Tag Archives: Aldo Leopold

Words, Ideas, Poetry and Relationships

My childhood was awash with words. My parents had followed an academic path, both graduating as doctors. Words seeped into me as I heard my parents speak, and as my father read to us from William Blake and other writers he admired.  That is one of my earliest memories, and I have no idea what the story was about. But I do remember the lines of, perhaps the first poem I heard. It was The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

‘I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I knew not where;

For so swiftly it flew, the sight could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air, it fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak, I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend.’

My parents liked to listen to My Word, a BBC radio program with two teams of very clever and witty contestants among whom were Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, Dilys Powell and Nancy Spain.

My father loved poetry and had also read the classics and could quote famous bits from Shakespeare, The Illiad, and a favourite of his and now mine, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One of them I can still recall.

‘Awake, for morning in the bowl of night, has flung the stone that set the stars to flight. And lo! the hunter in the East, has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light’.

Later as we began to grow up Dad bought a copy of the only recording of Dylan Thomas’ famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading some of the parts. It was recorded by accident when a patron brought an early tape recorder into the theatre and put it under his seat! It is valuable because it was recorded only weeks before Thomas’ untimely death in America. We listened to it often, and my sisters and I can quote some special pieces. I have several other recordings of it, one with Richard Burton and a more recent version with Anthony Hopkins. They are all wonderful, but nothing surpasses the musical voice of Dylan Thomas.

Under Milk Wood is the story of twenty four hours in the lives of the people in a mythical Welsh fishing village. It  is reckoned to be one of the greatest works of lyric prose in the English language. Thomas, like others touched by the creative urge was a complex character, who had his battles with alcohol and died far too young. There are many parts I love, here are a few.

‘To begin at the beginning. It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles though moles see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingle, or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle, by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the welfare hall in widows weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping, now’.

‘Time passes, listen, time passes, only you can see the black and folded town, fast and slow, asleep’…..

….’only you can see the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow, deep, salt and silent, black, bandaged night.’

‘ the sunny, slow, lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town, the sea lolls laps and idles in with fishes sleeping in its lap. The goat and daisy dingles nap, happy and lazy. The dumb duck ponds, snooze. Pigs snout and snuffle in the mud basking sun. Their tails curl. They dream of the acorn swill of the world, of the rooting for pig fruit, of the smiles and yesses of the women pigs in rut. They rollick and slobber and snore to deep, smug, after-swill sleep.

‘look up Bessie bighead in the White book of Llarregub and you will see the few scattered rags of her history recorded there with as much care as the lock of hair of a first lost love. Conceived in Milk Wood, born in a barn, wrapped in paper, left on a doorstep, big headed and base voiced, she grew in the dark until long dead Gomer Owen kissed her once by the pig sty because he was dared. Now in the light she’ll work, milk, sing, say the cows sweet names and sleep, until the night sucks out her soul and spits it into the sky. In her life-long love light, holily Bessie milks the fond, lake-eyed cows as dusk showers slowly down over sea, byre and town’.

Thomas’ poetry is also memorable, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Fern Hill are wonderful and have a deep connection with the Earth.

About ten years ago I bought a four cassette set called Burton at the BBC. On it was a piece called ‘In Parenthesis‘ a ‘shape in words’ describing the author David Jones’ experiences as an infantryman in the trenches in France at the battle of the Somme in WWI. The author, David Jones, gave a wonderful introduction. Acclaimed by some as the greatest piece of writing in the English canon. Burton and Dylan Thomas both had parts in it.

Then I learnt eight monologues by J Marriot Edgar and performed by Stanley Holloway, from a record a grateful patient had given my father. Over the years I have recited these pieces hundreds of times. These pieces follow the misadventures of Albert Ramsbottom and Private Sam Small.

I became interested in the poetry of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and C.J.Dennis, and other Australian poets. For me, CJ Dennis had a wonderful ability to evoke the emotion of the Australian soldiers’ experiences in the first World War in ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick.’ He used the vernacular of the working class soldier and showed the feeling of Australianness that was universal and transcended class.

When I was about twelve I learnt The Man from Ironbark and at our annual scout camp the scoutmaster sprang it on me to perform it round the campfire. It went well and in many ways quelled my natural anxiety of performing in public.

In my last year at school we did Coleridge’s wonderful poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I used to read it once a day and a lot of it is still in my memory. There are some inspiring passages worthy of sharing.

‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free, we were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down twas sad as sad could be, and we did speak only to break the silence of the sea.

All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon, right up above the mast did stand no bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day we stuck nor breath, nor motion, As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’.

Later when I was a jackaroo at Coonong Station at Urana I often carried a copy of Paterson’s poems in my saddle bag and learnt The Man from Snowy River, Bush Christening, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and others.

