Welcome to The Waterhole Project research blog. The purpose of The Waterhole Project is to consider the global issue of anthropogenic climate change in local terms. You are invited to contribute to the project by responding to my blog posts.
I am investigating how the problem of climate change relates to a particular place in southern New South Wales, a farming district called Combaning. My posts will consider how the global phenomenon of climate change relates to the history of this place, to its present, to its possible futures, to its people, to other species here, to living systems that ultimately connect us all to Combaning.
The Waterhole Project is a work of environmental history and the ecological humanities. Intersections between cultural and ecological dimensions of climate change are under consideration here. In what ways have stories and beliefs contributed towards the emergence of this ecological crisis? Might we encounter these cultural aspects or their legacies at Combaning? Might we encounter here stories and beliefs to guide our responses to the practical and cultural challenges posed by anthropogenic global warming and climate change?
I’ve known something of Combaning for a while. I took this photo in about 1980:
My father had driven our family here, the site of the old Combaning homestead, one bright autumn afternoon. Standing by the barbed wire fence, he pointed out the weathered posts (visible in the middle ground), the remains of an early building, a fragile relic of the 1830s and 1840s, when squatters in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee pastoral districts negotiated and fought with Wiradjuri to graze livestock across creek flats and grassy woodlands.
Twenty years later we came back. I was writing an environmental history of the southwest slopes of New South Wales, a PhD thesis (later released as a book) that attempted to grasp the dynamics of history and culture that so transformed this fertile region throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This time we jumped the fence and walked over to the homestead site. Decades had claimed the timber posts. We did encounter other remnants, like the base of a carefully built stone chimney, and old peppercorn trees:
Here is a photo of Combaning homestead, taken in about 1930, showing the chimney before it crumbled, and the old timber slab building:
Standing here, beside the chimney stones, I noticed some large gums, possibly river red gums, beside Combaning Creek nearby, and a hillside falling sharply into the waterway. This intriguing formation can be seen in the background of the c. 1980 photo above, the shaded hillside dropping steeply, and the eucalypts following the creek line upstream to the right.
My father and I walked across the paddock towards Combaning Creek, our cattle dog scouting ahead, scenting water and the possibility of a swim. In the shade of old red gum trees, we marvelled at the waterhole and the hillside rising behind. The presence of this waterhole, we realised as our dog enjoyed the muddy water, had enabled the establishment of a homestead complex here, so long ago.
According to Australian Aboriginal Place Names by James Tyrrell (published in 1933), ‘Combaning’ means, presumably in the local Wiradjuri tongue, ’To hold water’. Imagine a place holding water, our own hands cupped and filled, at this time of climate change, of crop failures and bushfires. To hold water is to honour its lively powers, to value it deeply.
Walking away, back to the fence and car, the waterhole seemed forlorn, a significant place neglected and forgotten. Combaning is a good distance from Temora to the west, and even further from Cootamundra to the east. No farm houses are located near the homestead site and its waterhole. In the nineteenth century, the killing and dispossession of Wiradjuri severed memory and people from this place. Over the last half century, as average farm sizes grew and labour costs rose, rural depopulation further undermined possibilities for knowing the Combaning Creek waterhole and its stories.
By turning our attention to the waterhole on Combaning Creek, The Waterhole Project offers local terrain from which to engage with global processes that today threaten the stability of our climate and the wellbeing of our places.
Future posts will present more of my research into Combaning. In his book PrairyErth, first published in 1991, William Least Heat-Moon detailed his encounters with the history and tall grass prairies of Chase County, Kansas. He called his book ’a deep map’. Over time, as I write posts and as others contribute to this project, I’m hoping that a similar sort of deep map may emerge, a local map framed and coloured by the global issue of anthropogenic climate change, a map that may help us understand and respond to this great challenge of our time.