It is a late September spring morning on our farm: a time of frenetic bird, animal and vegetative activity. Spring/summer migrants – yellow-faced honeyeaters, fan-tailed cuckoos, dusky woodswallows and diamond firetail finches – arrive almost daily. Some stay, others dally briefly before moving on: their exotic calls redolent of urgency, movement. Out in the paddocks, kangaroos and wallabies belly-bulge with pouched joeys, and the bleating of lambs and anxious ewes echoes across the landscape.
But such a vibrant expression of life had not been witnessed for over 150 years here on the Monaro in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. In less than a few decades since the European invasion of our region in the 1820s, introduced livestock had destroyed vibrant, long co-evolved soils and grasslands. The axe and fire then compounded this, helping to decimate woodland and forest. Later still came the eviscerations of the plough, then industrial fertilisers and finally ecocidal chemicals. Such loss remains unrecognised, for no contemporary farmers have ever had even a glimpse of what this landscape once was, or what it could be: spongy soils, hydrated grasslands, lakes and chain-of-ponds streams, all richly diverse and abounding in a variety of fungal-digging small marsupials, birds, insects and various other animals now lost.
Then there was the even greater loss. Within but three decades of the European invasion, a local Indigenous culture that had been thriving for over 25,000 years faded away, initially through massacre and displacement, later via ‘relocation’ and finally by a ‘writing out’ of mind and history.
I grew up an only child. My mother died when I was five, and I barely remember her, as little was said about her. Despite my loss, I was gloriously able to roam free across the grasslands and bush of our 4,000 acre farm. I became a keen ornithologist and nature lover. Reflecting on my awakening biophilia, I am sure that this time spent in nature as a child was a significant solace for my early loss.
Then, when I was twenty-two, my father had a heart attack and I returned from university, where I was studying zoology, to manage the farm. I knew little about farming and so I sought the best advice from experts and read widely. The experts included scientists, agronomists, Department of Agriculture advisers and leading local farmers: all fully committed to modern industrial farming. And I became a competent and conventional industrial farmer.
Our farm’s operations revolved around merino sheep for wool and breeding other kinds of sheep and cattle for meat. These animals had to be fed, and I took pride in aggressive tillage of our ancient soils and remnant native grasslands, along with the sowing of so-called improved or introduced grasses, legumes as well as forage crops like cereals and brassicas. This meant intensive use of industrial fertilisers. Later still, at the end of my industrial farming phase, came two years of spraying herbicides so I could improve my farmland – or what I had, by that stage, come to regard as an inert substrate or ‘soil box’: over which I aggressively manipulated my mechanical levers.
My induction into this industrial mindset was reinforced by the almost ubiquitous practices of my district’s peers. As I read the literature on ‘best practices’, browsed the rural press and attended field days, it was as if by osmosis – and certainly by social pressure – that I became cemented into the industrial farming paradigm.
My life had somehow become schizophrenic. I still deeply enjoyed the natural world on our farm as I studied and recorded our native flora and fauna, and I revelled in my bushwalking, rock-climbing and mountaineering. Yet I had somehow compartmentalised my mind: nature and my farm landscape stood either side of a deep chasm.
Propped on the front of my desk is a photo that is, in essence, timeless. Set against the backdrop of a crumbling rock buttress stands a young hill farmer. The photo was taken in 1978, when, aged twenty-six, I was on a mountaineering expedition to the Indian Himalayas. The farmer gazes at me with a shyly proud mien. He wears worn but natty red-and-blue-striped trousers, an old coat and a coloured wool beanie. He is carrying a wooden ard, or scratch plough: the ploughing implement first used by humans in the area known as the Fertile Crescent, where Western agriculture evolved.
The base of the plough is perhaps three feet long, made of a triangular piece of wood and pointed at the front. Two vertical wooden insertions protrude from it. The first piece, slotted midway along the ard’s base, bends forty-five degrees forwards and is around six feet long and notched at the end. This is the draft pole, where a primitive harness can be attached to either a bovine or human. The second insertion, slotted near the back, is a vertical piece of around three feet with a thin handle added to the top. This is the stilt, designed for a human to control the plough horizontally, or tilt it as it is dragged through the earth, scratching a single furrow.