And this process of being interested in poetry has gone on right through my life. At school most people seemed to hate poetry; I loved it because of the density of meaning in so few words.

Later we made friends with some people who had come to Australia from Argentina. Norman and Diana lent me The Gaucho Martin Fierro, a large volume of the story of the legendary Gaucho Martin Fierro, all in verse. It was amazing.

I have a volume of all the lyrics Bob Dylan has written.

One I love is Song to Woody……

‘Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song, ’bout a funny old world that’s a comin along, seems sick and its hungry, its tired and its torn, it looks like its dying, but its hardly been born.

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I know that you know, all the things I’ve been saying and many times more, I’m singing you this song but I can’t sing enough, cause there’s not many men can do the things that you’ve done……

Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too. And all the good people who travelled with you. Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men, who come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

I have a copy of Howl, the radical poem by Alan Ginsberg, one of the Beat poets of the sixties. A few years ago I bought Walt Whitman’s amazing book of poems, Leaves of Grass, such modern language in such an old book.

Some books that got me going with reading and the somewhat romantic history of Australia were the works of Ion L. Idriess. Over the Range, Outlaws of the Leopolds, Nemarluk, King of the Wild, The Red Chief, Lasseters Last Ride, Flynn of the Inland, The Cattle King, The Tin Scratchers, My Mate Dick, Horrie the Wog Dog, The Drums of Mer, Gold Dust and Ashes and others I cannot remember.

Birds have been a fascination for me and this certainly came from my parents. Neville Cayley’s What Bird is That? was always out ready to identify any new birds as the seasons turned. Later there were the Peter Slater series of Passerines and Non Passerines, followed by Jack Cupper and Lindsay Cupper’s spectacular, Hawks in Focus and The Readers Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.

I started reading about conservation and land ethics in the nineteen eighties, and my quest to try and get an understanding of how the earth functions has led me to probably hundreds of incredible books.

The words that express the ideas of the authors are fundamental to gaining more insights in this quest for understanding. I have already referred to the writing of Aldo Leopold in previous blogs. His use of language in his classic work, A Sand County Almanac, and his deep thoughts on the human/land relationship, affected me deeply and continues to do so. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was a seminal work and literally earth shattering in its impacts. Rachel Carson’s paradigm shifting books, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring, broke new ground and led to the conservation movement. The Odum brothers gave some great insights into how ecosystems work, from an energy use viewpoint. James Lovelock,  Allan Savory, Mary E White, Jeremy Rifkin, Daniella Meadows, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Paul Hawkins, Ilya Prigogine and Fritjof Capra, and so many more have all been important in adding to what I think I know about how our home functions.

The words, poems and ideas in all these works give us a relationship with the writers. The relationships we form with others and the ideas we pursue after conversations and reading are in some ways like the relationships and connections between all living things. We are all connected; the earth and all of life are one indivisible whole.

In this is the genesis of our hope for a vibrant, diverse future.


Silent Spring Revisited

Silent Spring

“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history”. (Senator Ernest Gruening, Democrat, Alaska).

Despite lots of scientific colleagues knowing the problems with increasing pesticide use in the environment, it fell to a 56 year old Zoologist to crack open the collective heads of the world with a book that hit the mind of humanity like a thunderbolt. Like many who step out of the crowd, she was somewhat of a loner. Her most inspiring attributes were her empathy for all life, courage and tenacity.

“Silent Spring” was a deeply disturbing book about how humans were prepared to compromise all of life, including our own, by selling products whose long term effects were not fully disclosed, or even known. It is hard to gauge the level of courage she had, to go to print with a story so explosive. She was dying of complications from breast cancer a year after the book was published, yet such was her resolve that she testified before a Senate sub-committee on pesticides.

Rachel Carson, a slight, single, fifty six year old woman had a Masters Degree in Zoology. She worked as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and developed the belief that people would only protect what they loved. In those days there were few women working in the scientific field. Science  was a male-dominated culture.

She wrote three highly acclaimed books about the sea. Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955), and also Silent Spring (1962). I have all those books and I treasure them.

Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s first book, when submitted to the publisher, did not need any editing or alteration, the only manuscript they had ever received that was so perfect. This gives some idea of the standards Rachel Carson set for herself.

Silent Spring represents a step-change in writing fearlessly about the environment and had a big influence over environmental policy and in  a very real way, launched the embryonic environmental movement.

