My father was a medical practitioner in Bowral, NSW from 1946 to about 1980. He always had a great interest in literature and the classics and could quote bits from many of those works; he read to us from William Blake when we were small. Lewis Carroll was another favourite, especially the Jabberwock!
Airforce training in the west of Victoria put him in touch with the local medico in Nhill, Dr Middleton, who had a couple of young sons, one of whom was interested in nature. When my father died in 1986 I rang this now long-retired ‘young man’. He told me this story which made me feel immensely proud. Dad’s squadron was in New Guinea and the islands of the Coral Sea, it was a Beaufighter squadron. Every year on young Bill Middleton’s birthday, a book about nature would appear, sent by my father while he was on active duty, and Bill said it was probably this that led to his future career as a forester. Bill also had a big influence on what became Whole Farm Planning and the Potter Farmland Plan.
Well, the point is that none of us knows how what we say, how we behave or our attitude can influence the thoughts of others, and change often is sparked by chance experiences, often when we are under pressure or tension.
I grew up watching my father making compost, leaf mould, recycling everything, growing vegetables, fruit etc. My constant refrain was “I wonder why”. So it looks as if I was curious right from the start. Like most of us, I thought my situation was just normal, it just was what it was. Comparing comes much later, or it did with me.
My father’s bookshelves were full of thousands of books on a very wide range of subjects, but if there was a dominance in one area it would have been Australian flora and Fauna and agriculture.
There were many books Dad bought in the years after WWII. An Agricultural Testament, by Sir Albert Howard, the Rape of the Earth, Jacks and Whyte, Chemicals Humus and the Soil, Hopkins, Nutrition and National Health, Sir Robert McCarrison, the Living Soil, Eve Balfour, Farmers of Forty Centuries, FH King, Humus and the Farmer, Friend Sykes, The Clifton Park System of Farming, Elliot, Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease, Sir Albert Howard, Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, Francis Ratcliffe, Malabar Farm, Louis Bromfield, Ploughman’s Folly, Edward Faulkner and many others.
As a young farmer I was aware of those books but had not read them; my experience and the information I was getting was from a different paradigm, what we now know as the industrial farming model.
Looking back, my desire was certainly to care for the land, but my behaviour and attitude showed I had a predominantly economic relationship to land. I was out to prove to myself and others that I could get the land to yield up its treasures and produce more or at least as much as my peers of wool, sheep cattle and crops.
The drought of 1982 was a wake up call. I had to admit that decisions I made or failed to make led to a denuded farm. For the first time dust was blowing, a heavy storm led to high runoff and many fences being flattened. I felt very responsible, even ashamed. I spent the next ten years looking for farming systems that had lower impacts.
My father gave me a book called Wildlife in the Home Paddock by Roland Breckwoldt(1983), and it was very influential as it showed conservation integrated into production and that production was actually dependent on complexity in the landscape.
We became very involved in tree planting, but mainly for shelter and other production reasons, nothing to do with increasing biodiversity as such.
We were early adopters of zero till farming, which seemed so good compared to multiple pass cultivation and occasional erosion events.
However, after some amazing yield results I became concerned that the level of product leaving the farm was unrealistic in longer time frames and also that the chemical control of weeds would lead quite quickly to resistance problems.
Towards the end of the 1980s a friend gave me a copy of a book about managing holistically by Allan Savory.
Savory’s book and thinking resonated with where my mind was going, and has had an ongoing influence on our more balanced way of managing from the perspective of people, business and landscape.
At this stage I had no idea about complexity, resilience, ecology, succession, the influence management could have on solar energy harvest or how much grass would grow if we controlled the time animals had access to plants.
I guess in many ways I was ecologically blind.
The biggest influence that led to changed thinking was the result of our son Matthew suffering a life threatening illness.
Although he made a good recovery I enrolled in a sustainable agriculture course at Sydney University Orange Campus, externally.
I became insatiably hungry for knowledge about ecology.