Managing the Landscape in a Dry Spring

Spring 2017, western New South Wales is dry this year, in fact its dry on the north east coast as well, there have been early fires in September in the Hunter region, as a blast of heat from a big high in central Australia moved east and frightened us with the prospect of a very weak Spring growth. The normal cold fronts we expect have all been to the south where southern Victoria is experiencing very wet conditions. It is demonstrating once more the extreme variability of the Australian climate. From Parkes north to the Queensland border there is virtually nothing green.

On the Lachlan Valley Way which runs through Allendale, there are many trucks of hay heading south and east where it is also dry. The livestock markets are correcting downwards as demand slows and farmers begin to sell older or non breeding stock. Cattle that were bought at record high prices six months ago are looking expensive now.

To achieve our average rainfall we will have to measure 100 mm per month for October, November and December. However, the Bureau of Meteorology models tell us there is only a sixty five percent chance of receiving 100 mm total, for the next three months to the end of December.

Managing livestock in these years creates challenges. It can be  stressful trying to make decisions that look after the landscape, ourselves and our businesses. But we have tools now that have taken away much of the stress. We can quickly assess how many days of grazing we have ahead of us. We have already reduced stock numbers by twenty five percent. Our stocking rate per hectare now  6.7 dry sheep equivalents per hectare. Ground cover is 100 percent, the paddocks just grazed are recovering slowly, but growth is still occurring. The annual grasses are making seed heads, but are short due to the dry conditions.

We are monitoring how many grazing days are on Allendale every few weeks and plan further stock reductions in the months ahead if rain continues to by-pass the south west slopes. We do this because our philosophy of landscape management is always to make decisions that support the water cycle (ground cover), the mineral cycle (looking after not just livestock, but being mindful not to compromise the lives of all the unseen but crucial soil biota, spiders, insects), the capture of solar energy (maximising the opportunities for plants to harvest sunlight, via planned recovery after grazing), and allowing time for the dynamics of species to express themselves when conditions are favourable). Planning this way has a calming effect on farmers, it is essential for our mental health.

Once, as industrial farmers, we would have been monitoring the  condition of our livestock, and calculating how long our stored feed, hay and grain, would last, and making decisions too late for our dwindling ground cover. Now, with a different mindset as regenerative farmers, we will be making decisions about livestock numbers so that we do not compromise the blanket of plant cover so fundamental to the health of our farm ecosystems. It is what North Dakota farmer, Gabe Brown calls, ‘armour on the soil’.

This is the switching time of the season when cool season plants, especially annual grasses and forbs, make seed and die. The cool season perennials are still growing, they must have their roots in residual moisture from last year’s record spring rains. The warm season perennials are beginning to grow, couch, paspalum, wallaby grass, stipa species, and microlaena are beginning to get active, albeit slowly. The red grass, warrego grass and arm grass, hairy panic, the C4 species, will start growing after the next rain….if it comes.

In the forty six years we have been farming here, this has been the frostiest year, with over fifty frosts for the winter. Many cloudless night skies and the drier air have brought on the frost, and even in early October they still come, adding to the slower than usual growth.

On the 4th of October, Nicki Taws from Greening Australia came over early to count birds at Allendale on sites the Canberra Ornithologists Group have been monitoring for more than twenty years. In one hour she identified more than forty species, some of which have not been seen here in previous years! Some of the species are usually found further west, but due to the dry season, and thus lack of resources, many western woodland species have come into the eastern regions to live and breed. Some we have not seen before are Red Backed Kingfisher, Eastern Yellow Robin, Masked Wood Swallow, Southern Whiteface and Speckled Warbler. Birds are a good indicator of whether diversity is increasing or decreasing. A raft of other living organisms must be present to support the life of birds.

Over at least twenty years of bird counting by the Canberra Ornithologists Group, there has been a steady increase in species. This is heartening, and especially this year when it seems the habitat on Allendale is providing refuge for birds coming in from the desiccated west.




Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services: Diversity, inclusion and innate powers

Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services is a must read book for anyone working in this important field; or living it on a daily basis.
The number of people in our communities who need help on a daily basis is high, 1 in 20.
The author Dr Julia Wolfson has long and continuing experience in working with groups of carers and those needing care, all over the world.
This book will change many lives of the most vulnerable in our communities and world-wide.

