Canemumbola Dreaming

This morning just as the sun rose in the east, I arrived at the summit of my oft-climbed Mount Canemumbola. At the dawn of day a sense of time hangs in the air, one is aware of the immense ages of time involved in wearing away the acid volcanic rocks laid down more than four hundred million years ago, in the Silurian age. In the time since that event, the forces of water, wind and time have worn these rocks down and shaped the landscape we know today. The gradual flattening out of the landscape has created the floodplains of the Boorowa catchment. Larger floods have deposited silt from the  Boorowa landscape out on to the floodplains of the Lachlan over millions of years.

As the thin light spreads through the air, it has a misty, almost milky effect, the eastern sides of the gentle hills warm almost imperceptibly. The Boorowa river meanders around the hills that gradually rise towards Oakhill and Mount Geegullalong. The long tree-shadows stretch to the west and leap over the hills. These shadows will shorten, and then gradually elongate to the east, until the sinking sun, bathed in its own gore, becomes night.

But on this day one of the great sights of the natural world in the sparse remnants of the grassy box woodland ecosystem is about to unfold. As I descend the western slopes of Mount Canemumbola are bathed in the early morning light, and then suddenly the iridescent green flash of the sunlight catching the wings of a flock of superb parrots flying against the grey-green foliage of the yellow box trees. The bright yellow of their cheeks, and a scarlet flash beneath…..chirrupping as they fly. As I have been standing still for about five minutes, back they come flashing past again to chatter about the morning’s doings in another group of box trees on the southern slopes of the mount. And here they come again, this time more than fifty, side-slipping into the box trees, incessantly talking. In the trees they become invisible, their colours are only revealed when they emerge into the light. Perhaps there are some parallels in this, with our inability to see the connections and diversity in landscapes until we realise we are also truly part of the pulsing, humming, living Earth. Seeing this is a process, a journey of the mind, often born of unease or tension and coupled with humility.

Once, on a bus trip looking at river and land issues from Gunning, the source of the Lachlan, to its terminus in the twenty thousand   hectare Cumbung swamp, I wrote this limerick.

When you land on the plain out at Hay,
And you’re only there for a day,
You feel puny and small at the size of it all
And you wonder, ‘what part can I play?’

After looking at the Lachlan River on that trip I wrote this.

The Lachlan runs west to the plain
It resembles a sewer or drain
With it’s banks torn apart
By the European carp,
Will we see it run pristine again?

This was written after seeing the deeply incised Lachlan looking quite forlorn, full of dead trees, and wondering whether the exchange from diversity to the simplified landscapes of cotton fields and nut trees was, after all, a worthwhile trade. I recalled hearing Lance Parker from Hillston, saying that when he was a boy the Lachlan at Hillston was ‘as clear as gin, you could see the aquatic grass beds and see the native fish’. Lance was a school teacher and he was a son of the Lachlan river, he loved it and set about trying to breed native fish. He cracked the secret of the trigger for spawning. A rising river and increasing water temperature. No-one had discovered this before and Lance began breeding his native fish and stocking the river with them. The European carp was well established in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers and with their sucking mouth and habit of eating the grass beds on the river floors, they changed the habitat that suited the native fish. Lance had a vision that if you kept up a program of restocking the rivers each year with native fish, they would eat many of the carp fingerlings and eventually the old carp would reach the age at which they could no longer breed and the balance would be swung back to the native fish. Like many a good idea, Lance’s vision for the Lachlan was not acted upon.

The Lachlan has many structures across its fourteen hundred kilometres length. Large dams impede the progress of native fish, both up and down the river, thus altering forever the natural breeding cycles. Weirs have the same effect, and so at great cost several fish ladders have been built to allow the native fish access once more. Some clever research showed that the carp could be separated from the native fish due to the greater jumping activity of the natives when they came across the barrier at the top the fish ladder. The carp are effectively ‘drafted’ into a wire cage where they are harvested for fertiliser.

By the 1930s there were only sparse remnants of the once abundant and dominant chenopod shrublands of the Riverine and Hay Plains. Francis Ratcliffe, an English scientist, who became the first head of the CS and I R (the forerunner of the modern day CSIRO), wrote about the causes of the degradation of the scrubland vegetation, in his book, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. The tapping of the Great Artesian Basin made it possible for stock to graze every acre of the large western division stations. The water was ancient and under pressure, which meant it did not have to be pumped. Bore drains ran for miles on the contour and dry land could suddenly run livestock. The arrival of rabbits in the late 1880s and the millennium drought, led to much of the saltbush being ringbarked by rabbits; much of the saltbush was killed. Currently we still do not account for the  consequences our activities have on the ecosystems where we grow food and fibre. This must change if there is to be any chance of future generations seeing abundance and diversity; and for diversity to exist just for its own intrinsic value.

