Renaturalising Sullivan’s Creek

Art by Maddy Brown

Dedicated to my Dad.


During Semester 1, 2021, a group of ANU students was formed to work with local community organisation SEE Change on the topic of “renaturalising” Sullivan’s creek. The ‘SEE’ in SEE Change stands for Society, Environment, and Economics and these are the “three pillars” of sustainability that  underpin the framework used by our group. Our task was to create a report that considered key issues and explored a broad range of ways to approach the idea of “renaturalisation.”

What does renaturalisation mean?

Simply put, it means to return a place to its natural state. One area we focused on were the sections of the creek with concrete beds. How might we go about returning them back into soil and plants, and what are the potential benefits of doing so in terms of biodiversity, human wellbeing, economics, and community sustainability?

These are all important areas we wanted to address, but there’s something largely absent in these sorts of considerations: First Nations peoples and perspectives. I had the privilege of speaking briefly about this project with Dr. Virginia Marshall, the Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow with ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance and the Fenner School of Environment and Society, and a Wiradjuri Nyemba woman. With respect to our focus on flooding, she noted that:

If we look at various concepts of living within an Aboriginal world view, the understanding of the benefits of floodplains and flooding is [that it is] nurturing to the entire environment. Why do we build near rivers that flood?

She pointed to research into the colonial history surrounding areas like Gundagai, Daly River, and Wingecarribee River – among many others – where Aboriginal people warned settlers not to set up camp near rivers. We at the ANU have certainly set up camp here at the creek.

Referring to earlier discussions about the “three pillars” that began this article, she stated that a fourth pillar – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture – is considered as ‘core,’ adding that the “triple bottom line” employed by sustainability-minded organisations in homage to the three pillars framework would instead be a “five bottom line” in many Aboriginal communities where the fourth area of culture is joined by a fifth – law. These are different frameworks that open up a broader range of considerations.  

What does natural mean?

To return a place to its natural state may seem self-explanatory, but what does “natural” actually mean? A state without human interaction? A time before human intervention? The Ngunnawal peoples, among others, have lived in this area for at least 20,000 years. Before colonisation, the entirety of Australia was what you might call an Indigenous constructed landscape. Dr. Marshall echoes these points, noting Bill Gammage’s appropriately titled work The Biggest Estate, as well as the work of Aboriginal authors Bruce Pascoe and Tyson Yunkaporta. Her own award-winning book, Overturning Aqua Nullius takes this same argument of an expanded, managed estate to the waters of Australia – so often forgotten in discourse that places Western words, frames, and concepts like “land” above other more inclusive Indigenous terms like “Country.”

We don’t need to rewind the local ecology 20,000 years to arrive at a time before these concrete blocks were placed, yet we use a word such as “natural” which implies an absence of humans. We could just as easily, and more accurately, describe this process as “re-Indigenising” if what we’re aiming for is the healthy Indigenous environment from just a few centuries ago. 

The settler-colonisers who invaded this Country saw nature as something different to and separate from themselves. As early as the 1500s, influential legal thinkers like Grotius enshrined these ideas in frameworks of sovereignty. Later, Blackstone’s 1754 comments around ideas of agriculture and the right to take those civilisations deemed lacking it formed the basis of other disastrous concepts like terra nullius. These legal frameworks prevented settlers from seeing the landscape as something already “deeply shaped by people,” with severe and far-reaching consequences still felt today. We obviously want to avoid repeating those mistakes, but it’s often hard to do from the start when the language we use, and the way we’re taught to understand it, prominently features those same frames.

A similar idea is found in the concept of “wilderness.” In fact, a “rewilding” project for ANU was already raised long before our project began. The ANU Below Zero initiative is exploring ways to reduce campus emissions, and a community consultation document refers multiple times to the idea of “rewilding” campus. Again, this isn’t a bad idea, but perhaps we should be mindful of the framing here too. 

A term like “wilderness” implies an absence of humans, perhaps even more strongly than the word “nature”. At the time of the interview, Dr. Marshall was planning to attend COP26 as a Pacific delegate, to engage in discussions around these issues, exploring “how we can learn from Indigenous knowledge and culture in working with an Indigenous environment”. She added that:

Wild and wilding is a colonial concept that relates back to the colonial discourse of ‘prehistory’, ‘primitive’ and ‘nomads’. Indigenous peoples are very uncomfortable about these terms for good reasons.

In Carving Wilderness, Tracey Banivanua Mar describes the creation of our national parks system and how it both depended upon, and reaffirmed, the concept of a deserted wilderness. This idea left no room – in the mind, or on Country – for Indigenous landscapes. In a related paper on ‘narratives of dispossession’, Mar continues this line of thought and considers these colonised landscapes as a kind of history text – one read through mere occupation, an act that constantly reaffirms those same ideas.

It’s important for us to appreciate the hidden values in frames like these so that we can work to also include thoughts beyond or outside them. Once we also start framing “nature” as “Indigenous environment” or similar, it opens new and exciting ways of thinking about problems like those concrete blocks.


Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 5 ‘To Be Confirmed’

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