David is a family farmer from Boorowa NSW and has managed his home property, Allendale, since 1971. Allendale was formerly a cropping and livestock operation but now runs livestock only. David holds a Masters of Sustainable Agriculture (Sydney University, Orange 2001). He brings his long experience as a grazier and conservationist and his 15 years as an holistic management practitioner to ARLASH. David is a former winner of Central West Conservation Farmer of the Year, a former member NSW Native Vegetation Advisory Council, a former Founding Chair Boorowa Community Landcare group. He has recently retired after an eight year term as Board Member of Lachlan CMA. He is currently a Committee member Carbon Farmers of Australia.
In recent years David has addressed farmer groups in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, hosted many bus tours of the farm and been asked to speak at regional conferences on healthy soils, people in the landscape, exploring issues on soil carbon, biodiversity, salinity and managing for improved landscape function.
This morning just as the sun rose in the east, I arrived at the summit of my oft-climbed Mount Canemumbola. At the dawn of day a sense of time hangs in the air, one is aware of the immense ages of time involved in wearing away the acid volcanic rocks laid down more than four hundred million years ago, in the Silurian age. In the time since that event, the forces of water, wind and time have worn these rocks down and shaped the landscape we know today. The gradual flattening out of the landscape has created the floodplains of the Boorowa catchment. Larger floods have deposited silt from the Boorowa landscape out on to the floodplains of the Lachlan over millions of years.
As the thin light spreads through the air, it has a misty, almost milky effect, the eastern sides of the gentle hills warm almost imperceptibly. The Boorowa river meanders around the hills that gradually rise towards Oakhill and Mount Geegullalong. The long tree-shadows stretch to the west and leap over the hills. These shadows will shorten, and then gradually elongate to the east, until the sinking sun, bathed in its own gore, becomes night.
But on this day one of the great sights of the natural world in the sparse remnants of the grassy box woodland ecosystem is about to unfold. As I descend the western slopes of Mount Canemumbola are bathed in the early morning light, and then suddenly the iridescent green flash of the sunlight catching the wings of a flock of superb parrots flying against the grey-green foliage of the yellow box trees. The bright yellow of their cheeks, and a scarlet flash beneath…..chirrupping as they fly. As I have been standing still for about five minutes, back they come flashing past again to chatter about the morning’s doings in another group of box trees on the southern slopes of the mount. And here they come again, this time more than fifty, side-slipping into the box trees, incessantly talking. In the trees they become invisible, their colours are only revealed when they emerge into the light. Perhaps there are some parallels in this, with our inability to see the connections and diversity in landscapes until we realise we are also truly part of the pulsing, humming, living Earth. Seeing this is a process, a journey of the mind, often born of unease or tension and coupled with humility.
Once, on a bus trip looking at river and land issues from Gunning, the source of the Lachlan, to its terminus in the twenty thousand hectare Cumbung swamp, I wrote this limerick.
When you land on the plain out at Hay,
And you’re only there for a day,
You feel puny and small at the size of it all
And you wonder, ‘what part can I play?’
After looking at the Lachlan River on that trip I wrote this.
The Lachlan runs west to the plain
It resembles a sewer or drain
With it’s banks torn apart
By the European carp,
Will we see it run pristine again?
This was written after seeing the deeply incised Lachlan looking quite forlorn, full of dead trees, and wondering whether the exchange from diversity to the simplified landscapes of cotton fields and nut trees was, after all, a worthwhile trade. I recalled hearing Lance Parker from Hillston, saying that when he was a boy the Lachlan at Hillston was ‘as clear as gin, you could see the aquatic grass beds and see the native fish’. Lance was a school teacher and he was a son of the Lachlan river, he loved it and set about trying to breed native fish. He cracked the secret of the trigger for spawning. A rising river and increasing water temperature. No-one had discovered this before and Lance began breeding his native fish and stocking the river with them. The European carp was well established in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers and with their sucking mouth and habit of eating the grass beds on the river floors, they changed the habitat that suited the native fish. Lance had a vision that if you kept up a program of restocking the rivers each year with native fish, they would eat many of the carp fingerlings and eventually the old carp would reach the age at which they could no longer breed and the balance would be swung back to the native fish. Like many a good idea, Lance’s vision for the Lachlan was not acted upon.
The Lachlan has many structures across its fourteen hundred kilometres length. Large dams impede the progress of native fish, both up and down the river, thus altering forever the natural breeding cycles. Weirs have the same effect, and so at great cost several fish ladders have been built to allow the native fish access once more. Some clever research showed that the carp could be separated from the native fish due to the greater jumping activity of the natives when they came across the barrier at the top the fish ladder. The carp are effectively ‘drafted’ into a wire cage where they are harvested for fertiliser.
By the 1930s there were only sparse remnants of the once abundant and dominant chenopod shrublands of the Riverine and Hay Plains. Francis Ratcliffe, an English scientist, who became the first head of the CS and I R (the forerunner of the modern day CSIRO), wrote about the causes of the degradation of the scrubland vegetation, in his book, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. The tapping of the Great Artesian Basin made it possible for stock to graze every acre of the large western division stations. The water was ancient and under pressure, which meant it did not have to be pumped. Bore drains ran for miles on the contour and dry land could suddenly run livestock. The arrival of rabbits in the late 1880s and the millennium drought, led to much of the saltbush being ringbarked by rabbits; much of the saltbush was killed. Currently we still do not account for the consequences our activities have on the ecosystems where we grow food and fibre. This must change if there is to be any chance of future generations seeing abundance and diversity; and for diversity to exist just for its own intrinsic value.
Mary White, in her wonderful book, Listen, Our Land is Crying, recounted the story of the swift change in vegetation on Steam Plains, at Conargo. It is a story of change from a diverse woodland, shrubland, grassland, to almost mono-cultures of exotic annuals, mostly wimmera rye and barley grass. In places where land cover was lost in big droughts, the soil drifted to the point that fences were built on top of fences buried by drift. This occurred in only one hundred and fifty years.
Thus were diverse ecosystems dispersed against the hastening settlers hungrily getting their hands on areas of land they never dreamed of in their countries of birth. Their flocks and herds swarmed over the landscape, the aboriginal communities were sometimes treated kindly, but mostly when they resisted the taking of their food sources, they were swept aside leaving an unspoken legacy of viciousness in the minds of generations to come. This is what 1930’s anthropologist, Bill Stanner called ‘the Great Australian Silence’. Until we stop worrying about what it might cost, and fashion a just dialogue that we can be proud of, including compensation for past actions, we will never be fully Australian and able to live at peace with first nation people and ourselves in this country we call ‘our home’. The recent Uluru meeting of aboriginal people and their suggestions of a way forward seem to be running across the shoals of political speak.
In this dry spring at Boorowa the plants are showing their ability to survive dry seasons. The current climate we are living in is much more hospitable than in former times. During the Pleistocene, (2.6 million years ago to about 11,000 years ago), the climate in Australia was twice as dry and four times as windy as now. Many of the big Blakeleyi red gums on Allendale are covered in bud, and most of the yellow box trees are flowering profusely, these species lived through the Pleistocene. Beneath them is a carpet of aborted flower capsules that fell before they flowered as a response to the dry conditions. A safety strategy (extra capacity), born of deep evolutionary time as the proto-Australia started its long forty five million year drift north after stretching and rifting and eventually breaking away from Gondwana. The Wallaby grasses are making seed heads close to the ground, an energy-conserving strategy, and all plants are moving into reproductive mode. The remnants of the once diverse native flora know how to survive the conditions we call drought. They carry the genes of their ancestors that survived the harsh, dry, windy conditions of the Pleistocene.
The species farmers have sown using the Industrial Agricultural model, species such as Cocksfoot, Phalaris, Lucerne, Sub Clover, Prairie Grass, Fescue, and herbs such as Chickory and Plantain have been chosen for their vigour and competitiveness. Most of them come from the Northern Hemisphere. Their big drawback is that they are not really suited to our soils, so we have to spend money trying to alter the soil conditions to suit them. This means capital expenses for lime, inorganic fertilisers, weed control. If we fail to manage them properly, that is, to allow them to recover from grazing, they will quickly thin out and need to be resown. This is a huge capital cost, one from which it is hard to make a return that justifies the expense. In selecting and introducing these exotic species, farmers are unwittingly being enticed onto a treadmill of increasing purchase of products and often a spiral of debt from which they find it hard to escape. Thus the business model of the suppliers of products seems almost foolproof….apply the research that shows increased yield, purchase ‘improved’ seed, fertilisers, herbicides, apply two and a half tonnes of lime per hectare to correct the soil acidity related to too much nitrogen from clover. If unplanned grazing is practiced, pastures like this will need resowing every five to seven years, the cost of sowing will not have been recouped and the whole cycle of resowing, fertilisers, herbicides begins again. It’s a good deal for the supplier, but not so for the farmer, or the land.
Like the Superb Parrots we cannot see in the trees, so also, we fail to grasp our place in the living world, until we have come into the light of consciousness.
A New Agriculture, a New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017.
The Agrarian narrative that is prevalent in American rural literature, (Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Louis Bromfield, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, Gary Snyder), and many others, is not matched in Australian rural literature. Australia has a paucity of stories about our farming history, from the pens of those with their hands in the dirt. We have been hanging out for this story for a long time. It tells where we came from, and gives an honest assessment of where we are now and where we might be going in the future in our relationship with Land. Of course we acknowledge Judith Wright, Eric Rolls, Geoffery Blainey, Mary E. White, Bill Gammage and lately Bruce Pascoe.
In Charles Massy we find an author with a big mind and a big story, a story for our time, a story that needs to be told. I find it extremely important that he has put down the history of the changing circumstances of thought in the human relationship to land in the centuries before European settlement in Australia.
Many reviews have looked on this book as one that will be a classic, I concur with that view.
One of the findings in Charles Massy’s PhD thesis was that in a majority of cases, the precursor for change was tension of some sort, either social, business or environmental. The scope of this book taken as a whole is breathtaking, Massy is revealing the truth of the processes of Industrial Agriculture. The farmers practicing this type of Industrial farming are in some sense, unwitting pawns in the game of those who supply the products that lead to less diversity in landscapes and farms.
The Massy narrative reveals the evidence of the results of Industrial Agriculture and unplanned grazing. World wide, soils are losing Organic Carbon as landscapes simplify; the opposite of the trend of evolution. This is the birthright of all unborn humans and also, all life.
These are big questions and too important to skirt around. We should be grateful we have someone such as Charles Massy among us, with the courage to inform us.
Research in the Industrial Farming model is currently all about small refinements to a flawed model. Things like satellite guidance and auto-steer, yield mapping, lower herbicide rates etc, are in my view, incremental changes, when what we need is a new model. Innovations such as pasture cropping, which has huge potential and is only in its infancy, is where there should be new research effort.
Any form of agriculture that causes significant simplification of the living community, and is reliant on products that harm the living world will be short lived in the history of the world.
This book is a clarion call for life.
