“Dear Bendigo, you have nourished my grandparents, parents and children for 36 years. For that I am grateful.”
“Thank you for your trees, your parks, your beautiful buildings, your character, your creativity, your nature playgrounds, your friendly businesses, your energy.”
“I love our celebrations, and when we celebrate, the WHOLE community gets involved and makes it AMAZING.”
“Dear Central Victoria, I fell in love with your stark and startling beauty. I did not know that I would love you so much… I am always amazed at your ability to thrill me.”
So say just some of the scores of letters that make up a new book that tells of the relationship residents of Bendigo and surrounds have with their home.
Love Letters to Dja Dja Wurrung Country is an anthology of messages written earlier this year by members of the community, whose ages ranged from about six to 96.
The letter-writing project was part of the Valentine’s Day launch event for the 2018 Regional Centre for Culture, a year-long program of cultural events across the municipalities of the City of Greater Bendigo, Central Goldfields Shire, Mount Alexander Shire and Hepburn Shire.
Read more: Heart goes out to Dja Dja Wurrung Country
The Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation is one of the partners in the Creative Victoria initiative, of which a primary aim is to highlight the history and contemporary presence of Aboriginal people.
The project also aims to attract visitors to the region and improve access to cultural and art experiences for residents, while creating new works that tell local stories.
Regional Centre for Culture co-executive producer Elizabeth Walsh said she and fellow co-executive producer Jo Porter were trying to think of a way to engage the broadest range of people possible when they decided upon the idea of inviting residents to write love letters.
They were met with a huge response – hundreds of letters were written and submitted.
These letters were added to an art installation that graced the Rosalind Park piazza in February, Heart, an inflatable piece by Dja Dja Wurrung artist and Bendigo resident Racquel Kerr, and Felipe Reynolds.
But from the outset, Ms Walsh said, they also wanted to document these writings.
So, with the help of Bendigo resident Bridget Robertson, they put together the compilation of letters.
Ms Walsh said the collection was beautiful, both in terms of each individual letter, but also the “patchwork” of residents’ relationships to the city and the country they lived on that emerged.
The first letter in the book is by Rodney Carter, Dja Dja Wurrung man and chief executive officer of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation.
“But what are you? The history and stories of my ancestors, that have made me. My family that I have shared my life’s journey with. The children I have nurtured. The community we strive to protect. The land that sustains us,” he wrote.
Read more: Dear Bendigo: I love you because...
The letters that follow are varied in both their form and their content.
Some letters are short, sweet and to the point: one simply reads, “Bendigo; a city with a (literal) heart of gold”.
Other writers were more expansive in their prose, detailing the various virtues of the place in which they lived, or telling of the way living in Bendigo and central Victoria had changed their lives for the better.
And some used pictures to help express their feelings, decorating the page with illustrations of Bendigo or motifs of flowers and hearts.
There are some common themes present throughout the book: these include the sense of community, the beauty of the natural environment, the region’s history, and its impressive historical buildings.
But some letter writers have highlighted specific attributes: one letter writer says she likes the fact there are three bins for recycling, organics and general waste, while other writers commented on the library and the skate park.
“The book’s a real slice and reflection of how people feel about the place they live,” Ms Walsh said.
There are letters from Bendigonians who grew up here, and who can trace their family history in the city back through the years.
“This beautiful land is what I have grown up with, it is what I know,” one person wrote.
“You have shown me my past… Thank you for housing my ancestors, heritage and culture, giving them a land upon which they can thrive.”
Meanwhile, other letters were penned by those who more recently began to call the city home, but have found themselves won over by the area’s charms.
“I have been 4 years in Bendigo and day by day its become special for me,” Tahira wrote.
“I wish that we stay our whole life in beautiful Bendigo.”
The letters are printed as they were written and drawn, although some have been superimposed onto coloured backgrounds.
“[It’s] essentially the hand of the person who wrote it, or drew it,” Ms Walsh said.
Many individuals were involved in writing the letters, but so too were community groups and other organisations: residents of an aged care home participated, as did the arts company for people with a disability, CreateAbility, and Girl Guides.
The Regional Centre for Culture program continues for the remainder of the year, with dozens more special events, performances, exhibitions, markets and festivals yet to be held.
These include Orchestra Victoria’s Bendigo Music Festival, which begins today; White Night, on September 1; the Regional Arts Australia conference Artlands; and the Bendigo Blues and Roots Festival.
One of the highlights of the program is YAPENYA, a performance ceremony of new dances and songs by the traditional owners, the Dja Dja Wurrung people.
Part celebration, part ceremony and part performance, YAPENYA will be held in Rosalind Park on November 17, two days after the fifth anniversary of the Recognition and Settlement Agreement between the Dja Dja Wurrung people and the Victorian government.
The print run of Love Letters to Dja Dja Wurrung Country is limited, but an electronic version is available free online at the Regional Centre for Culture website.