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Liddell: Layers of Language in Landscape

Think Pieces Created By Glenn A Albrecht

Discover word smith Glenn A Albrecht’s think piece discussion on the language surrounding Liddell and his neologisms that connect with the topic…

The area of the Upper Hunter Region of NSW was first known by English colonists of the early nineteenth century as the Parish of Liddell in the County of Durham. One of the earliest colonial maps of the area was published in 1828 by the surveyor Henry Dangar and it was both a geographical document and a form of advertising to open up yet more of the Upper Hunter region for occupation and agricultural development by British settlers and their convicts. What Dangar knew all too well was that this land was already occupied by the Wonnarua people and that they and their culture had been present for millennia. 

What Dangar knew all too well was that this land was already occupied by the Wonnarua people and that they and their culture had been present for millennia. 

On Dangar’s map you can find evidence of that past culture in the form of brooks that were named by the Indigenous people. For example, Munnimbah Brook, Purandarra Brook and Wanhiggi Brook are explicitly named on Dangar’s map. There are also settler homesteads that appropriated Indigenous names such as Kurrundarra homestead and Milegang Estate that travellers would pass on their way up-river from Maitland heading towards Liddell. Other old maps name Goorangoola (a bend in the creek) and Dyrring as important localities.

The Wonnarua had their own names for particular places in the landscape or, what should be called, their cultural landscape or ‘country’. In what could be called the Indigenocene, a time of relative human harmony or balance with all life, positive emotional connections to ‘home’ were able to thrive. So close to their home landscape were Wonnarua people, that they might have felt a positive Earth emotion I call endemophilia, or the intense love of that which is unique to one’s own territory. Regaining positive emotional connections to the Earth is a challenge in the Upper Hunter region, especially so since the era of coal mining and power generation. 

As the English colonised the land of Australia they imported the location names of England, Scotland and Wales to insert a new layer of meaning over the landscape. The Hunter River Region of NSW is an instructive example. Because the area from river mouth at Newcastle on the Hunter coast to the catchment interior of the valley was full of black coal deposits, the coalfields of Newcastle on Tyne and the Northumberland and Durham counties of north east England provided an easily imagined topographical blueprint for the newly colonised territory. This place was New East Northumberland! The endemophilia for their former home in England was transferred ‘in name’ as an act of nostalgia to their new territory. 

Not only did the Hunter Region inherit place names, it also was bequeathed prominent coal owning family names from the English coal counties. One such family were the Liddells of Ravensworth Castle who lorded over their coal rich territory from the 16th century. However, their reign as Lords of their castle lasted only as long as the coal deposits could be exploited. 

It is somewhat ironic that the UK Liddell family had a lived experience of unwelcome change to their home environment as the industrial revolution exhausted its coal supply. It is genuinely ironic that the foundations of Ravensworth Castle were undermined by the extraction of coal and that because of that lack of foresight, the once impressive castle is now a contemporary ruin. 

In 2003, I created the concept of solastalgia, the distressing lived experience of negative environmental change to a loved home environment, to describe just such a feeling or emotion. It involved the ‘undermining’ of a sense of place and a loss of identity tied to that place. 

However, it was not Old England where I thought this contribution to our emotional lexicon was needed, but the doppelganger counties of Northumberland and Durham in the Hunter Valley. 

Indeed, the second wave of colonisation by coal miners and mega-mining multinational entities for black coal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has given solastalgia, or a loss of sense of place to, among others, the descendants of the first British settlers. Solastalgia is also likely to be relevant to the Indigenous experience of the desolation of their population, place and culture, however, I leave it to their elders and knowledge holders to describe their distress in their own terms.

As European colonisation proceeded from 1822 onward, wholesale erasure of both the Indigenous people and their named significant locations took place. The loss of people, land and culture must have been devastating for the Wonnarua people. It remains a site of deep sadness with again, huge irony, as a colonial ‘castle’, Ravensworth Homestead and its estate, is at the centre of a dispute about ‘heritage’. 

Some in the Wonnarua clan, along with colonial heritage preservers, want one of the last remaining colonial homesteads in the sacrifice zone of open cut coal mining to be protected and preserved. It represents forced acquisition, neo-colonialism in the form of desolating mining by neo-invaders, and, a possible massacre site. The mining company wants the homestead dismantled and rebuilt in another town many kilometres away. Solastalgia has strange bedfellows.

Liddel (only one l) sits on Dangar’s 1828 county map as a big square with no Indigenous or English names on it, only the descriptions of “good country ill watered” and “salt ponds”. The salt affected area made the land mainly attractive for large-scale sheep farming but not settlement.

That fate remained largely true until the need for coal-fired electric power became overwhelming in the state of NSW. The Permian coal seams deep below the floor of the valley were seen as “black gold” and ownership of this resource was connected to power, both electrical and political. A dedicated workforce and population growth in nearby towns were required to build, run and maintain this edifice. There was solidarity among the people as the power flowed from Liddell to service the needs of the people of NSW.

Lake Liddell was constructed, then officially named on the 26th June, 1970 to service the needs of Liddell Power Station. The 2000-acre lake was needed for 150 gigalitres of secure water to service the cooling towers of the power station. The four 500 MW turbine (possible 2000 MW output) power station was commissioned in 1971 and was finally decommissioned in 2023.

In many respects, the name Liddell spans the coal-based Industrial Revolution. Coal-rich Sir Thomas Henry Liddell funded Stephenson’s Rocket at the start of the industrial revolution, and now, the closure of Liddell Power Station and the possible demise of Ravensworth Homestead mark its end. 

Lake Liddell also has a dark cloud hanging over it, as it has been badly contaminated by heavy metals from onsite fly ash and the power station fallout. Citizen science studies have found heavy metals and contaminants such as high levels of selenium in the feathers of the birds that inhabit Lake Liddell. If that was not bad enough, the presence of a brain eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, in the water has seen a prohibition from eating fish from the lake and recreating in its water since 2016. 

The future of Liddell Power Station and its human-made lake is now open for speculation. Perhaps a future that preserves the energy powerhouse theme of the past, but with so-called “green” foundations is the answer? 

Soliphilia is the emotional and political solidarity needed when working with others to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.  Given the solastalgia produced at this site since the 1820s, a lot of soliphilia will be required to negate it. 

Finally, even soliphilia needs a vision of a good future that drives action to generate new life. A near future Symbiocene, which is the opposite of the past Anthropocene or period of human industrial dominance, will see humans fully re-integrate with the structure and processes of life. Who knows, but ‘generating’ at Liddell might mean using bacteria to directly produce electricity, storing that energy in salt ponds and enlisting algae and amoeba to clean and polish contaminated water?

The Symbiocene as a new era in human history will see a reincarnation of that whole site. Only then will the feathers of birds be free from toxins and new layers of healthy soil and humus be layered over past sins. Maybe then Liddell will need a new name?

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