There is ample honesty and stories of farmer’s journeys of searching for a way out of the labyrinth of dependency that is part of the lot of Industrial farming.
One has to admire the organizing capacity of large Industrial farmers, they achieve incredible things in a variable climate. The question though is that the only true profits made in farming are when the money shows a profit, at the same time as people’s well-being is improving and the natural capital base of the farm ecosystem is improving in diversity.
Charles Massy’s message of hope is for farmers to become more ecologically literate, to become independent thinkers, part of the living communities on farms. Considering the effects of our decisions on ourselves, our businesses and the living world.
When I was an Industrial farmer, it was my recognition that the natural capital on our farm was diminishing and that I, and the farming system were the problem, that made me look for more ethical ways to relate to Land. It is that story told through the lives of other farmers that is the heart of Call of the Reed Warbler.
In my experience, farmers mostly don’t read much, so for some the size of Call of the Reed Warbler may pose a problem. I have found it a pleasure to dip in and out, finding chapters that spark my interest. This is a book for more than farmers, it is a book for all.
Last week the stalling Spring on the South West Slopes had life breathed into her. I instinctively feel that Spring is a female term due to the nurturing role she plays in caring for her mother the Earth. Many female farmers also have this caring attitude to land and many a crusty farmer has begun a Landcaring life due to the wisdom and encouragement of the women in the family.
I have been astounded at how much difference a fall of twenty millimetres makes to the plant community that has been hanging on to life by the barest thread. A week after that invaluable fall, the plants on Allendale have almost doubled in size. Some of that is directly attributable to the rain, some due to the rising temperatures and increasing day length. In the last fortnight the colour of the plants has changed markedly to a deep green. This is an indication that the nitrogen cycle is kicking into gear. Nitrogen is supplied by legumes as we know, but also by the decomposed bodies of minute soil dwelling biota. The nutrients in their bodies are mineralised and become nitrogen rich sources of minerals for plants. Fungi, too become active with the warmer days and moisture, they work their magic in the dark and the symbiotic relationship they have with plant roots benefits both the fungi and the plants.
I have been taking note of the order in which flowering takes place on the track and slopes of Mount Canemumbola. Annuals are the shock troops that swarm over disturbed land, to cover it quickly. This feature of landscape dynamics, that is, the tendency to complexity and elaboration over evolutionary time has been going on for billions of years.
Mostly the annual, low-succession plants flower first. The higher -succession perennials are long-lived and mostly flower after the annuals. They are investing in their own future by storing sunlight energy in their crowns for the next opportunity that arises for growth. They are akin to long distance runners, whereas the annuals are more like sprinters.
This Spring the order of flowering of the plants on Mount Canemumbola has been (N denotes native species)
Poa Bulbosa, Poa Annua
Wallaby Grass, 3 to 5 species N
Common Wheat Grass N
Tall Stipa N
Red Grass N
It is disturbing to know that of the thirty two species I identified, only twelve evolved here. The native species have been overrun by exotics. Botanists will tell us that in a Grassy Box woodland before Europeans arrived there would probably have been at least one hundred species, per hectare.
The mixture of species both here and in the temperate zone in other countries, notably the grassy and flower-filled meadows of California which John Muir described so beautifully, had a large component of flowers, perhaps more forbs and flowers, than grasses. I recently re-read A Million Wild Acres, the great work by Eric Rolls, and in it he mentions the flowery landscapes of the north west United States in the early days of European settlement. The loss in Australia of many of the flowers in diverse plant communities, when livestock grazed them out, has been replaced by species from other lands where they evolved in the presence of herbivores and remained resilient. Plants like Patterson’s curse and the thistles, cape weed, dandelions and wild geranium are tap-rooted forbs and although we may sometimes dislike their presence, they can add needed organic matter to our soils and break through the hard pan that sometimes thwarts grass roots. This hard pan is a compacted layer often caused by the soil structure destroying mouldboard and later, disc ploughs that held sway for almost one hundred years. The abundance of plants like Patterson’s Curse and thistles is strongly related to how much ground cover there is when the opening rains of Autumn arrive. It is now eighteen years since we sprayed any thistles, a change from the annual job it was. Allowing plants to self-organise has proven to be an effective, no-cost option for swinging the balance against the thistles, or to put it another way, allowing the community time to change, so that it favours the grasses. It does not eliminate thistles altogether but they tend not to dominate. Actually the secret is to forget about the plants we call weeds and manage for the conditions that suit the species we want to encourage. The more we obsess about problems, the more the problem seems to persist.
As I began writing this episode of a series of seasonal observations at the end of October 2017, I wrote that the good falls of rain back in March had brought on a large germination of many species of annuals as well as activating many perennials. The frosty, dry winter caused some species to dominate while others faded into the background. The annual germination of Illyrian thistles stalled and were overshadowed by grasses. It looked like a year when thistles were going to be outcompeted in our paddocks. However, our predictions of the future are often wide of the mark. October was a dry month, and as I began writing this, the season of 2017 was drawing to a close. The barley grass, mostly reaches at least 60 cm tall in an average Spring. This year it was only 10 cm high and by the end of October it was dead as were most other annuals. The soil surface was unseasonably dry.
Life and other jobs took me away from writing for a month. Now early in December the Grey Thrushes have fledged their young and are teaching the new generation their beautiful song. For the best part of an hour from just before dawn, they regale us with their tunes that lift the heart. What a poorer life we would have without their presence. However, I digress.
In the time since I began this piece October was dry, as September had been also. Then around mid November when many of the annuals had finished their lives and made seed, we had 46 mm of rain in three falls about five days apart. The world of the thistle, had already gone through stem elongation and was seemingly finished for this season. Because all the competition was now dead these three falls of rain rejuvenated the late thistles and they put on growth and are now flowering. Paddocks in the district that have been grazed out now have big populations of thistles. Our paddocks have a big body of grass which inhibits thistles, but here too these tough biennial plants from the Mediterranean have benefitted from the late rain, and are pushing up for the light .
So what is our response?
Our reaction to this late season rally is to do nothing, viewing the thistles as just another plant in the cavalcade of life, subject to the same pushes and pulls that dictate the affairs of the dynamic, living world. In past times we would have brought in a contractor and sprayed large areas, killing many other species as well as the target thistles. These days we understand that the abundance of thistles is temporary and if we manage ground cover so there is no bare ground, other things will in most years control the thistle population. Also there are two weevils that have been introduced from the Mediterranean, these insects are part of a large number of insects that, together, stop the thistles in their country of origin, from dominating. The stem boring weevil grazes the leaves of the thistle, then bores into the stem and pupates. The larger weevil lays its eggs in the head of the plants and its larvae eats the seeds. These insects are another natural control.
Plants, like all life forms exist to reproduce, it is this that continues to provide the conditions on Earth of life-friendliness. Our job is to manage our affairs so that as many forms of life as possible get the chance to express themselves to their potential. Often, maybe even mostly, that means accepting the fact of diversity, and letting it occur.
Try not manipulating, I have found it good for the human psyche.
Spring 2017, western New South Wales is dry this year, in fact its dry on the north east coast as well, there have been early fires in September in the Hunter region, as a blast of heat from a big high in central Australia moved east and frightened us with the prospect of a very weak Spring growth. The normal cold fronts we expect have all been to the south where southern Victoria is experiencing very wet conditions. It is demonstrating once more the extreme variability of the Australian climate. From Parkes north to the Queensland border there is virtually nothing green.
On the Lachlan Valley Way which runs through Allendale, there are many trucks of hay heading south and east where it is also dry. The livestock markets are correcting downwards as demand slows and farmers begin to sell older or non breeding stock. Cattle that were bought at record high prices six months ago are looking expensive now.
To achieve our average rainfall we will have to measure 100 mm per month for October, November and December. However, the Bureau of Meteorology models tell us there is only a sixty five percent chance of receiving 100 mm total, for the next three months to the end of December.
Managing livestock in these years creates challenges. It can be stressful trying to make decisions that look after the landscape, ourselves and our businesses. But we have tools now that have taken away much of the stress. We can quickly assess how many days of grazing we have ahead of us. We have already reduced stock numbers by twenty five percent. Our stocking rate per hectare now 6.7 dry sheep equivalents per hectare. Ground cover is 100 percent, the paddocks just grazed are recovering slowly, but growth is still occurring. The annual grasses are making seed heads, but are short due to the dry conditions.
We are monitoring how many grazing days are on Allendale every few weeks and plan further stock reductions in the months ahead if rain continues to by-pass the south west slopes. We do this because our philosophy of landscape management is always to make decisions that support the water cycle (ground cover), the mineral cycle (looking after not just livestock, but being mindful not to compromise the lives of all the unseen but crucial soil biota, spiders, insects), the capture of solar energy (maximising the opportunities for plants to harvest sunlight, via planned recovery after grazing), and allowing time for the dynamics of species to express themselves when conditions are favourable). Planning this way has a calming effect on farmers, it is essential for our mental health.
Once, as industrial farmers, we would have been monitoring the condition of our livestock, and calculating how long our stored feed, hay and grain, would last, and making decisions too late for our dwindling ground cover. Now, with a different mindset as regenerative farmers, we will be making decisions about livestock numbers so that we do not compromise the blanket of plant cover so fundamental to the health of our farm ecosystems. It is what North Dakota farmer, Gabe Brown calls, ‘armour on the soil’.
This is the switching time of the season when cool season plants, especially annual grasses and forbs, make seed and die. The cool season perennials are still growing, they must have their roots in residual moisture from last year’s record spring rains. The warm season perennials are beginning to grow, couch, paspalum, wallaby grass, stipa species, and microlaena are beginning to get active, albeit slowly. The red grass, warrego grass and arm grass, hairy panic, the C4 species, will start growing after the next rain….if it comes.
In the forty six years we have been farming here, this has been the frostiest year, with over fifty frosts for the winter. Many cloudless night skies and the drier air have brought on the frost, and even in early October they still come, adding to the slower than usual growth.
On the 4th of October, Nicki Taws from Greening Australia came over early to count birds at Allendale on sites the Canberra Ornithologists Group have been monitoring for more than twenty years. In one hour she identified more than forty species, some of which have not been seen here in previous years! Some of the species are usually found further west, but due to the dry season, and thus lack of resources, many western woodland species have come into the eastern regions to live and breed. Some we have not seen before are Red Backed Kingfisher, Eastern Yellow Robin, Masked Wood Swallow, Southern Whiteface and Speckled Warbler. Birds are a good indicator of whether diversity is increasing or decreasing. A raft of other living organisms must be present to support the life of birds.
Over at least twenty years of bird counting by the Canberra Ornithologists Group, there has been a steady increase in species. This is heartening, and especially this year when it seems the habitat on Allendale is providing refuge for birds coming in from the desiccated west.
