Profound, complex, anecdotal, Call of the Reed Warbler, wants to change the world; it could be the most important book you will ever read.
– Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth
Charles Massy’s previous bestselling book, Breaking The Sheep’s Back, exposed the $10 billion collapse of the wool industry. This time he turns his forensic eye on how we farm and grow food.
Call of the Reed Warbler is an urgent call to arms – the urgency stemming from the fact that Earth and its supporting systems is slipping into a totally new, dangerous and human-caused epoch – the Anthropocene. But there is hope, and this ground-breaking book focusses on a new regenerative agriculture and consequently a rejuvenated Earth. It tells the story of extraordinary and tangible solutions to this first-time ever, human caused crisis.
This is a marvellous book, full of wonder and wisdom, and both visionary and deeply practical. A magnificent achievement.
– Professor Tom Griffiths, ANU
Call of the Reed Warbler will change the way we think of how we farm and grow food. Author and radical farmer Charles Massy explores transformative and regenerative agriculture and the vital connection between our soil and our health. It is a story of how a grassroots revolution – a true underground insurgency – can save the planet, help turn climate change around, and build healthy people and healthy communities, pivoting significantly on our relationship with growing and consuming food.
Using his personal experience as a touchstone – from an unknowing, chemical-using farmer with dead soils to a radical ecologist farmer carefully regenerating a 2000-hectare property to a state of natural health – Charles Massy tells the real story behind industrial agriculture and the global profit-obsessed corporations driving it. He shows – through evocative stories – how innovative farmers are finding a new way and interweaves his own local landscape, its seasons and biological richness.
According to Massy, we need a revolution as human health and our communities, and the very survival of the planet depend on it. For farmer, backyard gardener, food buyer, health worker, policy maker and public leaders alike, Call of the Reed Warbler offers a tangible path forward for the future of our food supply, our Australian landscape and our earth. It comprises a powerful and moving paean of hope.
Its gentle yet compelling voice, its depth of feeling and honesty, its sense of purpose and vision, is sure to make it an Australian classic.
Come to the Canberra launch of Call of the Reed Warbler: 6pm, Tuesday 3 October at the National Library of Australia.
Book online at bit.ly/ReedwarblerNLA
ABOUT THE AUTHOR –
ARLASH FOUNDING MEMBER
Charles Massy gained a Bachelor of Science (Zoology, Human Ecology) at ANU (1976), before going farming for 35 years, developing the prominent Merino sheep stud ‘Severn Park’. Concern at ongoing land degradation and humanity’s sustainability challenge led him to return to ANU in 2009 to undertake a PhD in Human Ecology. Charles was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service as Chair and Director of a number of research organisations and statutory wool boards. He has also served on national and international review panels in sheep and wool research and development and genomics. Charles has authored several books on the Australian sheep industry, the most recent being the widely acclaimed Breaking the Sheep’s Back (UQP, 2011).
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.
“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history”. (Senator Ernest Gruening, Democrat, Alaska).
Despite lots of scientific colleagues knowing the problems with increasing pesticide use in the environment, it fell to a 56 year old Zoologist to crack open the collective heads of the world with a book that hit the mind of humanity like a thunderbolt. Like many who step out of the crowd, she was somewhat of a loner. Her most inspiring attributes were her empathy for all life, courage and tenacity.
“Silent Spring” was a deeply disturbing book about how humans were prepared to compromise all of life, including our own, by selling products whose long term effects were not fully disclosed, or even known. It is hard to gauge the level of courage she had, to go to print with a story so explosive. She was dying of complications from breast cancer a year after the book was published, yet such was her resolve that she testified before a Senate sub-committee on pesticides.
Rachel Carson, a slight, single, fifty six year old woman had a Masters Degree in Zoology. She worked as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and developed the belief that people would only protect what they loved. In those days there were few women working in the scientific field. Science was a male-dominated culture.
She wrote three highly acclaimed books about the sea. Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955), and also Silent Spring (1962). I have all those books and I treasure them.
Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s first book, when submitted to the publisher, did not need any editing or alteration, the only manuscript they had ever received that was so perfect. This gives some idea of the standards Rachel Carson set for herself.
Silent Spring represents a step-change in writing fearlessly about the environment and had a big influence over environmental policy and in a very real way, launched the embryonic environmental movement.
