People of the Wetlands / Wetlands haiku (1996)

The Boondall Wetlands 'Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands' Project was instituted 
by Brisbane City Council in 1996. 
It featured 3 poets, and the work was published online by BCC.
Only my own contribution is recorded here.   
The project had a 'second life' in 2000 when the recorded work was released on
audio CD, produced by Kim Downs, and with contextual notes by myself. 
CD essay and artwork, and my own poetry for the project is featured here.











"people of the wetlands"

 a collection of poetry


             Liz Hall-Downs            




Produced for the Brisbane City Council's "blackfellas whitefellas wetlands" project, 1996-7

The entire collection of work by the commissioned poets, photographers, botanists, sculptors, website designer and researchers can be viewed on the BCC's website at: 






            Artist's statement:  In this collection, I have attempted to convey a

            sense of the changing history of the area, through the eyes of a variety

            of characters from different classes, races and time periods.  Most of

            these characters are fictional constructs; a few draw on the written or

            verbal accounts of real people.  The details of these characters' daily

            lives are as accurate as I can make them. 






















                       1.  EUROPEANS 'DISCOVER' THE AREA                                     


            NOVEMBER 29, 1823



            OXLEY:      We dropped anchor in Moreton Bay

                        and there on shore, a mile away,

                        a group of natives waved, and smiled,

                        I thought, in play.  Surprised I was

                        to find among them a copper-coloured

                        English-speaker - one Thomas Pamphlet,

                        naked and painted with red and white dyes,

                        the native way.


                        Laughing for joy, this man embraced

                        these tribesmen who had saved him - and I

                        could see from how they danced,

                        that they were, indeed, brothers.


                        This Pamphlet spoke of shipwreck,

                        of long days lost at sea, of comrades

                        dead from thirst who were dispatched

                        into the deep.  His other two companions

                        - Parsons and Finnegan by name - had left

                        him there, and to Sydney made their way.


                        Finnegan returned, it seems, within

                        three days, afeared, he said, of Parsons'

                        angry ways, and that, in the event

                        of further hunger, he might descend

                        to murder, or worse ...




            PAMPHLET:   The blacks were friendly, teaching us which

                        roots to eat, and how to spear and fish with nets.

                        My newest friend I named 'The Doctor', whom,

                        in charge of ritual nose-piercing and scarring,

                        was an imposing figure.  The chief appeared

                        to like us too, and offered to take Finnegan

                        out hunting.  They'd been gone nigh-on two weeks

                        when Mr Oxley came a-calling.  Though I confess

                        I did feel glad to meet some of my own, I was

                        unsure if I should leave this life of which

                        I'd grown rather, inexplicably, fond.




            NOVEMBER 30, 1823                                                    

            OXLEY:      Near the south end of the bay, I fired

                        my muskets, in the hope that the man

                        Finnegan might shew himself to me.

                        I spied someone on the opposite point, (1)

                        in rags and paints, holding some kind

                        of staff.  He strode out to meet me

                        - like Our Lord at Gallilee - the sandbank

                        rising to meet his feet, and make

                        his passage sweet.


                        It was he who gave the news to us

                        of a great river not far hence,

                        but next day led me a merry dance,

                        up some creek, the wrong way. (2)

                        In this manner, we lost a whole day.

                        Then we sailed, in my whale boat,

                        three miles south, to a shoal inlet

                        with stony land.  I saw plenty of grass

                        and fresh water.


                        At sunset we drew up to a pretty point, (3)

                        to camp near the mudflats of Moreton Bay,

                        and a multitude of biting insects

                        made of our flesh their dinner.


                        I named Finnegan's wrong place 'Deception Bay'

                        in honour of the man's ignorance.

                        But my annoyance was no matter!

                        For soon enough, we found the great river.

                        Happy I was to see how wide its span,

                        and how its fertile banks were thick

                        with excellent timber.