Most living organisms are opportunists seeking to gather the maximum share of resources to fulfil their purpose of reproducing. This is not always a free for all, governed by competition. To harvest sufficient energy to perform the tasks of life, can often require the forming of partnerships, in other words, co-operative behaviour. This could look like altruism, but in the act of co-operating there is a pay-off of some kind. Think of the coral polyp and its symbiotic relationship with the algae that provides it with energy rich sugars in return for protection within the polyp’s structure and a source of carbon dioxide. The ants that carry gassed larvae into the leaves of some eucalyptus are the beneficiaries of the sugary exudate that is the jassid’s excrement. The natural world is full of examples of this type of cooperative behaviour.
What about humans, are we cooperative beings, or just exploiters who have been able to harness more and more of the Earth’s photosynthetic products, while dismantling the blanket of life that makes life possible. The vegetation cover of the Earth has evolved to be more and more complex over time; we have changed this complexity through our agricultural practices, to a more simplified community. This is an energy question. Agriculture, and the injection of past photosynthetic energy into agricultural ecosystems has led to the production of food surpluses. This has driven rising population, and coupled with our cleverness in controlling the pathogens that used to kill many people, our high energy way of life has also led to more and more simplified environments. The world’s forests have supplied wood for heating, ships, building, paper, but the exchange has led to increased erosion, disruption and displacement of long running native societies, pollution of rivers and destruction of local fisheries. The loss of one of the major sources of oxygen for all forms of life, forests, and the agent for the renewal of minerals from deep in the regolith.
This question of our impact on Earth’s Natural Capital, is closely linked to the pattern of our consumptive, high energy lives. The city and urban dweller’s desire to eat has an intimate connection to the landscape. Changing behaviour from high impact consumption is an all of society question, and requires a philosophical shift in the way we think and act.
So we are a fierce competitor for resources. Humans like us have existed for perhaps 200,000 years, when compared with species like lizards which evolved between 90 and 50 million years ago, we are a very recent species. Australian parrots have existed for approximately 59 million years, they, and the lizards have been present for almost 300 times as long as humans. During their long history the life forms and variations within the various species has continued to increase until recent times. Now we are hearing that species are becoming extinct at a rate perhaps 1000 times the long term background rate of extinctions. The churn of species has always been a feature of life where those unable to adapt to changing conditions have been replaced by those more suited to the environments in which they live. It has been estimated that of all species that have ever existed since life began, 99% are extinct.
Agriculture and the high energy materialistic way of life that modern humans have developed (or is it a form of evolution?), are the main culprits in the destruction of other forms of life.
If that is a fact, then it is something we cannot hide from, or say we did not know it was happening. Once, perhaps, we could have pleaded ignorance, but not any more. So it is incumbent on this generation to start behaving in a way that is friendly to life. To begin practicing agriculture in a way that allows ecosystem processes to begin to function as they have evolved to do. That is, to allow the farm ecosystem to restore its capacity for self-organisation and increasing diversity, to get off the dizzying treadmill of products that are more about death than life.
Recently I attended a farmers meeting under a tree, in a paddock in southern NSW. There were about nine families having their six weekly meeting, mostly both members of the couples were there and quite a few of their children. The discussion was all about life and how they are observing increasing numbers of species on their farms. All these families had radically changed their management from high input industrial farming to a low energy, let-the-ecosystem-do-the-work style of management, that considers the people, business and ecosystem in all decisions they make. Such a contrast to the recipes of the previous model they used to follow.
When I attended a course in holistic decision making in 1999 we started an informal group and began to meet about four times a year. This group still meets, eighteen years later, and has been an interesting way for people to check in with other folk who are trying to manage their lives, businesses and ecosystems in a way that leads to abundance and increasing diversity. We usually meet on a group member’s farm and try to address as a group, any issues the farmers have with their management.
During the long drought of 2002 to 2010, we regularly met in Cowra with Mark Gardner, the HM certified educator who trained us. He was able to tap in to some funding that was there to support community groups in rural areas. It was a good social occasion, and also helped us grapple with the social and financial issues of the drought.
In many ways it was an important learning opportunity, as we made decisions that strengthened the future resource base of our businesses. This had a calming effect on our psyches. We engaged in some monitoring that revealed to us if we were moving towards or away from the goals we had set for the ecosystems on our farms. In our case, during those nine rainfall deficient years, our monitoring showed the ground cover had increased from 70% to 100%, and that the distance to the nearest perennial on our transects had decreased. This was achieved when conventionally managed farms were losing ground cover, dust was blowing, bank balances were glowing red and expensive sown pastures were dying out from constant stocking. One consequence of this circumstance was widespread depression in the farming community. Conventional farmers have the same desires for the landscape of their farms as those managing holistically. Many have not been exposed to the notion of ecological literacy and the connection between biodiversity and business. When they see a repeating pattern of out of control expenses and environmental destruction that seems beyond their control, it creates tension, that leads to rising levels of depression. People isolate themselves, they withdraw and will not make decisions. If you ask them how things are, you mostly get a ‘yeah, good’, response. The wives and partners tend to be more honest about their feelings. The male of the species mostly can’t swallow their pride and open up, as they personalise the scene they observe daily and feel like they are failing. This scenario creates a paralysis which stops many seeking help. Seeking help in a timely manner is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Knowing that your decisions are leading to a more diverse, and abundant, living community is a powerful tonic for the human mind.
Writing about the changes we have made to ecosystems, one finds it almost impossible to avoid the negative. Converting the natural capital in ecosystems of course, has given us immense benefits, but has also come at an ecological cost. The perceived benefits have consequences which play out in the longer term and which we try to mask or cover up by a myriad of technological fixes which also have consequences and on and on. There seems to be so many aspects of human existence that are negative for the ecosystems of Earth. The lag time from action to negative consequences often takes longer than a generation. This is because this old Earth is resilient and has many feedback loops that even out the disruptions we cause.
In the current era, now being called the Anthropocene, humans are the dominant force affecting the ecosystems that we rely on for a stable atmosphere, clean water, carbon-rich soils and a huge diversity of photosynthesising plants and other life. All these four basic building blocks of ecosystems are groaning under the heavy presence of our unrelenting impacts.
For at least thirty years I have been on a quest to try and understand how the human/land connection can deliver positive outcomes for life, increasing complexity and resilience. To make progress in this quest it is tempting to travel down the path of technology in pursuit of answers. That was certainly the track I was on before we switched on to managing holistically, a more sympathetic and aesthetic version of decision-making that puts the future resource base (the land and life), as the focus of all decisions, and in balance with the social and economic. Fundamental to this landscape philosophy is that we are part of the living community. That is, the human/land relationship is much more than economic. This is like putting life at the centre of decisions, because if land has a future for living, it must be able to support life. Life is abundant when land is healthy; food that comes from healthy land is able to support healthy life.
How do we know if our land is healthy? One way is to do some monitoring to see if ground cover is increasing; another is to monitor the abundance of living organisms involved in the recycling of minerals, such as fungi, insects such as dung beetles, our livestock. Another feature we can monitor is the size of the plants and how large the leaf area is to maximise the capture of solar energy. Is there a range of plants that can take advantage of changed conditions at any time of the year. And of course the interconnections between all things living. Are species increasing or decreasing? That is a major indicator of the direction in which our management is heading.
Life is also bound up with death, it is part of the cycle that keeps the elements that support abundant life, returning to the river of life. As Aldo Leopold so eloquently put it, ‘an ecosystem is like a slowly augmented, revolving fund of life’. So death is a fundamental part of living communities.
Photosynthesis is fundamental to life. By the miracle of incoming solar energy reacting with CO2 and water to form simple sugars that energise the microscopic life in soils and release Oxygen. They in turn support the carbon rich structures of plants and lead to the full expression of their potential. For plants such as trees, that are long-lived, seasonal variations are not of great importance. For the grasses and forbs in a grassland, their potential is dependent on the season in which they are living . The by-product of this process, oxygen, also makes it possible for the respiration of living organisms. This has been a feature of life since the cyanobacteria began photosynthesising, and early life forms like stromatolites, began producing an oxidising atmosphere from about 2.7-2.4 billion years ago. The early useful bits of these early prokaryotic cells have been passed upwards in the process of endosymbiosis, described by Lynn Margulis. This showed that chloroplasts and mitochondria are organelles from some of the earliest forms of life and are present in the cells of modern species. A true example of cooperation.
Do we need to know this? Do we need to understand every tiny piece of this incredible process? Or is it sufficient to accept that this is the way it has been for 3.7 billion years of life on Earth?
A number of years ago I was part of the NSW Native Vegetation Advisory Council, we existed as part of an Act of Parliament that sought to fulfil the desire of the public to be consulted. The Chair of this group was Neil Inall, a wonderful man and a great communicator. Many of us had to do quite a lot of travelling to attend meetings. One evening the Inall family had us to dinner. There were quite a few people there who had an interest in the Native Vegetation Act but who were not on the Council. One of these was the late Rick Farley, who with Phillip Toyne of the Australian Conservation Foundation had proposed the idea of Landcare to the Hawke government. Rick was going back from the North Shore to the Eastern suburbs, so Bill Sloane from Savernake just north of the Murray river, and I, shared a cab with him. We were yarning away when Rick said “You know, occasionally in life something happens that really opens your eyes and changes the way you think”. Then he told us this story. He was consulting with some remote aboriginal communities in the north west of the Northern Territory, and into the deserts of Western Australia. He was helping with negotiating agreements with mining companies. He and a revered Aboriginal elder were heading back in to Tennant Creek. Rick was asking lots of questions, trying to understand how Aboriginal people thought and felt about a range of issues. Eventually his companion said,”that’s the trouble with you white blokes, you want to try and understand everything, you can’t just accept anything!” For Rick Farley that was a light-bulb moment.
The Native Vegetation Act was not popular with farmers especially in the Central West and North West of NSW. This was because they saw it as an equity problem. They felt that those who had cleared the trees and shrubs off their land, before there were regulations, had benefitted from an increased land value due to the versatility of their land increasing, once cleared it could grow annual crops. The value of the cleared vegetation was put at zero. Those who still wanted to clear more land but who now had to go through a rigorous approval process, felt poorly treated.
Modelling our behaviour on the long-running tendency of life to proceed towards diversity, so that it has the ongoing capacity to go on renewing itself, must be the imperative of the current age, what is now being called the Anthropocene. That is, dominated by humans. Allowing the inherent regenerative capacity of Earth to be expressed, has always led to life keeping the conditions on Earth friendly for life, regardless of circumstances. Even after the five big extinction events when most species, up to 85 percent of the diversity of life forms were destroyed, the long result has been a return to a more complex state, over time.
So why does this not give us pause to consider the consequences of the current version of industrial agriculture that produces results that are the opposite to the trend of evolution. As I have mentioned before (see blog, Silent Spring Revisited), many of the products of the Industrial model, inorganic fertilisers, biocides, manufactured nitrogen, are agents of death for soil organisms and thus part of the foods we eat.
We have to change the way we behave if we want an Earth that shifts to increasing diversity instead of simplified ecosystems.
