“I was lucky to have had a dad who introduced me to the natural wilderness as soon as I could be piggybacked,” says the Bendigo architect and avid fisherman. “We’d walk along our local creek and dad would point out the water holes, the swallows’ nests, all the different trees.”
For Dennis, these childhood jaunts sparked a lifelong love of nature and a strong personal link to rivers. Every landmark – a shady waterhole, a towering Red Gum – carries its own memories.
“We had the best upbringing! We’d disappear out the back door in the morning and come home at dark.” Rising at 3am, Dennis and his fishing mates would pedal their bikes down to the Yarra River, bait hooks and light a campfire. Fishing rod in one hand, they’d feast on damper and ginger beer. “We’d always bring home a haul of fish.”
Today Dennis’ local river is the Campaspe, which holds its own special memories. But since the late 1950s, when he first visited on fishing trips with his dad, he’s seen some worrying changes. The drop-off in fish populations indicates grave underlying problems, he says, that we can’t afford to ignore.
“As a boy, I knew the Campaspe was a beautiful river. It dried up a bit in summer, but it always flowed. But today it’s barely a river at all. The drought has really decimated it.”
But the river has also faced other stresses, he says. “Removing old growth forests and replacing them with plantations, which soak up enormous amounts of water, has had a big effect.” Decades of intensive farming has led to chemical runoff and erosion, while subdivisions and road-making have added to the Campaspe’s silt problem. Willows have choked the river, he adds, while its catchments have been gradually drained to fill numerous private dams.
Despite the damage, Dennis hopes a growing appreciation of nature will help save the river from further harm.
He cites work of Bendigo’s local Fairwater group, which advocates for sensible and fair water management, as a positive force in helping to tackle the region’s water crisis.
“This is driest continent on earth. We’ve got to understand and work with it, which involves making some really tough decisions.” Bendigo itself, he points out, is on the edge of the desert: “Four miles out, you’re in the sand-hills. It’s marginal regions like this that reveal the reality of global warming.”
For this award-winning architect, green principles are central to both good design and daily living: “It’s crucial that we design with nature “ work with it, not against it. The number one thing is to understand and respect the environment.”
Dennis concludes by citing Newton’s third law of motion: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We can’t continue having water without taking a very sympathetic view of nature.”
Story by Meg Mundell, 2007