The Avoca area was the land of the Jaara people—also known as the Djadjawurrong, part of the Kulin alliance of tribes. it has been suggested that this bend in the Avoca River was actually an important ceremonial site rather than an ongoing place to live. A scar tree beside the river remains as evidence.
Because no treaty has ever been signed since the time of colonial conquest, this place, as with the whole of Australia, retains indigenous sovereignty.
As a way to understand the cruel response to asylum seekers by successive Australian governments who refused entry to this country by those who came by boat, Ghassan Hage suggests that
"Australians are willing to fear the threat of strangers because we know this land has ALREADY been stolen. This is the sensitivity of thieves*.
So, while the Swiss House is itself an immigrant, creating a more complex European element for a British colonial world during the gold rush era along with the thousands of Italian and Chinese immigrants to the area, its very name points to a colonial heritage that has always sought to dominate and control.
Against paranoid nationalism: searching for hope in a shrinking society Ghassan Hage, Pluto Press Australia, 2003.
the local farm that began it all
About 20 kilometres from Avoca, in the Pyrenees Ranges, is a farm belonging to relatives of the Dodds family. I was invited there every easter by the family to camp around a small bluestone room on the side of a hill, at that time alway brown and bare but with huge old pines, some ancient fig trees, a hillside full of flowering naked ladies (Belladonna Amaryllis) and a small lake circled by oaks and elms. This was clearly the remains of a 19th century farmhouse and garden.
On Saturday we would all traipse in to Avoca for the papers. Every year I would quietly disappear to check out a very particular old house just behind the main street facing the little Avoca River. A Victorian house, but not of the English variety. This was a European kit house, very beautiful but each year more dilapidated.
People in town referred to it as 'the Swiss House". I didn't know any better so I presumed it was from Switzerland... it needed naked ladies I thought. And figs. And a lake would be good...
avoca river and flood plain
It took me a long time to realise that the Avoca river runs north. It is, in fact, part of the Murray/Darling river system. Someone once told me that the reason it is so often so low or dried out is because there are no springs feeding it at its source which is only half an hour away.
Well, no - more recently town gossip suggests that its because there is an increasing number of dams being installed upstream drawing all the water away. if so, this little river is only another example of the destruction of Australia's entire river system to a combination of ignorance and greed.
It is a one-in-a-hundred-year flood plain right in front of the house apparently. This was the subject of an installation by British artist Jane Prophet (see on-site exhibitions). As a result of seeing her 2005 installation of flood levels over 100 years, the house was made flood friendly as it was repaired. When it did flood a little in 2012 furniture and rugs simply needed to be stacked up and the fridge rolled up the hill. The house was so resilient we had no need to even claim any insurance. The only damage was to an old corrugated iron fence, so this was replaced with timber fencing.
Along the east side of the flood plain to the north of the house there are the remains of sheep yards. There were in use for the first few years of the Avoca Project but have now become privately owned. One has been redeveloped as a Chinese Garden and the fencing for Watford house is also recycled sections from the original shipyard fencing because the section now fenced with these timbers were apparently also once sheep yards.
Further along is a skate-park and in the distance can be seen the recently repaired railway line that carries freight once again.
There are at least 4 towns named Avoca in Australia, each a memory of a small coastal town in Ireland (renamed Ballykissangel for a tv series) for Irish immigrants who arrived in Australia.
After being taken from the Jaara people by squatters, this particular Avoca, 45 minutes north of Ballarat was initially a small focus for a sheep/wheat farming community that exploded into a huge gold-mining centre in the 1850s.Its primary school was the second in the state and its double lane highway through the centre of town was designed this wide for bullock drays to turn.
The area has also historically been associated with wine production and its French history can be found in the naming of the local mountain range the Pyrenees and the huge pétanque piste in the centre strip of the Main Street.
The town now has a population of 1200, with many of them elderly. It struggles with change.
On the slopes of the nearby Pyrenees Mountains can be found a number of highly regarded vineyards, some very close to the town. And there is a slate quarry still mined there (the waterfall is part of that seam).
When driving to the town from Ballarat, travellers all pass through the most recent large-scale construction in the district, the Waubra windfarm. It is vast and sculptural and exciting to have seen it from its initial construction to its working grandeur. All the while recognising that it, along with solar panels on rooftops and the colour green, is a symbol of climate change action at the individual and household level.