Friday, April 11, 2008

River and the Deities

The river valley sits shrouded in fog. Outside the valley the sun glows.

In other places, other cultures and other religions, the river is the Goddess. Likewise, the living spirits of rivers are depicted as deities, for instance, as snake, python, anaconda, dragon. Frequently, these deities are female perhaps because the element of water is regarded as a feminine essence embodying 'life, birth and rebirth, creation and creativity, but also with death and oblivion' (Parente-Čapková, 2006).

The question then arises, does the Brisbane River and the downstream embayment Moreton Bay, have a feminine or goddess quality? In a contemporary sense, and in relation to Goddess spirituality, practitioners might honour the River as a Goddess and through this honouring and ritualising, seek protection for the ecosystem and creatures who live along the watery terrain.

In India river Goddesses like the sacred Ganga and Yamuna are under severe threat. I have written previously in this blog about the insightful book with the difficult message by David Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution (2006), which stories the Goddess Yamuna who flows in the upper reaches of the Ganges. The river is both a river of death - and a river of love.

Both the Ganges and the Yamuna are believed to be spiritually pure but both are in appalling physical shape with raw sewerage, industrial and agricultural runoff, toxics and heavy metals flowing through these vital waterways. These rivers are the Goddess. Spiritually they are divine, reverential, beautiful. Devotees worship the Goddess by immersing themselves in Her sacred flow or conducting ritual washing in Her sacred waters. Yet sadly, while doing so, they are facing serious waterborne diseases and the risk of contact with toxic chemicals.

Sathya Gosselin (nd) in her paper Pollution and Ganga Ma writes of the Ganges or Ganga, as the great mother who 'mercifully provides for the people each year with her swelling monsoon ... Indians receive her with great blessings and appreciation; village farmers benefit greatly from the fertile silt and soil that the great Ganga leaves behind. Seasonal flooding leaves small pools and lakes (jhils) that are diverted to irrigate crops in an otherwise dry land ...[She] speaks life, renewal, and fertility...'. But, says Gosselin, she is being assaulted.

Gosselin's article talks about the problems in India of first, defining the term 'pollution', second, explaining what's happened to the vast amounts of funding directed to the Ganges' clean up campaign, and third, the frustration of local residents not consulted about the river's management plans.

She says that the very term pollution is problematic when the river Herself is spiritually pure but suffering from impurities. Gosselin cites the anthropologist Kelly Alley (1994) who grapples with this dichotomy - the spiritual versus the westernised resource management approach. For devotees, 'the Ganga can never be impure' (1994:130). She is a powerful force and can carry the impurities and pollution 'away into the ocean'. In this comment Alley recognises that the Goddess is believed to have the power to transform impurities and offer absolution whether spiritual and/or physical and this includes body wastes. It has thus been so.

This cultural difference in ways of seeing (and revering) sacred water brings me back to the Brisbane River and the contemplation of Goddess spirituality. There are a number of possible modes of thought and action worth reflecting on. For instance, in a (post/most)modern world there is a view that anything (or almost anything) goes. So in this perspective it may not really matter what the river is called as long as it is cared for. Indeed, regarding the river as a Goddess might very well engender an ethic of greater care and concern among residents and if so, acknowledging the sacredness of the water's tidal flow and its downstream embayment can be seen as a positive move.

On the other hand there is the spectra of cultural appropriation. Goddess spirituality as it is practised in Australia is one of a number of emergent religions connected to the spread of interest in earth-based spirituality, feminism, Paganism and the New Age movement. But indigenous cultures including Native Americans and Aboriginal people have rejected these individualised New Age spiritual movements not only because they tend to romanticise indigenous cultures, particularly the spiritual and ecological lifeways, but also due to practitioners borrowing, stealing or misappropriating sacred rituals and sacred beliefs.

Christina Welch (2002) criticises New Agers for buying and selling these precious practices saying that they are simply reaffirming capitalist consumer culture. She comments that they lack an active political engagement in, and understanding of, the plight of indigenous peoples, while at the same time, she maintains that indigenous people should not be defined solely as the 'victims' of cultural appropriation concluding that: 'The colonialist presentation is refuted by indigenous agency in the dynamic of cultural growth' (2002:35).

My view falls somewhere in between. Embrace the River Goddess on one end of the spectrum or condemn cultural appropriation at the other. While I would find it difficult to overlay an indigenously-venerated waterway with a Goddess-inspired spirituality from ancient and/or distant lands, I can see that others might revere the local river with a spiritual demeanour which reflects their own cultural heritage.

For example, Bryne et al (2006) in their article 'Enchanted Parklands' cite a wonderful story of a Vietnamese-Australian living around the Georges River in SW Sydney who regards the river as the embodiment of a sacred dragon and defines locations along the river in terms of the dragon's anatomy.

