‘Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?
Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha
This part of the Parramatta River where I walk is the western end, the part where it turns shallow and serpentine. This is not the river of historical islands and weekend sailing and houses with water views; that exists where the river breaks into the harbour further east. This is the river of narrow channels and mudflats and mangroves; of sex clubs and factories and unmarked burial grounds; of lunatics and God and disappearing buildings.
Rivers, unlike oceans, are not infinite. They stop somewhere and this river stops not too far from my house near the ferry pier where the walking track that surrounds it loops around and propels the people and the boats and the fish and the ghosts back towards the city. Right before the first lockdown I saw police divers pull a body from the river here. People have pulled bodies from this section of the river since yesterday, the day before, two hundred years ago: escapees from mid-nineteenth-century asylums and one-punch victims walking home from the stadium on game night and the bodies of all those invaders and the Indigenous warriors who fought them on the river banks, they all get stuck here where the river narrows into deep mud.
Water molecules stay in the river system only a few weeks before they move or evaporate but they can get embedded in the soil and stay there hundreds, thousands and even millions of years. This river does not have one time. It has all times. It is layers and loops.
In lockdown time collapsed. It held a different kind of weight. It was elastic. Every day was Tuesday. So I walked the river because it gave this new kind of time a physical form, something that felt like moving forward while looping backwards at the same time. On one of these walks I found an eel, as fat and thick as my leg. It flicked its glossy black tail outwards as it tried to escape the tangled roots of the mangroves and I was certain that it was some kind of miracle. I’d walked this same river path for twenty years and I’d never seen the creature for whom this area was named by its first inhabitants, ‘the place where the eels lay down’. The past felt very alive in the present. I’d stumbled into a portal and walked into deep time.
Further down the river I walked the above-ground paths of the Baludarri Wetlands because the land on this small section of green between the water and the apartment buildings contains plant species that are extinct in most other parts of the world. It is loud, always with the croaking of frogs and the screeches of birds which don’t exist in any other part of Parramatta. Food and supplies and conversation were once traded on the paths underneath where I walked suspended above the earth. In the afternoons the river submerges everything here. It doesn’t matter what paths and buildings and people have built here. The water cycles have never changed. The river does what it has aways done. It goes where it wants to go.
On another day, I think it was day 95 or 96 or 102 of home schooling, I cannot remember, I take my children down to the river to find the eel again because I am out of ideas. I collect the children of other mothers who are also out of ideas and we end up at the park on the river’s edge. I am sitting because I cannot walk anymore and a woman runs past me to tell me the police have arrived. I stand up quickly and watch them move in a long solid wall of blue bodies from the river path and through the park. ‘Is it illegal now to be at the park?’ My friend asks her question calmly and one of the police gets his back up. ‘You cannot be out of the house for purposes other than exercise, food shopping, essential appointments.’ Another police officer lectures me on plagues and social distancing and contamination. We are, all of us, swooped up and moved away from the river. The woman who warned me to move in the first place tells me that this time we’ve found ourselves in is all made up anyway so that the government can intimidate ordinary people like us. That night I see the pictures of people further east down the river and out into the harbour sunbathing in huge masses of arms and legs and sunglasses and bodies pushed up against each other. No one running.
This has happened here before. The plague. The police. Keeping people in their place. In the early twentieth century, after an outbreak of the plague in Glebe connected with the abattoirs there, all the slaughterhouses moved this way down the river, and the largest abattoirs in the Commonwealth were built on the water near Homebush. And then the plague popped up here near the river’s end, where the refuse of pig hooves and bones and skin washed up and the police came in long lines down the paths where people walked from the factories to their homes and they made sure that everyone stuck to their section of the river so we wouldn’t spread anything further east.
This part of the river is industrial. It’s always been industrial. It always will be. Embedded in the walking paths next to the river are the cast-off relics of this past. The smoke that the Petroleum and Chemical Corporation released into the sky between the fifties and seventies is still in the earth where it fell, beneath my feet as I take the walking path up through Rydalmere. By my side are pipes and bricks sticking up from the dirt, looking for the bodies of factories they were once connected to. All those local histories talk about periods of industrialisation, deindustrialisation, restoration, rejuvenation as though one period of time is neatly sealed up before we begin the next. On my daily walks I’ve watched whole new factories emerge from metal skeletons to fully formed buildings that belch the sweet synthetic scents of the perfumes they manufacture into the sky. There’s no before and after here, there’s just the Mr Pisa Gelato Factory that makes the ice-cream I ate as a kid and the abandoned cottage factories where Chinese labourers dyed cloth with indigo. You’ve got to look at all the layers of a place. You have to walk it to see how all the times sit side by side.
