My colleague Grace Moore discovers the wonders of bluestone...
In my memory, there’s not a lot of bluestone by the beach. I may be wrong, of course. I now know that other beaches in the Melbourne area boast plenty of it—Stephanie has blogged about Williamstown in a previous post [Ed. here and here], while the walls that run between Brighton and Beaumaris contain bluestone that may once have rested on top of Ned Kelly and his gang of outlaws. Probably, I should go back to ‘my’ beach to check, but I’m not quite ready to do that.
Until a few months ago, I’m not sure that I’d ever really given much thought to bluestone, but infectious collegial enthusiasm can change these things very swiftly. While my younger self wouldn’t have described it in this way, I’ve probably always had an affective relationship with stone. My father was a keen amateur geologist and my happiest memories of him involve sitting by the hearth, while he proudly displayed and described a variety of rocks that he’d dug up here, there and everywhere.
There was a piece of volcanic rock, which may have come from Pompeii, although I may also, through the distance of time, be romanticizing its origins. I remember being intrigued by the little grey piece, with its small bubbles and extraordinary texture. As a child, I was fascinated by the idea that it had one been molten lava, spewed out of the ground. As a teenager I was rather less respectful, surreptitiously borrowing it from time to time to smooth my feet. It’s probably my closest childhood connection to bluestone, and decades later I can feel the memory of its contours on my fingertips as I think back to how it felt. There was probably more than one piece of basalt in the collection, but it’s on the other side of the world and there is no way for me to check—a single specimen made it to the Antipodes with me, and that’s a flint axe, which sits in my office and occasionally serves as a prop in class.
In my twenties, I lived for a couple of years in the beautiful volcanic landscape of the Palouse (http://idahoptv.org/outdoors/shows/palouseparadise/geology.cfm ) not too far away from Mount St Helens in neighbouring Washington State and with a basalt rock formation which I imagine is similar to that which underlies Melbourne. Beyond the occasional anecdote from residents who’d lived in the region during the major eruption of 1980, I still didn’t think that much about what lay beneath the ground. The soil was rich and if I’d dug down, I’m likely to have found rock similar to that which I would discover in my back yard today, were I to dig deeply.
Having grown up on the coast, I disliked being landlocked in Idaho and was thrilled to move to Melbourne where, although I never took to the long commute, I loved living by the beach. For nearly a decade my enormous American dog and I pounded along the sand between Carrum and Seaford twice a day, usually racking up several miles. If there was bluestone around us, I was never conscious of it, and the outer suburbs tend not to contain the cobbled stone laneways that were built close to Melbourne during the nineteenth century. Then, just over a year ago, I moved much closer to the city, leaving behind both my beloved beach and Seaford’s glorious wetlands. Having been spoiled by the great open space by the bay, we struggled a little with the park-based dog culture in the inner north--appreciating it, but still yearning for the sense of intrepid expedition which had been such a feature of our twice-daily jaunts.
At around the time Stephanie began her ‘Year of Bluestone’ blogging, a series of curious bluestone coincidences began to emerge in my own work, and I also discovered the Moonee Ponds Trail. I’m primarily a Victorian scholar who works with ecocriticism, so it’s unusual for my research to intersect with Stephanie’s, but suddenly there was bluestone everywhere. As I wrote up a piece on Ned Kelly and fire in the sweltering heat of early January, I was amazed by the number of fleeting references, both in contemporary accounts and modern histories of the outlaw and his gang. For instance, in 1871, sixteen-year-old Kelly—serving time in the hulks for horse theft—was part of a gang of convicts who built the bluestone sea wall by the beach at Williamstown. His family home at Beveridge (built by his father when Ned was four) included a bluestone chimney which one recent report describes as having ‘dominated the house’. I could keep going, but you get the idea.
While I was reading about bluestone, I was also encountering it more and more in my daily life. In West Brunswick, where I now live, that’s not a particularly remarkable observation. Bluestone is very much a local material. One of the first industries in the East of the suburb was the quarrying of bluestone, although by the early 1850s there was little left in the ground, so great was the demand. Yet bluestone is everywhere and I walk on it every single day. It forms the gutters and roundabouts, the rickety cobbled side streets are fashioned from it, and one local park even boasts a bluestone barbecue. These days it comes from quarries far beyond the city limits, perhaps brought in as a tribute to Brunswick’s less metropolitan past.
It’s the Moonee Ponds Trail, though, which has consolidated by new-found enthusiasm for the stone, partly because it offers a space for the serious dog-walker and partly because it is trying so hard to bring the country to the city. The pathway runs alongside what locals call a creek, but what I think of as a canal, and it extends from the northern suburbs to Docklands. Stretches of it are relentlessly concrete, while other parts (including my own entry point) are quite beautiful, reflecting concerted efforts at (re)vegetation, through the planting of grasses and native trees. At times, the expanse of cement is almost blinding, yet every so often small patches of bluestone offer relief from the brutalism.
To date, I have no idea whether the bluestone is embedded in the canal walls for structural reasons or aesthetic ones. My suspicion is that it’s probably a combination of those two things. In West Brunswick, for instance, the perimeter to the canal is framed by a delicate but sturdy edging strip of the stone, reflecting great care and attention to detail. Further down the track, though, things look rather more industrial. While the huge side walls lend themselves to graffiti, for the most part urban artists leave the bluestone alone. Possibly, this is through respect, although it probably also makes a much rougher canvas than the smooth expanse of concrete that seems to go on for miles.
Noticing bluestone is about learning to appreciate it, and also to love it. My son, who is eight, and who often accompanies me on dog walks—whizzing along on his scooter—now has an expert eye and will often stop to show me a new piece, or to ask if what he has found is the right stuff. We peer into people’s gardens, stop outside civic buildings, and occasionally pin down startled neighbours to ask them about their stone. As I try to intellectualize this process, it seems to offer a thread back to my childhood, whereby I talk to my little boy about rocks, just as my father did to me. But it’s more than that. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes at the beginning of Prismatic Ecology that ‘an ecosystem is an oikosystem, a dwelling system’ and that’s what bluestone and the long, dog-friendly pathway are offering to me. An often un-lovely area, where nature and artifice come into direct confrontation, this path is bridging my move from the country to the city and helping me find a new space to love. Dwelling isn’t always about the four walls of the immediate home—sometimes it’s about the ground beneath our feet and the emotions that environment can foster.