Its really an energy question, and bound up with ethics. As that wise fellow, Aldo Leopold once wrote, ‘It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors’. The pace of change in the modern world is such that in many facets of life, practices have left ethical considerations flailing in their wake. It is of huge concern that corporations who are developing and marketing products toxic to life, also evaluate their effects in the environment. There are government funds available for this, but nowhere near enough. Thus we have rivers devoid of life, wetlands stripped of their diversity and soils losing their carbon bounty annually.
There is a worrying paradox here: as society becomes more complex and affluent, the diversity and complexity of the natural world becomes simplified. The dismantling of ecosystems has created short term wealth and benefits, at the expense of the complexity of the natural world upon which we depend for our existence. We use money and technology to prop up the Earth we are exploiting, and there is never enough as we have seen with rising levels of societal indebtedness, both government and private. The value of the natural capital that we continue to convert to other forms has never been accounted for. This must stop. We need natural capital and social accounting, as well as financial. As Paul Hawken said, ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment’.
Currently human societies run on past photosynthetic energy. Our production systems and everything we do relies on fossil energy which is finite. We have diverted the maintenance energy that ecosystems need to maintain their structure and diversity. We have robbed the energy from the living world that it needs to maintain itself. We have to stop doing that and allow ecosystems the time and energy (solar), to invest in their own future. This is possible and is being done by an increasing number of farmers.
In Australia, of the land that is used for agriculture, eighty five percent of it is grazed. Mostly it is unplanned management for long periods behind fences. Now….we know that constantly grazing perennial plants leads to their fading into the background of the community and being over-run by exotic annuals. If annual-dominated land is the result of our grazing management, then we are managing in a way that favours annuals. That is, the management we are using is creating a simplified annual landscape, which is what happens to living communities when the energy required for maintenance is being diverted away from ecosystems, and towards ourselves.
It is so simple to change this, and costs almost nothing. Why aren’t we able to see this? The fact is that even though increasing numbers of farmers may not know why they are seeking different methods that are good for the Earth, there are increasing calls for more training courses in how to make decisions that are socially, economically and environmentally sound.
That means there are more and more farmers reaching the stage that I reached more than twenty years ago, feelings of unease. They are applying best current advice and practice and going backwards socially, economically and their future resource base is diminishing in terms of diversity, and soil organic carbon. The value of inputs is increasing to prop up the damaged ecosystems that can no longer support their businesses.
The changes we have observed since moving away from our former economic relationship with land, indicate that farm ecosystems have the long term evolutionary knowledge within their living organisms to become once more, vibrant, functioning ecosystems increasing in soil organic carbon and more species over time.
To humanise this process, this is what ecosystems are always striving towards, complexity. They do not actually require anything from us to do this, except for us to recognise or accept, that complexity is a natural state towards which all communities of life proceed. If we are losing species, that is an indication that our management is at odds with processes that have been operating for 3.7 billion years.
But, I hear you say, how can you make money like that, and how can I get all those facts into my head? It would take more than a lifetime to try and understand what you are saying.
I would say this to you.
Accept that more diversity is trying to occur.
Accept that you can observe whether your management is increasing diversity or not.
Manage the ecosystems of which you have the privilege to be wise stewards, so they have time to fully recover from grazing.
Keep soils covered all the time with growing or decomposing plants.
Allow life to reach its potential when it is trying to do that.
Harvest interest from the landscape.
Watch the natural capital grow.
This will lead to healthy, vibrant families and communities.
A water cycle improving in quality and effectiveness.
Increasing capture of solar energy.
More organisms recycling minerals.
A dynamic living community increasing in diversity and resilience.
Low-risk, profitable businesses.
Recently my wife, Mary and I drove down through NSW into Victoria and then West into the volcanic basalt plains of the Western District.
We stayed with friends at St Andrews, a village to the north east of Melbourne. Mac, an old school mate of mine and his artist wife, Deborah have created a haven as a bulwark against the spread of the city. Their garden is full of fruit trees and several vegetable garden areas that are aesthetically designed to be pleasing to the eye as well as producing high quality food.
Mac has been writing screenplays for the ABC for the last forty years, on many subjects, creating series around social issues and documentaries about first contacts between Europeans and Australian aboriginal nations, as well as several stand-alone movies. He is a man of deep empathy with a love of place and his connection to the Earth is evident when hearing him talk about his gardens and orchards.
Deborah trained as a print maker at RMIT and has had a long career as an artist. Many of her works concern the environment and depict native plants in their natural habitats. Deborah is part of one of the oldest pastoral dynasties in the Western Districts of Victoria. Her forebears came out from Scotland to Van Dieman’s Land in 1821, and after managing the estate of Captain Wood, in 1836 George Russell followed John Batman to Port Phillip and managed the Clyde Company as a partner. The Russell family and various nephews and cousins built up a pastoral empire in the Leigh river district, with such properties as Golf Hill, Mawallock, Stoneleigh, Elderslie, Carngham, Barunah Plains, Native Creek No1, and Langi Kal Kal.
Deborah grew up at Barunah Plains, a prominent fine wool merino stud. In speaking to her of those days of her young life I felt a deep connection to place in the way she expressed her love of the Barunah Plains landscape. As is often the case, over several generations large fortunes were made and through circumstance businesses are sold. Like many of the big pastoral holdings in the Riverine Plains of New South Wales, some of the big holdings in Western Victoria have been split up and sold. Some of this occurred as a result of government schemes for soldier settlement after the two World Wars, and further pressures during the drought in 1966/67 and the years of poor wool prices of the early 1970s and further economic pressure following the 1982 drought and the collapse of the Wool Reserve Price Scheme in 1989.
In 2009 Mac and Deborah’s home and lives were threatened by the Black Saturday fires. By a quirk of fate the wind changed minutes before they were engulfed and the fire edge became a long front being pushed by one hundred kilometre an hour winds. Villages to the east were destroyed and many of their friends lives were lost, in conditions that were fifty percent worse than any previous event.
After a very pleasant time renewing friendships we headed onto the ring road that runs around Melbourne and on to the freeway that by-passes Geelong, once the western boundary of European civilisation; the stepping stone to the land described by Major Thomas Mitchell as Australia Felix. Mitchell travelled out the Macquarie onto the Darling, trying to solve the riddle of the western flowing rivers of NSW and Victoria. The aboriginal communities of the Darling had suffered catastrophic illness, Mitchell observed grave mounds all the way along the Darling to its junction with the Murray.
The predominantly flat landscapes of Australia are indicative of immense ages of geological stability, during which the elevated ground has gradually been eroding. The forces of wind and water, heat and cold have been manifest in the landscape, creating complex depositional layers, some of which enclose deposits of coal, oil, gas and water. Soil building activity, vulcanism, tectonic upheaval, glaciation have been rare. The last time Australia experienced an ice sheet was approximately 270million years ago. Several volcanic lava flows have occurred as Australia drifted north at seven centimetres per year since breaking away from Gondwana. The Atherton tableland, Darling Downs, the Liverpool Plains and the volcanic plains of Western Victoria diminish in age from north to south. The last volcano in Victoria north of Warrnambool is estimated to have erupted only 32,000 years ago. Thus aboriginal people were living there during that time.
One of the highlights of the Great Ocean Road is the opportunity to marvel at the giant Mountain Ash (e.Regnans), and relictual antarctic beech myrtle (nothofagus cunninghami), blackwood (acacia melanoxylon), tree ferns and other associated communities of the Otway Ranges. It is extraordinary, and sobering to realise that some of these plant communities have been present for perhaps one hundred million years. (Individual trees are thought to live for up to five hundred years). That is, fifty million years before the Australian continent eventually broke away from Gondwana. The eucalypts of these ancient communities came much later as the drifting north gradually began to move into drier latitudes. Species such as Messmate Stringy bark (e.Obliqua), Brown Stringy bark (e. Baxter) and Mountain Ash (e. Regnans), Blue, Grey and Manna gums will also be found in some of these forests.
The Hopkins Falls in this area are a direct result of a lava flow crossing the path of the Hopkins river. The falls, although of modest height, are the widest in Australia and the Hopkins river drains a significant area of the basalt plains. These are the youngest soils in Australia.
The connections we make with people can often turn up interesting conversations and reveal stories that are part of our own. In my life I have met many inspiring people, who have just materialised at a time when I was looking for the next step in furthering my understanding of this extraordinary living Earth of which we are a part. I saw a woman looking at the Hopkins falls and for some reason I had a feeling she and I might share a common interest. This feeling was almost subliminal, and in fact it was my interest in her boots that sparked a conversation. It turned out that she was spending a large part of her remaining years getting people interested in propagating the Murrnong, or yam-daisy that aboriginal people used to farm and harvest in season, always leaving small plants to continue the cycle for the next year. This was a long-term agricultural crop grown with minimal disturbance and referred to by both Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth), and Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu). In some ways it was an early version of pasture cropping. If I hadn’t spoken to this lady I would never have known her story and vice versa. It is a mistake to think your stories are not interesting to others. We are a story-telling species and they are what connects us to each other and the landscapes in which we live.
I recall reading the account given by George Robertson to Governor La Trobe in1853 about his experiences on Wando Vale Station, in the Wannon in Western Victoria. He had taken up a run as the first European settler on it in 1839. Below is a quote from his report ….
“A rather strange thing is going on now. One day all the creeks and little watercourses were covered with a large tussocky grass, with other grasses and plants, to the middle of every watercourse but the Glenelg and Wannon, and in many places of these rivers; now that the only soil is getting trodden hard with stock, springs of salt water are bursting out in every hollow or watercourse, and as it trickles down the watercourse in summer, the strong tussocky grasses die before it, with all others. The clay is left perfectly bare in summer. The strong clay cracks; the winter rain washes out the clay; now mostly every little gully has a deep rut; when rain falls it runs off the hard ground, rushes down these ruts, runs into the larger creeks, and is carrying earth, trees, and all before it. Over Wannon country is now as difficult a ride as if it were fenced. Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with tussocky grass like a land marsh. I find from the rapid strides the silk-grass has made over my run, I will not be able to keep the number of sheep the run did three years ago, and as a cattle station it will be still worse; it requires no great prophetic knowledge to see that this part of the country will not carry the stock that is in it at present – I mean the open downs, and every year it will get worse, as it did in VDL.; and after all the experiments I worked with English grasses, I have never found any of them that will replace our native sward. The day the soil is turned up, that day the pasture is gone for ever as far as I know, for I had a paddock that was sown with English grasses, in squares each by itself, and mixed in every way. All was carried off by the grubs, and the paddock allowed to remain in native grass, which returned in eight years. Nothing but silk- grass grew year after year, andI suppose it would be so on to the end of time. Dutch clover will not grow on our clay soils; and for pastoral purposes the lands here are getting of less value every day, that is, with the kind of grass that is growing in them, and will carry less sheep and far less cattle.” (Robertson, 1853, in Bride, Letters from Victorian Pioneers).
Here was a man with a sensitive relationship to the land and yet the constant grazing of domestic livestock caused the complete breakdown of a vegetation system that had been operating under aboriginal management for thousands of years. The problem was the desire in the minds of men to make a profit while understanding almost nothing about how the land functioned.
