THIS ( DROUGHTFUL) LIFE
IOFTEN go for a walk on the beach in the morning. It has been dry here, but after the incredibly long hot spell that had Adelaide setting a national record, some rain has provided welcome relief.
I am still staggered by the number of mussel shells that have been washing up in their hundreds for weeks now. Some are covered in a strange coral- like growth that has clamped their two halves shut. Others are opened like pairs of wings. Last week I found another dead tortoise, its flesh rotted to smelly, seaweed- like fronds.
Its shell also had been covered in the coral to the point where it became so weighed down it had drowned. There have been a few of these during the past couple of months and I think, of all the things that make me sad, these affect me the most. This is no ordinary beach swept clean daily by the sea’s tide. This one is on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, at the Murray’s mouth.
A few years ago the beach wasn’t even here and the waters lapped at the grassy edge, as they had done for decades. But as the lake has receded, the beach has gradually arrived and, with it, high salinity and shallowing waters that neither tortoise nor freshwater mussel can survive, stock cannot drink and that cannot be used for vineyards, some of which until now have survived since the 19th century.
This beautiful new beach is a good 100m wide, scattered with the detritus of earlier lives. We’ve turned up the remnants of an old flat- bottomed fishing boat, the stern of a much younger plywood vessel, an encrusted outboard motor, several abandoned moorings made from every heavy object imaginable and countless bottles.
A rocky reef, over which skippers in small boats previously sailed unaware and usually unaffected, extends right across one section of the bay. It serves as a haven for the birds, confused by the lack of their customary habitat and diminishing feeding grounds.
A hundred or so egrets and spoonbills, usually relatively solitary birds, flock regularly to the edges of the receding water, desperate to find something to eat. The cormorants that roosted and nested in the willows just offshore have moved on, too easily accessed by predatory foxes able to reach them and their young by crossing the dried- up bed of the lagoon. As I write, the papers are full of news about policies that are at last being put in place to rescue our vast river system. Then I read that there will be little visible result for at least three years and hear dates such as 2018 being discussed, and I lose heart. For this area, it well may be too late.
As we watch the water drop and mourn the damage to this beautiful ecosystem, we also contemplate our future here. Soon we will be closing one aspect of our business as the diminishing lake levels make it impossible to maintain any turnover. We remind ourselves we’re among the lucky ones. We don’t have to sell off our dairy herds, strip our orchard trees, see our vineyards die, turn our backs on a lifetime of investment or walk off land that has been in our family for generations.
But we do have to consider how to reinvent ourselves this late in our lives. While we do that, we will watch as the lagoon dries to solid, cracked mud, the bay diminishes to a trickle that is the channel past the island, the egrets and spoonbills move on and the wind whips up huge sandstorms off our endless new beaches.
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