Monika Schott PhD

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A life of 'oh wells' is greater than a life of 'what ifs'.

Farm Reflections: Truth

Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well ... words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.

Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.

Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.

‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.

‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’

‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’

‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’

And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.

Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.

People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?

I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).

Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.

Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.

He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.

Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.

L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed. 

Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.

Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?

Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can't be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of 'non' recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.

Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can't be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.

Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.

Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

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Heart or brain

If creator asked me, however creation occurs, would I like to be a heart or a brain, without hesitation my answer would be a heart. It’s not that I have anything against a brain, it’s just that hearts have more fun, more of a wild life-ride.

My cousin married on the weekend while her father lay dying in his bed. That cements my heart choice.

Weddings and watching someone you love die can be highly emotional. Weddings for the glorious euphoria where it can feel as though you’re in some kind of mooshy bubble soaked in joy on steroids. Everyone revels inside the protective sac, shielded from harsh realities, whether you’re the bride, groom or guest. You can forget at a wedding, leave everything outside to be in the deity of the day.

Watching someone die, which is very different to death, takes you to a whole other extreme where torment exceeds pain to induce an excruciating helplessness. Being out in cyclonic seas that regurgitate scrambled eggs in one dip would be far simpler than riding the tumult of emotion in dying. Watching those you love, watch their dearest fade away adds a whole other layer in the scuttle to catch breaking hearts that drip through your fingers.

The two together, a wedding and dying, become a whammy of intensities. Extremes escalate as the bubble suddenly hosts the world’s scariest roller coaster to flip revellers over and over, manoeuvring double corkscrews and cobra rolls in the dark while dodging shooting, zephyring sparks that ricochet inside the bubble. Sudden moves exaggerate and juxtapose happiness and hurt and confrontations can bite in as the antithesis of pleasure and heartache.

And yet being in that bubble holds the nurture and care to get through, to nourish the ache that transcend all other aches and comes from a bed of barren more mangled than a thousand, old gnarled trunks entwining as taught rope, all pulling as tourniquets on everything within scent and sight. 

Of course, a heart must be stripped bare to feel, to attune to the spiralling emotions and slivers of tenderness, to accept without question and give an ease of friendship and support while taking care of one’s own needs ... it’s the essence of giving without any expectation.

An open heart delights in the greatest sprouting, boundless and enriching. It comes with sacrifice and compromise, of hidden tears and no judgement.

It comes with patience. And genuine kindness.

It allows the whole gamut of everything to flow free, with no boundaries or barriers. Pain easily enters and you’re exposed to the bottomless swirl of eruptions without restraint, fighting uncontrollable and unreasonable as the ones you care about or love the most are the ones that will make you cry. It’s a pain that can’t be touched or pinpointed.

An open heart can grip without warning and lock in as a monolithic stronghold rooted from sky to earth. And yet it’s that grounding that sanctions an experiencing of vastness and to take risks, to be caught in a safety net when falling.

Sometimes you might wonder whether life would be easier by simply closing one’s heart, boarding it up to protect from all and everything. And yet the energy it takes to be closed can far exceed the energy for uncovering, to be oneself without hiding. Sometimes the fear of being hurt is more painful than being hurt.

The alternative of living with a closed heart, afraid to chance, to live in a lingering starkness where loneliness can reverberate in a wallowing chortle of superficial fluff, desolate, confused in the staccato of dark, fatigued and impervious to feel all that life is … no, that’s not for me. That’s not life.

 

I’d prefer to wear the silky lingerie that catches on jagged cliff faces, confident of the buoyancy from those around me as we bounce in and out of our bubble.

Opening up is an endorphic lift that sucks in the bubble bliss and pitted sadness and digests it, processes it into a deep understanding of the polarity of life and an ultimate gratitude for it. An open heart accentuates the happiness and knows empathy, especially for the closed hearts.

It's a nunu kiss of true, deep and honouring love that shines past the deepest and darkest. It’s the kind of kiss a grandparent plants on the forehead of a grandchild where nothing else matters but the kiss.

What would you prefer if the offer was presented to you, to be a heart or a brain?

Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
I think we need both. The brain is a wondrous gift but then the heart has access to deeper knowledge...
Wednesday, 02 August 2017 16:16
Monika Schott PhD
So true, Katherine. We need both at different times, even different times in a day many times over. Balance is the trick. ☺
Thursday, 03 August 2017 06:36
Anonymous
Hello dear Monika, I'd take the heart for it contains wisdom ... Read More
Thursday, 03 August 2017 15:55
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Hands of lifetimes

 

Breaking through any veneer takes time. Prodding and poking, gentle rounds of pounding and soon enough, a fine fracture appears. Time and patience, compassion to allow sees the shellac of mask crack and eventually shatter.

And yet, it’s not always so, not when years of layering in plutonium and gold, wedged in between toughened steel and encrusted in diamond particles for added strength, teeters in brittle balance to become a complexity seemingly inconceivable to penetrate.

Trying mustn't stop, pushing with the gentlest of might to pry into the tiniest of miniscule fractures that clam shut to protect its pearl. The harder the push, the tighter the molecules bind. These walls of lifetimes unite as secret societies with the most stringent passwords and handshakes of multiple dexterity. Breaking through takes time and is more laborious than sharpened chisels rasping day and night at the rock of hardened lava and the spiked-up engraver etching in more profoundly with each scratch. A labour of love that can take forever. Or never.

Digging too deep though can strike a fissure that turns suddenly south. The cleft snaps to a chasmic abyss, where erratic fireworks clash with shooting debris, all while caving in on itself.

Inside and out collide and draw into a coiling twist, a vortex sucking up every me, me, me. I'm here, he's there, the divide is great ... I can't but you can, she has more and I have none. He cares, she cares most definitely … you know, they all know the truth.

Until there's a discrete tickle that comes from these walls of lifetimes, prompting an instinctual recognition. Yet it retreats as quickly as it appears. Or does it?

The shifting between one and the other, and then both, the betrayal in a pool of liquid whispers. Leaded boots hook into a mirrored room kissed by Judas, reflecting as a brilliant cut diamond. Any glimpse of sight is too stark, any grasp is of liquid mercury.

The tickle takes a form, a shadow in those walls of lifetimes. The energy is undeniable, as the breath of life passed to Adam by the lightest of touch in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Those boots begin to unhinge from their crimped claws.

Churned pitting begins to ease and the idea that some things must be, falls as a veil of solace. A hand of being takes mine, grounding in more might than any wall of lifetimes, even against the wet fallen from a blanket of darkest grey where the sky and road ahead merge as one mantle of colourless drab.

Hands weave to help wash away caustic tears. They build an intangible strength impervious to the demands of everything. Unusual in structure and more intricate than a brain brimming in full seismic thought dancing with a heart flushed in erogenous fervour.

Look closely. The hand is there, tucked into the rock facade hiding a thousand stories. They're there, laced in tenderness and sprinkled in kindness and with a depth that can reach any heart’s core. Those hands come from near and far, at any most unexpected time, and can illuminate as pure gold from those walls of lifetimes.

It’s the only way to warmth yet unknown, to feel the lightness of hands of lifetimes.

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Katherine Gregor
Wow. Powerful. Enigmatic. Visceral.
Sunday, 09 July 2017 17:18
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Farm Reflections: The Hickeys

Choppy waters foam at their tips in curls of white, churning waves into shore as a milkshake blending in the darkest, richest chocolate. They break against small, jagged rocks strewn over a bed of shell grit, rhythmic in their crashing, rousing in deep pondering. In skies of heavy murk and gloom tinged in highlights of mauve as the sun prods for an opening, I gaze out to Portarlington in the distance to the west. What a day to be out here. I scan over the bay through sheets of fine mist, to the east at Werribee South and further around to Melbourne.

Ice cold flinches off the water, spearing breezes that swirl in Antarctica emotion and blend with shades of rotting seaweed. It’s the kind of chill that gets in, biting at my jaw and bare neck, sneaking in under my thick beanie knitted for Alpine conditions. Thankfully, the thermal socks I’m wearing are keeping my feet warm, although I don’t know for how long after wading through ankle deep water that flooded the road and trekking through sodden salt marsh after heavy overnight rain.

Anyone that knows Melbourne would say it’s a typical winter’s day.

Finding the flattest rock to sit on is almost impossible. They’re all pitted after having been spat out as molten lava millions of years ago and cooled to popped pockets of air bubbles.

I wonder how the Hickey family coped, living here along the foreshore of the Farm.