This woman felt an ethical call she could not ignore, driven by the love and care she felt for all life forms, of which she felt she was a fellow traveller. She felt a deep urge to write about the effects of DDT on ecosystems where there had been spraying, sometimes with large aircraft over lakes, so people would not have to be bothered by insects. DDT quickly entered the world of the fast developing industrial model of agriculture where humans dominated the natural world and everything without an economic value was expendable. In the post World War II world, the dominant paradigm was steeped in the belief of man’s domination of Nature. There were large fortunes riding on the wide scale adoption of this paradigm. It was a time when humans were proud of the technology they were able to produce and used it against threats to agricultural production, without question. At this time, post World War II pest control using ecological management was dwarfed overwhelmingly by the growing behemoths of the chemistry businesses, churning out products to control any species, plants or insects that had a depressing effect on yield. Of the total number of economic entomologists working in the United States, 98% of them were employed by the big chemical companies. only 2% were looking at organic pest control. It was all about the flow of money. Huge profits were being made by the big agricultural chemical companies: they, in turn poured money into the universities. Money became available for graduate programs, faculties and scholarships were funded and jobs were available after graduation. It seems as though the educational institutions behaved just like an organism exploiting a food source, and that scientists as a group were grasping the opportunity to work in an emerging field that would also put food on their families table. In this, they proved they were human, whilst their research probably made many of them feel they were gods.
In Germany during WWI, Haber and Bosch had already shown that nitrogen fertilisers could be synthesised using atmospheric nitrogen, the methane from natural gas, in conjunction with a nickel catalyst, under high pressure. The Germans put a lot of effort into cracking the secret of industrial ammonia production because the British had control of the sodium nitrate mines in Chile, so important for munitions. World War I was the crucible that led to a process that would have far-reaching effects, firstly for munitions and ultimately, in a much bigger way, for the negative effects of anhydrous ammonia and urea on soil life. The inventors of the Haber Bosch process won the Nobel Prize in 1918 and 1933 respectively.
Carson collected data that was already known, documented cases of squirrels dying, evidence of Ospreys and Peregrine falcons unable to raise their young due to the effect of DDT making their eggs brittle from the concentration of DDT at the top of the food chain. This process was called bio-accumulation. DDT had been first synthesised in1874, it was found to kill insects in 1939. Its inventor Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948.
This tendency to reward those who invent new products and processes that seem of inestimable value to humans in terms of their economic effect is symptomatic of our worrying tendency to value humans over other life forms. Rachel Carson had the courage to show us the consequences of some pesticides in the environment; it took ten years after Silent Spring for the US Government to ban DDT. A deal was done whereby in return for the US ban, the company would be licensed to export DDT to the third world. One deficiency we have as a species is this seemingly unshakable belief in our superiority over other life forms. The tendency we have, to evaluate new products and ideas, in terms of economics, blinds us to the consequences that often are devastating on the environment. Profit overrides common sense, natural caution and ethical considerations. As well as the dubious ethics of big businesses pushing at any cost for profit, governments who licence these harmful products are complicit in the outcomes that affect all life.
We are one of the most recent species on earth. Many see our species as superior to others. To think otherwise for most of us is anathema. Because we can reason, we believe we can do anything, we have been so clever with all the technology we have invented, we forge on. We are so proud of ourselves, humility is scarce. However our ability to think confers on us an obligation to allow all other life to live. We know deep in our souls that this is right.
Other forms or life sometimes proliferate and their population gets out of control. In the natural world, driven by the contemporary energy of the sun, nothing dominates for long. There is always a change that allows other species to enter the fray. This is the way life has always proceeded. Always to an evolutionary state tending more towards elaboration and diversity. This state has been driven by cooperation between life forms, as much as by competition.
We will do almost anything to avoid illness, fear, hunger, the threat of death, or pain. The big difference between ourselves and other species is that we have learnt to play outside the rules of the natural world. This has been possible because we have found more and more ways to harvest a greater share of the product of photosynthesis, leading to larger and larger population. As the human population has risen, so diversity has diminished. We are taking more than our share of the Earth’s resources, leading to the sixth big extinction event, that is happening now.
Consistent with our desire not to suffer, we have systematically found ways to control almost all the infectious diseases, a great leap forward in our desire to avoid suffering.
However, unlike First Nation peoples, since the dawn of agriculture and the trend to food surpluses we have not learned to live in a way that does not threaten the ecosystems of the Earth. Until a little over two hundred years ago the energy source that drove human civilisation was contemporary solar energy. But then things changed.