Mary White, in her wonderful book, Listen, Our Land is Crying, recounted the story of the swift change in vegetation on Steam Plains, at Conargo. It is a story of change from a diverse woodland, shrubland, grassland, to almost mono-cultures of exotic annuals, mostly wimmera rye and barley grass. In places where land cover was lost in big droughts, the soil drifted to the point that fences were built on top of fences buried by drift. This occurred in only one hundred and fifty years.

Thus were diverse ecosystems dispersed against the hastening settlers hungrily getting their hands on areas of land they never dreamed of in their countries of birth. Their flocks and herds swarmed over the landscape, the aboriginal communities were sometimes treated kindly, but mostly when they resisted the taking of their food sources, they were swept aside leaving an unspoken legacy of viciousness in the minds of generations to come. This is what 1930’s anthropologist, Bill Stanner called ‘the Great Australian Silence’. Until we stop worrying about what it might cost, and fashion a just dialogue that we can be proud of, including compensation for past actions, we will never be fully Australian and able to live at peace with first nation people and ourselves in this country we call ‘our home’. The recent Uluru meeting of aboriginal people and their suggestions of a way forward seem to be running across the shoals of political speak.

In this dry spring at Boorowa the plants are showing their ability to survive dry seasons. The current climate we are living in is much more hospitable than in former times. During the Pleistocene, (2.6 million years ago to about 11,000 years ago), the climate in Australia was twice as dry and four times as windy as now. Many of the big Blakeleyi red gums on Allendale are covered in bud, and most of the yellow box trees are flowering profusely, these species lived through the Pleistocene.  Beneath them is a carpet of aborted flower capsules that fell before they flowered as a response to the dry conditions. A safety strategy (extra capacity), born of deep evolutionary time as the proto-Australia started its long forty five million year drift north after stretching and rifting and eventually breaking away from Gondwana. The Wallaby grasses are making seed heads close to the ground, an energy-conserving strategy, and all plants are moving into reproductive mode. The remnants of the once diverse native flora know how to survive the conditions we call drought. They carry the genes of their ancestors that survived the harsh, dry, windy conditions of the Pleistocene.

The species farmers have sown using the Industrial Agricultural model, species such as Cocksfoot, Phalaris, Lucerne, Sub Clover, Prairie Grass, Fescue, and herbs such as Chickory and Plantain have been chosen for their vigour and competitiveness. Most of them come from the Northern Hemisphere. Their big drawback is that they are not really suited to our soils, so we have to spend money trying to alter the soil conditions to suit them. This means capital expenses for lime, inorganic fertilisers, weed control. If we fail to manage them properly, that is, to allow them to recover from grazing, they will quickly thin out and need to be resown. This is a huge capital cost, one from which it is hard to make a return that justifies the expense. In selecting and introducing these exotic species, farmers are unwittingly being enticed onto a treadmill of increasing purchase of products and often a spiral of debt from which they find it hard to escape. Thus the business model of the suppliers of products seems almost foolproof….apply the research that shows increased yield, purchase ‘improved’ seed, fertilisers, herbicides, apply two and a half tonnes of lime per hectare to correct the soil acidity related to too much nitrogen from clover. If unplanned grazing is practiced, pastures like this will need resowing every five to seven years, the cost of sowing will not have been recouped and the whole cycle of resowing, fertilisers, herbicides begins again. It’s a good deal for the supplier, but not so for the farmer, or the land.

Like the Superb Parrots we cannot see in the trees, so also, we fail to grasp our place in the living world, until we have come into the light of consciousness.





Review of Call of the Reed Warbler, A New Agriculture A New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017

A Review

Call of the Reed Warbler

A New Agriculture, a New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017.

The Agrarian narrative that is prevalent in American rural literature, (Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Louis Bromfield, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, Gary Snyder), and many others, is not matched in Australian rural literature. Australia has a paucity of stories about our farming history, from the pens of those with their hands in the dirt. We have been hanging out for this story for a long time. It tells where we came from, and gives an honest assessment of where we are now and where we might be going in the future in our relationship with Land. Of course we acknowledge Judith Wright, Eric Rolls, Geoffery Blainey, Mary E. White, Bill Gammage and lately Bruce Pascoe.

In Charles Massy we find an author with a big mind and a big story, a story for our time, a story that needs to be told. I find it extremely important that he has put down the history of the changing circumstances of thought in the human relationship to land in the centuries before European settlement in Australia.

Many reviews have looked on this book as one that will be a classic, I concur with that view.