                        I thought to myself:

                        'We could make a town here'.



            FOOTNOTES: 1. Toorbul Point  2. Yebri Creek  3. Shorncliffe


            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996




            2. THE CONVICT YEARS                                                 


            A. WILLIAM ROSS - 1832



                        It's my sixth year here, at Moreton Bay,

                        and almost, awaiting the Governor's pleasure,

                        time to say I've paid in pain.


                        Things got worse under Logan - he kept us

                        naked, lined up for the floggings,

                        sometimes herded like cattle into caves.


                        Now he's brought in the treadmill

                        to keep us weak, made solitary cells

                        for those who dare to weep or speak.


                        Escape is no use.  I've seen their

                        returnings, so much afeared

                        that the natives will chase them

                        with clubs and spears.  They tell tales

                        of murders and less-than-fine dining

                        on bugs and berries and bracken roots.


                        It must be bad out there, for our thin homaney

                        to taste to them so sweet, to return to the pleasure

                        of a rotten ounce or two of boiled meat,

                        to submit to the lash that skins our backs.


                        Of the thousand here, at any one time

                        there are fifty in the infirmary.  If Logan

                        so wishes, he begins at sunrise, straps the poor,

                        thin unfortunates up to the pole, and lashes them

                        till his arm is sore.  I've heard it echoing

                        through the trees, that strange agonised sound

                        from sunrise to day's end.


                        For once this fate is not mine.

                        They know I've been here too long.

                        They know I am broken already.



            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996


            2. THE CONVICT YEARS                                                  

            B. MARY REYNOLDS - 1840

               A convict woman at the Eagle Farm 'Female Factory'


                        Sometimes, when my back is near broke

                        I look up at those riverside pines, at the way

                        the hoops encircle the trunks, and their tall

                        tops sway in the wind.  I tell myself

                        it's how I should be, swaying this way

                        and that, flexible to the conditions.


                        If I'd known my small crime 

                        would come to this, I might have

                        chosen instead to watch Ma's

                        little ones starve.  (The judge,

                        he said hunger was no excuse.)


                        This place they call 'The Female Factory'

                        though I venture the city workers live

                        less harshly.  We are taken each morning

                        to build that endless road, by the banks  (1)

                        of the big, wide river.  I'd jump in,

                        if I could, and swim all the way to Brisbane Town

                        - but with these chains, I'd likely drown.


                        They moved us here from the city, so's we

                        wouldn't taint the law-abiding.  Forty of us,

                        and I would give the last two joints

                        of my little finger gladly, to live free

                        with the natives who seem so much happier

                        than we.  Or even tend the acres of corn

                        to make that vile homaney that keeps us thin.


                        But this road is my destiny, will take

                        my youth (what's left of it), and grind

                        my joints to pain.  We lift large rocks

                        and clear thick scrub to make this road

                        between two prisons.  Thus I take part

                        in the suffering of others ...


                        My sincerest hope - for when it's over -

                        is to be laid here, serene and still,

                        under this dry earth that soaked my sweat,

                        and all my hopes buried with me.


                        The wheels of the carriages of the rich

                        might echo the song of my bones, then,

                        assist my soul in its flight over ocean,

                        and escape me from Moreton Bay, where

                        the lash and its cruelty held sway.


            FOOTNOTE:  1. Hamilton Road, now Kingsford Smith Drive

            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996



                      A.  A (fictional) member of The 'Duke of York' clan


                      The mogwi named York taught us his song

                      with voice and button accordion.  We sang

                      his song and soon became The Grand Old

                      Duke of York clan.  People forgot our tribal

                      name - but Ooondumbi still whispers the breeze.






            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996



            3B. DECEMBER 1842 - THE REVEREND K.W.E. SCHMIDT'S                      


                A (fictional) Aboriginal guide on this expedition speaks.


