One day the water is high and muddy from recent heavy rains; within a day or two the level is back to normal, the silt has settled onto the creek floor and the water runs clear. When it’s like that it looks good enough to plunge into. But the rubbish that is strewn along the banks of the Merri – the cans that glint from below the surface, the plastic bags that hang in the low boughs of trees like tattered flags – are a reminder that we are in the city, and that the ways we live our lives in the city mean we sacrifice the ability cool off in this creek on a hot day, or to take a drink when we are thirsty.
From my house I walk north along the creek to the spot where the group is to meet. Today the creek is flowing slowly and the surface of the water is calm, barely ruffled by the warm, dry wind blowing from the north-west. The sun beats down on the gums that line the creekbank, releasing the herby, medicinal smell of eucalyptus into the air. The clouds are low, and they form a thin haze across the sky. A tree trunk creaks loudly in the wind. The bell miners are high in the trees singing their bell song.
Where Arthurton Terrace crosses the creek, a big old Moreton Bay Fig grows, and the group of around 40 people are to meet under its waxy foliage. The traffic is heavy on the bridge above the creek. It’s a Saturday, and people are out and about; everyone’s thinking that this could be the last warm and sunny day before the autumn sets in properly.
Once the group has formed, we are led past a carwash and through an industrial area, to approach the creek from the east. We leave the asphalt, take a sandy path down towards the water and turn south into a clearing beneath a big willow tree. Cecilie and Eva, our hosts, wait in the dappled light with bottles of beer they have brought with them from Norway, made of wheat, with orange and coriander. They pour it out into small jars for us. We take thick slices of home-baked pale brown bread from a basket, and spread on plenty of butter. The beer is savoury and bright, the butter sweet and rich on the tangy bread.
The scene is idyllic and peaceful. The creek water bubbles over the rocks, people perch on the horizontal the boughs of the willow, long sprays of green leaves move in the breeze like seaweed under water. A young woman says to me, “I know they’re bad, but I love willow trees.” This is a conundrum for someone who descends from a European culture that has, for 200 years, in many ways been shoehorned to fit into the Australian landscape. The willow that we know from songs and stories of the English-language tradition is among the worst weeds in Australia. It spreads like wildfire (a twig from one of these trees can lodge itself in the ground and sprout roots, bringing to mind Goethe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’), choking rivers, compromising roads, footpaths and building foundations. Many have been removed from the banks of the Merri, along with other non-native species, but right now I am thankful that this one remains – for the shade of its branches, for the cool, for the way the light spangles through its leaves.
These are my thoughts as the Food Studio crew welcomes us to the day, describing the origins of Food Studio, and acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land through which the creek runs, the Wurunjeri of the Kulin Nation. I try to imagine the creek 200 years ago, as a source of food and water, of life. Cecilie speaks of her belief that with respect to food systems, ‘Things aren’t working the way they should.’ The undrinkable water rushing past us renders her comment an understatement.
But this group has come here today to learn about the farming and foraging practices that are reconnecting people to the food they eat, to their community, the seasons, and the earth beneath their feet. These are some of the people who are making food work again.
We cross the creek one-by-one on steppingstones. The sun is high and the day is becoming hotter. Cyclists zoom past on their commute; people walk their dogs. We turn off the path and enter CERES Community Environment Park. We sit in the sun under power lines, in among beds of sunflowers and basil, and Melissa Lawson tells us the story of the site. CERES is set on 4 acres of inner-city land, which, in previous incarnations was a bluestone quarry, and later a tip. When the founders of CERES arrived here in the 70s the grounds were strewn with rusted out car bodies and old refrigerators. Now, there’s a nursery, market and a café, where the community comes to learn, shop, and to be together with their hands in the dirt.
When CERES started, Melissa explains, there was a strong ‘point the finger’ mentality in the environmental/food sustainability movement, something that didn’t sit well with the founders. So, the CERES approach is to teach about land, energy, food systems and water use simply by doing. They want people to talk about what they are eating, where it comes from, who is growing it.
And everywhere you look around you, from the certified organic Honey Lane Market Garden to the worm farm, from the market area to the low-packaging food store, doing is what you see. Here they propagate their own seedlings (they cultivated 40-plus varieties of tomatoes last season), run their own chickens (whose numbers are low at the moment thanks to the foxes that hunt up and down the creek), and constantly run workshops and community meeting on the grounds.
We snack on watermelon, grapes, olives and iced tea before we set off on the weed-foraging walk to Joe’s Garden, led by Adam Grubb. The garden beds of basil are fragrant in the heat, the honeybees buzz in and out of blossoms.
Adam Grubb, director of Very Edible Gardens and co-author, with his wife Annie Raser-Rowland, of The Weed Forager’s Handbook asks us, “What is the definition of a weed?” Some among us venture answers, but there isn’t a correct one; there never used to be a delineation between good and bad plants. There are plants out of place, there are plants where we don’t want them, but the fact is that we are not talking about a botanical definition, but a psychological one. “One culture’s sacred plant,” says Grubb, “can be another culture’s weed.”