Its frightening to think something so stable could be so changed in such a short time. The aboriginals, devastated by the diseases brought with the white settlers must have looked on aghast at what was happening to their ‘country’.
When I was twenty I worked on South Boorook, Mortlake, Victoria, at the time (1970), the premier Hereford stud in Australia. The Allen family were great to work for and very appreciative of our efforts. In that time there were many windbreaks of Lambertiana cypresses, planted in belts all over the mostly flat volcanic plains.
Travelling from Port Fairy to Mortlake, on our way back to St Andrews, we noticed that in many places the big windbreaks had all died and in some areas had been blown down. On enquiring, we were told that the cypresses had a fungous in the tips and when it was observed, it was too late.
It will be a massive and expensive job cleaning it all up as they were all double fenced. This is a classic case of what can happen if a pathogen attacks a monoculture, and yet I feel sure that the trees were planted on good advice at the time of planting.
The trees had ended their relationship with the earth, except for the potential of recycling their nutrients either by fire or the long process of oxidation.
However, a connection I had made forty seven years ago was rekindled. Mary encouraged me to call in at South Boorook to see if there was anyone at home who might have known me back in 1970. We called in and met Lisa Allen, Peter’s wife. She called out to Peter who was in the kitchen about to have lunch. They gave us a heart-warming welcome that made me realise how strong the connection was even after all that time. Being open to ideas such as relationships and new knowledge is the passport to experiences that expand our minds. If I had not heeded my wise wife’s encouragement to renew an old friendship, we would have missed a highlight of our little holiday.
Daily, regenerative farmers regard their land, watching for signs that the living Earth is working her magic, hard won after 3.7 billion years of life. They have a quiet confidence that she can renew what we have undone.
Regenerative farmers have patience and respect for the processes inherent in the Earth system. They feel gratitude for the daily reminders of the abundance that the Earth can show if we let her array of life express it’s potential. I’m talking about allowing these potentials to become realities. This latent energy inherent in living communities can be fully expressed when we use our minds and actions to plan time for the natural cycles of birth, life, death and decay. They are the cycles of life, that when combined with the many species that can be supported in complex communities, reveal the extraordinary capacity living things have to keep the world in a life-friendly state.
Gratitude and acceptance of the natural tendency towards elaboration of life forms and increasing diversity seem to be prerequisites of a regenerative farming life.
In some ways the lessons to be learned from observing the wheel of life, are akin to the seeds of the biblical sowers. Daily, the information is revealed or not, depending upon our powers of observation and our willingness to learn. Many, perhaps most of these Earth lessons that are metaphorically cast among us, fall on the barren ground of the unseeing, unknowing minds of one of the last of the species to evolve – humans. However, for the persistent , passionate, lovers of life and landscapes, the information the Earth reveals can become knowledge; this has a cultural base.
Our species has been spectacular at gathering information in our quest to find what makes the world work. However the obsession with digging for information has come at the cost of knowledge and understanding. Mostly our thirst for knowledge is about how it can benefit us. Now we need to move to a more generous philosophy and do things we know to be good for the Earth. This is likely to also be beneficial for us, but not in the economic sense.
We have found that decisions made towards strengthening ecosystems, are also good for our business.
The living world gets its energy daily, from the sun. There is a huge extra capacity, in that the bulk of solar energy is reflected back into space or used to drive the weather systems that are part of the water cycle. The thin mantle of soil that harbours terrestrial life runs on just less than one percent of the daily incoming solar energy. This energy powers the process of photosynthesis, and thus, all life. The plants are the primary producers, all species that eat plants are secondary producers; Thus all life is dependent on photosynthesis.
This year like many, in Australia’s variable climate, has been a stop start affair. At the end of February it looked like we were going into a bleak Autumn. Despite a very dry January and February, with several bursts of very high temperatures, our district was lucky not to have had any devastating bushfires like areas to our north. We certainly had the potential for fire due to a record wet September/October, but were fortunate. The roll of the dice with fire is always a game of chance. If a fire had started here on the day that the massive fire at Dunedoo started, the outcome would have been similar. Many farms would have been completely burnt out with the resulting human consequences of depression, economic reversal and anxiety to see what the ensuing season would bring.
Following the big spring of 2016, one would have thought it would take the livestock of the district at least two years to graze the big biomass down. However by the end of February farmers were feeding stock, and some country was looking grazed out. Cows can handle large amounts of dry feed, but fat sheep gradually lose weight on hayed-off grass unless there is some green feed to keep their rumen ammonia at a level that supports the micro flora of the gut. When there is high gut ammonia, ruminants can do well on large volumes of dry biomass. However, when animals are run in the same paddock for long periods (months), the stock ferret out the green plants in a matter of days and are left to make what they can of the dry material. There is no lack of nutrients in the dry stubble of crops and hayed-off pasture, just the lack of favourable conditions for the gut flora needed to unlock the nutrients. Thus in the absence of any greenery, ruminants will gradually live off their body fat and begin to lose weight.
A fall of rain towards the end of March produced a lot of feed and farmers, being optimists, assumed that Winter grass was assured. April, May, June and July were dry and we had more than forty heavy frosts. Some of the frosts were so severe that the big yellow box trees were white right to the top. The effect of this cold weather was to almost halt growth, the green feed all turned yellow and the annual grasses that germinated in March turned bluish and the a reddish purple, from struggling for moisture. It was only the low temperature that allowed these plants to go on living, but in an almost suspended state between life and death.
While this two and a half month dry, frosty spell continued, we were keeping a close eye on our grazing plan and estimating how many days of grass we had in front of us. Because we had a lot of biomass that was ungrazed from Spring 2016, we were understocked and actually put on another forty pregnant cows and another hundred heifers to grow out and join. The decisions in this planning is always leading us towards a landscape that has one hundred percent ground cover. We will not compromise on that. We would rather destock than lose ground cover, it is so fundamental for our landscape goal. For a well functioning landscape or ecosystem, one hundred percent ground cover is the first prerequisite for a good water cycle. Good cover means lots of habitat for all the recyclers, the fungi and the myriad of bacteria, and other larger life forms that live in a healthy functioning soil.
Planning recovery time is fundamental for slow growing plants to be able to fully express themselves each time they are disturbed by grazing. In a dry, frosty Winter it is a slight dilemma as to whether you should keep implementing the growing season plan, or switch to a dormant season plan. In some ways it is academic, if you continue with a growing season plan, you just move the stock at the slowest rate. If you were in a dormant season plan you would be moving slowly anyway, so it is somewhat academic. The biggest difference is that in a dormant season plan, it is really designed to budget out the estimated dry feed from the end of the growing season. Whereas the growing season plan is all about planning the amount of recovery the plants need to fully recover before they are grazed again.
Drought times create tension, both in humans and the ecosystem. if the dry continues many plants may die, creating niches for other species to germinate in the spaces. This is one way that succession in the plant community can move towards greater complexity.
It is also a catalyst for human action as a result of the tension created that can open the mind to change.
The way water moves across the Australian landscape or seeps into it, is wholly determined by the cover of vegetation, and on the condition of the soil surface of landscapes.
The vegetation is driven or powered by the energy of the sun, its volume or mass governed by rainfall, temperature. The level of cover is now determined by human actions or what we like to call ‘management’. Human management in the age of consequence is about trying to capture more of the photosynthetic product of the landscape. It is this desire that has driven agriculture, and human populations.
The paddocks I walk through on my thrice-weekly odyssey to the top of Mount Canemumbola provide lessons on which my mind muses. The walking track goes through a never-cultivated-by-humans piece of land, out of the gradual upward slope of which rises the resistant-to-erosion, volcanic mount Canemumbola.
A mountain knows through the slow ebb of time that it will one day be a flood plain. The vegetation on the track I walk is not in the same state as it was when Europeans, mostly Irish people, began to settle here from the early 1820s. There is certainly the Box Gum Grassy Woodland, although Kangaroo grass is only seen in a couple of small patches among the rocks on the sides of the Mount. There are some of the native daisies and other forbs and lilies that appear when conditions suit them. Unlike most paddocks where stock are grazed in this area, there are young trees growing here, the progeny of the eucalypts that are scattered through this paddock that has long periods without stock.
This year the paddocks beside the track I walk have lush grazing oats crops in them. This has been a very good autumn and the farmers had their crops sown early in March. The often-chancy Autumn rainfall came in a few well-timed falls that led to the crops being so lush. Today the freshly-marked lambs and their mothers are on the crop. Stock prefer diversity in the pasture, the monoculture crop does not suit them, it is too much of a good thing, full of more protein than their gut can process; it usually makes them scour until it is grazed down to the point where the high nutrient leaves have been grazed off and the more fibrous stems of the leaves give a bit more balance and the scouring stops. The farmer, either consciously, or through experience has recognized the sheep’s preference for more diversity and has kept the gate open to the track paddock that has a more extensive variety of plants from which to choose, as well as some dry material from the Spring of 2016. The sheep were almost all in the track paddock, they instinctively know what they like.
We are currently gathering firewood to feed the fuel stove that cooks our food, heats our water, and via a series of thermostatically controlled hydronic radiators, connected to the water-jacket surrounding the firebox of the stove, heats our home. We only cut wood from fallen branches or dead trees whose roots have taken possibly a hundred years to decay to the point that they have come down in a storm. Fallen dead trees, that have big hollow pipes, caused by termites, are important habitat for a large range of species, such as longicorn beetles, centipedes, johnny hairy legs, lizards, snakes, bats, bees and many species of fungi, those important agents of recycling that have the capacity to invade the wood structure of a tree weighing perhaps twenty tonnes, and begin the task of returning the nutrients in that massive structure back into the river of life. So if a tree with these features falls down we will not use it as firewood to keep us warm, but leave it for all the myriad of creatures who can find their home and food in or beside this fallen giant for maybe two hundred years. Standing dead trees are valuable habitat for many species of hollow-nesting birds, probably hundreds of species of insects and spiders, lizards, snakes and bats, to say nothing of the soil biota and fungi that gradually process the structure of the tree and return it to the river of life. In the brittle environments of Australia this can take hundreds of years. In the fire-prone environments of this country it is likely that fallen trees will be oxidized by fire before the weathering and intermittent biological processes of decay have finished their work. In a more humid, non-brittle tending environment the rate of decay of large structures like trees is incredibly rapid when compared to the glacier-like pace of the breakdown of a giant from the once abundant box gum grassy woodland that once covered a great sweep of country west of the Dividing range from southern Queensland in a great arc through NSW and Victoria to South Australia.
Our wood-gathering is another example of the human effect of accelerating natural processes. Aldo Leopold wrote an essay on the demise of the passenger pigeon from the big forests of the United States and Canada last century.
‘ The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly, the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a travelling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a whisp of smoke.
Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament’.
