By Sieta Beckwith.
For thousands of years the Merri Creek was a place that was home to many different animals including the beautiful blue kingfisher, who flew all the way from Queensland to nest here each spring. But for many years CERES was a rubbish tip, factories were built along the banks of the Merri and industrial waste was dumped into the creek. One of the species that abandoned its home in the face of such ecological holocaust was the kingfisher.
In the 1970’s the CERES community began to form and people worked hard to restore the land. Finally in 1993 the kingfisher returned! The story goes that former staff member Thais Sansom was working away at her desk in the Education office when out of the blue, a little kingfisher flew into the glass of the window next to her. Stunned, it shook itself off and flew away.
A year later, the Return of the Sacred Kingfisher Festival was born with the vision of the Kingfisher Dreaming team: Jacqui Dreessens, Thais Sansom, Maya Ward, Ian Hunter and Cathy Nixon. The current Kingfisher puppet was made by Kari in around 2009.
For more than 20 years the festival has celebrated the Return of the Sacred Kingfisher to the Merri Creek. It continues to be a symbol of environmental hope and celebration of the work of CERES, Merri Creek Management Committee and more widely for environmentalists everywhere. It’s a story that children understand quickly and readily and has a powerful influence on their ability to understand complex environmental issues.
The annual event also serves to honour and celebrate the indigenous people, the work of creating CERES and the “return of life, of fertility, to our blighted planet.” In its biggest years, the festival attracted several thousand people as audience and involved several hundred more as performers including children and babies, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal people, Elders, CERES and MCMC staff & board, and people with disabilities. There have been singers from choirs and other professional and non professional musicians, dancers and visual artists. Installations have been made, hundreds of children have been involved, and the story has been used in pedagogy to tertiary students to create examples of the power of arts, celebration, ritual and participation.
Over all the years of producing the festival, the Kingfisher Team has explored many themes including ‘Merri Creek Creatures and Plants’, ‘Peace and Conflict’, ‘Migration and Refugees’, ‘Cultural Diversity and Tolerance’, and many Wurundjeri Dreaming Stories including the stories of the Tanderballak and the Murrup, Branbeal the Rainbow Spirit, and others. The Kingfisher Festival has inspired and influenced many large outdoor environmental and arts festivals across the country.
The Kingfisher story is the story of CERES and is consistently remembered, retold, relived and returned. CERES has changed hugely in 20 years and all of the original Kingfisher Dreaming Team have moved on from CERES, though a large contingent sill return to CERES each year for the remembrance. In this decade there are many more festivals that occur year round and competition is high for a weekend in the spring when another festival isn’t being held locally. The festival has been downsized in recent years for a variety of reasons including lack of funding, but retains the key elements of the story and ritual each year.