– David Marsh, ARLASH Coordinator

The roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) makes Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services essential reading. One in 20 Australians depend on care to survive. They are not alone. One billion people across the globe of all ages – one eighth of our human community – rely on health, disability and/or care and protective systems and providers. For millions of people, everyday survival depends on caregivers, supporters, care programs and funding.

Will you be among them? The likelihood is high.

The need may be temporary, longer term or lifelong. Many people in these systems are lonely, isolated and lack meaningful opportunities to participate and contribute. This book brings together pioneering deep democracy approaches and skills to revolutionise the way we facilitate self-directed changes in people’s lives, make our communities safer and more welcoming, how we stay fresh and interact in all the helping professions, and sustain those who devote their lives to the care and support of others.

Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services is relevant for caregivers, family members, educators and direct support professionals, and people who rely on support and care. This book is also important for leaders, policy makers, facilitators and community developers.


Applying Deep Democracy CoverJoin Professor Kim Rubenstein in discussion with the author, Julia Wolfson, Ph.D.

Professor Kim Rubenstein, citizenship and gender equity scholar and advocate, will convene the event. After the launch, she will open the floor to questions and comments: we hope the exchange of ideas will be of use to you in your particular fields.

When: 24 October, 2017
Time: 6-8pm
Location: Law Link Theatre, ANU College of Law, Fellows Road
Australian National University
RSVP: Reserve your free tickets on Eventbrite
Please register for catering purposes. Light refreshments will be served.


Julia Wolfson, MAppSc, PhD, is founder and principal of Turning Forward, a grass roots learning, development and consulting practice based in Canberra and delivered world-wide. She is the Treasurer of ARLASH, and a Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. Her work is dedicated to managing change towards the freedom and health of people and environments in communities and organisations worldwide.

Opportunism and Cooperation

Most living organisms are opportunists seeking to gather the maximum share of resources to fulfil their purpose of reproducing. This is not always a free for all, governed by competition. To harvest sufficient energy to perform the tasks of life, can often require the forming of partnerships, in other words, co-operative behaviour. This could look like altruism, but in the act of co-operating there is a pay-off of some kind. Think of the coral polyp and its symbiotic relationship with the algae that provides it with energy rich sugars in return for protection within the polyp’s structure and a source of carbon dioxide. The ants that carry gassed larvae into the leaves of some eucalyptus are the beneficiaries of the sugary exudate that is the jassid’s excrement. The natural world is full of examples of this type of cooperative behaviour.

Ants ‘milking’ jassids, whose larvae they have carried up the tree.

What about humans, are we cooperative beings, or just exploiters who have been able to harness more and more of the Earth’s photosynthetic products, while dismantling the blanket of life that makes life possible. The vegetation cover of the Earth has evolved to be more and more complex over time; we have changed this complexity through our agricultural practices, to a more simplified community. This is an energy question. Agriculture, and the injection of past photosynthetic energy into agricultural ecosystems has led to the production of food surpluses. This has driven rising population, and coupled with our cleverness in controlling the pathogens that used to kill many people, our high energy way of life has also led to more and more simplified environments. The world’s forests have supplied wood for heating, ships, building, paper, but the exchange has led to increased erosion, disruption and displacement of long running native societies, pollution of rivers and destruction of local fisheries. The loss of one of the major sources of oxygen for all forms of life, forests, and the agent for the renewal of minerals from deep in the regolith.

This question of our impact on Earth’s Natural Capital, is closely linked to the pattern of our consumptive, high energy lives. The city and urban dweller’s desire to eat has an intimate connection to the landscape. Changing behaviour from high impact consumption is an all of society question, and requires a philosophical shift in the way we think and act.

So we are a fierce competitor for resources. Humans like us have existed for perhaps 200,000 years, when compared with species like lizards which evolved between 90 and 50 million years ago, we are a very recent species. Australian parrots have existed for approximately 59 million years, they, and the lizards have been present for almost 300 times as long as humans. During their long history the life forms and variations within the various species has continued to increase until recent times. Now we are hearing that species are becoming extinct at a rate perhaps 1000 times the long term background rate of extinctions. The churn of species has always been a feature of life where those unable to adapt to changing conditions have been replaced by those more suited to the environments in which they live. It has been estimated that of all species that have ever existed since life began, 99% are extinct.

Agriculture and the high energy materialistic way of life that modern humans have developed (or is it a form of evolution?), are the main culprits in the destruction of other forms of life.