The nations of Europe, running out of resources, were suffering wars for more territory, a classic symptom of dwindling resources. The big forests of Europe had largely been cut down to build fleets of ships to indulge in battles of conquest, and the struggle for trading rights. Wood was also the major fuel for cooking and heating. Europe was running out of room, running out of wood, societal breakdown was leading to very high rates of crime and punishment. Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium sent out discovery ships, some with scientific purposes, as well as looking for land and others to open up trade routes.
Europe had found the New World, rich in resources of timber, land and minerals. The invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Newcomen was a major breakthrough and was used to pump water from mines, as coal began to replace wood as a heating and cooking fuel. James Watt followed with engines capable of continuous rotary power from 1781. This ushered in the steam age, factories, and a society using more energy to power its civilisation than could be delivered by the sun. The energy concentrated in coal and later petroleum oil was prodigious and could accomplish so much work when burnt in steam engines and the soon-to-be-developed internal combustion engine.
However, the sources of energy they turned to also had their origin in biology. The fossil fuels to which we have become so addicted, coal, oil and gas are plant derived. They are the product of past photosynthesis. In human time frames they are not renewable, having taken about sixty million years to be laid down in the swamps of the Carboniferous Era. That happened between 354 and 298 million years ago.
Trading and moving goods around the world has increased the energy requirements of society. Aldo Leopold described an ecosystem thus…. ‘a slowly augmented, revolving fund of life’. I find that so elegant! As land was developed and ecosystems simplified, the communities of life no longer had sufficient energy to provide the maintenance energy costs that the previous complex community provided, leading to further simplification. Food chains became shorter with diminishing species, the resilience of ecosystems to disturbance was less. The recycling mechanisms, so important for the constant churn of decaying bodies and plants began to stall. The work done by burning coal, and later, oil, was needed to fill the gap of the energy diverted from ecosystem maintenance to human society. Thus began a dizzying spiral of insatiable lust for more concentrated energy sources, leading from stationary engines to locomotives powered by coal, and from around 1900, oil-driven modes of transport via the internal combustion engine.
As people became more mobile, they carried with them the seeds, bacteria, viruses and a myriad of other life-forms that had evolved elsewhere. This was part of a world-wide pooling of species. In Australia some species, like the European rabbit, cane toads, the prickly pear, cats, foxes and plants such as vulpia, one of the fescues that has covered millions of hectares of country in temperate regions, have pushed out many native species. Species such as Vulpia have taken over enormous areas as a response to set stocking, the common practice when grazing land with livestock.
In human terms, this spreading of the pathogens of Europe, (to which the Europeans were largely resistant from long exposure), had a devastating effect on the indigenous populations of the countries they colonised. When Thomas Mitchell’s exploring party travelled out the Macquarie river to its junction with the Darling, following the earlier attempts by Sturt to solve the riddle of the inward flowing rivers, the aboriginals were covered with pock-marks from smallpox and there were grave mounds all along the Darling. Their population had been decimated because they had no immunity, having lived in isolation from other humans for 50,000 years.
So, fifty years since Silent Spring swarmed onto our bookshelves, what have we changed? Has changing our information base led to transformational change in the way we live? Are we using less biocides now than in 1962? Have we put serious effort into different ways of farming, have we evaluated our models of grazing and cropping and found lower energy, lower impact ways of managing our harvest of the forms of life that lead to conditions friendly to life. Have we learned to create societies that live within the natural limits of the environments they occupy?
Sadly, the answer to all those questions is an indication, both of our cleverness and our lack of wisdom.
Despite the warnings issued by Rachel Carson in 1962 our performance has been worse than when Silent Spring was published. World pesticide use has increased fifty-fold, yet crop losses remain about the same as in 1950, approximately 37%
We seem to be victims of our own success, creators of our own undoing. The very pinnacle of our diverse cultures, civilisation itself, and our cleverness, has led to a population overshoot, consuming so much of the Earth’s annual production that other species are being squeezed out. This is a result that is the direct opposite to the trend of evolution; 3.7 billion years, since the beginning of life. Life has always trended towards increasing diversity and elaboration of life forms. To reverse this gloomy scenario will require sacrifice and a change of direction. The developed nations are devoted to the pursuit of materialism, people are chronically unwell due to a diet lacking nutrients and leading to increasing obesity, soaring diabetes and increasing cardio-vascular problems. There is an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poverty stricken.
These scenarios add up to an emergency for the future of all life. Life will continue, though our part in it could change. Because these looming or imminent clashes involve big processes, humans do not see them as requiring urgent change in the way we live. Mostly humans react to emergencies or extreme stresses when lives are threatened or many are dying. Until that happens on a large scale we are happy with the status quo.
