Rescued from oblivion 50 years ago, Darebin Creek still needs its friends

*Article originally published on the Citizen, A Publication for the Centre for Advancing Journalism & Issimo Magazine

Peter Wiltshire drives up the newly paved trail around the Darebin Parklands and pulls up at the Napier Waller Reserve, taking in the lush forestry and the song of native birds.

He opens the truck bed to organise equipment and plants for today’s planting activity, part of a program aiming to plant 1000 trees.

Wiltshire has devoted 33 years of service to this landscape as the senior park ranger, but there’s still so much more to do. He waits for the crew of volunteers who have signed on to help out. For them, this is a one-off day of hard labour. For Wiltshire, it’s the culmination of months of planning.

The Darebin Parklands has come a long way since the early ’70s, when a group of pioneering environmentalists started lobbying to rehabilitate the area around the creek straddling Alphington and Ivanhoe.

Back then, these parklands were an infested, weed-ridden quarry hole and a municipal tip, and held under private ownership until 1973. Responding to local pressure, the creek was finally rescued from the jaws of machines that year and the area now boasts thousands of hand-planted native trees and weed-free sections.

Today it is a cherished urban green space, albeit still a long way from its pre-colonial splendour. Nonetheless, volunteers and nature enthusiasts continue tireless efforts to protect and nurture it.

The question remains, though, whether their best efforts and intentions can ever be enough to give the plants and creatures of this waterway – an island in the middle of a sprawling and increasingly crowded metropolis – the opportunity to thrive without threat.

The volunteers walk to the reserve as the sun pours brilliant yellow rays across the creek and surrounding bushland. They’ve got a hard day’s work ahead of them, but they wear smiles and share a common desire to preserve green spaces.

Under towering gums, the landscape has come alive thanks to the efforts of others like them. But the parklands remain vulnerable to human damage.

“The creek collects stuff from shopping centres from further upstream … and you can see them hanging from trees,” says Mel Turnbull, a volunteer.

Litter threatens the health of the creek and is a constant concern of the volunteers. The creeks flush out Melbourne’s waste and, in doing so, end up dirty with trash. The areas around Darebin Creek are entirely urbanised, with houses hugging the creek’s border.

Although the paved walkways and cycle routes have made the parklands and the creek accessible to an appreciative community, many of whom may assume they are enjoying a healthy landscape, the reality is a different story.

“People drop their litter in Macleod [a suburb upstream, 14 km north-east from Melbourne’s CBD] and it finds its way to the parklands,” Sofie Anselmi, president of the Darebin Creek Association, says.
“A duck will pick up a piece of plastic that looks like a tasty bug and it’ll choke on the plastic.”
The creek was once home to a plethora of native species of plants and animals. The clean-up efforts have restored some of that diversity, but the continued health of this salvaged ecosystem is not guaranteed.
Melbourne’s volatile weather – and climate change scenarios signal this will only get worse – looms as a particular problem. “When we get rainfall, all the soft surface absorption, which you find in farmlands and parklands … it’s all gone. The land is now built up with housing estates, so runoff comes down very quickly which brings all the litter and rubbish,” Wiltshire says.
Road wash containing pollutants darkens the creek. “We’re constantly cleaning up from the litter that comes from upstream,” Wiltshire says.

Pollution is a byproduct of the perpetual struggle between the need to grow communities to house residents, and the fight to preserve green spaces. Dealing with the fallout are the volunteers and park rangers who smile at cyclists enjoying the new pathways while they muddle in dirt fixing the problems.

“Keeping the creek clean is a really hard thing to do,” says Cath, a volunteer. The opening of bicycle access, for all its merits, brings a whole new set of problems.

“(With) the bike path – the great thing is that people have gained access but also, [but] there’s going to be more people,” agrees Peter Jens, a long-time volunteer at the Darebin Creek. More people inevitably means more rubbish.

The crew is united in its determination to preserve and enhance this critical natural artery in a city as population pressures become more intense, and more demanding on the landscape, every day.

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