This woman felt an ethical call she could not ignore, driven by the love and care she felt for all life forms, of which she felt she was a fellow traveller. She felt a deep urge to write about the effects of DDT on ecosystems where there had been spraying, sometimes with large aircraft over lakes, so people would not have to be bothered by insects. DDT quickly entered the world of the fast developing industrial model of agriculture where humans dominated the natural world and everything without an economic value was expendable. In the post World War II world, the dominant paradigm was steeped in the belief of man’s domination of Nature. There were large fortunes riding on the wide scale adoption of this paradigm. It was a time when humans were proud of the technology they were able to produce and used it against threats to agricultural production, without question. At this time, post World War II pest control using ecological management was dwarfed overwhelmingly by the growing behemoths of the chemistry businesses, churning out products to control any species, plants or insects that had a depressing effect on yield. Of the total number of economic entomologists working in the United States, 98% of them were employed by the big chemical companies. only 2% were looking at organic pest control. It was all about the flow of money. Huge profits were being made by the big agricultural chemical companies: they, in turn poured money into the universities. Money became available for graduate programs, faculties and scholarships were funded and jobs were available after graduation. It seems as though the educational institutions behaved just like an organism exploiting a food source, and that scientists as a group were grasping the opportunity to work in an emerging field that would also put food on their families table. In this, they proved they were human, whilst their research probably made many of them feel they were gods.

In Germany during WWI, Haber and Bosch had already shown that nitrogen fertilisers could be synthesised using atmospheric nitrogen, the methane from natural gas, in conjunction with a nickel catalyst, under high pressure. The Germans put a lot of effort into cracking the secret of industrial ammonia production because the British had control of the sodium nitrate mines in Chile, so important for munitions. World War I was the crucible that led to a process that would have far-reaching effects, firstly for munitions and ultimately, in a much bigger way, for the negative effects of anhydrous ammonia and urea on soil life. The inventors of the Haber Bosch process won the Nobel Prize in 1918 and 1933 respectively.

Carson collected data that was already known, documented cases of squirrels dying, evidence of Ospreys and Peregrine falcons unable to raise their young due to the effect of DDT making their eggs brittle from the concentration of DDT at the top of the food chain. This process was called bio-accumulation. DDT had been first synthesised in1874, it was found to kill insects in 1939. Its inventor Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948.

Crop dusting planes flying over the landscape
Applying toxic products with little consideration of long term effects.


This tendency to reward those who invent new products and processes that seem of inestimable value to humans in terms of their economic effect is symptomatic of our worrying tendency to value humans over other life forms. Rachel Carson had the courage to show us the consequences of some pesticides in the environment; it took ten years after Silent Spring for the US Government to ban DDT. A deal was done whereby in return for the US ban, the company would be licensed to export DDT to the third world. One deficiency we have as a species is this seemingly unshakable belief in our superiority over other life forms. The tendency we have, to evaluate new products and ideas, in terms of economics, blinds us to the consequences that often are devastating on the environment. Profit overrides common sense, natural caution and ethical considerations. As well as the dubious ethics of big businesses pushing at any cost for profit, governments who licence these harmful products are complicit in the outcomes that affect all life.

We are one of the most recent species on earth. Many see our species as superior to others. To think otherwise for most of us is anathema. Because we can reason, we believe we can do anything, we have been so clever with all the technology we have invented, we forge on.   We are so proud of ourselves, humility is scarce. However our ability to think confers on us an obligation to allow all other life to live. We know deep in our souls that this is right.

Other forms or life sometimes proliferate and their population gets out of control. In the natural world, driven by the contemporary energy of the sun, nothing dominates for long. There is always a change that allows other species to enter the fray. This is the way life has always proceeded. Always to an evolutionary state tending more towards elaboration and diversity. This state has been driven by cooperation between life forms, as much as by competition.

Self-propelled spraying rigs on the back of a truck
Bigger self-propelled spraying rigs heading west to apply more product to cropping ecosystems with dubious benefits to the long-term health of diversity, soils and people.


We will do almost anything to avoid illness, fear, hunger, the threat of death, or pain. The big difference between ourselves and other species is that we have learnt to play outside the rules of the natural world. This has been possible because we have found more and more ways to harvest a greater share of the product of photosynthesis, leading to larger and larger population. As the human population has risen, so diversity has diminished. We are taking more than our share of the Earth’s resources, leading to the sixth big extinction event, that is happening now.

Consistent with our desire not to suffer, we have systematically found ways to control almost all the infectious diseases, a great leap forward in our desire to avoid suffering.

However, unlike First Nation peoples, since the dawn of agriculture and the trend to food surpluses we have not learned to live in a way that does not threaten the ecosystems of the Earth. Until a little over two hundred years ago the energy source that drove human civilisation was contemporary solar energy. But then things changed.

The nations of Europe, running out of resources, were suffering wars for more territory, a classic symptom of dwindling resources. The big forests of Europe had largely been cut down to build fleets of ships to indulge in battles of conquest, and the struggle for trading rights. Wood was also the major fuel for cooking and heating. Europe was running out of room, running out of wood, societal breakdown was leading to very high rates of crime and punishment. Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium sent out discovery ships, some with scientific purposes, as well as looking for land and others to open up trade routes.