A few years ago during the 2002 to 2010 drought in South West NSW, there was an International Conference in Canberra of middle management agricultural officers, district agronomists from all over the world. They did a field trip to a leading farmer’s property. The farmer was saying how tough things had been for so long, loss of ground cover, failed crops, financial hardship. When they were getting back on the bus a tall man from Africa came up to the farmer and said, “So, things have been bad eh?” ‘Yes, never seen it this bad’. “So, how many people have died.” That was a sobering question for Australian agriculturalists to ponder.
The emergency we are in has hardly registered in Australian minds, or the minds of humanity, generally.
Like Rachel Carson, I have to realise that some pesticide products are perhaps necessary, but the registration and approval processes, often evaluated by the companies that produce them, leave much to be desired.
Human beings so often embrace technologies that are convenient and which confer a perceived benefit, especially if it is a financial benefit. We will need to be much more careful that our desire for profit does not override common sense. This is a question of ethics.
In 2014 Mary and I drove out to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to get a look at the great inward-draining Lake Eyre Basin. We drove out via Nyngan where we were lucky to get the last cabin in the Bogan River camping area.
There had been a lot of rain in the weeks before we left home and as we headed out into the dry country of the west the views were of a flat landscape completely covered with flowers that had been awakened by the rain. We passed through the mining and pastoral town of Cobar, where the country looked hard, but was still covered in a blanket of flowers of every hue. We stayed a couple or three days at Broken Hill, the mother lode that set up BHP, Australia’s biggest company. Sidney Kidman, the Cattle King had a share in the mine, but swapped it for some horses and cattle. Although he may have rued the day he did that deal, he amassed a pastoral empire he reasoned would make him drought proof, due to the spread of stations in Victoria, South Australia, NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory. He was a genius at organising so much land at a time when there was no communication as we know it. The Overland Telegraph certainly helped and his other big skill was in choosing good people. His managers respected him greatly and were intensely loyal.
The flat landscapes of the west give a clue to the immense amounts of stable geological time necessary to create these vast floodplains. The generally flat topography of inland Australia is the result of the more than 300 million years of erosion and deposition since Australia was last covered by an ice sheet. Glaciation, tectonic upheaval and volcanic activity are the three big land and soil forming processes. Unlike North America, Canada and most of Europe that was covered in the vice-like grip of two kilometres of ice only 18,000 years ago, Australia has been free of glacial ice for 300 million years.
Most other countries have rivers that flow to the sea, whereas many of the rivers in Australia are inward draining and terminal. The Lachlan river in NSW flows mostly west-south west and terminates in a 30,000 ha swamp. The flood plain of the Lachlan is so flat in the west that creeks are not tributaries, but flood-out creeks flowing away from the river. So flat is this area that the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan are somewhat parallel and depending on which of these rivers is in flood, the Lachlan can flow overland and meet the Murrumbidgee or vice versa. The Hay plain is thought to be the largest, flattest, part of the world. Once a chenopod shrubland, grazing over the last 160 years has gradually turned it into a mostly annual grassland.
Vast areas of this semi-arid country has gradually been invaded by native shrubs, species such as Hop-Bush, Eremophyla and Turpentine. This has reduced the original stocking rate of the area covered with shrubs by a third to half the rate it would carry in the 1950’s. As we left the Shrublands of Broken Hill and headed down into South Australia, I recalled speaking to a station owner from White Cliffs who told me that when he left school in the 1960s one of his jobs was to shovel dust out of the ceilings of the homestead to stop them falling in. After the shrubs arrived, the dust storms stopped as the land was covered. I spoke with this fellow about ten years ago during the 2002 to 2010 drought and he told me that a lot of the shrubs were dying and native perennial grasses were growing beneath the dead shrubs. Perhaps this was nature’s way of protecting the soil and providing cover for the next layer of succession to take place. Effectively, the conditions changed to favour the grasses and forbs, over the shrubs.
We went through the towns of Orroroo and Quorn, where cropping and livestock, mixed farming was well established. These town were just south of Goyders Line. Goyder was a government surveyor who drew a line on the map, basically the 200 mm isohyet line, above which cropping would fail for lack of moisture. Over the years when seasons seemed to be a little better, farmers cropped north of the Line, and you can see the abandoned farmsteads as you travel north towards Marree, which is south of Lake Eyre South and had a rail line to freight cattle from the Birdsville track to markets in the south. This line was closed in1987.