                        This Schmidt complains all the time

                        as if sandflies, mosquitos and jellyfish 

                        sting him only.  He wants us to carry 

                        his things downriver.  Why should we help

                        him futher?  His people have attacked us,

                        and many have died from poisoned water.


                        We are on our way to the festival

                        in the mountains, the nuts waiting there

                        for our feasting.  The Waka Waka and Gubbi Gubbi 

                        have sent their messengers to their neighbours 

                        - to Koreng Goreng and Badtjala, to Umpie Boang 

                        and Yuggera.  There will be hundreds 

                        of us there, for the first bunya feast in three 

                        long years.  The lovely nuts await us. And our

                        friends and their mallara wait also to dance  (1)

                        and sing with us for joy at the bounty of seasons.


                        This Schmidt, he does not understand,

                        tries to teach us the language

                        of his faraway land.  What need have we

                        for his harsh god?  Mumbal sends 

                        joorum, growls loud in our skies.  (2)

                        We have no need for any other.



            FOOTNOTES: 1. mallara = fully initiated men

                                  2. joorum = rain



            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996




                   3C. 1879 - ST. VINCENTS'S ORPHANAGE HAS BEEN OPERATING                 
                FOR TEN YEARS

                Mary Campbell, an aboriginal girl, speaks.


                        They say my father was a squatter, 

                        stole my mother from the camp

                        and did not let her go till I

                        was growing in her belly.


                        Because my skin was paler, they 

                        took me from my people, to this place, 

                        where hushed nuns and priests, 

                        from over the seas, now rule me.  


                        I am often thirsty, scrub their floors 

                        and drink the water when no-one is looking.

                        I do not know how to find my mother, even if 

                        I did, I'd not be able to speak with her.  


                        The tongue I brought is gone from me, 

                        they will not let me speak. Sometimes, 

                        we are taken to the waterhole, but I do

                        not see my people there.  Each Sunday,


                        we walk up St Vincent's Road, then back again.  

                        Apart from this, there's little fun, except 

                        when someone dies. Then we're allowed 

                        to watch the horses pass by, pulling


                        the cart with the coffin in it.  Sister

                        Francis says if I behave she might let me

                        be the one to toll the chapel bell - once

                        for each year the dead one has lived.


                        But then I'd miss seeing the pretty

                        horses, with their plaited manes

                        and noble faces, and miss the sound

                        of their hooves clacking on the road.


                        They run cows now at Nar-dha, the ducks  (1) 

                        fly off at the sound of their guns.  I 

                        would fly too, if I could.  But I belong

                        nowhere, am neither white nor black, 


                        and would not know which plants out there

                        to eat.  Their God is cruel and forces me

                        to learn at their school.  I have some little

                        memory of corroboree, and of the sad sound 


                        of my poor mothers' wailing 

                        on that terrible day when they took me ...


            FOOTNOTE: (1) Nar-dha = "place of the black duck"

            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996



            4. OPENING OF THE SANDGATE RAILWAY LINE                                

            A. Miss Rebecca Hamilton-Smythe walks on Sandgate Pier, 1882


                        How things have changed in just two years!

                        Our sweet beach hideaway has been ruined,

                        and now we're overrun with all these horrible

                        workers from town.  Before, it was only

                        the ones with carriages who came.  Now it's

                        everyone!  Poor Father!  It was a quiet life

                        he was wanting, and space to contemplate the high

                        points of his brilliant career at the bar.


                        For his retirement, Mother and I

                        had our lives well-planned - dinners

                        with the Hollingworths, perhaps,

                        and elegant picnics and soirees

                        for me to mix with the sons and daughters

                        of all the best families!


                        It's all ruined!  Now they've extended the railway!

                        And my dear, deserted Sandgate pier,

                        where I so loved to walk in the afternoons,

                        is now peopled with riff-raff each Sunday!


                        Some of the women don't even wear gloves!

                        And they speak with such coarse intonations!