And people walk here. I walk here. This river is a site of promenading and pilgrimage. Summer nights: everyone comes out of the apartment buildings and walks slow. They float. Their bodies are made of milk and oil and sari fabric and the latest spandex colours from Lorna Jane. Everyone here is missing someone – on another side of a river or an ocean or some other body of water it is no longer safe to cross.
We’ve all been let loose in time. To return and return to the same place is to walk with the same question, to try and complete a thought. But it’s harder and harder these days, everyone is saying, to pull together a logical sequence of thoughts, one after the other after the other, when the world has become so God. Damn. Strange.
I walk by the river and I think about ritual. Rivers are sacred spaces everywhere. They are places where we are baptised and reborn and sent to the afterlife, places where we come to pray, to see God. The Māori that are buried along the river here, the children of chiefs who were sent to study at the Māori Seminary that once stood here in Rangihou Crescent, they would have believed rivers are ancestors that have been with us throughout history.
There were, there are, many sacred places along this river. Bede Polding, the first Roman Catholic Bishop in Australia used to walk the paths down the river where the Rheem factory is now. The convent he founded there was pulled down as the factory expanded, so that the workers would have a place to park their cars.
These days, so many of the factories on the river have been taken over by God or sex. If you walk slowly enough, if you’re careful to look, if you return again and again to these places like I do on these walks then, suddenly, this whole other world emerges next to this river of vanishings. There’s a large factory with nothing but a giant red 22 outside and a weatherboard house with endless clothelines hung with freshly laundered sheets and a giant pair of lips flashing in the window in a small room above a place that makes kimchi. God lives in the factories in between these places, in cottages that used to belong to the local mechanic and above bread factories. Small signs like Rock Workship, or GSUS, or Awesome, or Nova that make it seem like there might be a bunch of community radio stations hiding here. Once, I saw a man through a window late at night, his palms were facing up towards the ceiling. He was yelling something up to the metal roof of the building and I could see the words hit the metal of the roof and jump back towards his body as he shook, and I wished I could believe in something that badly that it possessed my body too.
One time someone from one the religious factories walked over to one of the sex factories where gay sex parties are held and tried to put acid in the lubricant dispenser.
Another time, close by here, and two hundred or so years ago, a sex worker was arrested for throwing acid in the face of a missionary who used to be her lover.
The histories of river-side places are compiled by way of water. They are fluid and moving places where the past cycles back unexpectedly into the present. Rivers rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today.
At the moment the river has broken away. It has climbed up small hills and is spitting shopping trolleys and the stray parts of boats that were dismantled a long time ago onto the middle of bridges and the not quite built lobbies of new building still under construction. It’ll go down again, eventually, scooping up the bric-a-brac of this time and holding it in its muddy heart for the next time and the time after that.
Right now on the river banks there are thousands of dead fish because the storms have washed too much solid matter into the river to keep the oxygen levels high enough to keep them alive.
The problem with rivers these days is that people are attracted by the before and after that doesn’t exist. They want to live in the place that has been rejuvenated and regenerated in fifty-storey buildings by the river’s edge. We’ve even moved historical buildings here, picked them up piece by piece and moved them to other locations, or torn them apart. We’ve tried to change the history of this place. Because this is Sydney. Because everyone wants that glimpse of light breaking in puzzle pieces off a water’s edge. Because we want to find something holy there in a future where the past can never break through.
Not so long ago I watched hundreds of people in white shirts walking down the river. They carried signs that said things like freedom and I am not afraid and my body my right and I wondered what kind of century they had fallen out of.
In the novel the usual way out of a time loop is acquiring knowledge, using retained memories to progress and eventually exit the loop. The loop is a problem-solving process. I’m not convinced I’ll ever be able to exit. I’m not convinced that time exists anymore.
And so I walk.
This is part of a series of essays commissioned as part of a partnership between Western Sydney University and the 2022 Biennale of Sydney, titled rīvus, that respond to A Glossary of Water, an artist book, scholarly reference and beautiful object, published as a companion to the Biennale.