Some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the forerunner to ploughing or tilling – to the ard – was the domestication of edible seeds from grasslands in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Closely associated was the domestication of sheep and goats. Then, following early slash-and-burn agriculture, tillage technology evolved and the ard was the breakthrough. It was the next step in what was to become an 8,000-year process of technological and cultural revolution leading to modern human civilisation and, eventually, to the Anthropocene.
While modern machines used for tillage, seeding, fertilising and spraying chemicals appear a far cry from the simple ard, they all do something fundamentally destructive. A process of degradation occurs each time the earth is disturbed, turned over and, nowadays, poisoned. Vegetation is disrupted or killed; biota and structure are destroyed; carbon is released; and the living soil is opened to the elements. The soil dries out, and the sun’s heat kills further soil biology. Soil particles, loose and friable, blow away in the wind or wash away with the rains. Over time, this leads to desertification.
In the Fertile Crescent, the original grasslands were diverse and grew from healthy, spongy, absorbent soils. The great river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates contained abundant alluvial soil, and most of the lands around the Mediterranean were forested. Within a few millennia, overgrazing began to simplify, and then destroy, the grasslands. Misguided human irrigation techniques (too much flooding and poor drainage, excessive evaporation of stored water) led to salinisation of the great rivers’ soils, and tree felling for shipbuilding, construction and agriculture denuded the forests.
In nations that were once so rich in grasslands, woodlands and forests, all are now largely desert, constantly afflicted by drought and attendant social conflict. All this is because humanity still seems not to have understood that the fundamental resource on which our livelihoods, civilisations and very existence depend is a living soil.
The ard stands for an extraordinary journey of human cultural evolution, but what followed its invention was inexorable destruction. Research shows that over geological time, through natural erosion, soil is produced at the rate of only inches per millennia. But today, across the world, soil erosion caused by humans occurs at a minimum of twenty times the geological rate.
When heavy rains occur or when dust blows, erosion rates become higher still because of bare fallows and overgrazing: inches of soil per decade or two. This is a key reason why the average duration of civilisations (except in such fertile river valleys as the Nile) has only been 800 to 1,000 years: or thirty to thirty-eight human generations. This ‘graveyard of empires’ includes those of Mesopotamia, the regions of Lebanon and Syria, Carthage, ancient Greece and Rome, Nabataea, Phoenicia, the Indus Valley, and a number of civilisations in Central and South America. Well over twenty great civilisations through history fell because they lost their soils and could no longer feed their populations. The death of island cultures due to the destruction of soil and its nourishing forests mirrors these in microcosm, such as Easter Island and Mangaia in the South Pacific. Our modern industrial civilisation has soil erosion rates of an order of magnitude greater than any civilisation of the past. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has confirmed in its 2015 ‘Report on the Status of the World’s Soil Resources’ that agriculture has degraded 5 of 13.4 billion hectares (or 37 per cent) available for agriculture globally. Alarmingly, given that soil is the lifeblood of human society, this report confirmed that between 24 and 40 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost globally every year.
However, the accelerating rates of soil erosion in recent centuries have been largely dismissed because they are not as dramatic as ice ages, or comets impacting Earth. They are just as deadly on a planetary scale, but only a handful of people have tried to raise the alarm.
In the early 1970s while mountaineering in New Zealand, I came across large areas of red ice on Aoraki/Mount Cook’s Tasman Glacier. The red came from millions of tonnes of soil that, during the drought of the mid 1930s, had become airborne as powerful winds swept across Australia’s vast rangelands, drawing the soil up into the jet stream to travel over 4,000 kilometres. Not accidentally, Australia’s ‘dust bowl’ of that time was contemporaneous with that of the United States and occurred for the same reason: inappropriate ploughing of once-vibrant grasslands and woodlands, combined with overgrazing and inconvenient weather.
But we haven’t learned. Covering the front page of Melbourne’s Sun Herald on 8 May 2019 is a photo of a broiling, dark-red dust storm, reaching thousands of feet high into the black of the sky. It is captured advancing like a towering blanket towards the city of Mildura and, beneath the headline wall of dust, the accompanying article implies the drought is to blame.
However, in recent decades there has emerged a bright and hopeful light in the ancient field of agriculture. At this millennial moment of Saharan heat, of Amazonia ablaze and the loss of billions of tonnes of Greenland ice into our briny oceans, new but also ancient forms of agriculture are rapidly emerging. Instead of destroying soil, these practices recreate soil and the natural systems on which it depends.This movement is increasingly recognised as ‘regenerative agriculture’. And for me, the realisation, nay epiphany, that there was another way to farm came late in my farming career.
