Butler’s Backyard

by Tim Dawe

imgp2625We are sometimes exhorted to travel to our own backyard; to get off the well-trodden path and examine our own environs anew, or with more time and interest. Our usual travel instinct is to venture somewhere else when there are things nearby, under our noses, that are, well, quite interesting. Many of us explore other people’s cities, towns and landscapes more than our own.

There’s an awkward term, “staycation”, that describes holidaying at home rather than a hotel, with the travel destination within your city, region or even national limits. I tried it once. The plan was paid cooks and cleaners, restaurant and café meals and planned day-excursions. It didn’t work; it felt uncomfortably…foreign. Yet travelling to familiar yet unknown territory is a sound principle and a compelling idea; to get out of that limiting rut and routine and see something for the first time – close to home.

My journey is to Butler’s Swamp, just 5km away. It involves an early start, camera and gumboots.

imgp2639Perth is blessed with a string of wetlands, generally formed in the depressions between ancient giant sand dunes – some expansive like Herdsman Lake, others little more than a sump. I am generations too young to remember these wetlands as Aboriginal meeting places and sources of food, or early settler farms of rich soil.  But I have a vague memory of Chinese market gardens and clear memories of wetlands as receptacles for rubbish, particularly old car bodies. The history of Butler’s Swamp is no different.

imgp2645-cropJohn Butler, a settler granted most of the land of present day Peppermint Grove, ran a half-way hotel on the Perth-Fremantle Road. In 1831 he petitioned the Surveyor General (John Septimus Roe) for “10 acres on the east side of the lagoon, one and a half miles from my home at Freshwater Bay”. He farmed what was known as Butler’s Swamp but never received secure title. Later 19 British military pensioners, supervising the convict depot at Freshwater Bay, were each granted lots at the site. Eventually with greater environmental awareness and municipal money Butler’s Swamp was landscaped to become today’s Lake Claremont.

imgp2631First there is the gloom and threatening shapes then a dawn chorus and, ever so slowly, a pink light. Gradually the water goes from inky to grey to gold as more birds take wing. The light plays from wide-angle shadows to close-ups of refracted dewdrops on leaves.

There’s something uplifting about being alone in a pocket of urban wilderness as the birds and animals stir and start their rituals with the rising sun. And after swamp-wading since dawn there’s something heartening about driving home in 15 minutes to a hot shower and a cooked breakfast.

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