Annie and Michael Hickey arrived at the Farm in 1898 looking for work. They lived here on the foreshore in tents with their children: 10 under the age of 15, including a set of twins, within a year of their arrival. They were offered a house and two cows for milking in 1911. It’s unclear yet whether they remained in tents until that point or when Michael was offered employment.

Back then, the sewerage farm was a prime place for work. It was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century and provided job security for many farmers during the 1890’s economic crash and 1930’s depression.

Up until this point, Melbourne’s only system for disposing sewage in the 1800s was to throw it into the streets, giving it free reign to meander into waterways. A typhoid and diphtheria epidemic broke out and British journalists were dubbing Melbourne as Marvellous 'Smellbourne’. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed to set up a sewerage farm at Werribee to treat Melbourne’s sewage. Interestingly, Werribee was chosen over the other option at Mordialloc, which was closer to Melbourne and already gentrifying Brighton in Melbourne’s east. That’s another story for another time. The Farm still treats sewage and is known today as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. It’s about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce required to manage it. Work was plenty at the Farm and Annie and Michael understood that. They knew too, that because of the distance between Melbourne and Werribee, and between the Werribee town centre and the sewerage farm, that those who worked at the Farm were offered a house and two cows to rent, to them and their families to live in.

I wondered how Annie and Michael coped with the cold, and especially the landscape given their English and Irish heritage. It’s pretty and pristine out here in its tints of blue and grey, but that can change in an instant. The Australian landscape is known for its chameleon dexterity. It can arouse the harsh and extreme in all hues of a brash and unsettling that many writers at the turn of the 1900s attempted to capture in a most lyrical romantic form. Sitting here wearing two jumpers, a coat and corduroy jeans, beanie, thick socks and safety boots, I wonder how the Hickeys managed, how the children handled living here.

Food and water was plenty: fish in Port Phillip Bay and the Werribee River, eels, rabbits and ducks to catch, chickens and their eggs, pigs reared for meat, sometimes sheep too, cows for milking and making cream and butter, and for producing cheese. People ‘lived off the land,’ as many have said. Water mains across the Farm and into Cocoroc South, also known as the bottom end, provided fresh water. I’m still piecing the story together but I can see from a recently, very generously donated 1906, hand drawn and painted map of the Farm that these were established. Two cottages and the Cocoroc South School with a teacher’s residence are also marked on the map in this area.

Sitting here with the sun now radiating on my back, water resolute in its reeling in that rhythm that you can lose yourself in once you tune in, no one else about, quite secluded considering Melbourne is around 25 kilometres away … it’s quite a place to be. Those Hickey kids would have coped, in a most wonderful playground of salt marsh and grass to run through and play, swimming and fishing. They most likely attended Cocoroc South School, which opened in 1906 nearby. Cocoroc West School in the north-west of the Farm opened in the same year. Cocoroc School in the township had already been operating for 10 years after a residents’ petition to the education department requesting a school be established, considering 40 children lived on the Farm at that time, was successful. It was a sign of the Farm’s rapid growth.

The paddock I walked through to get here is known as ‘Loosy’s’ by many, after the fisherman, Mr Losevitz. He paid an annual licence fee to the MMBW and was appointed Ranger of the foreshore and jetty reserve between 1922 and 1946. Mr Losevitz also cared for the MMBW boat that was moored at the jetty here. Many enjoyed Loozy’s and school sports between the four schools (Murtcaim School was established in 1939) were often held here.  

This place is peace, even if parts of me have become numb. It’s a place to think and process, digest all that is this Farm … the Hickeys living here in tents, with their children. Summer would have been very different to today: flies lining tent walls in a film of black, gathering as a sheath on warmed water in the copper. And sweltering under a 40-degree Celsius day … cooling with a dip in the sea under a stark summer sun or a full moon on a hot night, in the darkness of a waning moon with maybe only a candle or fire for light.

And the next generation of Annie and Michael … riding eight kilometres on horseback to the town pool or on push-bike with a dog that guarded the bike to stop every kid at the pool from riding it, games of ‘hiekeyo’ (not sure of its spelling) and handbags tied to strings placed on the single-lane highway to Geelong. Inquisitive motorists would stop to check on the handbag, only to have it drawn away from them by a group of scallywags hiding behind bushes on the roadside, who then bolted when that person of unsuspecting chased after them. Then there were the mischievous boys who moved the bottles of beer that men at the weekly dances would stash in bushes outside, and those boys hiding and watching in mirth of giggles as those men searched for their beer … the freedom to play and wander, to explore without fear.