From 1979 to 1983, rainfall on our farm more than halved. Through dry winter months and clear skies, frosts grew until pipes burst in ceilings and water troughs. The wind blew constantly, and dust with it, while sheep walked the fence lines, incessantly bleating.
For me, as a naturalist, the pain was doubled. There were no vibrant grasslands left in which quail could play hide-and-seek; no undisturbed secret nooks for them to swivel in delicately cupped dust hollows late into the evening; no insects to tangle in my hair and around my eyes at night as I rode the motorbike to turn off overworked water pumps; or skylarks singing from invisible perches hovering high above in an empty sky. On our moonscaped paddocks it was as if the natural world had fled in disgust – leaving me, I now realise, with a repressed sense of guilt.
But I doggedly fought on, knowing no other approach. We bought semi-trailer-loads of grain, one after the other, to feed the sheep, as our debt grew ever higher. In the exhaustion of trying to fight a drought, I did not realise I was depressed. But the rains did eventually come, and the world exploded into life – the birds, insects, ants and echidnas returning or re-emerging. With this renewal of life and busyness, the pain of that first big drought quickly faded.
To an outsider it may not seem appreciably difficult, practically, for an individual farmer to switch operations to an alternative, regenerative agricultural approach. But it is. Overthrowing the lifetime habits of mechanical intervention and industrial agriculture, of generations of inherited practice, is extraordinarily hard. I was painfully reminded of this recently when a friend of mine, clearing out his desk, unearthed an old article in the rural paper the Land from 1987. It featured me in a piece about another drought just four years after my first experience.
The headline read eight-year curse. The article described me feeding grain to our stock during our district’s ‘thirteenth month of drought declaration’ so I could protect my valuable merino sheep genetics. The author records me ‘refusing to cut any corners’, complaining about ten dry winters, and running up a feed debt as I pinned my hopes on ‘a good spring’.
The article speaks volumes. To me at that time, nature, perversely, still seemed to be the enemy. I was going to ‘defend’ and ‘fight’ this drought. I would force my land to run the stock, irrespective of damage to ecosystems and bank balance. As environmental writer George Seddon once noted: ‘Drought is a problem of perception, applied when Nature has failed to meet our expectations.’
And of course, ‘nature’ fails to meet our expectations when we expect the impossible from it without understanding how it works. Scores of books and hundreds of scientific papers have been written on this subject – a subject that boils down to the power of paradigms. I would eventually end up doing a PhD and writing a book on the subject, but, in essence, the power of a society’s culture and prevailing philosophy is what determines how we manage our landscapes and how we regard ‘nature’.
European settlers arriving at the ancient land of Australia brought with them a world view that had evolved following the scientific, industrial and capitalist revolutions of the seventeenth century and later. Incorporated in their prevailing philosophy was the idea that Indigenous peoples were lesser beings; that the ancient, highly leached continent and its soils and systems would behave like the young, rich, post-glacial environments of north-western Europe – and that the weather and climate would behave likewise: soft and safe, with regular rain on rich soils: not dry, harsh and riven by regular droughts. Reinforcing this were the cultural farming habits of untold generations of northern European farmers.
Tragically, these expectations persist today and the cost has been vast landscape degradation, millions of hectares of dryland salinity (the build-up of salt in non-irrigated areas), and hundreds of millions of tonnes of topsoil either washed away or sent into the stratosphere towards New Zealand. In less than 200 years Australia has suffered a 50 per cent loss in forest cover and massive extinction rates of biota. It is now estimated there are 29 million hectares of dryland salinity.
Today, I am aghast at my earlier thinking, but for the vast majority of farmers, the deeply embedded industrial metaphor is reinforced by government policy, societal thinking, university and agricultural college teaching, and constant reinforcement in the media. Added to all this is enormous pressure from agronomists and, of course, the powerful agrichemical and other multinational agricultural companies.
By the time I had come through my first big droughts, I knew things weren’t right, but did not yet know how to fix them. I reflected on my earlier farming days in the mid 1970s, and recalled examples of how I had overgrazed my land and ploughed a sandy paddock on a steep hillside, which was subsequently gutted by a storm. For the first time I felt shame and remorse at what was a thoughtless gambler’s punt, feelings that grew when I traversed large areas of Australia, visiting clients who bought rams from our merino sheep stud. Over twenty years, working with scientists and leaders in the Italian and British textile industry, our family had evolved a unique strain of merino sheep that was resistant to the savage blowfly that plagued Australian sheep farmers, and they produced a fine wool for the elite fabric market. Needless to say, we weren’t welcomed by either the scientists who dominated alternative breeding research, or the extremely conservative and backward-looking merino industry and its strong power base going back 180 years.