Then on to Hawker on the southern edge of the Flinders Ranges National Park. As we approached Hawker the abrupt ramparts of Wilpena Pound came into view. Wilpena Pound is a roughly circular geologic feature, the outer edge is defined by steep cliffs and the centre is dished like a gigantic bowl. There were sheep stations in the centre area before the Flinders Ranges National Park was constituted. The mostly dry, intermittent creeks of the Flinders are usually seen by travellers as sandy, gravelly dry beds. They are home to some of the largest River Red Gums you will see anywhere, the most famous of which is the Cazneaux tree made famous by the landscape photographer, Harold Cazneaux, whose 1937 photograph of it, he titled, Spirit of Endurance. Whispering Gums, a poem written by Bruce Simpson, one of the last of the Northern Territory packhorse drovers, evokes the image of this historic tree :
Sentinel gums by the river, twisted and gnarled and grey, saplings back in the dreamtime, sentinel gums today.
Alone by the long years drifting, sturdy and grey and old, unmoved by a thousand tempests, unconquered by droughts untold.
Whispering gums by the river, close-wrapped in your own mystique , the stories that you could tell us, if you only could but speak.
We had booked a flight from the Park Centre at Wilpena, to fly over the range heading north, flying over Lake Eyre which was almost full, Cooper Creek was still running into the Lake from flood rains north of Longreach a month earlier.
Our son Matthew had tragically died of complications to a congenital heart problem, seven years earlier, and we had decided then that we would not fly together in light aircraft in case something went wrong, leaving our young daughter, Alice, parentless. However we decided to make an exception because the Lake only filled infrequently and we felt we may not get another chance to see it. As the day of the flight approached I could detect some understandable anxiety developing. Mary decided to ring the Park Centre to assure herself that we were having a very experienced pilot. ‘Yes Madam’, they assured her, ‘you have our senior pilot’. The plane landed and we watched to get a look at the senior pilot. Out of the seat stepped a boyish-looking young fellow who looked about sixteen! He had, however, qualified as a pilot in controlled air space in Europe and had a thousand hours under his belt. He flew us faultlessly!
We took off on a perfect day and climbed up over the lip of Wilpena Pound, from the air it was an incredible view of the somewhat symmetrical shape of the Pound, the tall, abrupt ramparts of the outer edge and the dished centre made the aircraft feel gnat-like against the massive geological structure beneath us.
I found it impossible not to reflect that when this formation was uplifted by a mighty force around 540 million years ago, and wore away over huge eons of time, humans were not in existence. In fact this range has been a geological feature of the earth for 10,800 times that aboriginal people have been in existence. We consider that the first human occupants of the Australian landmass is the oldest civilisation there has been, and it is, yet in terms of the history of the world even the most ancient society is dwarfed in time compared to Earth-time.
We flew over the ancient reptile-like spine of the Flinders range, Lake Frome was to the west, as long as Lake Eyre, but much narrower. We flew over the lake which in some parts is below sea level, and landed at Mulloorina Station for a cup of tea and fuel. Drought was upon the outback and panels in the men’s Mess shed showed the history in numbers and photographs, of the station decade by decade. Two mates who had a water drilling business at Quorn had bought the station and each family managed it year about. However this proved difficult, and they decided to toss a coin and one family took the drilling rig and the loser got the station! The station-owner declared himself the loser! The panels showed the ebbs and flows of this edge-of-the-desert grazing business, dictated by the weather. Out there it is too expensive to intervene, when it gets dry, stock are sold to better conserve ground cover, and provide some cash. In the 1950s there were 20,000 sheep and 2,000 cows, trucks and an aircraft and plenty of staff. The fortunes of the dry stations are a mirror of weather and when we were there the plane had long ago been sold, no staff except the manager and the stock had been wound backwards to 400 cows. These stories were told by Francis Ratcliffe in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. A story of the dust storms of the South Australian, Western Victoria, NSW and Queensland western areas that lost shrub and grass cover in the 1930s.