If that is a fact, then it is something we cannot hide from, or say we did not know it was happening. Once, perhaps, we could have pleaded ignorance, but not any more. So it is incumbent on this generation to start behaving in a way that is friendly to life. To begin practicing agriculture in a way that allows ecosystem processes to begin to function as they have evolved to do. That is, to allow the farm ecosystem to restore its capacity for self-organisation and increasing diversity, to get off the dizzying treadmill of products that are more about death than life.

Recently I attended a farmers meeting under a tree, in a paddock in southern NSW. There were about nine families having their six weekly meeting, mostly both members of the couples were there and quite a few of their children. The discussion was all about life and how they are observing increasing numbers of species on their farms. All these families had radically changed their management from high input industrial farming to a low energy, let-the-ecosystem-do-the-work style of management, that considers the people, business and ecosystem in all decisions they make. Such a contrast to the recipes of the previous model they used to follow.

When I attended a course in holistic decision making in 1999 we started an informal group and began to meet about four times a year. This group still meets, eighteen years later, and has been an interesting way for people to check in with other folk who are trying to manage their lives, businesses and ecosystems in a way that leads to abundance and increasing diversity. We usually meet on a group member’s farm and try to address as a group, any issues the farmers have with their management.

During the long drought of 2002 to 2010, we regularly met in Cowra with Mark Gardner, the HM certified educator who trained us. He was able to tap in to some funding that was there to support community groups in rural areas. It was a good social occasion, and also helped us grapple with the social and financial issues of the drought.

In many ways it was an important learning opportunity, as we made decisions that strengthened the future resource base of our businesses. This had a calming effect on our psyches. We engaged in some monitoring that revealed to us if we were moving towards or away from the goals we had set for the ecosystems on our farms. In our case, during those nine rainfall deficient years, our monitoring showed the ground cover had increased from 70% to 100%, and that the distance to the nearest perennial on our transects had decreased. This was achieved when conventionally managed farms were losing ground cover, dust was blowing, bank balances were glowing red and expensive sown pastures were dying out from constant stocking. One consequence of this circumstance was widespread depression in the farming community. Conventional farmers have the same desires for the landscape of their farms as those managing holistically. Many have not been exposed to the notion of ecological literacy and the connection between biodiversity and business. When they see a repeating pattern of out of control expenses and environmental destruction that seems beyond their control, it creates tension, that leads to rising levels of depression. People isolate themselves, they withdraw and will not make decisions. If you ask them how things are, you mostly get a ‘yeah, good’, response. The wives and partners tend to be more honest about their feelings. The male of the species mostly can’t swallow their pride and open up, as they personalise the scene they observe daily and feel like they are failing. This scenario creates a paralysis which stops many seeking help. Seeking help in a timely manner is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Knowing that your decisions are leading to a more diverse, and abundant, living community is a powerful tonic for the human mind.



Allowing and Accepting with Humility

Writing about the changes we have made to ecosystems, one finds it almost impossible to avoid the negative. Converting the natural capital in ecosystems of course, has given us immense benefits, but has also come at an ecological cost. The perceived benefits have consequences which play out in the longer term and which we try to mask or cover up by a myriad of technological fixes which also have consequences and on and on. There seems to be so many aspects of human existence that are negative for the ecosystems of Earth. The lag time from action to negative consequences often takes longer than a generation. This is because this old Earth is resilient and has many feedback loops that even out the disruptions we cause.

In the current era, now being called the Anthropocene, humans are the dominant force affecting the ecosystems that we rely on for a stable atmosphere, clean water, carbon-rich soils and a huge diversity of photosynthesising plants and other life. All these four basic building blocks of ecosystems are groaning under the heavy presence of our unrelenting impacts.

For at least thirty years I have been on a quest to try and understand how the human/land connection can deliver positive outcomes for life, increasing complexity and resilience.  To make progress in this quest it is tempting to travel down the path of technology in pursuit of answers. That was certainly the track I was on before we switched on to managing holistically, a more sympathetic and aesthetic version of decision-making that puts the future resource base (the land and life), as the focus of all decisions, and in balance with the social and economic. Fundamental to this landscape philosophy is that we are part of the living community. That is, the human/land relationship is much more than economic. This is like putting life at the centre of decisions, because if land has a future for living, it must be able to support life. Life is abundant when land is healthy; food that comes from healthy land is able to support healthy life.

