Have you ever walked past a rundown park or an abandoned stretch of creek and thought ‘Someone should do something about that,’ and then brushed the thought aside and kept walking? Luckily not everyone avoids acting on such thoughts.
Writing a story about Westgate Park recently, I met Naomie Sunner and learnt how she inspired the transformation of a neglected wasteland into a thriving inner-city park.
I grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Blackburn North. My mum and dad were both librarians, so we had lots of books. Mum’s parents are Hungarian and my grandparents on the other side were Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant. All of my grandparents were gardeners. They talked about back home which wasn’t a country I had ever visited. We were here now and what was that? I felt confused and wondered, ‘What is our identity in Australia?’
When I was 21, I needed a life changing experience, so I walked for seven days from the mouth of the Yarra to just past Warrandyte. We all need a time to consolidate and review who we are. I was doing my third year of photography at the Victorian College of the Arts and had to do a project. I’d just read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks and was very inspired by that. It was a very intense experience; I realised the only thing I was scared of on the walk is people.
I wanted to start at the mouth of the Yarra, so I got a taxi at 5am to Westgate Park. I was under the Westgate Bridge and thought, ‘What is this place?’ There was very little vegetation, just weird hills and a big expanse amongst an industrial landscape. It was really interesting to me that this is a big touchstone in history but it’s a neglected wasteland.
I kept going back to the park and wanted to do something. I helped Friends Groups and volunteered with the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery because I knew nothing about local plants. After organising some plantings with Parks Victoria, I started a Friends Group because I thought you can’t just plant a little bit and walk off, this park is massive.
All I had was sheer determination. I was really naïve. There were occasional successes, but it would always pitter out. I was unemployed and got put on the Work for the Dole program. The supervisor didn’t rock up for three hours and then I didn’t get asked to do anything. I thought, ‘I could run a better program, I’ve got something to do that’s real work people can feel proud of.’ So, at 22, I started supervising a Work for the Dole program at Westgate park. I met some really incredible people through that and developed a lot of skills.
Growing the Friends Group was slow. I did wonder a number of times if I could keep going. It took me two years to really have the start of a proper group and it only gathered momentum when other people got involved. I think what’s really important is how many people have had something to do with that park and put their energy, passion and thoughtfulness into it. That is a really important and precious thing.
When I left the Friends Group eight years ago after 13 years, the park looked very different. There were a lot of birds, diverse vegetation, insects, fungi and a lot more people enjoying it. Today it’s very different still because those older plantings are still growing and there are lots and lots of water birds in the southern wetland which is lovely.
This is the land that I live in and I want to feel part of it. Being the granddaughter of migrants, indigenous plants are really important to me. I feel there’s a lot in Australia that gets dismissed by my grandparents and many other people, the ecologies and the people, as being lesser than the things from the countries we came from. I now work as a Propagation and Volunteer Co-Ordinator at the Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op.
There’s something magic in sowing a seed and watching it germinate. All the fascinating textures and colors and parts they play in the ecosystem. If you ever get a hand lenses and look at plants closely, they are just gorgeous. They are the basis for all life. Without plants, none of us would be alive.
People ask me why I’m a good gardener and I say because two out of every three plants I plant die. Not everything is going to work, it’s a learning process. Just take baby steps, do what you can and what you feel comfortable with, and don’t be disheartened by anything that’s failed because it’s an opportunity to learn and try again.
There are so many things you just learn as you live. I think I learnt in a non-traditional way. That’s why I’m at Melbourne Uni now doing a Masters of Environment to fill in the gaps. I’m ready for another challenge in a year or two. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think that challenge and I are going to seek each other out and meet halfway.
© Matilda Bowra 2020