One of the findings in Charles Massy’s PhD thesis was that in a majority of cases, the precursor for change was tension of some sort, either social, business or environmental. The scope of this book taken as a whole is breathtaking, Massy is revealing the truth of the processes of Industrial Agriculture. The farmers practicing this type of Industrial farming are in some sense, unwitting pawns in the game of those who supply the products that lead to less diversity in landscapes and farms.

The Massy narrative reveals the evidence of the results of Industrial Agriculture and unplanned grazing. World wide, soils are losing Organic Carbon as landscapes simplify; the opposite of the trend of evolution. This is the birthright of all unborn humans and also, all life.

These are big questions and too important to skirt around. We should be grateful we have someone such as Charles Massy among us, with the courage to inform us.

Research in the Industrial Farming model is currently all about small refinements to a flawed model. Things like satellite guidance and auto-steer, yield mapping, lower herbicide rates etc, are in my view, incremental changes, when what we need is a new model. Innovations such as pasture cropping, which has huge potential and is only in its infancy, is where there should be new research effort.

Any form of agriculture that causes significant simplification of the living community, and is reliant on products that harm the living world will be short lived in the history of the world.

This book is a clarion call for life.

There is ample honesty and stories of farmer’s journeys of searching for a way out of the labyrinth of dependency that is part of the lot of Industrial farming.

One has to admire the organizing capacity of large Industrial farmers, they achieve incredible things in a variable climate. The question though is that the only true profits made in farming are when the money shows a profit, at the same time as people’s well-being is improving and the natural capital base of the farm ecosystem is improving in diversity.

Charles Massy’s message of hope is for farmers to become more ecologically literate, to become independent thinkers, part of the living communities on farms. Considering the effects of our decisions on ourselves, our businesses and the living world.

When I was an Industrial farmer, it was my recognition that the natural capital on our farm was diminishing and that I, and the farming system were the problem, that made me look for more ethical ways to relate to Land. It is that story told through the lives of other farmers that is the heart of Call of the Reed Warbler.

In my experience, farmers mostly don’t read much, so for some the size of Call of the Reed Warbler may pose a problem. I have found it a pleasure to dip in and out, finding chapters that spark my interest. This is a book for more than farmers, it is a book for all.

You can buy a copy of the Call of the Reed Warbler at your favourite book seller or through the publisher, University of Queensland Press.

David Marsh
713 Lachlan Valley Way
Boorowa NSW 2586


Seeds of Time

Last week the stalling Spring on the South West Slopes had life breathed into her. I instinctively feel that Spring is a female term due to the nurturing role she plays in caring for her mother the Earth. Many female farmers also have this caring attitude to land and many a crusty farmer has begun a Landcaring life due to the wisdom and encouragement of the women in the family.

I have been astounded at how much difference a fall of twenty millimetres makes to the plant community that has been hanging on to life by the barest thread. A week after that invaluable fall, the plants on Allendale have almost doubled in size. Some of that is directly attributable to the rain, some due to the rising temperatures and increasing day length. In the last fortnight the colour of the plants has changed markedly to a deep green. This is an indication that the nitrogen cycle is kicking into gear. Nitrogen is supplied by legumes as we know, but also by the decomposed bodies of minute soil dwelling biota. The nutrients in their bodies are mineralised and become nitrogen rich sources of minerals for plants. Fungi, too become active with the warmer days and moisture, they work their magic in the dark and the symbiotic relationship they have with plant roots benefits both the fungi and the plants.

I have been taking note of the order in which flowering takes place on the track and slopes of Mount Canemumbola. Annuals are the shock troops that swarm over disturbed land, to cover it quickly. This feature of landscape dynamics, that is, the tendency to complexity and elaboration over evolutionary time has been going on for billions of years.

Mostly the annual, low-succession plants flower first. The higher -succession perennials are long-lived and mostly flower after the annuals. They are investing in their own future by storing sunlight energy in their crowns for the next opportunity that arises for growth. They are akin to long distance runners, whereas the annuals are more like sprinters.

This Spring the order of flowering of the plants on Mount Canemumbola has been (N denotes native species)

Poa Bulbosa, Poa Annua
Giant Brome
Wild Geranium
Wild Sage
Barley Grass
Sub Clover
Patterson’s Curse
Wild Oats
Soft Brome
Onion Grass
Plantain      N
Wallaby Grass, 3 to 5 species    N
Common Wheat Grass    N
Dandelion    N
Stipa     N
Tall Stipa    N
Microlaena    N
Red Grass    N
Cape weed
Prairie Grass
Illyrian Thistle
Saffron Thistle

It is disturbing to know that of the thirty two species I identified, only twelve evolved here. The native species have been overrun by exotics. Botanists will tell us that in a Grassy Box woodland before Europeans arrived there would probably have been at least one hundred species, per hectare.