                        I ask you, just what is the world

                        coming to when such common, ill-bred people

                        are not only allowed to come here, but are

                        brought here by the carriageload!

                        It's really too, too much!

                        Something must be done!


                        Just look at that couple over there!

                        She's just about got her toes in his mouth.

                        Fancy removing your shoes in front of a young man!

                        And those boys over there, staring

                        into the ladies' bathing enclosure!

                        Just what has happened to their father?


                        My Sundays at Sandgate have been quite ruined!

                        I think I will speak to Daddy about it.

                        Maybe, we could move out to the property.



            c Liz Hall-Downs, 1996



          B.  Rosie O'Donnell, domestic servant, visits 

              Sandgate Pier with Jimmy Malloy, 1882


                    Mrs Sanders said I might have Sunday off

                    to go for a picnic or somethin'.  That means

                    no launderin' or silver cleanin' today for me!

                    (And it's as well, too, for me 'ands are red

                    raw from all that scrubbin' ...)


                    No, it's Sunday morning'.  We've been to Church

                    and now I'm bein' taken by that Jimmy Malloy

                    to Sandgate on the train!  Mrs Sanders says

                    I should be careful.  She says Jimmy's

                    got no prospects, but I reckon she's wrong.

                    I reckon I could teach 'im to be a gardener,

                    or a butler, even.  Then he could leave the factory   

                    and come to work with me!


                    Mrs Sanders, she just sighs when I says this

                    and rolls her eyes - you know the way she does.

                    'All right Rosie, you can go,' she says.  'But

                    you must promise to wear your hat and gloves.

                    And don't take off your stockings and shoes

                    just to paddle!  Or let that Jimmy take you on

                    the Lovers' Walk to the banks of Cabbage Tree

                    Creek.  A lady must act with decorum.'

                    'Yes Ma'am,' I says.


                    But of course,

                    now we're here, with the sand

                    and the sea and the pier ...

                    I'm so bloomin' hot!  And the water feels cool

                    on me blisters, (these damned shoes!) and Jimmy's

                    sayin' sweet things about me feet - how they're

                    so dainty he can hardly keep from kissin' me ankles!


                    Of course I told him to stop.

                    I seen that rich young lady stopped on the pier,

                    looking down her nose at us in all her lace and finery.

                    Her expression was most disapproving.  And I could see

                    her waving to that copper coming up the walk.


                    So I says, 'Careful Jimmy!

                    Stop kissin' me feet!

                    Yer goin' to get us arrested!'



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996


              5.  THE LIVES OF THE EARLY SETTLERS                                   

          Thomas Dowse, 1884




          I bought my land in 1853, and with my relatives

          cleared the land of paperbarks, she-oaks and mountain ash.

          We built ourselves a little slab hut with a roof made of bark.

          Of course, we knew the natives weren't happy.  The place

          was 'Warra' to them, and full of good food.  There are eels   (1)

          and waterbirds, and many koalas and kangaroos.  Needless

          to say, we had to buckle on our gunbelts

          whenever we sought water from their lagoons.


          We'd been here less than a month when the trouble started.

          About thirty of the natives surrounded us, and I was struck

          in the head with a waddy.  We retreated back into the hut,

          four of us, and plotted a route of escape.  On the way out

          to reach our boat, they speared one of my boys in the leg.

          Still, we managed to row up to Eagle Farm, despite having

          only one oar.  When the news of our skirmish reached

          Brisbane, fewer came to survey the land than before!


          But I had to come back, and I've stuck it out.  I've had,

          I must say, a rather good life.  Times have changed

          so much - I'm an old man, now, and we see very little

          of the Turrubul.  There's still an old midden          

          in the Shorncliffe cliff's shadow.  I can't say

          where the people have gone.