A story of enormous environmental degradation, brought on by set stocking with sheep and then rabbits in plague proportions who killed the saltbush. The back story was of the incredible resilience of the people who lived in these remote areas. Trapped, with no transport out for stock, they were condemned to watch their livestock die of hunger and thirst. Ironically, the very thing that made it possible to stock these dry areas, was the technology that allowed the tapping of the Great Artesian Basin, which encouraged owners to hang on longer in the hope of rain. When this country relied on surface water (large ground tanks put in with horse teams and scoops), there were large areas that could not be grazed, due to distance from water. But when the Great Artesian Basin was tapped many of the bores were under pressure and the water did not need to be pumped and so bore drains fanned out from the bore-heads on a contour, and water could go to areas that had previously been stockless. This of course led to greater denudation of the plants and eventually dust began to blow, a depressing scenario for any farmer who cares, and they all would have. As we flew back to the Wilpena visitors centre in the early dusk, the light was coming over the ranges obliquely, such that the western slopes were sunlit while the eastern slopes were in shadow. There had been some storms about ten days before our arrival, and the hills of the ranges looked like they had been dusted with light green powder and sprinkled with trees, in that almost-eerie light.
It was a fitting visual masterpiece, unable to be created by humans, created only by the complexity and power of all things connected, and inestimable time; an Earthly, but other-worldly scene that burned these images deeply into our consciousness.
We could not avoid the observation that all the country we had covered on this memorable trip, bore the mark of our species. We, who care, do not condemn those who, often forced by economic circumstances chose their business over the complex landscape. In the time since those days of the 1930s we have developed technology and understanding that should ensure that those scenes do not happen again. Now, people like me are sure that the best decisions are always to manage for increasing diversity and complexity. Gradually farmers are inching towards a way of looking at land where more of us are seeing ourselves as part of a biotic community, rather than the directors and controllers of it.
Small steps, and a long way to go, but a good beginning. Perhaps Churchill’s famous quote after Montgomery’s troops’ victory in the desert at the Battle of El Alamein would be appropriate. “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
The 11th of March and 24th of April are significant days in our family’s history. This year, 2017, is a significant year for us as well. This year, the 24th April marks ten years since our courageous son, Matthew lost his battle with the difficult cardiac condition with which he was born.
This is what his cardiologist wrote to us at the time.
“I found it so sad yet appropriate that you had phoned me on ANZAC day to tell me of Matthew’s passing- he had in some senses been a soldier against the travails that fate had sent – determined, confident and brave, but in such a sweet and mild-mannered fashion. As a child he had been asked to bear a psychological burden that few of us could imagine, as well as a physical burden with which he coped with courage, dignity and grace.
In some ways, he had an angel’s character, and I always felt a little inspired and in awe of his “just get on with it” attitude. The fear was there, I guess, and certainly some vulnerability too, but his optimism and force of character were such that he could conquer them whilst remaining a soft and caring boy.
I can truly tell you that I cared for him a great deal and will never forget his courage and bravery in the face of his terrible illness. He was blessed, however, with two extraordinary parents, and I mean that very genuinely. Your love shone through him, and that’s what helped him be strong. I hope his sweet nature and determination to be well, for as long as he was able, might give you a glimmer of a smile at times when you’ll just want to cry.
I and his other doctors were as one, in our admiration for this most special of young men, taken just far too soon”.
I always feel uncomfortable putting up the piece where the doctor talks about my wife and I as extraordinary parents. We were always just doing what came naturally to us and when there were problems needing hospital treatment (thankfully not often), we had extraordinary support from friends at home who looked after the property and stock so we could be with Matthew. These kindnesses we will never forget. Doctors and nurses always commented on Matthew’s calm and level headed approach to his afflictions. Some of this came innately from him, but a lot of it was to do with the relationship he had with his extraordinary mother, Mary. He had a wonderful sense of humour and was a joyful young man, despite the burdens life had thrown his way.
Although it is intensely personal, I feel a need to share our feelings in the hope that those who are dealing with difficult medical problems, especially when affecting their children, may take heart and know that despite the darkness that descends after the death of a child there is life to be lived and at some stage you can begin living it again.
Despite our desire to hold back time, time has kept ebbing away, taking us further in time from our dear son Matthew. For me, that was one of the most painful feelings, that of wanting to be in the last moments of holding him in our arms, forever. In those moments that became days and weeks we could hardly function. We could hardly sleep, we cried oceans of tears and tried to find solace with each other; nothing would take away the pain. Getting meals only happened through the kindness of the people of Boorowa who all knew Matthew, and cared for us.