Australia is not dissimilar in area to the United States. Yet it supports fifteen times our population. 25 million compared to 300 million. This is because, while the central parts of the Australian continent are mostly desert with very limited surface water, intermittent creeks and rivers that are mostly inward draining, no forests or big rivers; conversely in the central area of the US, water is abundant, the glaciated soils are young and full of nutrients because only 18,000 years ago it was covered with a mile or more of ice, that stripped off the old soil and ground up the country rock, leaving, when the glaciers retreated, young, rich, new soil. The rivers in the US are big because they are full of melting snow pack from the Rockies, where our rivers rely for their flows on rainfall and run-off.
Whilst our central deserts are dry, they are not sand deserts, like the Sahara. They have incredibly diverse flora and fauna, reptiles and insects. The better-watered parts of Australia, mostly a green coastal fringe and the closer-in western slopes of the dividing range, have felt the heavy hand of agriculture, grazing and cropping. Whilst the rainfall should make them able to support more diversity of life forms than the desert country, agriculture has led to huge losses of biodiversity, so that we have this paradoxical situation where the deserts are more diverse than the better-watered areas. Where agriculture exists, the native grasses and forbs have been replaced by exotic species. This happened within only a few decades of European settlement.
We build dams on our farms, big dams on our rivers. The driest inhabited continent on earth captures these scarce waters to make an irrigation industry possible. We sink bores into the underground aquifers and when the shallow aquifers begin to diminish their yield we drill deeper. Meanwhile our soils, the largest potential water stores we have are limited in their capacity to store rainfall, leak it slowly to underground aquifers, and supply base flow to creeks and rivers as well as act as a storage buffer against drought.
How can this be? Our soils, whether used for grazing or crops have 70% less organic carbon, than when European agriculture began. This limits its capacity to store water, the two greatest assets we have, soils high in organic carbon, and water, are limited by our actions. Exploiting soil organic carbon has long been a pathway to profit in Australia. Another effect of lowering soil organic carbon is to increase the rate of runoff. Thus our low rainfall is less effective, we lose much of it that should be replenishing reserves and being stored in soils for the benefit of all life.
The energy that drives the reaction of photosynthesis makes it possible for plants to manufacture their own food and thus support the entire array of species that inhabit the green mantle of the earth. (There are a few rare exceptions to this). Life makes the atmosphere friendly for life, regardless of circumstance this has held for 3.7 billion years of life on earth. Diversity is the earth’s way of protecting itself from shocks, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, floods, fires and droughts. And yet the very essence of modern agriculture gives us the opposite. It delivers ecosystems whose diversity is falling away under the heavy feet of modern high energy agriculture. We deal in monocultures or very limited polycultures that have their genesis in death. Agriculture has its origins in the death of all species that might limit our desire for energy in the form of food rich in carbon. In the last two hundred years we have tapped the high carbon resources of the earth with frightening rapidity. Timber, soil humus, coal, oil and gas. These ‘resources’ have their origin in photosynthesis driven by ancient sunlight. We are burning them, like the passenger pigeons, in an uncontrollable blast of life. 370 million years ago these carbon rich coal oil and gas stores were laid down over 50 million years of life. Now we have combusted more than half of these stores in 200 years. That is 250,000 times faster than they were formed. Why does that not seem like an emergency for humans?
The only positive reaction in my mind that I can conjure today, is in the extraordinary capacity of the earth to keep renewing itself.
Observing the results of human behaviour in an age of consequence is a paradox. On the one hand there are the extraordinary benefits we have gained through our ability to enquire and try to understand how the world functions. From the gradual advance in scientific knowledge we are freed from the hard life our ancestors knew as the norm. The paradox is that what we have gained has imposed a terrible and never brought to account cost, on the living systems of the Earth.
Today is a special day at Allendale and one I have dreamed about for fifty one years. We have changed the woody vegetative cover here by planting seedlings, direct sowing seeds, and lately allowing volunteer seedlings to germinate and survive. In 1966 there was only three percent tree cover on Allendale, now there is almost twenty percent.
We’ve been patient, sometimes we even considered importing some birds with whom we’d like to share this land. My father planted mixed species plantations on our few acres of land at Bowral in the belief that species of birds would appear if you provided habitat. I saw that happen as a young boy, so I knew it was possible.
But today I saw for the first time….. Grey Crowned Babblers!!! A few years ago I gave a talk in Cowra called Birds, Biodiversity and Business. At the end of the talk I had a slide of a Grey Crowned Babbler and said that I would die happy if they turned up at Allendale. And they have, two years before I have reached my allotted minimum expected span of three score years and ten. I emphasise minimum here because now I expect there will be a return of other species that were endemic but who have moved further out as we farmers have altered conditions. Effectively we have made our landscapes unfriendly to species that evolved here. We should ponder that deeply.
Our forebears did not know that was going to happen, they had their eye on the main game, fencing, developing and clearing land, making a quid and surviving. Well the main game has changed and now making a quid and surviving is bound up with the notion of diversity. Farms with increasing diversity are cheaper to run, more resilient to shocks and increasing in soil carbon; they are biologically active and getting more so. It is hard to put a value on seeing that busy little bird turning over litter and hurriedly eating whatever showed up.
It was quite unconcerned as I stopped the vehicle to see if I could identify it. I think I received as big a thrill as when we occasionally grew a big crop of grain.
I am hoping the rest of the Babbler’s family is also here or not far away and soon to be resident.
The excitement that little bird gave me today was greater and opposite to the sadness I felt about twenty five years ago when I realised that the Brown Tree Creepers had left Allendale. Back then, I think I knew, deep inside me I had played a part in their leaving. We started growing canola next to their habitat and were using insecticides for earth mites and baits for slugs. That was another shove along the way to finding a way of farming that was more about increasing life, than dealing in death.
Today I felt that the Babbler represented a step in the right direction. Perhaps something we have done helped the process, I like to think it was mostly allowing conditions favourable to this little bird that have been the most important reasons it arrived today and let me photograph it.
The mind of a regenerative farmer is in some ways, akin to a complex ecosystem. Like the tendency of communities of life to constantly be moving towards a more elaborate and diverse state, the ecosystem of the regenerative mind becomes more complex with increasing connections and relationships with the land and the experiences of life.
This type of farming mind is a whole, and part of the whole of the farm, which is a part of the catchment in which it resides. It is part of the region, part of Australia, this country that is part of the Earth. Like the connections of the wholes within wholes, the Earth is ultimately part of the whole of a galaxy, part of the Universe.
A mind begins its journey of life with some innate knowledge gained from the genes of the parents of a new life. As the body in which the brain resides grows, the mind is stimulatedby experiences of light, movement and the love shown by parents, and then interacting with the physical world.
My mind began its journey as part of a child of two doctors living on the side of Mt Gibraltar in Bowral. When I was old enough, I used to go with my father Bill to feed the chooks each morning and collect the eggs. The food scraps from our family were mixed with boiling water and some bran and pollard.
Bill Marsh was a wizard at growing things, his large garden at Mardah Mia, was something to behold. There was a lot of diversity, Rhododendrons, Camellias, Fuchsias, Polyanthus, Azaleas, Roses, Silver Birches, Crab Apples, Laurel hedges, Liquidambars, Oaks, Hydrangeas, Plums, Apples, Gooseberries, Cherry Plums, Loganberries, Boysenberries, Raspberries, Red and Black Currants, and a vegetable garden. He made huge bins of compost and leaf-mould, used to collect his own urine and water it down and sprinkle it on the compost to give it added nitrogen. He was a recycler before it was mainstream. He and my mother Joan had lived through the depression and everything was saved, brown paper bags, tissue paper, string, even two different bags for different types of string.
My father was a conservationist when that word was seldom used, I observed his behaviour and perhaps some of what I saw seeped into my subconscious, to come to fruition many years hence. There’s no doubt in my mind that my current philosophy of farming practice has its roots in those early years. I loved lizards and frogs, we often had jars of frogs eggs hatching and watched them turn into tadpoles and then frogs. We found a magnificent Emperor Gum moth caterpillar and fed her until she pupated and ultimately hatched. This caterpillar was unbelievably beautiful, greenish blue with little tufts of bristles on its head and near its tail.
Dad had read Farmer’s of Forty Centuries by F.H.King, a book written after a US Department of Agriculture study tour of agricultural practices in Korea, Japan and China after the disastrous U.S. Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. It was undertaken to see how these Asian cultures could practice such intensive agriculture without ‘wearing out the land’.
As so often happens, when circumstances drive behaviour, the price of wheat in the UK and Europe had increased hugely after the end of WWI and tractors had been invented that had sufficient power to break the heavy sod of the prairie states in the mid-west of the US. Farmers were trying to cash in on the lucrative European wheat market. This coincided with several dry seasons and there were huge soil losses from ‘dusters’, where the soil, having lost the protective cover of the prairie ecosystem, was stripped away by the wind, causing immense and permanent environmental damage, human hardship, and leading to the establishment of the US Soil Conservation Service. This period of history is vividly described in the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was a classic demonstration of what happens when we reverse the trend of the diversity of life, and the circumstances of our behaviour lead to simplified ecosystems on farms.
Despite what F.H.King found in Asian agriculture, the resource-rich culture of the US, swimming in energy and timber wealth, developed an exploitative version of agriculture based on huge areas of glaciated soils whose fertility was thought to be inexhaustible. The subsequent exploitation of the soils in the mid west was described by Aldo Leopold as ‘wheating land to death’.
Farmers of Forty Centuries was one book in a series I was aware of but never read until I was in my forties, and fifties. It included, An Agricultural Testament, Humus and the Farmer, The Clifton Park System of Farming, The Rape of the Earth, The Earth’s Green Carpet.
When I was nine years old I went off to a small boarding school at Moss Vale. Here were 130 boys from diverse backgrounds, many of them from farms. There were lots of activities as the school was situated on a farm of about 300 acres. Scouts and Cubs were a great introduction to understanding bushcraft and social responsibility. I loved it and it felt like a bigger version of home. I developed many friendships and was fortunate to be asked to stay with several families during term holidays. This was the catalyst that launched my interest in agriculture, and which has been my passion for all my working life.
One event I remember that shocked me was the effort to control rabbits on the school farm. A new poison had been developed called 1080, colourless, tasteless and odourless and with no antidote. The rabbits were given a few ‘free feeds’ of carrots and then the poisoned carrots were laid on a bait trail. This killed a few rabbits and many times more possums, an environmental disaster, and a demonstration of what happens when chemicals are applied without knowing the effect on non-target species. Even to a young boy of about eleven years this seemed wrong. It happened on the eve of the publication of Rachel Carson’s electrifying book Silent Spring, in 1962.
We always had a family holiday at a village called Bonny Hills, just south of Port Macquarie. There was a store and about ten wooden houses and a beach that stretched for miles. No one was on it and we had a few carefree weeks there. My mother’s brother, Stephen, another doctor, had a house there and as they had four sons and a daughter, and we were four daughters and a son it was a great opportunity to play with our cousins.
