THIS ( DROUGHTFUL) LIFE

CATHERINE EK­ERS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ lifestyle.

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