Snapshot: Down the drain

Water never forgets, says Newcastle writer and editor Mark MacLean.

He’s paraphrasing the author of Beloved, Toni Morrison: ‘‘All water has a perfect memory and it is forever trying to get back to where it was.’’

Her observation rings true for MacLean who is fascinated with Newcastle’s Styx Creek, which was turned into a drain as part of the big engineering response to Newcastle’s flood problem, a process begun 100 years ago.

Work on the Styx, Throsby and Cottage creek catchments was part of the great clean-up of the city swamps that began in late 1880s.

The Styx joins Throsby Creek at Tighes Hill, near the TAFE campus.

A sign formally identifies Styx Creek here.

‘‘Upstream’’ and encased in concrete, the watercourse cuts through Broadmeadow, Kotara and beyond, and loses its identity.

For many it is just a big drain, but not for Mark MacLean.

Canal, drain, creek? ‘‘I just don’t like the word drain applied to my bit of waterway,’’ MacLean says.

The MacLean family moved to Hamilton North in 1998 and MacLean quickly became bored always walking Jambo the dog along the same streets.

So he dived into the Styx.

His exploration appears to have changed his life and how he sees the world.

It has inspired him to write a book about Styx Creek and establish a regularly updated web log to tell people what he finds there and his thoughts while exploring.

‘‘I’ve been walking Styx Creek for years and I’ve come across all kinds of people, people I don’t ever meet in the normal world,’’ he says.

‘‘Newcastle’s drains have their own life, a culture that’s different to the city’s surface culture. It is bizarrely unnatural and natural at the same time.

‘‘Down there it feels like a different world. There is the quietness, the weirdness of the things you find,’’ MacLean says.

One of his favourite places along the Styx is the Chatham Road bridge, near his home in Hamilton North.

If he is driving, he always checks if the high tide has reached the bridge.

That the tide still moves in the harsh world of the man-made drain is an example to MacLean of the power of water, that it never forgets its original course. He is reminded of the threads of waterways around the city that have been cemented over.

‘‘Flooding is a real public health issue. The engineers’ view is how can we get the water away from Newcastle; it is a danger, how can we get rid of it.

‘‘In the process, the landscape has been changed in a dramatic way. In the city we are gradually dissociated from the natural world but underneath the city is a marshland.’’

In Greek mythology, the River Styx was the boundary between the earth and the underworld. Our Styx Creek fills the same role for MacLean as he and Jambo step down into its subterranean world.

‘‘The one walk I never tire of is the scamble down the concrete banking before heading upstream towards Lambton or downstream towards Islington. The creek has steep concrete sides, which in my book I call the creek bank.

‘‘At the bottom of the bank there’s often a step, which I call the sill. Between the sills is a flattish surface, the creek bed, and at the very centre is a small channel along which the water flows when the creek isn’t in flood.

‘‘I’ve called this permanent watercourse the beck, because where I come from that’s what we call the small watercourses that get called streams and brooks in other parts of England.’’

MacLean says he thought people would regard him as little crazy to love ‘‘the drain’’ but conversations have revealed many people have the same curiosity.

MacLean’s book, A Year Down the Drain: Walking Styx Creek, January to December, will be available from MacLean’s Booksellers, Hamilton, next month. His Styx Creek blog is at hamiltonnorth.wordpress.com.

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