There were lots of mind-expanding natural world experiences too. We made our own fishing rods out of Rangoon cane, whipped the guides for the line with silk thread and varnished it to keep out the water. Dad and my uncle used to try for something ‘big off the beach’. They were always hoping for a big jewfish or a school of tailor. My cousins and I were the bait catchers. We found pippies, which we found by doing the ‘twist’ as the tide came in and you’d feel them under your feet. They were khaki, orange, dark purple, and off- white. We learnt how to catch the giant beach worms which were good bait for whiting, flathead and bream. The Jewies liked school or ‘poddy’ mullet and there was a creek that sometimes had a gutter to the sea but mostly it was landlocked by a sand bank. It was called Vinegar Creek because the water was stained the colour of brown vinegar from the tannin in the paperbarks that grew along its banks. We’d set oyster bottles, long thin bottles into which we put some bread that we mixed up and then sank them in the creek with a float attached to the bottle with string. We’d set the bottles in the evening and check them in the morning. There would always be six or so mullet in every bottle, they’d go in head first and could’nt get out! Once, when the sand bank was open to the sea we filled it with sand and after a couple of hours put another sand bank across about fifty metres further down the gutter and caught a couple of good flathead that were heading back to the ocean from the creek.
Then we’d go fishing round the rocks when the tide was coming in. We learnt all about the many life forms that inhabit the tide pools and create an extraordinary web of life, and further infused and added to the complexity of the experiences that ultimately grew into the regenerative farming mind between my ears. There were many sorts of seaweed, a type of algae, chitons, periwinkles, anemones, little darting gudgeons, rarely, a beautiful bright blue fish that we tried and failed to catch. There were eels, octopus, and many different types of crabs, their habitat dictated by their colour and feeding habits. We broke off pieces of cunjevoi which was good bait for drummer and blue groper; we found lots of red rock crabs in the red weed on the big boulders that were a bit further out. You had to watch for the next wave or you’d get knocked over, we loved all this activity. Of course we did not compare our lot with how anyone else lived, we had not yet reached the age of reflecting.
My family have always been keen on birds and there was an avian feast at Bonny Hills. We particularly liked to watch the White-Backed Sea Eagles hunting over the sea and over Vinegar Creek. Sometimes we saw Brahminy Kites and occasionally an Osprey. The sand dunes were kept in place by the coastal heath that was full of birds, wrens, honeyeaters, and the usual Butcherbirds, Peewits, Currawongs and Magpies, and a host of parrots. Holiday houses in those days were not at all pretentious, timber walls with outside toilet, washing machine with a mangle wringer, bring your own sheets and blankets, kerosene fridge. There were five children and we often had a friend staying, so it was not really a holiday for Mum. She just seemed to plough on getting meals and enjoying us having a good time. In the evening we played Scrabble, Squatter and Monopoly, snap, and fish. My sisters and I now look back on those times as highlights in our lives.
One useful skill I picked up was how to relate to other people. There was a lovely old fellow just down the road who had a banana farm and he had a lot of chooks fossicking under the trees. His name was Mr Prout, affectionately known as Prouty. His wife was a very friendly lady who was keen to talk to us all when we went down to buy some eggs. Dad loved meeting people and always found it easy to strike up a conversation, something that seeped into me by osmosis. These social skills became an important part of the regenerative mind as relationship and the social dimension of life is critical in gaining information and knowledge.
In school holidays, I was fortunate to be asked home with several families who lived on farms. Those holidays had a huge influence on my choice of occupation. These farms were at Mumbil, near Wellington; at Merriwa; at Mandurama and at Coolah. The families I stayed with were all incredibly generous to me and I experienced many things. Shooting hares in the dusk in the lucerne at Merriwa, panning for gold in the gravel beds of the Belubula at Mandurama, going for a shot to see if I could get a ‘roo for the dogs, in the black soil hills of the Talbragar catchment at Coolah. Drafting and marking calves, mustering sheep, fencing and being included in various social outings, all these experiences I was so very fortunate to have, and were instrumental in urging me forward to a career in agriculture.
Later I went Jackarooing on a sheep station at Urana. I spent my small amount of free time collecting bird’s eggs and observing the natural world around me. It was a place called Coonong, and once the head station for Sir Samuel McCaughey’s pastoral empire on the Riverine Plains. It had forty four miles of double frontage to the Columbo creek. In its heyday there were ten single men, six jackaroos and two men at the ram sheds as well as an overseer, stud overseer, a book keeper, a groom, blacksmith, farmer and jackaroo’s cook. But when I went there in February 1968, the single men’s dwelling was unoccupied. The drought was upon the land and 20,000 sheep were being fed in many mobs. Unlike many properties, Coonong had two weirs on the Columbo. There was a system of channels that went to almost every paddock. When dams were running short of water, we’d put boards in the weirs and the creek level would rise. We’d open the channel and the water would flow out to dams many miles from the creek. Whilst this was convenient, it meant that when droughts came, stock were held in paddocks that gradually lost cover.
The owners had an irrigation block at Finley where they grew irrigated lucerne. In dry times a semi-trailer of hay would come once a week and be fed out direct to the paddocks. As the truck approached the paddock you’d see a great pall of red dust rising, indicating that the sheep had begun to move to the gate. As well as the hay, the ewes were fed Riverina Stock Feed sheep nuts which came in bags from the feed mill in Narrandera. One of the jackaroos would get on the back of the ute and feed the nuts out as the vehicle drove in a big circle, the rationale for this was that you could get a good look at the sheep as they were fed and report any concerns.
This was in the days before motorbikes, so all stock work was done with horses. There was also a sulky horse called Mike Todd, named after one of Marilyn Monroe’s husbands! One of the senior blokes left for another job and I became the sulky driver, something I loved. The sulky was used to do a lot of the stock droving when shearing, crutching and jetting were on. It was about eight miles or so from the back paddocks to the shearing shed yards. If you did not get the sheep to the yards before ten o’clock, in the hot weather, they would get ‘doughy’ and want to camp, and could not be driven. The strategy was to get out to the paddock just before dawn, lift the sheep off the camp and let them string out and feed along. I had a good quiet dog called Chiko, often called Fat Chick or Chiko Roll. He’d been bred by Father John Morrison, the Parish Priest at Boorowa who, whilst ministering to his human flock, also bred good sheep dogs. Chiko’s big strength was that he didn’t push the sheep. I would sit out on the wing in the sulky, and if the sheep pulled up, I just let them rest awhile and soon they would lead off and this way they never got overheated. Chiko just kept pace with the slowest sheep. Harnessing Mike into the sulky in the almost-dark was a wonderful feeling, no-one to disturb the peace and you could watch the changing colours as the sky turned from darkness to a milky green and then gradually lightened as the first faint tinge of the approaching sun hinted at the golden margin on the clouds and eventually broke the horizon. Finding the sheep in big paddocks was sometimes a challenge as there was a shrub called cotton bush that from a distance looked just like sheep. Mostly if there was any breeze, they would graze into the wind, making them easier to find. If there had been any substantial rain you’d be likely to see Brolgas nesting in the ephemeral swamps, and sometimes even in smaller depressions called gilgais. Once I was mustering cattle off one of the bends of the creek. There was a big Riverine fog and I was trying to find the gate when I could hear the croaky sound of the Brolga’s call. I sat still on my horse and as the fog began to almost imperceptibly lift, I saw two brolgas performing their dance, with wings held wide and heads aloft in a primeval dance that was older than the original human inhabitants of these huge floodplains. They seemed unaware of my presence and I must have watched them for more than five minutes, a real privilege.
When a big mob of sheep is grazing along, they have plenty of room and often flush ground larks and quail out in front of the mob. The whistling of the quail would attract Brown Hawks, who hunted along the front edge of the sheep and often caught quail on the wing.
After the drought of the first year, 1969 started off very dry until in early March, the weather broke and there were several good falls of rain. In one week, the bare ground disappeared under a sea of green in an almost unbelievable switch. 1969 was a good season, the grey clays grew lots of grasses and crowfoot. The sand ridge country grew a big body of corkscrew (Stipa sp), and could not be stocked with sheep as the corkscrew seed burrows into the sheep’s skin and they fail to thrive and are a target for blowflies. We had a couple of fly waves while I was at Coonong. The flies were so bad it was not feasible to bring the sheep in and jet them. So we split up into two groups and went to each paddock and caught the fly-blown sheep, cut the affected wool off with shears and dressed the wound with KFM. In a mob of 350 ewes there could be 30 blown and within a week there’d be another 30. The sheep blowfly was so prolific that they would lay their eggs on the damp washing on the clothes-line. Eventually the fly wave stopped, and normal station work resumed.
Part of the populating of the ecolosystem of a regenerative farmers mind was the conversations I had with all the new people I was meeting. The Hemphill family who brought the hay up to Coonong from Finley, Tommy Martin, the fencer who had his battles with the grog but knew the fencing game inside out, The Craze brothers, shearing contractors from Narrandera who brought their teams in and lived in the shearers huts, for shearing and crutching. Mrs Maher was the cook, the only person we knew who could make rank two year old rams that were culls from the sale teams and now meat for the shearers, taste alright. Mostly the rams were too rank for eating. If you were bringing sheep forward for shedding up at shearing time, you could unsaddle your horse and leave it in a small triangle paddock beside the bridge over the Columbo creek, and go over to the kitchen at the shearers huts, and Mrs Maher would give you a couple of rock cakes with sultanas in them washed down with a pannikin of tea. Jackaroos always packed their own lunch, sandwiches in summer and a couple of chops and some bread to toast in Winter. We’d light a fire and grill the chops on a bit of netting with a wire round the edge; we carried our lunch in a leather saddle bag and a quart pot, in a leather case which was strapped to a couple of dees on the other side of the saddle.
At the end of the day, if we’d been using horses and ended up at the shearing shed yards, the horses would be unsaddled and let go, the harness loaded on the truck or ute, and we’d drive the six miles to the station. The horses would canter home and meet us at each gate to be let through and then let back into the horse paddock. In wet years the mosquitos were savage and we’d light dung fires so the horses could get their heads in the smoke and get some relief from the mossies or they’d gallop all night.
Shearing was the biggest event on the station with 20,000 sheep being brought forward in their mobs and then branded and walked back to their various paddocks. I was very busy at this time as my job was to jump out early, bring a mob in and then walk a shorn mob out. Shorn sheep move along freely, feeding and spreading out, you could get the dogs up on the sulky and they were always fresh. Jackaroos were not allowed back into the quarters after breakfast, I think this was because it was considered good policy to keep out of the cook’s hair so she could get the cleaning done uninterrupted.
Jackaroo’s cooks were an interesting breed, the boss always advised us not to fraternize with them or they’d bend the rules and end up resenting us and leave. This was advice we never followed, and so there was a procession of new cooks who had to get used to us and vice versa. These were good lessons in tolerance and people management.
