In 1992 Robert Mate Mate, a dear friend and creative collaborator introduced me to Neil Blake as the Penguin Man. At that time Neil devoted a big chunk of energy studying and protecting the Port Phillip Penguins that come to roost every night at the end of St Kilda Pier.
As Robert Mate Mate was an Aboriginal from Woorrabinda I naturally believed that Neil was also Aboriginal because of his exceptionally long white beard. I was later to learn from Robert, who was a tribal elder, storyteller, anthropologist, historian and all-round magic guy, that the ‘Old People’ believed all people born to this land are indigenous and part of the ‘Old People’s’ ancestry; and that when the first Aborigines saw white people they saw ancestors from another dimension. I still find that a head spinner.
Neil has proven to be one of the most dedicated, inspiring and resilient ecological freedom fighters I have had the privilege to meet. To this day Neil has his long white beard and is hard at it working the Eco Centre in St Kilda, Werribee Riverkeeper, Melbourne’s Western Waterways and Yarra Riverkeeper to name a few of his many projects and involvements. I asked Neil a few questions.
Why have parts of St Kilda’s business community been withering on the vine?
It’s important to recognise that the withering vines are not just in St Kilda, as many property owners across Melbourne leave their premises empty rather than accepting low rents at the true market value. As this financial conundrum is difficult for everyday people to fathom, there is a tendency to lay blame on more visible factors…. a popular sport across the ages.
J.B Cooper’s ‘History of St Kilda’ recalls (in the 1880’s) “newspapers urged the police to visit the bay line from the Esplanade to the Red Bluff, where several tents were occupied by an undesirable class. Sly grog selling, it was said, was going on in the tents. The vicinity of the tents was strewn with broken bottles. These vagabonds along the seashore had changed what was once a beautiful walk into a scene of desolation.”
Tell that to the Yalukut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung who for tens of thousands of years respected and maintained that “beautiful walk”. They harvested shellfish at Point Ormond, but not in the spawning season, so the next harvest would be a good one. The notion of restricting consumption was a foreign concept to the European colonists who, apart from the undesirable classes, were allowed to exploit the environment wherever and whenever they could.
Speaking of Fitzroy Street, Cooper tells us “….it has a dash of his (Sir Charles Fitzroy’s) pleasure-loving vice regal spirit. Sir Charles was… a gentleman whose hospitality extends over a wide circle of friends… as good a judge of Claret and Burgundy as you’ll find in the Colony.” His spirit seemed to have permeated through to the 1990’s when a St Kilda Mayor remarked at the funeral of a well-known street drunk: “He was noisy and looked scary, but those who got to know him found him quite intelligent but unhinged from his time in Vietnam. You know, if he was in Doncaster instead of St Kilda… he would have been locked up!”
In 1835, the Yalukit Weelam were caught between the reef and a hard place with the arrival of Europeans, their millions of sheep, and their guns. In 1985, the remnants of red sandstone they used to grind seed and stone gradually disappeared from St Kilda south beach by the mechanical beach rakes introduced to solve the daily tide of plastic trash.
Everything in nature must reinvent itself some time… we call it evolution.
How can the local community reinvigorate the rebirth cycle of street life?
In early St Kilda, the land south of Fitzroy Street was known as the ‘wattle paddock’, populated by an open bush of Banksia, Acacia, and Red Gum trees. The elevated land of St Kilda hill and adjacent low lying wetlands (Elwood swamp and Albert Park lagoon) offered a rich landscape to support the diversity of local fauna. They all had a role to play and were at home in that place and happy to stay. But their diversity diminished as swamp was reclaimed; and trees, grasses and wildflower habitats were lost to classy mansions and the stylish new seaside resort of St Kilda. The natural estate became the real estate, which became the unreal estate of today.
By the 1970s, the splendour was in decline with Victorian and Edwardian housing stock in serious need of repair. The upside was that the lower rents attracted a wide range of artists who, in the absence of regular income, managed to thrive on the bohemian atmosphere. The seaside and sunsets across the water grace each day…. and all roads (and public transport) from the northeast and south lead to St Kilda.
Since the industrial revolution, the pace of change continues to escalate due to global population growth, increased consumption and modification of natural resources. For at least the past 50 years climate change (in total contempt of the deniers) has been steadily disrupting and displacing third world populations while ‘first world’ peoples nervously tighten their grip on their comfort zone.
The small fish that come into the Cowderoy Street outfall on the high tide know, that’s when the water’s too deep for the Night Herons to prowl; and they stick together to celebrate another day.