A Writers Bloc workshop feature
This story is part of a bloodline of Water Singers across four generations. Part I begins after the climate apocalypse. This is a world where Indigenous mitigation and knowledge is crucial to survival. The water singer, Tiengha, works to reclaim her water songlines and plays an important role negotiating a nationwide water treaty. Tiengha’s journeys bring her into conflict again and again with the savage white cannibals as she travels. Parts II and III follow the descendants of Tiengha, the River Walkers, who survey the cultural flows, reshape the songlines of the water from unnatural diversions, and protect the surface water from a dying race of water miners. The final part follows the fourth generation of the water singers, the Dry Fighters, who return their country from the Dry, healing the aquifers and groundwater. This future becomes our beginning…
I was walking down the gully to check the recharge areas where water soaks down and the stories of our springs belong. Pausing on the track I squinted in the afternoon glare. I was the only Dry Fighter left with the bloodlines to hold the bila song of this country. Rising this morning I had felt an aching sorrow. I had to remind myself that, despite my unease, I didn’t know the results yet. That it was not yet time to wail. Today I hoped to finally see the drooping branches of the Weeping Myall on the horizon. I had not seen them yet, the Myall woodland had become sparse in this area, a sign of the disrupted groundwater.
For years I had been working on the wall back home. Slab after granite slab on top of each other had stood and been maintained for thousands of years, forming complex diversion channels. A water-collection system that had been hidden in the granite outcrops near the three dams. If you walked west of the wall for half a day through the granite landscape, you could see the falls escaping from the poisoned waterflows. Higher and higher you had to climb, jumping across the slick granite stones ’til the four rounded leaves of the green nadoo spors on the side of the river grew sparse, only then would you know it’s safer to drink. Finally, at the top you find the deep consolidated wells, each had been cleansed with fire so that the fresh, clean rain would fill them to the brim.
As I made the days-long trek to my next task along the gully, I thought about how I had not been back to this recharge site since I was with my father.
Long before the others came to our country, the sleepy water had been travelling through the porous rocks for centuries. Our creator lay deep between impermeable rock and sandstone, and as he rose to the surface our aquifers were bound in songlines that us bila singers protected. We could sing our hydrological systems, every watershed on our country and each red river gum on its surface. It was our duty to visit his spirit and keep him alive.
Our water systems were so very damaged by the holes of greed before their world ended. Holes of mega-development pockmarked our mother, and as she cried the water sank far into the earth. When watertable lowered, they began to understand the hydraulic interaction of our water systems, and the inescapable impact on our flows. But her tears would not stop their greed, as they cut deeper and deeper into her flesh.
Now the sacred springs are tainted with saline. Now I can’t tap the roots of the buubaya for water.
I had been walking through the Dry for many days. I remember the first time I saw it with Dad. He mourned for that lost country, but the air was too thirsty for tears. White carcasses of dead trees scar the salinated country. There is no sound except for the occasional whine of the willy willys, their dust circling with nowhere to go. An unnatural dryness encloses your body, and every step seems to break the air and crunch against the salt that crusts the degraded soil surfaces.
Our people kept away from the Dry these days. Dad told me the stories of those people who had lived off the fracturing of the land, that they leaked hundreds of chemicals into our groundwater, seeping leads and uranium into the lifeblood of our creator. Dad reckoned it only took two or three generations of the frackers to destroy the water for their children and their children’s children. They didn’t know where to go for proppa water after that. For a while we took control of our surface flows and we shared. Then nothing. Then they were gone.
The only way I could continue across the Dry was to prepare and soak the glossy eucalypt leaves of the red stringybark in my water supply, the way Dad taught me. I measured my intake and would only sip when necessary ’cause I knew I wouldn’t find any clean water, if any at all, in this barren country.
When the reach of the Dry became marked by clumps of the millet grasses and the stunted tea tree shrubs, I could see I was getting close to the recharge area. Tea tree are able to grow on poor soils, but these ones had wrong-coloured flowers. Usually white against their small woody fruits, these ones were stained and murky. I pulled at the short leaves and rubbed them, but there wasn’t much oil and the distinctive aroma that was so familiar was missing.
Holding my hand up to shade my eyes, I saw the comforting outline of the Weeping Myall against the undulating sandplanes. I was close enough now. The spring should be just beyond. I started walking towards the trees. If this site was improving, then we could begin our species reintroduction and plant propagation on the outskirts of the Dry.
When I could reach out and touch the cracked grey bark of the trees, I hesitated. If the water wasn’t there, I would have to go back and report the futility of Dad’s s plans.
I kept my eyes lowered, forcing myself to keep moving through the wattle. But I could feel this country. I knew that it wasn’t dead like the Dry. The song was still underground.
Finally, I lifted my eyes to see long stems of the cumbungi reeds, and the dense patches of their velvety brown spikes everywhere. They were there growing on the muddy edge of the water. The huge pool of overflow was almost crimson at its centre, reflecting the afternoon light. The magnitude of the water was such that I couldn’t even see the sandstone slopes on the other side. I had sat on those barren rocks with my father a long, long time ago. That day he had pointed to the underwater cave where the eye of the creator lay. He told me that one day it would return.
I pushed the cumbungi aside and sat, heavy with relief, on the water’s edge. Now I would return to our main recording site to share news of the renewal with the other Dry Fighters. Cautiously I leaned over the edge. I would not look into the water for too long. I knew that I would not return from the water if it called my name. This sacred water was forbidden. It was not for consumption. It was for country to return from the Dry.
We chose Hannah Donnelly's striking story this month for it's incredibly strong depictions of a sense of place. The narrator of the story speaks with such confidence about the part she plays in regenerating the broken Australian land that, through the story, we can feel her connection to the spaces around her. The descriptions of the Australian landscape and its flora are tinged with a hunter's deep familiarity with the world around them
Hannah Donnelly is a Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales who grew up on Gamilaroi country. Creator of Sovereign Trax Indigenous music website and co-editor of the Sovereign Apocalypse zine, Hannah’s personal work experiments with cli-fi and future imaginings of Indigenous responses to climate change.