I recently went to Bootenal Spring. Bootenal Spring is a little oasis of tranquillity on the windswept Greenough Flats in Western Australia, about 20 kilometres south of Geraldton. The spring is a few hundred metres off the highway, down a dusty lane, shimmering in the heat-haze and barely noticeable unless being sought. Water permanently pools and flows into the lower Greenough River, through the sandhills into its broad estuary and, sometimes, even breaks through the sand bar into the Indian Ocean. In 1957 Randolph Stow recalled the district:
My childhood was seashells and sandalwood, windmills | and yachts in the southerly, ploughshares and keels | fostered by hills and by waves on the breakwater | sunflowers and ant-orchids, surfboards and wheels | gulls and green parakeets, sandhills and haystacks, and | brief subtle things that a child does not realise …
The place names are fairly recent. Shipwrecked adventurer Lieutenant George Grey traversed the area in 1839, re-naming Bootanoo (the river and its marshy flats) after one of his scientific patrons. In 1849 a military detachment named their landing place Gerald’s Town for their vice-regal commander. A few years later when pastoralists staked their claims over the land their station hands adapted the local names to their tongue. Boolungu, the place where the pelicans rested, became Bootenal. In time, the settlers forgot these origins and developed their own folk-etymologies. Bootenal’s story became one of an old man stuck in the mud having to pulled-out ‘boots’n’all’. In the seeming naivety of that rustic humour lies history’s secret denial.
Boolungu, the pelican place, with its permanent fresh water, attracted the old people and the incomers alike. Possessing Boolungu/Bootenal, or being possessed by it, brought them into contact and conflict, with consequences that reverberate to this day. Those stories are now told in a series of eleven plaques that chart a ramble around the Spring. The titles of the eleven plaques, like chapters, sketch out the storylines: Bimarra the Rainbow Serpent, Early visits by white men, Surveying the Greenough Front Flats, Bush tucker, Precious water, Introduction of sheep and cattle, Subjugation, Retaliation, Incarceration, Pensioner Guards and Decimation of the Aboriginal population. The story’s plot twists and turns like the path, voices speaking from all sides to the attentive rambler. It’s a bit wild, a bit confronting, it asks for comprehension.
Some of the plaques tell stories of the Bootenal Thicket massacre in 1854. Each plaque contains a quote, some from historical documents, some from oral histories. They were prepared by local historians and elders of the local Naaguja people. They don’t try to tell a coherent or total story, but instead give the walker different perspectives across time. Their demand is that you reflect … even remember.
And indeed I shall anchor, one day – some summer morning | of sunflowers and bougainvillea and arid wind … and when you ask me where I have been, I shall say | I do not remember | And when you ask me what I have seen, I shall say | I remember nothing | And if they should ever tempt me to speak again | I shall smile, and refrain.
I was at Bootenal Spring at the same time the reactions to Stan Grant’s commentary on the Captain Cook statue in Sydney were in the news. Bootenal’s plaques had been installed on National Sorry Day in 2011, 157 years after the massacre. Local people, some descended from the settlers, wanted the conflict to be recognised in local history, and for the place to be “treasured and respected”. The use of quotes was a deliberate method to allow visitors to interpret the stories, and be provoked to engage in their own discussions, rather than present them with a single and, paradoxically, contestable ‘truth’. No “discovered this territory” in these plaques.
In this part of Western Australia, eastern Australia is something of a foreign country, a feeling made ever more stark sitting by the Spring that day and comparing in my mind its monuments with those in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Perhaps the real monument at Bootenal Spring is the landscape itself, named and named again, an ancient weathered palimpsest inscribed and re-inscribed many times but always powerfully evocative, so much more than fens on a notoriously arid coast.
The loved land will not pass away | World has no life but transformation | Nothing made selfless can decay | The loved land will not pass away.
The day I visited Bootenal Spring it was peaceful and calm, the first spring day of the season. The landscape was vivid with purple and crimson samphire, green winter grass and a deep blue sky reflected in the water. Pelicans preened on the river bank. The quiet was broken only by the staccato cries of stilts on the muddy flats, bees humming around the wattle blossoms and ravens morosely calling from the sighing sheoaks. Their call remains a leitmotif of the Greenough Flats of my boyhood, taking me back in time.
And the crow’s voice in the empty halls of summer | joins sun and rain, joins dust and bees; proclaiming | crows are eternal, white cockatoos are eternal: | the old names go on.
I knew the Spring as a boy that every once-in-a-while was visited with my grandmother. I always felt there was something about it, but never really knew its stories. I followed her example of throwing a handful of sand or sedges into the water, but without knowing why. Now, one of the plaques tells me this acknowledges the rainbow serpent and ensures my protection. Perhaps that’s what nana was trying to show me all those years ago: just sit, sense the place, no speaking or words, let the country tell its stories to you?
I still felt that same disorientation that fine spring day I had felt as a boy. Family history had in more recent years revealed to me the probable involvement of a settler-ancestor in the terrible history of Bootenal Spring. A growing awareness that at least one of my ‘old colonist’ forebears was involved in the killings in 1854 now clouds everything, and I am struggling to write this post. Every keystroke becomes ever more complicated. Another plaque tells me a convict depot was built by the Spring in 1857, and through it another ancestor entangles with Bootenal – a teenage thief from the slums of Manchester who later married a widowed daughter of the old colonist of 1854. Towering palms monumentalise the now-lost depot.
