Four Rivers, Deep Maps
… how startling it is to think … that in writing about the river, the river is writing itself.(Ortega 34)
Four Rivers, Deep Maps brings together almost thirty responses to four rivers: the Don and Dee in Scotland’s northeast, and Derbarl Yerrigan/Swan and Dyarlgarro Beeliar/Canning in south-western Australia. At its heart, the collection is about the many ways of knowing and relating to rivers and bodies of water. Jo Jones observes in the introduction to the collection that “[w]ater is a repository of memory that spans well beyond decades of a human life” (5). However, Jones also foreshadows the complexity of writing about something as ‘slippery’ as water—which becomes apparent as the collection unfurls—pointing to rivers and water as “viable conduits for relationality” and “a foundation of human narrative”, “simultaneously in place and moving, where materiality and metaphor are inseparable” (5).
The collection’s blurb somewhat belies its richness and literary underpinnings: as Jones explains, the ‘deep mapping’ central to this project is not mapping as we commonly know it. Rather, the responses to the four rivers, “woven together through strands of deep mapping” (2), fuse art, literature, history, and geography to create works that are just as slippery as the collection’s subject matter. Deep mapping is academic and poetic, and often deeply personal: “[t]he deep mapper is in search of the crucial connection between lived experience of specific environments to cultural practice and histories in moving, sinuous strands” (3). This is the search that each deep mapper in this collection shares:
… they do invite you, the reader, to make many folds and investigate the relation between rivers, places, regions and space; art and language; human and non-human patterns of habitation; all the meanings and association that rivers contain and the histories of their interpretation.(8)
The responses in Four Rivers, Deep Maps are notionally placed-based in the bustling cities of Perth, Western Australia, and Aberdeen, Scotland. The contributors—with backgrounds spanning research, writing, and art—include writers Anna Haebich and John Kinsella, social and cultural historian Samantha Owen, and visual artist Simona Trozzi, among others. Commencing a deep mapping journey in specific built environments, these contributors aim to unearth “lively subcultures that resist the capitalist and expansionist imperatives” that often define these locations (2). Deep mapping reveals the respective rivers as stories as well as places; as both within and beyond the two cities. Rivers are paths of human movement for travel, trade, recreation, or migration. Qassim Saad, for instance, takes us on a journey from the rivers of Mesopotamia to the “sense of a second ‘home’” along the Taieri River in New Zealand (200), then to Cairo and the Nile, and finally to the Derbarl Yerrigan/Swan and Dyarlgarro Beeliar/Canning rivers:
While crossing a river involves both physical and mental transformation from one side of the river to the other, the living experience of the betweenness of these places depends on both home and exile.(191)
Rivers are shown to shape and be shaped by cities, by development, by design. Some of the contributors travel down rivers to visit the past (“[t]he weight of this time hangs heavy in the woods around me” (Grosz 63), others to speculate what an imagined present might look like:
Ours is a sentimental map that serves as a catalyst for imaginative wanderings, memories, and experiences. It does not describe static surfaces; it rather maps the depths of thought and imagination, as well as the fluid consistency of water.(Gruppuso and Trozzi 99)
The rivers are variously sites of human/nature relations; a thread in time; a literary site; are light and playful, or dark and full of undefined threats. The rivers are humanised (“[t]he river beckons, laughing” (Kealley 96), othered, or vastly incomprehensible. A river is more than water:
The silvery Dee brings to mind that other silvery river, The Milky Way, and I recall how alone we all are in this impossibly vast universe.(Ortega 36)
Some of the contributors walk, cycle, or swim as they write, mapping not just the river but the natural and human-made world around those bodies of water, and the sensations of their own bodies in those places. Often, non-humans join the deep mappers on their travels. Dolphins mesmerise in the Yerrigan/Swan River; there is the promise of a seal just around the bend in the Dee. Other non-human elements also appear:
I wade to a shingle island where a BBQ tray(Ortega 32)
pivots and morses like a great salmon among
six-pack rings, dark fruit cider cans.