In this light, the Brisbane River could be re-inscribed as Goddess and worshipped by those whose spirituality is defined as Goddess spirituality.

Alley KD, 1994, 'Ganga and gandagi: interpretation of pollution and waste in Benaras,' Ethnology, Spring, 33, 2.
Byrne D, H Goodall, S Wearing and A Cadzow, 2006, Enchanted Parklands, Australian Geographer, 37, 1, 103-115.
Gosselin S, nd, Ganga Ma, paper prepared for the Goddess Traditions in India and Tibet seminar at Vassar College,
Haberman DL, 2006, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parente-Čapková V, 2006, Narcissuses, Medusas, Ophelias...Water Imagery And Femininity In The Texts By Two Decadent Women Writers, Wagadu, 3, Spring,
Welch C, 2002, Appropriating the Didjeridu and the Sweat Lodge: New Age Baddies and Indigenous Victims? Journal of Contemporary Religion, 17, 1, 21-36.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Downstream, it's a long way down

Sylvie Shaw

The mouth of the Brisbane River was carefully hidden from the early explorers. The entrance was narrow, sheltered by Fisherman's Island, tangled rain forest, a tightness of mangroves and the huge spreading Moreton Bay Fig. It was as if, states one historical account of the river, '[n]ature herself seemed to have made certain that the river would never be found' (ABC, 2008).

It is said that the explorer John Oxley 'saw such beauty that it took his breath away.' Oxley was so staggered by the lushness and fecundity of flourishing colour that he wrote:

'From the giant trees hung vines and creepers of every description, staghorns by the thousands jostled for space with the wild passionflowers. And here and there extra dark green patches of palms and giant fern forests were sprinkled with the delicate colours of thousands of orchids. And on the river itself Oxley’s boat glided through millions of pink and white water lilies' (ABC, 2008).

The Fishing Monthly laments this spectacle of disappeared and disappearing beauty, saying: 'It's hard to believe that the Brisbane River, as recently as 170 years ago, was lined with rainforest, clear running creeks, and teemed with fish and wildlife beyond your imagination' (Lee, nd).

The results of such drastic environmental change can be seen in research on water quality. The SE Queensland Healthy Waterway study on ecosystem health of the Brisbane River estuary states that water quality is 'generally poor' due, in part, to the concentration of nutrients from sewage and stormwater runoff which flows straight into the precious mangrove-encased Moreton Bay.

Along with the damage to the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay ecosystems, many of Australia's rivers, estauries and embayments are in trouble, none more so than the Murray Darling Basin and the end of its long and seemingly arduous flow, the wondrous Coorong on Australia's southern shore.

In 2006 The Age newspaper declared the Coorong 'dead'. The article began:

'To witness the death of a beautiful, wild creature would be torture enough for most lovers of nature. To witness the decline of a beautiful, wild ecology along a fabled stretch of Australia's coast has been the excruciating duty of biologist David Paton for 20 years' (Chandler 2006).

It's hard to imagine that a river can stop flowing. That birds now stroll across the mud where once a sacred river ran. This situation was highlighted in a recent blog from Angry Pengiun (April 2008) who documented the sad plight of waterbirds as well as other deleterious effects along the Coorong.

'The swans were walking in the river. Yes, walking. In fact I walked in the river – quite a long way across dry mud to photograph a group of perplexed-looking ducks and pelicans sitting on an island that did not used to be there.'

In contrast, early settler accounts of the Coorong described 'vast flocks of waterfowl [that] once blackened the skies over this world-renowned South Australian wetland' (Chandler, 2007). But now water bird numbers have dwindled. Fish species are missing. Extinct perhaps.

Coorong researcher David Paton says that a major cause is the lack of environmental flows. 'Sure,' he says, 'you’ll have a Coorong with water in it, but it … isn’t going to go back to what it was.' (Chandler, 2007). Elsewhere he says: 'Wetland systems deteriorate without environmental flows... [The] Coorong had capacity to cope with drought – but not an extended period of no flow.'

The Brisbane River flows. Slowly. Windingly. Tidally. Breathe the tides flowing in the water, salt to fresh, ocean to river, moon to ocean to river to flow.

Angry Penguin, 2008, Coorong so wronged,, April 7, 2008.
Australia's Centenary of Federation, 2001, Oxley's Discovery Of The Brisbane River, ABC, April 19, 2001.
Chandler J, 2006, The Coorong is dead. What's taking its place? The Age, Jan 21, 2006.
Chandler J, 2007, The Great Coorong – A Biological Barometer, The Age, Jan 29, 2007. Found on:
Lee M, nd, The Brisbane River, Fishing Monthly,
Paton D, nd, Lessons Learned from the Coorong. Powerpoint presentation,