Europe had found the New World, rich in resources of timber, land and minerals. The invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Newcomen was a major breakthrough and was used to pump water from mines, as coal began to replace wood as a heating and cooking fuel.  James Watt followed with engines capable of continuous rotary power from 1781. This ushered in the steam age, factories, and a society using more energy to power its civilisation than could be delivered by the sun. The energy concentrated in coal and later petroleum oil was prodigious and could accomplish so much work when burnt in steam engines and the soon-to-be-developed internal combustion engine.

However, the sources of energy they turned to also had their origin in biology. The fossil fuels to which we have become so addicted, coal, oil and gas are plant derived. They are the product of past photosynthesis. In human time frames they are not renewable, having taken about sixty million years to be laid down in the swamps of the Carboniferous Era. That happened between 354 and 298 million years ago.

Trading and moving goods around the world has increased the energy requirements of society. Aldo Leopold described an ecosystem thus…. ‘a slowly augmented, revolving fund of life’. I find that so elegant! As land was developed and ecosystems simplified,  the  communities of life no longer had sufficient energy to provide the maintenance energy costs that the previous complex community provided, leading to further simplification. Food chains became shorter with diminishing species, the resilience of ecosystems to disturbance was less. The recycling mechanisms, so important for the constant churn of decaying bodies and plants began to stall. The work done by burning coal, and later, oil, was needed to fill the gap of the energy diverted from ecosystem maintenance to human society. Thus began a dizzying spiral of insatiable lust for more concentrated energy sources, leading from stationary engines to locomotives powered by coal, and from around 1900, oil-driven modes of transport via the internal combustion engine.

As people became more mobile, they carried with them the seeds, bacteria, viruses and a myriad of other life-forms that had evolved elsewhere. This was part of a world-wide pooling of species. In Australia some species, like the European rabbit, cane toads, the prickly pear, cats, foxes and plants such as vulpia, one of the fescues that has covered millions of hectares of country in temperate regions, have pushed out many native species. Species such as Vulpia have taken over enormous areas as a response to set stocking, the common practice when grazing land with livestock.

In human terms, this spreading of the pathogens of Europe, (to which the Europeans were largely resistant from long exposure), had a devastating effect on the indigenous populations of the countries they colonised. When Thomas Mitchell’s exploring party travelled out the Macquarie river to its junction with the Darling, following the earlier attempts by Sturt to solve the riddle of the inward flowing rivers, the aboriginals were covered with pock-marks from smallpox and there were grave mounds all along the Darling. Their population had been decimated because they had no immunity, having lived in isolation from other humans for 50,000 years.

So, fifty years since Silent Spring swarmed onto our bookshelves, what have we changed? Has changing our information base led to transformational change in the way we live? Are we using less biocides now than in 1962? Have we put serious effort into different ways of farming, have we evaluated our models of grazing and cropping and found lower energy, lower impact ways of managing our harvest of the forms of life that lead to conditions friendly to life. Have we learned to create societies that live within the natural limits of the environments they occupy?

Sadly, the answer to all those questions is an indication, both of our cleverness and our lack of wisdom.

Despite the warnings issued by Rachel Carson in 1962 our performance has been worse than when Silent Spring was published. World pesticide use has increased fifty-fold, yet crop losses remain about the same as in 1950, approximately 37%

We seem to be victims of our own success, creators of our own undoing. The very pinnacle of our diverse cultures, civilisation itself, and our cleverness, has led to a population overshoot, consuming so much of the Earth’s annual production that other species are being squeezed out. This is a result that is the direct opposite to the trend of evolution; 3.7 billion years, since the beginning of life. Life has always trended towards increasing diversity and elaboration of life forms. To reverse this gloomy scenario will require sacrifice and a change of direction. The developed nations are devoted to the pursuit of materialism, people are chronically unwell due to a diet lacking nutrients and leading to increasing obesity, soaring diabetes and increasing cardio-vascular problems. There is an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poverty stricken.

These scenarios add up to an emergency for the future of all life. Life will continue, though our part in it could change. Because these looming or imminent clashes involve big processes, humans do not see them as requiring urgent change in the way we live. Mostly humans react to emergencies or extreme stresses when lives are threatened or many are dying. Until that happens on a large scale we are happy with the status quo.

A few years ago during the 2002 to 2010 drought in South West NSW, there was an International Conference in Canberra of middle management agricultural officers, district agronomists from all over the world. They did a field trip to a leading farmer’s property. The farmer was saying how tough things had been for so long, loss of ground cover, failed crops, financial hardship. When they were getting back on the bus a tall man from Africa came up to the farmer and said, “So, things have been bad eh?” ‘Yes, never seen it this bad’.  “So, how many people have died.” That was a sobering question for Australian agriculturalists to ponder.

The emergency we are in has hardly registered in Australian minds, or the minds of humanity, generally.