How do we know if our land is healthy? One way is to do some monitoring to see if ground cover is increasing; another is to monitor the abundance of living organisms involved in the recycling of minerals, such as fungi, insects such as dung beetles, our livestock. Another feature we can monitor is the size of the plants and how large the leaf area is to maximise the capture of solar energy. Is there a range of plants that can take advantage of changed conditions at any time of the year. And of course the interconnections between all things living. Are species increasing or decreasing? That is a major indicator of the direction in which our management is heading.

Life is also bound up with death, it is part of the cycle that keeps the elements that support abundant life, returning to the river of life. As Aldo Leopold so eloquently put it, ‘an ecosystem is like a slowly augmented, revolving fund of life’. So death is a fundamental part of living communities.

Photosynthesis is fundamental to life. By the miracle of incoming solar energy reacting with CO2 and water to form simple sugars that energise the microscopic life in soils and release Oxygen. They in turn support the carbon rich structures of plants and lead to the full expression of their potential. For plants such as trees, that are long-lived, seasonal variations are not of great importance. For the grasses and forbs in a grassland, their potential is dependent on the season in which they are living . The by-product of this process, oxygen, also makes it possible for the respiration of living organisms. This has been a feature of life since the cyanobacteria began photosynthesising, and early life forms like stromatolites, began producing an oxidising atmosphere from about 2.7-2.4 billion years ago. The early useful bits of these early prokaryotic cells have been passed upwards in the process of endosymbiosis, described by Lynn Margulis. This showed that chloroplasts and mitochondria are organelles from some of the earliest forms of life and are present in the cells of modern species. A true example of cooperation.

Do we need to know this? Do we need to understand every tiny piece of this incredible process? Or is it sufficient to accept that this is the way it has been for 3.7 billion years of life on Earth?

A number of years ago I was part of the NSW Native Vegetation Advisory Council, we existed as part of an Act of Parliament that sought to fulfil the desire of the public to be consulted. The Chair of this group was Neil Inall, a wonderful man and a great communicator. Many of us had to do quite a lot of travelling to attend meetings. One evening the Inall family had us to dinner. There were quite a few people there who had an interest in the Native Vegetation Act but who were not on the Council. One of these was the late Rick Farley, who with Phillip Toyne of the Australian Conservation Foundation had proposed the idea of Landcare to the Hawke government. Rick was going back from the North Shore to the Eastern suburbs, so Bill Sloane from Savernake just north of the Murray river, and I,  shared a cab with him. We were yarning away when Rick said “You know, occasionally in life something happens that really opens your eyes and changes the way you think”. Then he told us this story. He was consulting with some remote aboriginal communities in the north west of the Northern Territory, and into the deserts of Western Australia. He was helping with negotiating agreements with mining companies. He and a revered Aboriginal elder were heading back in to Tennant Creek. Rick was asking lots of questions, trying to understand how Aboriginal people thought and felt about a range of issues. Eventually his companion said,”that’s the trouble with you white blokes, you want to try and understand everything, you can’t just accept anything!” For Rick Farley that was a light-bulb moment.

The Native Vegetation Act was not popular with farmers especially in the Central West and North West of NSW. This was because they saw it as an equity problem. They felt that those who had cleared the trees and shrubs off their land, before there were regulations, had benefitted from an increased land value due to the versatility of their land increasing, once cleared it could grow annual crops. The value of the cleared vegetation was put at zero. Those who still wanted to clear more land but who now had to go through a rigorous approval process, felt poorly treated.

Modelling our behaviour on the long-running tendency of life to proceed towards diversity, so that it has the ongoing capacity to go on renewing itself, must be the imperative of the current age, what is now being called the Anthropocene. That is, dominated by humans. Allowing the inherent regenerative capacity of Earth to be expressed, has always led to life keeping the conditions on Earth friendly for life, regardless of circumstances. Even after the five big extinction events when most species, up to 85 percent of the diversity of life forms were destroyed, the long result has been a return to a more complex state, over time.

So why does this not give us pause to consider the consequences of the current version of industrial agriculture that produces results that are the opposite to the trend of evolution. As I have mentioned before (see blog, Silent Spring Revisited), many of the products of the Industrial model, inorganic fertilisers, biocides, manufactured nitrogen, are agents of death for soil organisms and thus part of the foods we eat.

We have to change the way we behave if we want an Earth that shifts to increasing diversity instead of simplified ecosystems.