The connections between place, particularly between Aberdeen and Perth, give rise to unsettling questions about colonial imaginings: what does it mean for the Scottish or British to bring their own water stories to Perth, displacing Indigenous knowledge and history? Jones notes that “the Swan coastal plain has Noongar artefacts that indicate that these people lived in this place from at least 45,000 years ago” (109), and Four Rivers, Deep Maps is in parts a process of unearthing some of what has been willfully ignored in a history of colonisation and dispossession in Western Australia. Noongar writer Cass Lynch questions in her haiku if the serpents of Britain wonder where their people went (159); inverting temporal and directional notions of settler presence. Contributor Chris Fremantle writes of the complexity in being directly related to the colonial destruction of Perth’s rivers, and the internal struggle of traveling your own history by way of the rivers your ancestors helped devastate. Nandi Chinna juxtaposes poetry with declarations of appropriation from early settlers. For example, her poem, ‘Stirling's Garden’, begins with an epigraph from Western Australia's first governor:
By the formation of gardens and by leaving stock, I performed Acts of(147-8)
Occupation upon which at any time a just claim to the Territory might be
founded and maintained.
James Stirling, report to Admiralty, 31 August 1827
Forged metal slices river loam
like a knife through dark cake.
Picks and spades tear holes,
scrape trenches and mounds,
and into this mixture is sown
the simple act of occupation,
the seeds of peas, radishes, and cabbages
the soft stones of precious potatoes
and carefully wrapped cuttings
of English peach trees.
This engagement with colonisation’s impact on First Nations history and culture in the collection culminates with Wadjuk Noongar researcher, artist, Elder and Traditional Owner Vanessa Corunna sharing a watercolour Warrior Eagle, a tribute to the spirit of Yagan that returned to Country after the repatriation and burial of his kaat (head).
None of the rivers in the collection conform to static ideas of nature. They are places of great natural beauty, are degraded, or fall somewhere in between. They bring life but also death and destruction. Neil Curtis and Jones cite the Scottish writer, Nan Shepherd, in the book’s introduction:
For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and(9)
gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear
and writing on rivers is shown to be just as fraught:
Until it dries out you may not be able to understand(Chinna 155)
what water has to say.
Many of the contributors write in places removed from the waters of their childhood, and the distance of memory and space conditions their responses to nature: “[u]sed to living in a dry and crackling place, I couldn’t get used to all this water” (Wilson 222). Deep mapping, particularly in places of colonisation, also unearths a convict and migrant history of water and trauma that transcends place. Some contributors speak of their ‘childhood river’—the one they left, the one they came back to, the one they carry with them (Whish-Wilson; Claire Jones; Saad; Midalia). Their childhood river is often not as they remember: climate change, degradation and development mean they can’t return to the rivers they hold in their memory. Complex feelings of ‘solastalgia’ amongst Perth’s settler populations—distress, grief or ‘homesickness’ caused by environmental degradation to one’s home environment (Albrecht)—sit in tension alongside the historical dispossession and appropriation of Indigenous lands and waters.
The methodology of deep mapping as presented in this collection somewhat necessarily overlooks important interrogations in lieu of description: colonisation and appropriation, the margins of what a river is or could be, and the human-centric nature of the entire endeavor are all folded into personal narratives and rich, layered accounts rather than being drawn out in detail. Jones and Curtis go some way toward addressing these gaps in their introductions. But the accounts are still significant: they highlight that rivers mean something to humans. Whether it be a collective or individual history, story, symbol, culture, resource, or knowledge. Increasingly around the world, rivers are sites for contestation and protest about environmental degradation, climate change, and local involvement in water-related decision making (Macpherson et al; Boelens et al). Four Rivers, Deep Maps illustrates just how nuanced placed-based connection is in a world of global movement, and the complexity of corresponding environmental or community action. Because, for different people, rivers are a biophysical feature, a boundary, a journey, a memory, a story, or something altogether different: The Milky Way. The individual responses in this collection—the deep maps—provide windows into broader considerations about how we might relate to natural entities that are fundamentally wound up with human development and histories.
Those hoping for a way forward won’t get it; the collection doesn’t offer solutions to the climate crisis or a framework for protecting rivers into the future. As Jones herself notes, “[t]he question remains if the recognition of multi-dimensional loss is somehow compatible with hope” (119). But it offers a nuanced, powerful—and often beautiful—account of literature, poetry, art, science, anthropology, and geography that allows the reader to explore the myriad stories enmeshed within our relationships to rivers … and at the same time, contemplate whether rivers owe us such stories.
Albrecht, Glenn. “The age of solastalgia.” The Conversation, 7 August 2012, theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337.
Boelens, Rutgerd et al. “Riverhood: political ecologies of socionature commoning and translocal struggles for water justice.” Journal of Peasant Studies, 2022.
Macpherson, Elizabeth et al. “Where ordinary laws fall short: ‘riverine rights’ and constitutionalism.” Griffith Law Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 2021, pp. 438-473.