On Coonong there were two Irish families who had emigrated from Ballymena in Ireland. One was the Sinclair family, Bob and Mrs Sinclair, and their children. Bob was the groom, his job was to kill the sheep to provide meat for the families on the station, including the jackaroos. The dressed carcases would hang over night with chaff bags over them, and next morning they’d be carried up to the fly-proof meat room where they would be cut up; sawn down the mid-line with a manual meat saw, then cut down into chops, and roasts and distributed around the station. This was a weekly job, and for the rest of the week Bob would come out and work with us on the station. He had a brown Border Collie dog called Peg who was super-intelligent. If it was a station work day, Bob would sit on a chair outside the front door of his house with his esky, Peg would lie on the mat, she knew it was not a work day for her. If Bob came out with his cloth and knife and steel, Peg would tear down to the killer’s paddock and by the time Bob had walked down to the yard, Peg would have the killers in the yard. The killers were mostly Burdizzoed rams who had been bloodlessly emasculated with an instrument called a Burdizzo. It would crush the spermatic cord without breaking the scrotum skin. To check if it was adjusted properly you would get a cigarette paper and lay a human hair across it, fold it over and close the Burdizzo. If it was correctly adjusted it would cut the hair but not the paper. I could never work out just how that was possible!
We used to take it week about with bringing the horses in to the yards each morning. Horses were in the homestead yards every morning ready for work. If no horses were needed they’d be let out into the horse paddock. The night horse, Henry, was left in the yards overnight and whoever was ‘on horses’ would jump on Henry before work and bring the horses up to the yards. Henry had very prominent, bony withers that posed a threat to one’s manhood, but he had a loping action that was quite comfortable.
Bob Sinclair also had a few milking cows he’d bring in each evening, they’d go into the cow yard where the calves were shut up at night. The cows were turned out into the paddock next to the cow bails and would have full udders in the morning for milking. The cows get cunning and don’t enjoy having their calves shut up and will try all sorts of tricks to avoid being put in the yard in the evening. Bob was pretty intolerant of their attitude and had a limit to his patience. One evening as I finished work, Mrs Sinclair and the manager, Lionel Smith, were watching Bob bring the cows in; the cows were playing up. Bob rode a push-bike to bring the cows in and one cow was not moving as fast as Bob desired, he had the wheel of the bike between her back legs and was encouraging her with a switch of leaves he’d broken off a tree, and cursing her with a verbal tongue whipping. Lionel said to Mrs Sinclair, ‘Bob’s having trouble with the cows tonight’, to which she replied with her lovely Irish brogue, “If yon coo knew who was chasing her, she’d be on her knees prayin’”.
Tennis was a big deal at Urana the small town not far from Coonong, it was our main social outlet. Lionel Smith had been an army officer and there was a certain military discipline imposed for our own good! We were allowed a car, but had to hand in the keys. There was no leave from the station except for tennis on Saturdays. We worked till lunch time every Saturday, then cleaned up and went in for tennis at the Urana lawn Tennis Club, that bastion of social respectability with not a hint of any grass, the courts were all bitumen or ant-bed gravel. We met all the local station-owners and their families, who were very good to us. They would have been a mine of information to us if we’d ever thought to ask them about their stations, but being young, just out of school, lacking experience and probably floating in a haze of testosterone, we mostly missed the chance. We were probably low on the social pecking order as well.
All these experiences added to the store of knowledge about the practical aspects of managing a sheep farm; there was, however, scant reference, actually no reference to the ecological consequences of management. My love of nature had been forged in the crucible of my family and their intense interest in the natural world.
After many years of managing our farm along industrial lines I began to reflect on the sort of world my management would leave behind. My uneasiness at the impact of my farming methods led me to search for a way of farming that could increase the complexity of life on our farm, rather than simplifying the living community.
This is what I have termed an ‘allowing’ way of managing.
My childhood was awash with words. My parents had followed an academic path, both graduating as doctors. Words seeped into me as I heard my parents speak, and as my father read to us from William Blake and other writers he admired. That is one of my earliest memories, and I have no idea what the story was about. But I do remember the lines of, perhaps the first poem I heard. It was The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
‘I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I knew not where;
For so swiftly it flew, the sight could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air, it fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak, I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend.’
My parents liked to listen to My Word, a BBC radio program with two teams of very clever and witty contestants among whom were Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, Dilys Powell and Nancy Spain.
My father loved poetry and had also read the classics and could quote famous bits from Shakespeare, The Illiad, and a favourite of his and now mine, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One of them I can still recall.
‘Awake, for morning in the bowl of night, has flung the stone that set the stars to flight. And lo! the hunter in the East, has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light’.
Later as we began to grow up Dad bought a copy of the only recording of Dylan Thomas’ famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading some of the parts. It was recorded by accident when a patron brought an early tape recorder into the theatre and put it under his seat! It is valuable because it was recorded only weeks before Thomas’ untimely death in America. We listened to it often, and my sisters and I can quote some special pieces. I have several other recordings of it, one with Richard Burton and a more recent version with Anthony Hopkins. They are all wonderful, but nothing surpasses the musical voice of Dylan Thomas.
Under Milk Wood is the story of twenty four hours in the lives of the people in a mythical Welsh fishing village. It is reckoned to be one of the greatest works of lyric prose in the English language. Thomas, like others touched by the creative urge was a complex character, who had his battles with alcohol and died far too young. There are many parts I love, here are a few.
‘To begin at the beginning. It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles though moles see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingle, or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle, by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the welfare hall in widows weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping, now’.
‘Time passes, listen, time passes, only you can see the black and folded town, fast and slow, asleep’…..
….’only you can see the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow, deep, salt and silent, black, bandaged night.’
‘ the sunny, slow, lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town, the sea lolls laps and idles in with fishes sleeping in its lap. The goat and daisy dingles nap, happy and lazy. The dumb duck ponds, snooze. Pigs snout and snuffle in the mud basking sun. Their tails curl. They dream of the acorn swill of the world, of the rooting for pig fruit, of the smiles and yesses of the women pigs in rut. They rollick and slobber and snore to deep, smug, after-swill sleep.
‘look up Bessie bighead in the White book of Llarregub and you will see the few scattered rags of her history recorded there with as much care as the lock of hair of a first lost love. Conceived in Milk Wood, born in a barn, wrapped in paper, left on a doorstep, big headed and base voiced, she grew in the dark until long dead Gomer Owen kissed her once by the pig sty because he was dared. Now in the light she’ll work, milk, sing, say the cows sweet names and sleep, until the night sucks out her soul and spits it into the sky. In her life-long love light, holily Bessie milks the fond, lake-eyed cows as dusk showers slowly down over sea, byre and town’.
Thomas’ poetry is also memorable, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Fern Hill are wonderful and have a deep connection with the Earth.
About ten years ago I bought a four cassette set called Burton at the BBC. On it was a piece called ‘In Parenthesis‘ a ‘shape in words’ describing the author David Jones’ experiences as an infantryman in the trenches in France at the battle of the Somme in WWI. The author, David Jones, gave a wonderful introduction. Acclaimed by some as the greatest piece of writing in the English canon. Burton and Dylan Thomas both had parts in it.
Then I learnt eight monologues by J Marriot Edgar and performed by Stanley Holloway, from a record a grateful patient had given my father. Over the years I have recited these pieces hundreds of times. These pieces follow the misadventures of Albert Ramsbottom and Private Sam Small.
I became interested in the poetry of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and C.J.Dennis, and other Australian poets. For me, CJ Dennis had a wonderful ability to evoke the emotion of the Australian soldiers’ experiences in the first World War in ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick.’ He used the vernacular of the working class soldier and showed the feeling of Australianness that was universal and transcended class.
When I was about twelve I learnt The Man from Ironbark and at our annual scout camp the scoutmaster sprang it on me to perform it round the campfire. It went well and in many ways quelled my natural anxiety of performing in public.
In my last year at school we did Coleridge’s wonderful poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I used to read it once a day and a lot of it is still in my memory. There are some inspiring passages worthy of sharing.
‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free, we were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down twas sad as sad could be, and we did speak only to break the silence of the sea.
All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon, right up above the mast did stand no bigger than the moon.
Day after day, day after day we stuck nor breath, nor motion, As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’.
Later when I was a jackaroo at Coonong Station at Urana I often carried a copy of Paterson’s poems in my saddle bag and learnt The Man from Snowy River, Bush Christening, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and others.
And this process of being interested in poetry has gone on right through my life. At school most people seemed to hate poetry; I loved it because of the density of meaning in so few words.
Later we made friends with some people who had come to Australia from Argentina. Norman and Diana lent me The Gaucho Martin Fierro, a large volume of the story of the legendary Gaucho Martin Fierro, all in verse. It was amazing.
I have a volume of all the lyrics Bob Dylan has written.
One I love is Song to Woody……
‘Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song, ’bout a funny old world that’s a comin along, seems sick and its hungry, its tired and its torn, it looks like its dying, but its hardly been born.
Hey hey Woody Guthrie I know that you know, all the things I’ve been saying and many times more, I’m singing you this song but I can’t sing enough, cause there’s not many men can do the things that you’ve done……
Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too. And all the good people who travelled with you. Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men, who come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
I have a copy of Howl, the radical poem by Alan Ginsberg, one of the Beat poets of the sixties. A few years ago I bought Walt Whitman’s amazing book of poems, Leaves of Grass, such modern language in such an old book.
Some books that got me going with reading and the somewhat romantic history of Australia were the works of Ion L. Idriess. Over the Range, Outlaws of the Leopolds, Nemarluk, King of the Wild, The Red Chief, Lasseters Last Ride, Flynn of the Inland, The Cattle King, The Tin Scratchers, My Mate Dick, Horrie the Wog Dog, The Drums of Mer, Gold Dustand Ashes and others I cannot remember.
Birds have been a fascination for me and this certainly came from my parents. Neville Cayley’s What Bird is That? was always out ready to identify any new birds as the seasons turned. Later there were the Peter Slater series of Passerines and Non Passerines, followed by Jack Cupper and Lindsay Cupper’s spectacular, Hawks in Focus and The Readers Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.
I started reading about conservation and land ethics in the nineteen eighties, and my quest to try and get an understanding of how the earth functions has led me to probably hundreds of incredible books.
The words that express the ideas of the authors are fundamental to gaining more insights in this quest for understanding. I have already referred to the writing of Aldo Leopold in previous blogs. His use of language in his classic work, A Sand County Almanac, and his deep thoughts on the human/land relationship, affected me deeply and continues to do so. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was a seminal work and literally earth shattering in its impacts. Rachel Carson’s paradigm shifting books, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring, broke new ground and led to the conservation movement. The Odum brothers gave some great insights into how ecosystems work, from an energy use viewpoint. James Lovelock, Allan Savory, Mary E White, Jeremy Rifkin, Daniella Meadows, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Paul Hawkins, Ilya Prigogine and Fritjof Capra, and so many more have all been important in adding to what I think I know about how our home functions.
The words, poems and ideas in all these works give us a relationship with the writers. The relationships we form with others and the ideas we pursue after conversations and reading are in some ways like the relationships and connections between all living things. We are all connected; the earth and all of life are one indivisible whole.
In this is the genesis of our hope for a vibrant, diverse future.