Its really an energy question, and bound up with ethics. As that wise fellow, Aldo Leopold once wrote, ‘It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors’. The pace of change in the modern world is such that in many facets of life, practices have left ethical considerations flailing in their wake. It is of huge concern that corporations who are developing and marketing products toxic to life, also evaluate their effects in the environment. There are government funds available for this, but nowhere near enough. Thus we have rivers devoid of life, wetlands stripped of their diversity and soils losing their carbon bounty annually.

There is a worrying paradox here: as society becomes more complex and affluent, the diversity and complexity of the natural world becomes simplified. The dismantling of ecosystems has created short term wealth and benefits, at the expense of the complexity of the natural world upon which we depend for our existence. We use money and technology to prop up the Earth we are exploiting, and there is never enough as we have seen with rising levels of societal indebtedness, both government and private. The value of the natural capital that we continue to convert to other forms has never been accounted for. This must stop. We need natural capital and social accounting, as well as financial. As Paul Hawken said, ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment’.

Currently human societies run on past photosynthetic energy. Our production systems and everything we do relies on fossil energy which is finite. We have diverted the maintenance energy that ecosystems need to maintain their structure and diversity. We have robbed the energy from the living world that it needs to maintain itself. We have to stop doing that and allow ecosystems the time and energy (solar), to invest in their own future. This is possible and is being done by an increasing number of farmers.

In Australia, of the land that is used for agriculture, eighty five percent of it is grazed. Mostly it is unplanned management for long periods behind fences. Now….we know that constantly grazing perennial plants leads to their fading into the background of the community and being over-run by exotic annuals. If annual-dominated land is the result of our grazing management, then we are managing in a way that favours annuals. That is, the management we are using is creating a simplified annual landscape, which is what happens to living communities when the energy required for maintenance is being diverted away from ecosystems, and towards ourselves.

It is so simple to change this, and costs almost nothing. Why aren’t we able to see this? The fact is that even though increasing numbers of farmers may not know why they are seeking different methods that are good for the Earth, there are increasing calls for more training courses in how to make decisions that are socially, economically and environmentally sound.

That means there are more and more farmers reaching the stage that I reached more than twenty years ago, feelings of unease. They are applying best current advice and practice and going backwards socially, economically and their future resource base is diminishing in terms of diversity, and soil organic carbon. The value of inputs is increasing to prop up the damaged ecosystems that can no longer support their businesses.

The changes we have observed since moving away from our former economic relationship with land, indicate that farm ecosystems have the long term evolutionary knowledge within their living organisms to become once more, vibrant, functioning ecosystems increasing in soil organic carbon and more species over time.

Wallaby Grass, Danthonia, thriving from spontaneous germinations, where it has not been seen for fifty years.

To humanise this process, this is what ecosystems are always striving towards, complexity. They do not actually require anything from us to do this, except for us to recognise or accept, that complexity is a natural state towards which all communities of life proceed. If we are losing species, that is an indication that our management is at odds with processes that have been operating for 3.7 billion years.

But, I hear you say, how can you make money like that, and how can I get all those facts into my head? It would take more than a lifetime to try and understand what you are saying.

I would say this to you.

Accept that more diversity is trying to occur.
Accept that you can observe whether your management is increasing diversity or not.
Manage the ecosystems of which you have the privilege to be wise stewards, so they have time to fully recover from grazing.
Keep soils covered all the time with growing or decomposing plants.
Allow life to reach its potential when it is trying to do that.
Harvest interest from the landscape.
Watch the natural capital grow.

This will lead to healthy, vibrant families and communities.
A water cycle improving in quality and effectiveness.
Increasing capture of solar energy.
More organisms recycling minerals.
A dynamic living community increasing in diversity and resilience.
Low-risk, profitable businesses.

Who wouldn’t want that?


Talking pasture composition and succession

Periods of intense grazing then long rest periods create the right growing conditions and ‘window of opportunity’ for perennial pastures to thrive. David Marsh talks with Charlie Arnott about this process and highlights the virtues of using appropriate grazing management within his business.

Our thanks to Charlie for producing and letting us share this clip.

Originally posted on: Charlie Arnott – Grass Fed Beef, Naturally

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth

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.

– Books+Publishing

Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles MassyCome to the Canberra launch of Call of the Reed Warbler:
6pm, Tuesday 3 October at the National Library of Australia.
Book online at


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).

Conversations and Connections

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.

Last of the forest epoch, a lone remnant drowned in the sea of agriculture

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.

Conversations and connections count.




Information, Knowledge, Understanding and Culture

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.

Water and Energy in the Age of Consequence

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.