          FOOTNOTE:  1. Warra = river



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996 



          6. THE NUDGEE CANNERY                                               

          Joe Wilson, a Cannery Worker, 1910


                    I work long days here at Nudgee cannery,

                    the skin on my hands always sore and red

                    from the spikes and the acid.  I do it all,

                    here, after the growers deliver.  I peel

                    and slice, pack the pieces into tins,

                    then solder on the lids, each by hand.


                    We still have to peel the scrubbers,

                    but they're too small for anything

                    but crushing and boiling.  Then we send

                    the whole mess to the jam factory.


                    It's a job anyhow.

                    I make enough to keep the family.

                    And I can't really complain about the heat

                    - there'd be no fruit to can without it!


                    I used to like pineapple once,

                    when I was a little tyke.

                    Now I can't hardly bring meself

                    to look at the blighters, nohow ...



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996



                7. BANYO STATION OPENS, 1912                                         

          Mrs Murray, Station Mistress, Banyo Station, 1912



                    Banyo is growing since the train line's

                    been extended.  And our employment prospects

                    have grown also.  If I must work, I do so like

                    to do it alongside my Jack.  It's companionable.


                    Jack takes care of the signals, and pushes

                    closed the gates while the trains rush by.

                    I sit behind the counter and write out tickets.

                    The railways have given us a neat little cottage,

                    so we never have to take more than a few steps to work.


                    In the afternoons, I fill the hurricane lamps,

                    being very careful to 'use only sufficient kerosene

                    to keep the lamps burning to the last train's departure'.

                    (They are so very fussy, these railway officials!

                    Still, waste now, want not ...)  At night 

                    those lamps are a great leveller.  The passengers

                    have to hail the driver, and to be seen they either

                    wave my lamps or burn bits of old newspaper.

                    It doesn't matter what their station

                    - factory workers or professional men -

                    they all have to wave their flames.


                    I could hail the driver for them.

                    But it's so amusing to peer

                    from the ticket office window

                    and see all those funny little flames!



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996




          David Murphy, resident, 1935


                    It was the Depression that brought me here.

                    It was too hard to survive in Brisbane

                    with no work, so I upped stakes and moved

                    to the backblocks.  It's not bad,

                    apart from the sandflies and mozzies,

                    and the damned mud you haveta cross

                    if you wanta go anywhere.  Still, like

                    they say, what you lose on the swings

                    you pick up on the roundabout - in this

                    case, good fishin' and crabbin', a nice

                    little slab hut I built meself, and a quiet

                    life, livin' off what's here,

                    just like the blackfellas.


                    Some of me old mates went crook at me 

                    for movin' out here - 'on the fringe 

                    of society', they called it.  They

                    wouldn't know a good life if it slapped 'em

                    in the face!  But if there's one thing I can

                    do without, it's puttin' up with city-bred

                    snobs and their posh bloody attitudes!  



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996

          9.  1937 - ARGENTINIAN GYPSIES CAMP AT NUDGEE WATERHOLE               
              The voice of Samuel Ennis, a professional                           

              photographer and resident of Nudgee.


                    As a child I remember their camp in town,

                    and the thousands who flocked to have

                    their fortunes told.  The talk then

                    was of godlessness and stealing, and I

                    remember my father insisted I lock 

                    the henhouse, and sleep nearby with his rifle.


                    Now I hear these new arrivals have

                    caused no end of trouble in Sydney,

                    and the newspaper I work for has begun

                    to campaign against them.  Still, I have been

                    much taken with the dark beauty of the women,

                    with the sparkle of their ringed fingers,

                    and their long black plaits, studded with coins.  


                    I saw many children in their camp, and I 

                    approached them smiling, boiled lollies 

                    in my outstretched hand.  They took them, 

                    but to no avail, for when I began 

                    to photograph the camp, a woman grabbed 

                    a heavy tent pole and came menacingly 

                    towards me.  I had to grab my things

                    and run for cover, my tripod held aloft,

                    my legs moving faster than they ever have.



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996

               AT SANDGATE


          Chuck Wagner, American Soldier, 1942


                    It's a nice joint to have landed in, this Sandgate.

