Mulyawonks and shifting baselines

Both the fish in the Murray River and I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon in quiet meditation.

Joking aside though, I only saw one fish jump in the two hours that I was there and my bait didn’t get taken, as it usually does, by shrimp, yabbies and other little nibblers. My eyes may not the best but fish splashes are hard to miss, especially when they’re happening right where your bait and hooks aren’t.

In past expeditions, I would see scores of splashes, over a day, each a fish breaking the river’s surface, grabbing insects and other possible food from where it was drifting. Then there were the little white shrimp that I remember nibbling my toes when I entered the embrace of the river, shrimp that were well known to kids (who caught them) and anglers (who cursed them).

The oddest thing is that neither Ngori (the Pelican) nor Kungari (the Swan) were around to ask for food. They are important Ngartji (roughly translated as ‘totem’) for the Ngarrindjeri mob. Ngori is important to me as he is the Ngartji of our Ngarrindjeri family and to not see him around on the Murray is a disquieting experience. The River is created by Ngurrunderi as he chases Ponde (a huge, archetypal ancestral Murray Cod) who, digs and widens the channels of the river as he passes.

Many of my recollections are of course, based on childhood memories of almost weekly trips to the river. It was a time when Dad could wind down from work and Mum could relinquish custody of my sister and I to the loving arms of a benevolent Mother Nature. We kids could roam and run fishing, exploring and fossil hunting until the Sun started to go down.

Of course, I know things are different now. A river, by its very nature, represents time and change.

As I’ve aged (gracefully, of course), I’ve seen a decline in the sheer fecundity of the river and billabongs. We’re all aware of what’s been happening over the years, a decline in rive health so rapid and widespread that the incumbent government have been named as the killers of this, once mighty, River Murray.

I have a favourite little spot in the city of Murray Bridge itself that has never let me down. My needs aren’t huge, only a few carp for fertilizer, usually, as I fish there while Jelina weaves and teaches with the Elders. If I catch anything else, it’s a bonus.

It was there I went yesterday, while Jelina and Aunty Ellen did their thing at the art gallery.

The sadness of the day was that local kids found it all normal. They told me where to go to catch fish. Isolated spots that their Dads knew of and a distance from town. When I asked what they’d caught themselves over their few years of living on the river, they unanimously named Carp but no other fish families.

None mentioned Redfin, Catfish, Callop nor Cod. They’re Dads and Grandpas had caught them and, of course, had many stories. They could still wrangle a few on fishing trips but the kids had fished their whole lives catching one species locally.

In its own way, catching Carp isn’t a bad thing. They’re a pest in the river and have contributed greatly to it’s decline. The more that are removed the better, from an ecological standpoint.

This is the ‘shifting baseline’ that is popular now in eco-speak. The expectations of each new generation are of less than the one before because they are informed by what they experience. Reduced diversity is normal, low catches of few varieties of fish are normal to them because they’ve never experienced anything different. Stories of past glories (usually in the form of the ‘when I was a boy’ stories that have made youngsters wince across the generations) are met with disbelief, if not scorn because they are out of the experiential range of the young folk.

Shifting baselines don’t just apply to fish. If you’ve been a driver for a few years, at least, you’ll have been familiar with the bug splatter on car radiators and headlights. Flying bugs intercepted at great velocity by moving vehicles leave a smear of jelly across the shiny surfaces at the front of a car. This was something to be hosed off after a trip. I looked yesterday and found only 12 distinct splats; the world wide decline in insects has a small benefit, it seems – cleaner cars.

What will the youth of ten years hence find as temperatures increase and species die? They’ll find a world, that will seem desolate to us, as the norm. This, they’ll hand on to their kids – a world a little less alive, a little less vibrant, with a little less reason to love it.

As I left, contemplating all of this, I wandered past Mulyawonk, who had been roaring for tourists all day. When I pressed his green button, he refused to rise and roar at me. That was, in its own way, a good thing. Mulyawonk had passed his judgement and I had survived. I had not taken too much from his home, the Murray River.

Probably he was happy that his Ducks had been well fed.

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