Three to four generations extend over the Farm. Some children walked or rode five and six kilometres to and from school each day, some hitch-hiked from the highway into town … there’s Uncle Frank who never married and lived in a caravan on the foreshore near the Werribee River while working as a waterman. He fought in World War One, got shot, returned to Melbourne to recover, went back to the front line, only to be injured again and returned to Melbourne to recover. He remained a waterman at the Farm and eventually moved out of the caravan and in with his brother and family until he retired. There were ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps, bread and mail delivered in the same box down near Murtcaim, picking peas at Little River … and the little boy that sits in my gut as a weight of unwant, the devastation of him.

Then there’s the granddaughter of Annie and Michael who lives in an old home her grandparents once lived in … and Annie’s rose-gold wedding ring still worn today, a precious adornment of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes.

I didn’t think it possible, but I’m thawing out. That Melbourne winter warmth that comes from a southern hemisphere sun is turning on its toasty charm. Winter here is different to anywhere else I’ve been, different to the European winters of bleak and fog that can choke to a breathless gag, laced in a pollution that permeates every pore until you can taste it in your every swallow. This space of breath is undeniable, a vast expanse of clarity of sight where nothing can hide and every skerrick of flaw is revealed in full beauty of perfect imperfection, and when cleansed by a sweeping of rain, sharpens in pristine splendour. The veins in the leaves of the salt bush, the life pulsing through them … the shrilling whistles of crested cockatoos streaming between bare-leaved trees, sea birds calling on a belly plump and ripe, waders stealing over mudflats … the stirring of senses in full flight.

The tide's rolling in. Annie and Michael would have understood those tides, how far they came up and down, where to perch their camp to be clear of even the occasional king tide. The overnight rain too, and the impact of that rain on their camp.

While today with all our mod-cons, living in tents on the foreshore might seem full of challenges, sitting here is this cacophony of crashing waves, bristling breeze and trilling glee, it’s gloriously serene. And with the privilege of time to stop and think, it’s incredibly insightful. Life here was full, and simpler I imagine to some extent, with fewer distractions and an abundance of personal, sensory pleasure.

It’s time to move off the volcanic rock of hard, time for the blood to pump back into those damp parts of numb. Back over these rocks I climb, unsure of my footing sometimes with the wet and dense bush covering, through the salt marsh and over squelching mud beneath my boots, over a wire fence, careful not to knock my laptop. I look for the fine line of gravel on the road that breaks the water's surface, but am soon in ankle deep water again. Back to my car, covered in dried, tawny mud, back to this mod-con world.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from a PhD research that investigated abject communities relative to sewerage ghost towns. It focused on the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force required to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the main township in 1973; the last family moved off site in the 1980s. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of Phillip Island in Victoria or the island of Mykonos in Greece. 

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MetropolitanSewerageFarm/ 

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

 

Recent Comments
Anonymous
I have never heard my place of birth described so beautifully. You have opened a window into my ancestors lives and I now have a b... Read More
Friday, 23 February 2018 12:14
Monika Schott PhD
That's wonderful, Amanda. I'm so pleased to have been able to evoke such understanding and emotion. I'm not sure if you're aware... Read More
Friday, 23 February 2018 21:11
Anonymous
Hi Monika, Have been reading your info on Michael & Annie Hickey. Thankyou so much for documenting this history of Michael & Anni... Read More
Thursday, 26 March 2020 01:37
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Latest Comments

Rosy Cole Florence
17 June 2020
Thank you for your delightful comment. It is good to reflect on a way of life that has been lost.
Stephen Evans Florence
16 June 2020
Enjoyed this so much. Charming, evocative, and lyrical.
Monika Schott PhD Farm Reflections: Lands faraway
15 June 2020
Thanks Rosy. The story had to be told and I've been the fortunate person to be able to tell it. The ...
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Helpful context
Rosy Cole Farm Reflections: Lands faraway
15 June 2020
Monika has taken us on a wonderfully illuminating journey, full of interest and humanity. We are so ...