                    The place is full of fellas from back home, and Aussie

                    guys on leave.  It's hard to believe it's Christmas

                    time, being so far from home and with such tropical

                    weather.  I missed Halloween, and Thanksgiving.

                    But I got me a kick out of the local traditions

                    - how they lash those branches of she-oak

                    and eucalypt to the shop awnings for decoration,

                    and the influx of picnickers each Sunday.


                    Not to mention the free concerts in the bandstand,

                    and the pretty young ladies from Brisbane who come

                    to meet soldiers and talk on the pier.

                    I've watched the children on their pony rides,

                    and seen the Punch and Judy.  Everything

                    seems so normal, here, as if the war's

                    just some bad dream that I had years ago.


                    I met a girl in town yesterday.  Legless,

                    she was, walking funny on artificial limbs.

                    But with a face any man'd be glad to come home to.

                    She said she'd had an accident, back when she

                    was a kid - fell off an industrial turntable

                    at that slimy-lookin' wading pool on the beach.

                    Poor kid!  That must've been terrible!


                    I took her out for a drink last night.

                    Usually I offer 'em a pair of silk stockings.

                    But with her, I thought it might be in bad taste

                    - so I gave her chocolates instead.



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996





          Margaret Delaney, resident, 1979


                    I suppose it had to happen.  They've 

                    been been talking about moving us out

                    since the war.  Still, I did hope it 

                    wouldn't happen till long after I'd gone.


                    The government say they'll give us money

                    for our lots, and help us relocate.  The land's

                    not worth much, though, and there won't be

                    enough to buy anything else.  Some neighbours


                    talked of moving to Dina Island, but I've 

                    heard it's a blackfellas burial ground,

                    and I'll be amongst the dead soon enough.   

                    Besides, an old lady like me doesn't want


                    to move at this stage of my life!

                    Cribb was a fine place;  I've loved

                    living here.  Most of us came 'cause

                    we were down on our luck, and stayed.  


                    Sometimes cyclones and big tides came up.  We

                    just upped stumps and shifted our shacks back  

                    aways.  There was good fishing here, despite

                    all the old floating tyres from the factory,


                    and small farmers grew grapes and peaches

                    and caulis.  That nice fruit man started coming

                    in the fifties, calling "Orange-apple-beans

                    -peas-and-cabbage!"  It echoed out like a song.


                    They were good days, then, and the thought of

                    this whole village being flattened by big

                    bulldozers really does turn my stomach.

                    They'll drain the land and pour the concrete,


                    and soon enough there'll be the big planes,

                    taxiing over what was once the place where 

                    I was so happy with my Thomas, and where 

                    all my kids used to play.  There'll be 


                    nothing left to show my grandchildren, 

                    nothing but what I can remember ...



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996 



          WETLANDS HAIKU                                                  

          1. brown snake


             kuralbang see you

             before you know he's watching

             black eyes, slide through grass


          2. two types of bees


             kabbai honey sweet

             kuta make it dark and sour

             ooondumbi eat, smile!


          3. swamp she-oak 


             billai good for fire

             helps us get kambo, kanyi

             makes good boomerangs


          4. witchetty grub harvest


             kambo hiding there

             in bark of the great billai

             we roast, eat laughing


          5. shipworm harvest


             we pile billai in creek

             come back next year for kanyi

             good food, next season


          6. osprey


             bugawan fly high

             then dive for fish in warra

             big splash for dinner


          7. night-time ceremony


             when mirrigin bright                     when the stars shine bright

             mallara paint skin kutchi,               our men paint their skin    

             bando for bural                          in red and white for bural


          8. mangrove swamp


             ngandakul nyanda                         there's fish in the swamp

             yirin and kanyi ikki                     and crabs and shipworms  

             kalukin show wanna                       pelican shows us where



          Liz Hall-Downs, 1996