’t been tainted by a single chainsaw cut; to look into the clear waters of the Murray and know that not one exotic fish swims in her currents; to listen to the cacophony of frogs in a billabong that has never been parched by river regulation; to hear the midnight cry of a Curlew that has no fox to fear…. I could continue like this for pages.

Of course it will never be, unless some miracle of physics takes place in the next 50 years. But last night I found the next best thing, and this post is intended to share that discovery. Folks, let me introduce you to Will Trueman. In this series of YouTube videos, Will explains the origins and outcomes of a research project that has culminated in the most incredible historical account of the native fish fauna of the Murray Darling Basin. Motivated partly by the memory of fishing trips with his old Dad, Will has meticulously pieced together a picture of the native fish community of the southern Murray-Darling prior to its collapse. And what a picture he paints. Let me give you an example.

A little while back, I moved to the town of Kyneton, around 80 km north-west of Melbourne. Kyneton is just on the other side of the Great Dividing Range, and lies in the catchment of the Murray-Darling Basin. Being a keen fisherman, I’ve been exploring the local creeks and rivers chasing some action. One of these ramblings let me to the Campaspe River at Redesdale, just above Lake Eppalock. My first visit in autumn last year revealed a river of great beauty – here the Campaspe runs through a deep basalt gorge, and tumbles over a mix of basalt boulders and mudstone reefs. Add to this crystal clear water and towering Redgums, and I thought I’d found my own fishing utopia. But the fishing itself has been woeful – I’m yet to catch a single native fish here, despite multiple trips and varying techniques. Enter Will Trueman. Through his book, I now know that this section of the Campaspe was once the fishing paradise I thought it should be. Historical accounts suggest this section of the Campaspe was home to Murray Cod, Trout Cod, Macquarie Perch, Silver Perch and Catfish, and that they were there in profusion. What’s more, he provides some proof from the very spot I’ve been fishing. Here it is:

A thumping Macquarie Perch from the Campaspe at Redesdale, circa 1920

A thumping Macquarie Perch from the Campaspe at Redesdale, circa 1920

A cracking Murray Cod from the Campaspe at Redesdale, 1947

A cracking Murray Cod from the Campaspe at Redesdale, 1947

I can’t wait to scour Will’s book over the next few weeks – I’m sure to find many more such historical gems. Who knows, it might just give me the kick I’ve needed to turn whistful dreaming about what was once was, into an active role in ecosystem restoration….

3 thoughts on “To 1787 driver, and step on it!

  1. Thanks Geoff for your kind comments. I too wish I could go back to 1787. In collecting the historical material I came to realise just how much our environments have changed. In many cases it is hardly recognisable. And much of it was deliberately changed. It would surprise people to know that parts of southern Australia hosted huge waterfowl populations akin to Kakadu: flocks of Brolgas and massive numbers of Magpie Geese. What happened to them? In the 1870’s there was a government sponsored program to eliminate them from the Riverina. The rookeries were tagetted and nests and eggs destroyed. Why? Because graziers did not want the birds fouling the drinking supply of stock.

    What was the first stream in the Murray-Darling Basin to be totally degraded through siltation? It was the Jugiong Creek and by 1844.

    Hopefully, when people read the links I have provided to the original descriptions of the environments of catchments they will come to learn, as I did, how much things have changed.

    I collected about 400 images of native fish dating from the 1960’s back to 1862. In many cases I was able to pinpoint the actual locations. There is a set of stereo photos of the Murray River from Echuca to South Oz dating from 1862. Cross your eyes and you see the environment back then in 3d!

    Years ago there was a lecturer at Melbourne Uni who used to do frog calls during the lecturers (I think it was Murray Littlejohn).

    Anyhow, hope you enjoy reading the rest of ‘True Tales’.

    Best Wishes

    Will Trueman

  2. Great to read your post. I am loving that there historic ecocolgy is being talked more & more by contemporary ecologists. And the more we talk & share information & ideas about this, the better! How often do we write that there is no long-term data for the MDB!! I have also enjoyed reading Will’s work too over the past few years and was lucky to hear him talk years ago at a fish forum 🙂
    From working as an ecologist myself, I now want to combine palaeoecology with contemporary ecology to help us understand “change”, especially in the functioning of freshwaters. So I am currently doing a PhD on freshwater mussels of the MDB, and am trawling historical accounts that may allude to past populations. Mussels being great because they influence both primary & secondary production. The premise is measuring change in the MDB due to colonisation, because this has been the biggest time of change (and thus easier to measure) for Aust ecosystems, in this period of the Anthropocene. It’d be nice to know Australia in 1787, as the point in time without Euro-settlement (but we shouldn’t forget that “change” has occured and is always occuring, especially in our highly dynamic freshwater ecosystems). For that, 1787 isn’t necessarily the ‘ideal’ or ‘most natural’ time for Australan ecosystems, but it can be used as a reference for when there was no colonisation.
    I have just read Bill Gammage’s book “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia” and there are many good quotes from early settler’s and explorer’s accounts in there that may interest you too.
    If any of your readers want to share stories or information about past mussel populations, or know of existing mussel beds anywhere within the MDB, then I’d love to hear from you! cpiko@csu.edu.au (Hope that’s ok with you Geoff!)

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