You become aware of a whole lot of connections, the passing of which brings on waves of grief. Over many months and with the help of a wonderful grief counsellor we gradually began to feel the size of the waves of grief, and their frequency, almost imperceptibly, diminish. Passing Matthew’s birthday, celebrating his sister’s birthday without her soul-mate, was tragic. Christmas, a time Matthew loved so much, lost its meaning. Family gatherings, doing the things he loved like sharing a meal in a favourite restaurant, all these little life events we take so much for granted, became painful for a long time. For about six weeks we were protected from the gloom by products our bodies made to put us into a somewhat numb state. This made us able to seem to the world, that we were coping. There is a paradox in this. People would come up and kindly want to know how we were. If we were moved to tears, they would think we were not ‘coping’. But in reality if we were showing our emotions we were alright. If we were stoic and holding it in, we were much less likely to be alright. With grief, the world judges us to be dealing with things well when we are not being outwardly emotional, but the opposite is closer to the truth. After six weeks our bodies stopped the protective cover and we were back to coping on our own resources. This was a time of gloom and we were probably depressed, I am a farmer and we had a lot of sheep at the time. I could only do what I absolutely had to do, and no more. I spent lots of time walking round the paddocks and weeping. The tears you shed at these times flush some of the adrenaline out of your system and you feel a bit at peace after the tears. We never tried to hold back the tears, having read about their physical value and the emotional release that made life bearable.
No-one trains you for grief, often it is an event that comes out of the blue. In Matthew’s case he was going downhill physically and had gradually been putting on fluid because his heart was not able to do enough work to keep him well. He had been in hospital at RPA where it was thought he had suffered a virus that had left him with less heart function. The doctors felt his only option now was a heart-lung transplant, an operation where you trade a cardiac problem for an anti-rejection problem, so we went up to St Vincent’s where they perform these very intimidating surgeries. My wife and I seemed to function well in a crisis, our focus was always on Matthew’s welfare, we stayed at the hospital to be near Matthew and tried as best we could to understand his situation. All the doctors we consulted over Matthew’s life were outstanding, compassionate, communicative and full of empathy.
But deep within us we always knew that his unique heart would begin, at some stage, to fail. That was what was going on in January 2007 when he ended up in RPA and St Vincent’s.
Because Matthew was born with a complex heart condition, he needed a lot of care when he was a baby, he was tiny at birth and we picked up on the vibes of hospital staff that his future was uncertain. He was blessed with an extraordinary mother who had an instinct for knowing what he needed and he gradually grew. In those early days he was getting help from a diuretic and another drug called lanoxin to make his little heart squeeze a bit harder. After a couple of years these drugs were stopped and he lived the rest of his twenty one years without the assistance of medication.
I have often reflected on the effect on us, of the constant anxiety that we felt for Matthew and his future. It is hard to evaluate, we seemed to be normal and Matthew carried his burdens lightly because I think he sensed that we were concerned for him.
Matthew and a friend he had in Boorowa used to try and write really good language and stories to each other on a blog, it was a sort of literary ‘duelling banjos’, and after he died Shaun went looking on the internet for something Matthew may have written of a personal nature, about his view of his own life. He stumbled across what is for us an incredible insight of a young man speaking about his trying to reconcile his life with his own mortality. We were so grateful to have this and would certainly never have found it ourselves.
It is interesting that we only really think about how precious life is when someone near to us dies, or is on the fast track there.
Sorry if that sounded morbid, but really it’s odd.
My Grandfather died on Sunday, whilst I was on a plane from Brisbane to Canberra, and steadily contemplating my own mortality as we went through a rather nasty batch of turbulence. I found out that afternoon, around 3.
Death is something that I have come to accept over my course of being in and out of doctor’s offices, and my two long stints in hospital. When I was about ten, and suffered a cranial abscess – hospital was a cool place that had abundant quantities of ice-cream and Nintendo. That was until one morning, about half way through my ten week stay. I was subject to frequent CAT-Scans to monitor the size of the abscess, a process that started with fasting many hours prior to the scan.
I had organised for the nurses to bring me some vegemite on toast at 5 in the morning (when I inevitably woke quite frequently) so I could eat, and still have “not eaten’, for the designated time before the scan.
5 came and went, so did the scan….. alas, no vegemite arrived, nor did the nurses who had promised so earnestly to deliver. I became quite stroppy when I saw the nurses next, they apologised, and stated that they had forgotten.
I learnt several days later, that the reason for their disorganisation was that the young Chinese boy in the room next to me had chosen to pass away that morning, and they were attending to his body. It has been a rare occurrence when I have felt the same guilt and disgust I felt for myself that morning.
That is my first most memorable memory of death.
Not that I wasn’t aware of it prior to that experience…. My first chronological memory of death is when Mum’s aunt died… I was about 8.