Like Rachel Carson, I have to realise that some pesticide products are perhaps necessary, but the registration and approval processes, often evaluated by the companies that produce them, leave much to be desired.

Human beings so often embrace technologies that are convenient and which confer a perceived benefit, especially if it is a financial benefit. We will need to be much more careful that our desire for profit does not override common sense. This is a question of ethics.

Starting to Think Like a Mountain

Poets and painters strive, with rhyme and brush to convey to us what to them makes sense of the world. They do this in a burst of pure creativity, in which the depth of meaning is often inversely proportional to its brevity.

When I was about fifteen my father bought a book called ‘The Eye of the Wind’ by Peter Scott, an Englishman who was the son of Scott of the Antarctic. His father died with his companions in the howling winds and snows when his son Peter was not yet three. Peter Scott became a famous ornithologist, conservationist, painter, naval officer and sportsman. In his beautifully written autobiography, Peter Scott uses evocative language to reveal the path of life that led to his consuming passion for the natural world.

As a schoolboy, and then a university student he spent as much time as possible in a punt, looking at wildlife, particularly geese as the wild flocks made their annual migration from the arctic to the fens and marshes of England. Scott was a conservationist, he founded the World Wide Fund for Nature, yet, like Aldo Leopold, as a young man, he was also a keen wildfowl hunter. When asked how he could reconcile his hunting with his conservation efforts he replied, that he was merely following the evolutionary call to hunt. Like Aldo Leopold, Peter Scott reflected on this and later turned his mind to conservation. It seems that the urge to hunt was the catalyst to open the mind to the greater purpose of the diversity of life.

For me, one of the most famous journeys of the mind is found in Leopold’s essay Thinking Like a Mountain. Written in 1944, this wonderful piece of writing has had a profound effect on my own thinking.  Leopold uses the story of a hunting trip to highlight the concern he had of the effect of the legislation being written in many States in America, that led to the top predators being outlawed and exterminated. Specifically, bears, wolves and mountain lions. These laws were written because the stock owners of the day demanded from the State, protection for their herds and flocks. No one then was thinking about the cascading effects of disturbing complex ecosystems, by making such a simplistic economic decision.  Leopold saw the removal of predators that trimmed the deer population he wanted to hunt, as a passport to more deer and therefore better hunting.

In this piece Leopold and his companion were high on some rimrocks overlooking a swollen creek winding its way through the boulders. Seeing what they thought were deer fording the stream they began shooting. They soon realised it was a female wolf and six grown cubs. The adult wolf was fatally wounded, and the hunters climbed down as she was dying.

‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch the green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch: I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.’

Leopold goes on to describe the effect on the mountain of increasing numbers of deer. The vegetation is overgrazed, the trees, the mountain’s cloak, browsed too high for the young deer to reach, thus leading to decimation of both mountain and deer.

Then, extending his thinking to the social effect of the policy on the cow-man he introduces a very new idea, that when the predators are gone, the cattle men have now taken on the task of the wolf, that of, ‘trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea’.

Of all the writers about nature I have read, for me, no-one comes close to Aldo Leopold in drawing clear conclusions from his stories that lead us into different ways of considering our place in the scheme of things. His conclusion to Thinking like a Mountain is a wonderful example.

‘We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing; peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men’.

Trying to understand the mechanisms of change has been a long quest for me. Change is different for each of us and involves a complex interaction of introspective, social, aesthetic, ethical, economic, cultural and ecological factors. These seven facets of decision-making are inherent in us although we may not be conscious that we use them. They are hard-wired into us by the long evolution of our species. Our early ancestors emerged perhaps two million years ago, while humans like us have only been present on earth for about 200,000 years. As species go we are very recent, and because we can conceive abstract thoughts and reflect, and have developed more and more complex ways to alter the environment, our species has had a profound effect on the Earth and disrupted many of the functions of the ecosystems that are critical to its capacity for providing ongoing life-friendly conditions.

In agriculture, there is an urgent need for more thinking like a mountain. It is now more than seventy years since Aldo Leopold wrote this important essay, we have been slow to heed his wisdom because of our disconnection with the natural world, the world that gave us life and sustains us. Farmers who are having more than just an economic relationship with land, who perceive the importance of diversity and whose relationship with their land is motivated by love, give us hope that there is a glimmer of thinking like a mountain being ignited in the human mind.




Obeying the Call of our Instincts

People are always asking why it was that we changed the way we approached farming. And I’ve always said it was that I’d got to a point where I just felt what I was doing wasn’t right for us, and the Earth.

But at 3.48 am this morning my mind lit up and I found myself thinking about my father. Dad wasn’t scared to do something different, he wanted to prove to himself that something he’d read or thought about, would work. He planted a windbreak at Mardah Mia, our home in Bowral, in the belief that native birds would come and nest in the shrubs and trees he’d planted, and that is exactly what happened.  He stopped spraying aphids on the roses believing that birds and other insects would control them, and they did.