We set off through the streets and alleyways of Brunswick, the onion-like, golden turrets of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral glinting in the sun. Nettle is the first weed we “meet”, as Grubb puts it. It’s a blood tonic, we are told, delicious in soups, gnocchi, and, if handled correctly, can be eaten straight off the plant. As the Aesop’s fable goes, there was a boy who touched a nettle plant softly, and was stung. He runs to his mother who tells him, “The next time you touch a Nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk to your hand, and not in the least hurt you.” We are encouraged to follow the fable, and try to pick and eat a leaf from the stinging plant. So, we pinch it hard between our fingers, roll it up and pop it in our mouths. It tastes like green beans to me. “Well done, brave souls,” says Adam.
We pass through a forest of dandelion greens, and gather in the cool under a stand of eucalypt to try Adam’s favourite weed, the angled onion. With regret I remember digging huge clumps of them out of my garden about four years ago, and throwing away a food Adam says he once fed a group of 40 people with. We move on, eat the deep purple berries of deadly nightshade, the yellow flowers of the Brassica, and view from afar one of the deadliest plants known to humankind, Hemlock. Each time I’m shown another edible weed, the nature of my relationship to it seems to change in my mind. And in turn, it seems as though my relationship to the place evolves. This inner city land has things to give me. What do I have to give it?
We walk past scores of fig trees in the yards that back onto the creek. The larger, green variety of fig in some places is ripe, but the purple ones are a little way off. We arrive at the Harding Street Bridge, and are met by Tim Varney, who leads us to Joe’s Garden to meet Chris Ennis. Just 20 minutes ago the sun beat down from a clear sky, but now the clouds are building and the cool breeze is picking up. We are led onto the ploughed, bare earth of Joe’s farm, and we gather around Chris. Behind him a rainbow lorikeet plays and feasts in the bright green foliage of a fig tree as big as a house.
One of the first things Chris does is to tell us to kick away the dry soil where we stand, and take a handful of the darker, moister Merri Creek earth below. “Smell it, go on, take some of the minerals into your body,” he says, patting his open hand on his chest. It smells clean and alive, and it causes childhood memories of playing in the inner city creeks of Brisbane to blossom in my head. The soil feels good in my hand, and I want it to stay under my fingernails and in the creases of my palm.
Although this 2.5-acre market garden has been continuously worked by Chinese and Italian farmers for over 150 years, the person whose impact is felt the strongest here today is that of Joe Garita. Joe passed away at a ripe old age only two weeks before our visit to the farm, and it is clear from the way Chris speaks of him that the sense of Joe lives on to those who loved him, but that he is entirely irreplaceable. Chris remembers that when CERES first began to farm just a few rows of earth here back in 2003, he and his colleagues were unsure of how to start, concerned about water and a few other details. “Just plant the pumpkins”, Joe would say. Chris imitates his Italian accent and his gesture, with an upturned hand slowly stirring the air. And this was how he worked, Chris tells us, he knew how to take the first step, and had faith that if you could just do that, everything would work out – it’ll be alright.
Row by row Chris and CERES took over the farm, as row-by-row Joe the ever patient teacher deemed his apprentices able and worthy. Now, CERES operates the farm entirely, selling their produce for retail price at the CERES market we visited earlier in the day. The ability to sell the produce retail is the only way this operation is viable, and even then, in Chris’s words, “It’s really hard” But his belief that farms anchor communities is what drives him. This farm fosters a connection to the soil and an understanding of the seasons, something we so rarely glimpse in the inner city.
We have now reached our final destination for the day, and with the help of two Food Studio helpers parting the wire fence using boot and hand, the group enters a clearing hemmed in by gumtrees and low shrubs. A massive Southern Mahogany eucalypt towers above the head of the long wooden table. We are handed glasses of gin and tonic with a bruised eucalypt leave inside. The gin is delicate and herby, and we settle in to discussions with those we have met along the walk. Half the group has gone off to forage a salad for chef Matt Wilkinson to serve up with dinner; they move slowly through the rows of silverbeet, looking for the leaves Adam showed us earlier. Those of us who remain are given jars filled with biodynamic cream, which we are to hand-churn for the meal. We shake and talk, while pale, plump balls of butter come together inside the glass.
As the light begins to fade, we sit to the table, our faces lit up by a single row of bulbs strung up above us. We are sun-kissed and easy, and have worked up healthy appetites. The food comes in waves, and is met with the appreciation of those who have had an active day. There is laughter and up above the wind rushes in the leaves of the great Southern Mahogany, which drops its gum nuts on our table from time to time. As we eat our main course of tender Warialda Belted Galloway brisket with bean and chickpea stew, Matt Wilkinson explains what we are eating, where it comes from and who grew it. Dessert is figs ‘pruned’ from the surrounding suburbs with mascarpone and honey from Matt’s own hives.
Once we finish eating, the sky is inky black, the wind is blowing hard in the trees, and spots of rain are falling here and there on the cleared table. But even so, I want to stay just a little bit longer. The energy of the day is strong, the faces are smiling and I feel that I could settle in and talk under that tree all night. When it comes time to go, Eva puts her arm around my shoulder and leads me aside to give me three punnets of seedlings: sweet peas, broccoli and kale, propagated right there on the farm. Tomorrow I will bury my hands in the Merri Creek dirt of my backyard and plant the seedlings, to harvest during the coming winter.
Have a look at the entire Get Away – Food Studio visits Merri Creek and the menu with two recipes from Matt Wilkinson.
Words by Sophie Allan
Photographs by Kristoffer Paulsen