The mixture of species both here and in the temperate zone in other countries, notably the grassy and flower-filled meadows of California which John Muir described so beautifully, had a large component of flowers, perhaps more forbs and flowers, than grasses. I recently re-read A Million Wild Acres, the great work by Eric Rolls, and in it he mentions the flowery landscapes of the north west United States in the early days of European settlement. The loss in Australia of many of the flowers in diverse plant communities, when livestock grazed them out, has been replaced by species from other lands where they evolved in the presence of herbivores and remained resilient. Plants like Patterson’s curse and the thistles, cape weed, dandelions and wild geranium are tap-rooted forbs and although we may sometimes dislike their presence, they can add needed organic matter to our soils and break through the hard pan that sometimes thwarts grass roots. This hard pan is a compacted layer often caused by the soil structure destroying mouldboard and later, disc ploughs that held sway for almost one hundred years. The abundance of plants like Patterson’s Curse and thistles is strongly related to how much ground cover there is when the opening rains of Autumn arrive. It is now eighteen years since we sprayed any thistles, a change from the annual job it was. Allowing plants to self-organise has proven to be an effective, no-cost option for swinging the balance against the thistles, or to put it another way, allowing the community time to change, so that it favours the grasses. It does not eliminate thistles altogether but they tend not to dominate. Actually the secret is to forget about the plants we call weeds and manage for the conditions that suit the species we want to encourage. The more we obsess about problems, the more the problem seems to persist.

Wallaby grass, red grass, microlaena, glycine, tall stipa after rain in mid November 2017

As I began writing this episode of a series of seasonal observations at the end of October 2017, I wrote that the good falls of rain back in March had brought on a large germination of many species of annuals as well as activating many perennials. The frosty, dry winter caused some species to dominate while others faded into the background. The annual germination of Illyrian thistles stalled and were overshadowed by grasses. It looked like a year when thistles were going to be outcompeted in our paddocks. However, our predictions of the future are often wide of the mark. October was a dry month, and as I began writing this, the season of 2017 was drawing to a close. The barley grass, mostly reaches at least 60 cm tall in an average Spring. This year it was only 10 cm high and by the end of October it was dead as were most other annuals. The soil surface was unseasonably dry.

Life and other jobs took me away from writing for a month. Now early in December the Grey Thrushes have fledged their young and are teaching the new generation their beautiful song. For the best part of an hour from just before dawn, they regale us with their tunes that lift the heart. What a poorer life we would have without their presence. However, I digress.

In the time since I began this piece October was dry, as September had been also. Then around mid November when many of the annuals had finished their lives and made seed, we had 46 mm of rain in three falls about five days apart. The world of the thistle, had already gone through stem elongation and was seemingly finished for this season. Because all the competition was now dead these three falls of rain rejuvenated the late thistles and they put on growth and are now flowering. Paddocks in the district that have been grazed out now have big populations of thistles. Our paddocks have a big body of grass which inhibits thistles, but here too these tough biennial plants from the Mediterranean have benefitted from the late rain, and are pushing up for the light .

So what is our response?

Our reaction to this late season rally is to do nothing, viewing the thistles as just another plant in the cavalcade of life, subject to the same pushes and pulls that dictate the affairs of the dynamic, living world. In past times we would have brought in a contractor and sprayed large areas, killing many other species as well as the target thistles. These days we understand that the abundance of thistles is temporary and if we manage ground cover so there is no bare ground, other things will in most years control the thistle population. Also there are two weevils that have been introduced from the Mediterranean, these insects are part of a large number of insects that, together, stop the thistles in their country of origin, from dominating. The stem boring weevil grazes the leaves of the thistle, then bores into the stem and pupates. The larger weevil lays its eggs in the head of the plants and its larvae eats the seeds. These insects are another natural control.

Plants, like all life forms exist to reproduce, it is this that continues to provide the conditions on Earth of life-friendliness. Our job is to manage our affairs so that as many forms of life as possible get the chance to express themselves to their potential. Often, maybe even mostly, that means accepting the fact of diversity, and letting it occur.

Try not manipulating, I have found it good for the human psyche.




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.

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 takes us through this process and highlights the virtues of using appropriate grazing management within his business.

Posted by Charlie Arnott – Grass Fed Beef, Naturally on Friday, September 15, 2017

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.




David Marsh and Charlie Arnott talk Holistic Management

Holistic Farm Management

How much do you know about holistic management? David Marsh and I recently caught up to discuss what holistic management means to him and some of the tools he and other holistic management practitioners use. Very insightful and well worth taking the time to watch.

Posted by Charlie Arnott – Grass Fed Beef, Naturally on Wednesday, August 23, 2017