Many, many years ago a young cattle man walked the shores of Broke Inlet carrying a saddle on one shoulder and a shotgun over the other. The shore was wide and long, pocked with holes where the swans had been feeding on the underwater cockles just days ago. Undersea ripples shaped like the roof of one’s mouth were still printed into the sand. The man noticed, of course, that the sand bar had been breached, that the water had rushed out to sea after smashing into the bush for six months, but he had future quarrels on his mind and thirty more miles to walk.
He couldn’t have walked that beach 8000 years earlier because the inlet didn’t exist and anyway, he was a white man who didn’t exist either back then. The inlet then was a valley treed with jarrah and karri and alive with birdcall. By 7000 BP (before present) the water came up. I’ve dreamed about this event. I swam through the forest like a seal through kelp. According to oral histories the water came up fast, a cataclysmic happenstance. The inundated trees all died. Cow and Calf became the islands that you can see today, two islands side by side, shining white when the sun hits them.
In those olden
days there was a large plain extending from the main land out
to the White-topped Rocks, about nine miles out from Cape
Chatham. On one occasion two women went far out on the
plain, digging roots. One of the women was heavy with child,
and the other woman had a dog with her. After a while they
looked up, and saw the sea rushing towards them over the great
plain. They both started running towards the high land about
Cape Chatham, but the sea soon overtook them and was up to
their knees. The woman who had the dog picked it up out of the
water and carried it on her shoulders. The woman who was far
advanced in pregnancy could not make much headway, and the
other was heavily handicapped with the weight of the dog. The
sea, getting deeper and deeper, soon overwhelmed them both, and
they were transformed into the White-topped Rocks, in which the
stout woman and the woman carrying the dog can still be seen. *
The inlet had a wider mouth back then and stayed open to the sea through all the seasons. The water was very salty and home to oceanic fish, molluscs and plant life. There was a tide, governed by the moon. Because of the tide and changing times, people built fish traps, beautiful stone wall arcs into the lowest tide. Mullet, bream, herring, pilchers, flathead and leatheries would swim over the walls on the high tide and be trapped there when the tide receded.
Then about 4000 years ago the rain fell less and the lagoon began to close herself against the sea, sealing The Cut with white sand, a place where the plovers began to nest. Because there was no longer a tide, the people began a new form of estuarine fishing, herding fish using brush wood into the traps, now reinforced with built-up sides of wood and bark. This was the new kind of Noongar fishing that early Europeans reported seeing.
The young man carrying a saddle and a gun may have mused about these things or he may have worried instead about his reception when he walked into the Nornalup homestead. Resolute was his father’s favourite horse. They were driving cattle down to the coast to graze for the summer. He and his little brother had tried to ford the Shannon in the wrong spot. He’d lost three heifers and Resolute to the bog at the mouth of the drained inlet, before turning the rest back. He’d had to shoot them as they gasped for air above the mud. The Meadowman patriarch would not be happy.
The drowning of Resolute and three heifers happened in the bog of the Shannon mouth about eighty years ago and today I am watching the water come up every day with the winter rains. One morning, after days of my boat getting swamped and the water pushing into the bush, I’ll wake up to an eerie silence, like the whole world has drawn breath and held it. Swan holes and ripple marks will people a wide and long beach again. I will not have a gun or a saddle on my shoulder but I’ll always be mindful of Resolute and of the drowned forest as the water comes up. Again.
* R. H. Mathews, ‘Folklore Notes from Western Australia’, Folklore, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1909), pp. 340-342, p. 341.
(Below are images of the same beach, two days apart.)