Digital Traces of Gumbramorra Swamp

Natural waterways are continually being redirected, drained, passed over and forgotten to make way for city developments — so how might the digital world allow us to remember and reclaim these waters that have shaped our histories, lives and lands?

Reflections over storm water drains, St Peters. Image by Liberty Lawson.

Water bodies seep through digital traces and uncooperatively emerge at moments of flood to interrupt our assumptions that this city’s water is managed, controlled and subject to our whims and wants. And digital stories help in sharing these disruptions, both past and present, such as Gumbramorra Swamp.

If you’re looking for stories of past water bodies in Sydney, the digital is a relatively good place to start. Today, the bodies of water in Sydney are, for the most part, contained and channelled, the tributaries of rivers are buried and transformed into stormwater drains or roads; any rain that does arrive flows quickly to larger waterways. But there are, and were, hidden swamps and difficult waterways here, too, and their stories emerge in digital geographies.

I don’t mean for this piece to eulogise a water place now lost, but I fear it may turn out that way. After all, Gumbramorra Swamp is not somewhere you now come across in meanderings around the inner-west part of Sydney where it once just was – Marrickville, the place that I call home, part of Gadigal Country. Swamps generally were, and often still are, considered anathema to urban places and, as creeks and rivers were straightened and concretised in times gone by, so too were swamps remade so that industry and residential areas could expand and settler colonial dreams could be realised. Gumbramorra Swamp used to shrink in dry times and grow with the incursion of saline water from the sea and with seasonal rains. Those times are long gone.

I first read about Gumbramorra Swamp in a beautiful piece by Sue Castrique. I had lived in this area for nine years before reading that essay. Walking around and along the Cooks River catchment is a near daily experience for me but it took a digital trace for this once-was body of water to emerge from the pathways and roads and sludgy riparian banks and manicured lawns beneath my feet.

If a place exists mostly in digital spaces, how real is it? Or, put another way, what work of preservation, reclamation and remembrance does the digital do?

Swamps do not tend to sit well or last long in urban places. They attract mosquitoes, flies and generate smells that are frequently maligned. The melding of land and water that swamps facilitate make for tricky locations that are not suited to easy promenades or sporting activities. Swamps fluctuate in size during periods of rainfall and during tidal changes in coastal areas. Such variance does not blend comfortably with concrete and asphalt leading to draining and reworking. Erasing swampy physical presence in catchments has been a part of modernist trajectories.

To write about a body of water that doesn’t exist in its original form is a solastalgic pursuit; I am curious about what Marrickville might have been like with a vivid swamp at its heart. But perhaps digital geographies can capture times and places in ways that can help us reconnect with, and even prompt restoration of, these watery places. If we want. Histories like Chrys Meader’s notes on Gumbramorra Swamp fill in some of the gaps in the altered waterways around us. Meader tells us that after a failed residential effort called Tramvale atop the Swamp, the area was drained and repurposed for industry in the 1890s.

To drain a swamp is a politically, culturally, socially and environmentally laden act. It involves making something that was amorphous now rigid. Rendering a hybrid wetlandscape, dry. Replacing earthen waters with manufactured structures. There are still remnants of the Gumbramorra Swamp if you know where to look – stormwater drainage lines follow the creeks that once fed it. The weird political ways that the idea of ‘draining a swamp’ now travels (thinking about Trump’s electoral promise to drain the swamp) shows the pervasive qualities of this notion.

Drained or not, Gumbramorra Swamp is Country, it is an Aboriginal place. Despite its heavily altered state. The digital stories that (re)present this Country include stories of food gathering and spending time on and with this in-between place. ‘We were swamp walkers’, Aunty Fran Bodkin, a Dharawal elder, told Sue Castrique of this place.

We could read Gumbramorra Swamp as a shadow water as these are visible in the stories found in digital traces too. Inspired by Val Plumwood’s notion of shadow places, shadow waters as an idea can help us understand the multiple ways that power intersects with cultural practices. Shadow waters can be made over time and space – deliberately, or as a result of inattention. Shadow waters can be conceptualised vertically, with surface water generally receiving more policy and research attention than ground water, and horizontally – as some water places receive more policy and research attention than others. There are historical dimensions to shadow waters too as people rework and remake rivers, creeks and swamps to become more malleable and/or agreeable systems.

The Gumbramorra Swamp is historically a shadow water, and horizontally too. You can see that there are gestures to manage the Cooks River mainstem in a way that might restore some of its river health. The Cooks is visible and seen by local people and governments, while Gumbramorra is a (digital) shadow water. Gross pollutant traps have been built in an attempt to gather the plastic bottles, straws and scraps from stormwater before it gets to the sea, and the Cooks River Mudcrabs (a group of enthusiastic volunteers) regularly remove waste from along its stretch. Restoring Gumbramorra Swamp requires reading digital narratives and ground-truthing those in place.

These large-scale interventions can’t do anything to stop the microplastics that join the river – especially during massive floods. James Hitchcock found that microplastics particles in the river increased more than 40 fold from a storm in October 2018. No gross pollutant trap could stop random acts of vandalism such as the dumping of a whole car in the river a few years ago. It was during one of my regular walks that I saw it backed in, behind Gough Whitlam Park.

But back to Gumbramorra Swamp: now, it’s not even a backwater, it’s an underground thing that evades identification, and would require massive reconstruction and reclamation if it were ever to be anything near the body of water it once was. Concrete channels would need to be dug up and vegetated, causeways would need to be removed and railway stations possibly relocated. Factories and warehouses might need to move. Given the scale of the undoing the Swamp would demand, bringing back this shadow water is little more than a dream. It may not be a completely impossible dream, however, if we look to Merri Creek in Melbourne for inspiration. This too was once an industrial wasteland but has re-emerged following significant refiguration as a part of vibrant community life. Following this lead, we could reclaim some of Gumbramorra Swamp, if not all.

At present, it exists in vivid recollections in the digital. This is one of the affordances of our digital spaces – they allow for the collection and curation of water stories that exist as ghostly traces in concrete and through stormwater drains, beneath and alongside us. The digital, of course, certainly has its limits too.

I want to find the edges of the Gumbramorra Swamp, guess the lines it once took from the digital cartographies that preserve it. To find out more about its past and what we could do now to re-enliven it, whatever that process might look like. In the meantime, the shadow waters that are made and challenged by our urban lives can flow in half-light in digital geographies.

Jess McLean is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University and completed here PhD at the University of Sydney in the School of Geosciences. She has a book called ‘Changing Digital Geographies: Technologies, environments and people’ coming out in December with Palgrave Macmillan.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.