It’s hard to imagine the city of Brisbane without the Brisbane river snaking its way through the middle.
Before colonisation, the river was a border between the Turrbul people on the north and Jagera on the south, and still today it is our main geographical reference point, suburbs referred to as being on the north or south side.
It’s there in our social life too – a lot of our public spaces and social gatherings are along the river, from New Farm Park to Kangaroo Point, Southbank to Orleigh Park. And that’s just the inner city.
In West End, the river almost circles around the little peninsula, seemingly shepherding us into one little corner. The river is a vital factor in the creation of this place with more sense of local community than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.
As well as these, in a very real way the river has always been the veins of this city, carrying water and life from the ocean out west to Ipswich and beyond, to some of the drier parts of the continent.
I know I’ve many times been very grateful for the river, from sitting on its banks to walking across the bridge to or from the city, looking out over it at the sun going down, or seeing the lights of the city reflected in the water. The ever-present tourist stopped on any one of those bridges taking photos suggests I’m not the only one either.
But as beautiful as it is, the river’s not always so happy – like the morning when you get a call saying the body of your friend has been found floating in the river. Those Lifeline telephones on either side of the Story Bridge are reminders of the sadness that the river carries on its waves for the families and friends of so many people over the years.
This river that rips through the heart of the city can hold a very different kind of symbolism – standing on the bank looking across reminds me of the gulf that exists between us all, that sometimes no amount of reaching out can cross.
Or the permanent cracks in our hearts that all the pain and sadness of this world have carved, like water making a path inland from the sea. Like the poison and toxins that make swimming and fishing in that river so inadvisable, sometimes it takes a long time to clean up the mess that life has gifted us.
The song that kept running through my head this morning was Joni Mitchell’s “River”, with those bare piano chords and such a sad voice, singing “I wish I had a river to skate away on”. I suppose that when people feel so stuck and surrounded in darkness and sadness, that river can seem like the only escape.
I hope that like a river with its tributaries winding off in different directions, the legacy of all those lives can still survive for a long time, floating along in the memories and hearts of all who loved and were loved by them.
And that deep darkness that looks so immeasurably sad from up on the bridge is the same water that further downstream provides a home for animals, life for plants, and the impossible beauty that takes your breath away when the banks are lined with trees and the the sun stretches its fingers out along the water, its light creeping along the surface.
You are loved and will be missed Carmel, may you rest in the peace that often seemed so elusive in life.