Since my philosophical and emotional awakening to the concept of death at age ten, I have been interested in the subject of mortality in general, and especially my own. There was a stage of about two years, from the age of 12-14 when the concept terrified me…. I dreaded an early death.
This stage thankfully passed however, and I gradually became more accepting about death.
People often say to me-“it must be so hard being you, with your heart and all”, possibly not verbatim, but along those lines….
I am not conscious of having had a particularly hard, or depressing life… This burden has probably fallen more upon my parents, as, like most people, they would compare what I have to deal with to what a ‘normal’ person is like. I can understand that this would be an ongoing source of worry for them, even though it is only infrequently one for me. I will say, however, that ‘my lot’ has probably forced me to deal with issues and ideas (such as mortality), at a much younger age than most.
I started planning the music that will play at my funeral at about age fourteen.
The list has been constantly changing since that time when it comprised of “Lightning Crashes” by Live, “Brian’s Song” from the Life of Brian and “Ironic” by Alanis Morrisette. Currently, the List is “DOA” by Foo Fighters, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M., “Winning Days” by The Vines, and “Till Kingdom Come “ by Coldplay.
This is not something I sit down and plan… I don’t have it written down (well actually now I s’pose I do). But if I hear a song that moves me, or makes me laugh, it will probably end up on the list.
Someone once told me this was a very morbid thing to do…I disagree; it brings an element of life and fun to a topic that is all too often tabooed. And when inevitably this mix tape gets played, I would like to think my spirit would like to listen to some tunes, and share a major part of my life with everyone who turns up.
So where does this lead us? What is the conclusion to this philosophical voyage?
A wise being once said “’tis not the destination that is important, but the journey in between”.
So on Monday, after Grandpa’s Celebration of life Service, I’ll lift my glass and say a silent toast.
“To Life, Death and other Miracles”.
Knowing that Matthew had reconciled himself to his future was incredibly comforting to us. And to know that he did not feel his life had been hard or depressing made us feel awe at his strength of character.
In the days between Matthew’s death and his funeral, his four cousins, big strong men mostly working in the mining game in Western Australia wanted to do something to help. They came over and spent a couple of days cutting and carting a mountain of wood. We were so grateful for this. With each wheelbarrow of wood I wheeled over to feed our stove, I would remember their love for Matthew and the effort they so willingly expended for us, in memory of him. It took a couple of years to burn through this wood and I knew where the end of it was. I did not want to burn the last pieces as it was removing a connection to Matthew, but eventually I had to concede that this wood, whilst harbouring a connection and memory of Matthew, needed to be burnt. We reflected on it as it warmed our shins in the Winter of 2009.
The years have ticked by, our memory of Matthew has not faded, we still remember with fondness the the warm hearted, affectionate young man who we loved so much. We can never forget the many kind acts people have made to help us through, out of their respect for Matthew. His life in many ways was a low key one, due to his physical limitations, there were many activities he was unable to join in. Sport was something that was beyond his capacity, but he did not let that worry him. In fact he was always bemused at the disproportionate amount of time people devoted to it. His life, and his attitude to the difficulties his heart condition imposed upon him, affected many people. He was a gregarious young man who loved people, and he was very comfortable joining in conversations at any level. His intelligence was immediately evident.
He had a wonderful sister who loved him and whom he loved. Their love for each other started the moment he first cast his eyes upon her, something I will never forget, that look of love in his eyes! She was a very generous sister, and even though she was six years younger than Matthew, she would carry his school bag up the drive, as it was a challenge for him. They spent a lot of time just being with each other and in the many photos of them, he always has his arm around her.
One thing we always did was to have a few weeks up the coast at Byron Bay in the Winter. It was warm there in late August and Matthew loved the sand. We’d spend hours on the beach reading a book out loud and building sand castles. It was a welcome respite, and we all had a pleasant time and recharged our batteries.
Life does not allow one to spectate for too long. Inevitably, time grabs us by the collar and drags us back into the river of life. You begin to be able to do the things you did so easily before this changed reality. And that is what your life becomes, a different version of what went before, with a memory that never leaves your consciousness. For a long time they are memories of sadness, but eventually through the general optimism that is a feature of the human spirit, the memories can be faced with a feeling of unending love and gratitude for having been entrusted with the care of one so inspiring as Matthew was.
The deep feelings never leave you, even now after ten years I can find myself giving a sob from the depths of my being when a vivid memory jumps into my thoughts. That is good, and a sign to me that his life and our connections are still strong.