ON THE RIVERBANK at the old Sackville Aboriginal Reserve on Dyarubbin there’s a stone obelisk. It seems permanent and solid, but it has a habit of slipping out of landscape and memory. Erected in 1952, the obelisk was later swallowed whole by lantana, and when found again during a clean-up in the 1970s, nobody could recall anything about it.[i] There is a sense of quiet reverence to it – this tall, solitary monument dark with age, like a gravestone. But perhaps more striking is the fantastical old fig tree nearby, its interwoven roots wrapped over a massive rectangular rock.
I am here on the river with Darug descendants Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins and Jasmine Seymour, as well as historian and archaeologist Paul Irish. It’s autumn, the season of mirror-still water and pure-white morning fogs that burn off gradually to shreds and wisps. We are on our first field trip for the project The Real Secret River: Dyarubbin, launched in 2017 and inspired by a precious find in the Mitchell Library – a list, neatly handwritten, of more than 170 Aboriginal names for places on the Hawkesbury River. These words were given to a scientifically minded Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John McGarvie, by the Aboriginal people of Dyarubbin in 1829.[ii] McGarvie helpfully linked the Aboriginal words with the names of the settlers’ farms too. This means, stunningly, that it is possible to pin at least some of these words back to their river places. It means that these places might be known once more by their soft, rolling Aboriginal names, that the words might again be spoken as part of living language and shared geographies. And then, what if we think of these names and places as portals to the larger Aboriginal world of Dyarubbin? What if they could also be reconnected with Aboriginal traditional knowledge and language, and with history, archaeology, geography and ecology – read together through the prism of the river?
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