There’s an art installation on the steps leading up the State Library. You might think of it as a garden, but it’s not. (Click on the photos to embiggen)
Created by Linda Tegg and titled ‘Grasslands’, it is
a living installation that gathers over 10,000 indigenous plants. This organic composition aims to recreate the vast grass plains that stretched over this site before the State Library of Victoria was established in the mid nineteenth century…. The result is a transformation of history and nature by artistic imagination, inviting us to visualize the layers of memory and place.
It’s a good place for it. I think of the grass outside the State Library as being the real heart of Melbourne. As soon as the sun’s out, there we are, stretched out on the lawn with our shoes off, wriggling our toes. The former City Square on the corner of Swanston and Collins opposite the Town Hall is now a gritty unpleasant desert since they sold half of it off and covered the rest with granitic sand. And don’t get me started on Fed Square that alternates between icy blasts and baking heat. I’m horrified that there could even be any consideration of letting high-rise buildings block the State Library forecourt: a planning restriction that we were told was sacrosanct (huh!). Just like the overshadowing of the south bank of the Yarra, which it seems is another no-go zone that becoming somehow negotiable.
Back to Grasslands. It’s not intended to be a permanent installation. When you look at it closely, the grasses are still in their containers, laid out in pallets directly onto the concrete.
It’s only intended to be there for six weeks.
There’s a fantastic little timelapse video of it being installed. Watch it- it’s good! And just as I said, you can see people coming to sit and lie on the grass either side of the installation.
Having read Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, I’m seeing my city differently. A good history does that. Gammage takes seriously the writings of early settlers when they described the land around them.
Here’s John Helder Wedge, Letter to Mr Frankland on settlement at Port Phillip, VDL Magazine, 1835 :
The country between the rivers [Maribyrnong and Yarra] extending to the north forty or fifty miles, and to the east about twenty-five miles… is undulating and intersected with valleys; and is moderately wooded, especially to the east and north-east; to the north there are open plains… The surface is everywhere thickly covered with grass, intermixed with rib-grass and other herbs. (cited in Presland, p. 27)
Or here’s the gardener James Flemming, who along with Acting-Lieutenant Charles Robbins and Charles Grimes the acting-surveyor-general sailed to Port Phillip in January 1803, prior to the Collins settlement at Sorrento. They sailed right round the bay- the first of the British visitors to do so.
4th February 1803. Started at six and came to the branch we passed before [junction of Maribyrnong and Yarra] at the entrance the land swampy; a few miles up found it excellent water, where we saw a little hill [Batman’s Hill] and landed… went on the hill, where we saw the lagoon seen from the hill where we first landed. It is a large swamp between two rivers; fine grass, fit to mow; not a bush in it [West Melbourne Swamp]. The soil is black rich earth about six to ten inches deep, when it is very hard and stiff. About two miles further went on shore again, the land much better and timber larger. (cited in Presland p. 13)
Although, then there’s George Arden’s report from his Latest Information with Regard to Australia Felix, the first book published in Melbourne. He claims to be an eyewitness
When the writer first saw this settlement (Melbourne) in January 1838, a few months after its authorized establishment, it presented more the appearance of the villages he had seen in the interior of India; a nucleus of huts embowered in forest foilage and peering at itself in the river stream that laved the thresholds of its tenements, than any collection of buildings formed by European hands. (p. 68)
Hmmm. Don’t know quite what to do with that description.
And finally, good old Edmund Finn (writing under the pen-name ‘Garryowen’). Linda Tegg used this quotation on her explanatory panel:
From the spot whereon Melbourne was afterwards built to the Saltwater River confluence, the Yarra Yarra flowed through low, marshy flats, densely garbed with ti-tree, reeds, sedge and scrub. Large trees, like lines of foliaged sentinels, guarded both sides, and their branches protruded so far riverwise as to more than half shadow the stream… As for herbage, it luxuriated everywhere, and two persons still living, who walked through un-streeted Melbourne in 1836, have informed me that in the places now known as Collins, Bourke, Elizabeth and Swanston Streets, they waded through grass as green as a leek and nearly breast high (Garryowen, Chronicles of Early Melbourne p. 497)
Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
T. O’Callaghan, ‘Fictitious History’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 1, Mar 1926, pp 6-37 (accessible through the SLV site)
Gary Presland Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, 2001
A.G.L. Shaw A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, 2003