action-story | 5th May, 2007

John and Cheryl Clark: A summer picnic to cool off

On warm summer days, the Clark family takes a picnic basket down to the Murrindindi River. "It's lovely down there, a magical spot," says Cheryl. As the late-afternoon sun turns everything golden, the couple toasts the view with a brandy, while their sons cool off with a beer. "On really hot nights we put our chairs right in the river!"

ActionStory_ClarksThe Clarks own Mareeba, an idyllic property fronting the Murrindindi, a tributary of the Yea River, which flows into the Goulburn. Moving out from Melbourne 25 years ago, the couple bought this property in 2001. They now farm sheep, cattle and olives, and Cheryl still commutes to the city, where she works as a psychologist.
Connecting people with nature helps protect it – and the benefits go both ways, says Cheryl. “It’s psychologically unhealthy to become too disconnected from nature. Getting too caught up in the artificial city environment can become a form of alienation.”

John predicts a shift away from this citified mindset, saying that as Melbourne’s urban sprawl creeps eastward, city-dwellers will be drawn to areas like the Murrindindi:

“Over the next 50 years, more people will want to experience the river’s natural beauty through walking, riding, fishing and camping.”

Rivers are public property, says John, and farmers will increasingly need to share them. So the Murrindindi needs to become more people-friendly – but its habitat must also be protected. “Lately we’ve noticed a massive drop in water flow. Last summer was one of the lowest points in living memory.” John suggests a “patchwork” of solutions to improve the river’s health: fencing it off to minimise damage by stock, revegetating with native trees and understorey to encourage native birdlife, removing weeds and improving public access.

Farmers have become more environmentally aware, says John, but they don’t get enough encouragement to take action: “Farmers are already under a lot of financial pressure, but our government expects them to manage what’s essentially Crown land.” While there are grants for fencing and planting trees, he notes, a simpler and better-funded approach is needed. Despite landowners’ efforts, “the state of the river continues to go backward. The current reliance on farmers to spend their money for little or no economic gain is not working.”

The Clarks think of themselves as custodians of the land. “Our generation has drawn much too heavily on the environment. We need to put something back,” says John. He’s a former secretary of Landcare, belongs to the Waterwatch river monitoring group, and is a member of the community committee advising on environmental flows for the Yea River.

He’s also setting up a long-term revegetation project to restore the Murrindindi’s biodiversity, and helps run community walks where locals get together for a first-hand look at their river.
While country people understand the link between water issues and food production, John thinks city folk are more removed: “Their water comes from a tap, not from rain. But country people know it doesn’t always rain. There’s no fault or blame, but we all need to be more aware. We only have the one Murrindindi.”

Story by Meg Mundell, 2007