‘Swimming Fixations—The Pool in Australian Environmental Imagination’
Going Down Swinging Number 32, 2011.
Edited by Geoff Lemon and Jessica Friedmann
It is hard not to be preoccupied with the swimming pools. As the plane descends into Perth at daybreak, passing over corrugated roofs and tracts of gris clair bushland, the pools flash like shards of a mirror smashed in an overgrown lawn. Here the dawn is taken into physical custody. Step out in that thin hour to see stars drowning in the gardens – every waterbody brims with sky. Once an American astronaut called Perth “The City of Lights” but seen from this intermediate altitude, a different elemental mean dominates the landscape. What Rachel Carson described as that “dark, subsurface sea, rising under hills, sinking under valleys.” As if the pools were in fact all connected to some great undergirding reservoir, a fluid scaffolding revealing itself. Here and there a pupil-less eye stares out of the topography, bright and blind, fringed with scrub. The plane banks. A seam of sunlight blinks across their surfaces.
The aerial view of my home city is pockmarked with water. More specifically, it is shaped by the desire to demonstrate control over water: a symbol of affluence and leisure, and an affront to the climate. From this height it is possible to discern how much of the city’s infrastructure – highways, railways, pumping stations and powerlines – follow courses laid down by waterways, many of which still run in subterranean channels that rise to soften the land with infrequent spots of enchained bog. Occasionally you hear that one of these chthonic rivers has attempted to recoup a post office or the quadrangle of a primary school, keeling the bitumen inward as if something heavy had alighted there, and taken off again, during the night.
Leaving the Earth’s surface it is strange to note how the forces that hold you there become more, not less apparent. At this elevation the normally imperceptible haul of gravity shows up in the land as one topography falling constantly down on top of another one, ever slowly. Splitting at the joins to reveal a familiar but distant register of time. The landscape that I am flying over today, pushed onwards at an inconceivable ground-speed, is as dry as parchment and has appeared so since the earliest days of settlement (when far fewer people had the chance to see it laid out from above). What has been built around the water here hasn’t sought it out to suppress it, but to draw from it as vegetation does a lake. Now those gulches are set with the loose crockery of dried clay, clotted with rushes, or impoverished soil deposited by runoff. Water shapes the city by its absence – histories of evaporation, and evaporating histories.This is the country that inspired “Born Sandy Devotional,” not the fecund substrate of the American nature writing classic Sand County Almanac. Roads part and rejoin around wetlands that have become no more than waterless pans, ringed with the type of stains that mottle a damp ceiling. Some of these places have been built over with parking lots and discount supermarkets, named for their watery palimpsest: Dog Swamp and Champion Lakes. Swathes of dead trees in the distance show where salt has struck up to meet the root boluses, so that the canopy colours seen from overhead read as a translation of the biotic story playing out beneath the topsoil. It is the striking lack of surface water that makes these backyard swimming pools stand out so much.
In a 1977 essay entitled “Holy Water,” Joan Didion wrote that “some of us who live in arid parts of the world might think about water with a reverence others find excessive.” In Western Australia that reverence verges on obsession. When water restrictions are enforced during the summer months, well-heeled residents pay thousands of dollars for cartage firms to transport truckloads of treated groundwater from regional bores to their backyards, to keep their pools legally topped up. Nightly the news-shows broadcast reservoir levels, while over the airwaves the state Water Corporation entreats us all – bathers, growers, drinkers – to “think of the dams” that are boiling off by the bucketful under the midday sun. In 2004, the noted environmental scientist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery declared that Perth could shortly become “the 21st Century’s first ghost metropolis” because of water shortages. Almost overnight hundreds of suburban lawns yellowed and then blew away in billowing clouds of topsoil and desiccated grass, as people abandoned their sprinkler systems to rust. We are a city saturated with water consciousness (and so too contentiousness) much as San Franciscans live with earthquake, or Beijing residents know smog.