And I was a bit like that, I’d read An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard who was the first to recognise the symbiotic relationship between mychorrizal fungi and plants, the mychorrizal association. I had read Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King’s book about an American study tour to Korea, China and Japan, to try and understand why the Dust Bowl had occurred on the Great Plains and the mid West of the US in the 1930s.

I was trying to emulate some of what I had read in these books, on broad acres in Australia. I was ploughing in grass when others were flogging paddocks bare and then ploughing. I did this in the mistaken belief that ploughing in plant material would increase soil organic matter. However in the presence of moisture, buried green organic matter initiates an opportunistic blooming of soil life designed to break down the physical structures of the plants. When their work is done and they die, their bodies release nitrogen. The long term effect is a reduction in soil organic carbon, the opposite of what we were trying to achieve. When writing of the role of these microscopic forms of life, Aldo Leopold said they…. ‘had to suck hard, live fast and die often, lest their losses exceed their gains’.

The dilemma for cropping then, when cultivation held sway was always the time land was exposed to the elements with no ground cover.

But to be honest, even indulging in so-called better practices, our soils were still in trouble. After heavy rain we all talked about, ‘a bit of wash’, local farmers’ way of making light of a serious problem-erosion. In those days of full breakout cultivation, cropping paddocks were losing soil at the rate of over ten tonnes per hectare, per year. Also, we weren’t travelling well financially. We were feeding stock routinely in Autumn and Winter, a sure sign of being overstocked. Something was not working. Actually a lot of things weren’t working.

So, I joined an agronomy group-bought some machinery that I thought was less harmful than one way disc ploughs, began using glyphosate and started zero-till farming. It seemed great, more stable paddocks, less disturbance, and very convenient-just call the spray bloke and you were ready to roll. No problems. Except I started to think that this approach wasn’t much good either. It was in lock-step with herbicides and as time went by we needed more of them to keep the weeds at bay. The continual exposure of a population to a herbicide would certainly lead to resistance, and that is exactly what has happened all round the world. Plant populations have been evolving and adapting for millions of years. Not surprisingly, we also now find that glyphosate is not the benign, safe product we were led to believe. Some countries have banned it, or restricted its use. It is the most pervasive herbicide in the world.

After our agronomy group meetings, about four a year, which I loved because we were keen and had interesting days, we would go back to our respective farms and apply the recipes recommended by our very able advisors. We were all in the same boat, our thinking was all about cranking out more grain by throwing a lot of money at our crops and using cutting edge technology. We adopted crop rotations to maximise yield potential. We were forward marketing grain and attending seminars for innovative farmers.

But we weren’t making money at this, my time was not being spent with my family, as much as it should have. I loved my wife and kids, but my life was being driven by a farming system I was beginning to realise was out of step with the earth.

I have never written about this, actually I have never spoken about it, but I often used to wonder if our son Matthew, who was born with a complex cardiac defect, may have been an unwitting victim of my farming system. I discussed this with his doctors as they tried to see if there was an attributable cause to this wonderful boy’s affliction. There was no connection as far as they knew. Still, in my mind the doubt remained.

When Matthew developed a brain abscess at ten years of age, we thought we’d sell up and move closer to medical care in case he needed it.

Allendale wasn’t sold. We weren’t fair dinkum sellers, and only put the property out for tender. When we put it on the market, I thought I’d better get some formal qualifications so I’d be employable. Twenty years experience of farming might not be enough.

I’d begun to worry that the inorganic fertilisers and chemical approach was not going to be good for the earth, us, and our business. It was too highly geared and in a variable climate just could not deliver results that matched up with what we wanted as a family, as a business and for the health of the future resources of our farm.

We did always take an annual holiday-Matthew and Alice loved the sand and the sea at Byron Bay. Perhaps it was an instinct Mary had that it was also necessary for ourselves to have some time away to recharge our own batteries. Not that Matthew was acutely ill day to day, and needing frequent hospitalisation. But a constant low-level of anxiety pervaded our lives.

At about this time I went to an introductory day run by Terry McCosker at a farm near Carcoar, about an innovative style of grazing management. It was my introduction to Managing Holistically and really changed the way I thought. The student was ready and the teacher appeared. The ecological side went over my head then, I was not ecologically literate enough to ‘get it’. The grazing also was confusing, so different to the unplanned way I was managing our livestock and plants. But it was trying to mimic the grazing of wild herds unconfined by fences, and that really resonated.

