Drive not too far inland from Melbourne in most directions, past thick bands of ordered suburbia, and you’ll reach bush localities that shiver on breezy days with the sound of gumleaves. At dusk, you might glimpse kangaroos slinking like grey ghosts through blocks of steep, rocky land. Despite this poetry, these bushland escapes represent nature in a third life – a scenic recovery from an industry that left behind a pock-marked, sliced-up, hosed-down moonscape.
Damage is the twin of the lustre of the Victorian gold rush that surged from 1851 and turned this small wedge of south-eastern Australia from a pastoral economy founded on the dispossession of Aboriginal Traditional Owners into a mining stronghold. ‘Two per cent of all the gold ever mined in the world has come from Victoria,’ declare La Trobe University’s Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies. Yet, as they show in Sludge: Disaster on Victoria’s goldfields, such riches cost the newly minted Colony of Victoria a relentless slurry of mining waste that travelled far from its source to distant locations.
Historians have previously noted the environmental toll of the gold rushes, but Lawrence and Davies combine archaeology, archival research, digital-mapping technologies and aerial-imaging systems (LiDAR) to build a timely case study that guides us through both mangled bushland and the long political stoush between aggrieved land users and an industry deemed economically indispensable. The battle at times seems starkly contemporary.