Forever to remain – the condemnation | pronounced on graver felons – was for our fathers | coming in freedom, a discipline, a promise | always retractable | That is not our case | the sons: who ran as children wild | in an un-fenced, new-named inheritance … learning at last that country claims its station | as men do theirs, and skylines lock around us | surer than walls: forever to remain.
Inscribing history directly in the landscape in the form of monuments has been going on for a long time, as has disrespecting or questioning those monuments. There were once stone-circled dancing grounds on the stony hills east of the spring, but the settlers barely recognised them as monuments. There are headstones in the old Greenough cemetery memorialising men “murdered by natives”, but around them the ceaseless winds reminisce on the avenging of those deaths. Bootenal Spring’s eleven plaques were defaced soon after their installation with the slogan “get over it”. On the day I was there I could see plaques with scratched attempts at disfiguration. This is a conversation as old as the colony, even older, and it’s rarely easy listening.
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: | Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ | Nothing beside remains. Round the decay | Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare |The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Only the ruined monument survives in Shelley’s imagined sandy wastes, but by its survival it allows new stories to be told of that place, new histories to illuminate a way ahead from a troubled present. Old histories are not lost. Palimpsest it may be, but its layers do not silence its meanings.
Conflict over colonial monuments is not new, even if some of the media have only just stumbled across it. Influenced by events in America, noisy commentators here indulge in another battle in the History Wars. The pictures of Captain Cook get larger and more colourful in the newspapers, the demands to accept his greatness, and counter-insistence on ‘many Cooks’, grow ever-more strident. But, is this really more of the History Wars? Frank Bongiorno labelled this outbreak the Statue Wars, more a measure of our Americanisation and global political contentions than any understanding of colonial history or historical contingency. He characterised it as a question of how should the past be represented in public commemoration, a test of our capacity to carry more than one idea in our head at a time. Peter Read has asked whether land can hold memories of events, lingering in sites of evil or old magic, forming a tangible link between the dispossessed and the possessors. In that sensory link, in the plaques, are the old people of Boolungu able to return to the Spring, to repossess their country? I’m sure their descendants can. Bootenal Spring and its rambling walk converse with Bongiorno and Read, with the local people who placed the plaques on Sorry Day. They are not the overblown political rhetoric and media hype of the pseudo-history wars.
Perhaps more contemplation, less shouting; more historiography, less ideology; more building of bridges rather than burning them charts pathways ahead. But, even so a melancholy pervades me …
The dark women go down to the haunted pool | They speak to the children, the spirits, the yet-unborn … I have robbed from the starving woman, I have gone down | to the pool of children and stolen … A woman is a river … implacable, enduring.
This post is incomplete. Sandhills, sandalwood, southerly winds, emblems of childhood long gone. But … I don’t know how to end. Bougainvillea, orchids, sunflowers, crows, samphire, pelicans, sheoaks illume a transformative landscape. Massacre, subjugation, retaliation, incarceration, decimation, evil signal one of the founding stories that needs to be honoured. They are its war memorials on the Greenough Flats.
The story of Bootenal Spring can never be finished. In my mind’s eye I keep rambling along that track around the Spring, listening to the plaques, reading the country, no matter where I go, destined forever to remain.
I pay respect to the Elders past, present and future for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes, they are the traditional owners and First People of Bootanoo and Boolungu, of Greenough River and Bootenal Spring.
All Stow quotes from John Kinsella (ed) The Land’s Meaning: New selected poems Randolph Stow, Fremantle Press, Fremantle 2012
All photographs by mrbbaskerville, 25 August 2017; Clarkson headstone 25 August 2006
 Randolph Stow, ‘Seashells and Sandalwood’, 1957
 George Bellas Greenough FRS FGS (1778-1855), a founder and president of the Geological Society of London
 Captain Charles FitzGerald (1791-1887), Governor of Western Australia 1848-1855. Gerald’s Town quickly became Geraldton.
 Randolph Stow, ‘Landfall’, 1969
 Stan Grant, ‘It is a ‘damaging myth’ that Captain Cook discovered Australia’, ABC News Online, 23 August 2017 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536
 Peta Kingdon, ‘Plaques point to the past’, The West Australian, 3 June 2011
 Randolph Stow, ‘Variations on themes of the Tao Teh Ching, VII’, 1966
 Randolph Stow, ‘At Sandalwood’, btw 1956-1962
 Randolph Stow, ‘Stations, II, 4, The Man’, 1965
 Mike Rosel, ‘The Coast of Ghosts’, RACV Magazine, May 2013: 36
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’, 1818
 Trent Dalton, ‘The Origins of an Epic Endeavour: Cook Rediscovered’, Weekend Australian 2 September 2017: 20-21, plus more material in that issue; Martin McKenzie-Murray, ‘History rebuffs’, The Saturday Paper, 2 September 2017: 3 (with the unconscious irony of an Academy Travel advertisement illustrated by an image of a Christopher Columbus statue on page 27)
 Frank Bongiorno, ‘The Statue Wars’, Inside Story, 4 September 2017
 Peter Read, quoted in Margaret Hair, ‘Invisible Country.’, M/C Journal, Vol 8, No 6, 2005, http://journal.mediaculture.org.au/0512/09-hair.php
 Randolph Stow, ‘Stations, I, 2, The Woman’, 1965