At the same time as this head cracking information, I was also studying for a Sustainable Agriculture Masters degree and stumbled across the writing of Aldo Leopold. Also, we met the eminent paleo-botanist, Mary E White and really clicked with her. I dusted off my copy of her book, The Greening of Gondwana, which my father had given me a couple of years earlier. To my shame I had not read this wonderful book, I was too busy dealing death to any obstacles to yield. Later, Matthew and I stayed with Mary White at her home in Balgowlah, and she took us to a lecture by Jared Diamond whose book Guns, Germs and Steel I had just read. After the lecture, Mary took us into the inner sanctum and we met Jared, a groundbreaking author and humble human being. That was a privilege indeed.

So it seems as though the process of change had multiple triggers. My good fortune in having a liberal education and observing nature, provided by parents who were passionately interested in plants and birds, in everything around them really. Through them, my own curiosity about the world we inhabit was kindled. The slow evolution in my mind that what we were trying to do with farming and livestock, was a bad fit with the way the world works. But the biggest trigger was a growing unease about the effects my behaviour and the products I was using, was having on the Earth.

Looking back over forty five years of farming now, it is hard to believe it took me so long to see why we had to obey our instincts and learn to farm in a way that allowed the natural abundance and diversity inherent in ecosystems, to flourish. This underlying and unspoken tension in many farmers lives is manifest in social problems such as depression.

In ecosystems, change is often triggered by what ecologists call catastrophic disturbance. A storm with savage winds, a bushfire, drought and floods, or some insect or animal whose population gets out of control. The results of these seeming disastrous events appear devastating, but over time niches created by disturbance are filled by other species, and diversity increases. The factor that makes this possible, is time.

In farmed landscapes there is seldom enough time allowed to see this abundance return via the capacity for self-organisation inherent in the natural world. So we spend money and use technology to try and fix up the problems we create, when their solutions often lie in developing a better understanding of ecology and how this world functions.

As I sit here writing early this morning I can hear  the Magpies announcing the day with their carolling song, there are thirty odd Red-Rumped parrots feeding on the lawn, as well as Crimson, and Eastern Rosellas . Because of their familiarity we hardly notice them but their colours are so brilliant as to defy description. Our favourite songster, the Grey Thrush lands on the kitchen window sill, looking in interestedly with his large, limpid eye at my fumbling attempts to write about his world. His song is a liquid cascade of sound out of proportion with his size. The Superb Blue Wrens are beginning to build their nests, and the males to put on their best suits to attract a mate. White-Plumed Honey-Eaters chase each other through the branches of the trees in a breathtaking display of aerobatics.

Allendale now has almost twenty percent tree cover, a big change from the three percent of forty years ago. With this change comes immense satisfaction. Initiating increased tree cover by planting, and then allowing the conditions to occur that match up with the natural trend of the march of evolution, to increasing elaboration and diversity.

This farm is all arable, most of the pastures are exotic, sown perennials or exotic annuals. Apart from the tree cover that is endemic, there are very few of the possibly 100 species of plants that lived here before the changes wrought by European agriculture. That is to say nothing of the fauna that now no longer resides here. However, there are native grasses popping up each year in greater numbers, which is an indication that, given time, the regenerative capacity that resides in the landscape can self-organise and once more become more complex. That is what it is always trying to do.

It’s us that stops it.

Like change in an ecosystem that is initiated by a disturbance or shock, it seems the human mind also needs a catastrophic disturbance or shock to open it up for change. In our case the realisation that our farming systems were not compatible with the future health of the earth, helped us understand that we too, with all other life, are an indivisible part of the place we inhabit.



An Always Changing, Living Earth

I have always loved Aldo Leopold’s metaphor of the annual return of the Sandhill Cranes from Siberia to the Sand Counties of Wisconsin, as the ‘ticking of the geologic clock’.
On a much shorter time frame, the daily rising and setting of the sun is like the earth inhaling and exhaling.

Farmers have the privilege of watching the seasons come and go over the years of their farming life. Those who are fortunate to have eyes to see the landscape as something they are connected to and part of can observe the richness and abundance of life.  From this abundance they embark on an annual quest to produce a profit by converting some of the product of photosynthesis into something to sell.

This quest is universal whether the product is meat, fibre or grain.
There are of course other ‘non consumptive’ values of land. We might produce on our landscape a pleasant view, or conserve a particular ecosystem that provides habitat to plants or animals that do not have a direct monetary value but have an important ‘existence’ value. These values can bring pleasure to the minds of anyone who observes them. In some countries people pay farmers an annual fee for the right to come onto land and observe species that are rare.

Often, the non-economic values in the landscape are fundamental to the ongoing function of farm ecosystems and essential in underpinning our businesses over the long run. As farmers, I do not think we really ‘get’ that. We are mostly too busy rushing around trying to outsmart nature and gather a harvest that we can market at a profit. A ‘true profit’ is one that delivers a positive biological value in the landscape in terms of increasing diversity and organic carbon, and improving soil structure, as well as dollars in the bank.

The big engine of life on earth is invisible to us. The mass and diversity of life below the soil surface is a fundamental part of the land equation.

So often in farming our fortunes are dictated by circumstances rather than our cleverness. In todays world, dominated by technology, the variability of nature still holds the cards for  financial success.

At Allendale in the south west slopes of New South Wales, this year opened with record high temperatures in January and February. Out of the blue with one cool wet change from the west, the heat stopped and we welcomed a two month spell of mild and wet weather in March and April (read more in this earlier post). This unexpected change in the weather ushered in the best autumn here for many, many years, and saved us from a grim autumn and winter. The capricious nature of Australian weather was not so kind to many areas, especially the New England and the North West.

image of bare paddock, Feb 2014image of lush paddock, Apr2014

The Winter here was generally mild, with two weeks of severe frost in July to remind us that growth does slow right down or even almost stop, in July before waking from its slumber in about mid August. These frosts caused havoc for many crops sown on early rains and overgrown in the mild conditions.

The Spring has been drier than some, with rains often spread a month apart, but here we have been fortunate to have cool weather that has produced a lot more grass than expected.

Managing holistically means we are moving our two cattle herds so they stay in each paddock for just a few days and do not return until the pasture has fully recovered (50 to 170 days, depending on growth rates). Planning grazing this way allows two to three times the biomass to grow in a season when compared to unplanned constant stocking. This all happens without any purchased inputs in the form of herbicides or inorganic fertilisers, and provides a living while allowing diversity to increase and this has a calming effect on people.

A Farmers Tale Part II

What is the purpose of agriculture?

“the obligation of a country’s agriculture is to maintain its people in health”

One of the cornerstones of the ARLASH vision is to make this intimate connection between landscape and human health.

This quote is from Wendell Berry in a foreword to a 2006 republished edition of Sir Albert Howard’s 1947 book, The Soil and Health.

Implicit in this is that farm landscapes can be managed to deliver future landscapes that are abundant and diverse, and whose products are health-giving for people.

In part one of this saga I raised the idea of an awakening interest in Ecology (basically, how the living and physical worlds function and continue to make for a life friendly context), as fundamental to the practice of regenerative agriculture.

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE practice taps in to the laws of nature as its guide. Self organisation and repair are hallmarks of this type of management.

The development of more complex communities of life are something we are constantly striving for at Allendale. We count species numbers in some paddocks to monitor if we are gaining or losing species; a guide to show us if our management is leading to the increasing DIVERSITY we desire.

Managing this way is low cost, low risk and can lead to landscape, human and economic health. We call it MANAGING HOLISTICALLY

It is different from the linear decision making of the industrial model which assumes that understanding is attained by studying the parts of a system. The industrial mind is sure that the application of reductionist science will yield favourable outcomes. The favoured almost always being humans, at the expense of other forms of life which we assume we can do without.

However, mostly the costs our behaviour imposes on society and eco-systems is ignored or deferred. These effects are called externalities.

Externalities impose social and ecological costs on society and the living world which have never been paid by us. The visible effects of them are evident as we move around. Soils exposed to wind and water, more simplified communities, increasing energy imports into agriculture (fuel, water, products etc). Lower satisfaction rates (depression increasing), increasing rates of ill-health in society(obesity increasing, diabetes in epidemic proportions), poor economic outcomes, land looking overused, and on a world scale accelerating species extinctions.

The health costs of our current way of living is now a big drain on the public purse. The food choices people are making are leading to increasing rates of chronic illness. The peddlers of salt, fat and sugar-rich highly processed foods get a free ride on profit while the costs of the illness their products produce is loaded onto society. This is an ethical and moral question.

Thus, while reductionism has delivered some impressive benefits it is out of step with the way the world functions, (in fact, heading in the opposite direction; simplified communities of life, rather than the increasing complexity inherent in the natural trend of 4 billion years of evolution), and the unpaid costs of externalities mount up.

The emerging practice of REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE assumes that its actions may be wrong and is constantly looking for evidence that shows that it may be off track. Thinking this way gives us the opportunity to constantly review and adjust so we are mostly more on track to the diverse, more stable and RESILIENT future landscapes we desire.

One of the most thought provoking pieces of writing on this topic is THE LAND ETHIC, by Aldo Leopold. Although written in 1948 just before his untimely death, it is still considered ground breaking in its clarity and vision.

All farmers would benefit from reading THE LAND ETHIC.

It is to be found online or in Leopold’s book, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, 1948. It would be wonderful if that book was well-thumbed and in every farmer’s bookshelf.

Leopold’s thinking certainly had a profound effect on me when I first stumbled across his writing whilst studying for a Sustainable agriculture Masters degree in 2001.

He articulates clearly the sort of relationship that should exist between people and land.