Clients who did buy our sheep were of the ‘early adopter’ variety – innovators and freethinkers – and I noticed a number had begun adopting some regenerative agriculture approaches. In time, I discovered there was a group of ecologically oriented farmers across the nation who had weathered the recent droughts with ease by treasuring their capital base – their landscapes – through sensitive, flexible, ecocentric management. These farmers were landscape managers who sought to heal and empower the natural processes of their landscape. It was then I finally realised – with a shock – that I was landscape illiterate: that I couldn’t read, sense or understand how living landscapes functioned.
On these visits to clients I discovered a multitude of new techniques and thinking, some of them refinements of old methods, others, little less than revolutionary. Along with new forms of regenerative cropping – new tillage methods, integrating livestock into the crop rotations and eliminating industrial inputs – I encountered the movement of holistic grazing begun by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory and now adopted all over the world. In simple terms, this practice attempts to mimic the positive impact of creating healthy grasslands that the giant African migratory animal herds exerted in the past. This mimicking is done through the clever use of high-density animal grazing and regular movement and planning by farmers. There is a plethora of new thinking around the use of trees and shrubs, and constantly evolving practices in the regenerative use of water. Approaches that enhance landscape through integrated design include permaculture and permagardening. Permaculture is a worldwide movement that originated in Australia, and which uses the patterns of natural ecosystems to grow healthy food and fibre in sustainable human communities, based around fundamental elements of design. Permagardening is a spin-off of this, and involves sustainable, biointensive agriculture on small areas of land to create gardens that last all year, and that, through high biodiversity, offer high yield and high nutrition.
Some of these techniques had been advocated by luminaries such as Charles Darwin in his 1881 book on earthworms; romantics like Goethe’s protégé Rudolf Steiner and his theory of biodynamics; and a group of early-twentieth-century thinkers in organic agriculture, including Albert Howard and Robert McCarrison, who had learned from a culture of Indian subcontinental agriculture going back millennia.
Late one day, I left a farm with my head spinning from what I had just witnessed. Dianne and Ian Haggerty now farmed over 45,000 acres, having begun just twenty years before with a sizeable debt on 1,600 acres. Some 14,000 of these acres comprised diverse native vegetation, chock-full of extraordinary biodiversity, which they farmed according to a radical new form of cropping they called ‘Natural Intelligence Farming’. A combination of earthworm juice (vermijuice), which is microbe- and nutrient-rich, and compost extract was applied as fertiliser at planting, with added fertiliser provided by the dung and urine of livestock grazing the cover crops and trampling the residues into the soil. This eliminated the need for chemical inputs and resulted in massive reductions in costs. The abundant microorganisms in the system degraded toxins and provided disease resistance, increasing production and enhanced nutrient-rich and healthy grain quality in even the toughest of landscapes. This system and others like it have the potential to transform agriculture across the planet.
It was to take one more world-view challenge before I finally made the shift to a new regenerative farming approach. A small group of expert ornithologists and native plant botanists from Canberra and other local areas had come for a visit to help catalogue our native birds, animals and plants. Included in their group was a local Aboriginal man whom I had not met before. Of quiet demeanour, he initially said little as we drove up to a large patch of bush atop our farm.
It was only after a couple of hours, which had been dominated by the naturalists’ leader expounding on every species we passed, giving the Latin names for each one, that I found myself alone with the Aboriginal man, who had remained on the edge of the group. His name was Rod Mason, and he was a direct descendant of the Ngarigo: the Indigenous Nation which had occupied our region for over 25,000 years. Of gentle manner and humility, he was, I subsequently learned, a senior law man.
We chatted quietly while the others moved off, and I soon discovered that Rod had both a wicked sense of humour and an extraordinary knowledge of the natural world that was radically different from my own and that of the other ‘experts’ in the visiting group. To Rod, each plant, insect, animal and bird had its unique name, but also a beloved persona. He saw all of them as if they were distinct, personally known individuals, with distinct identities and idiosyncrasies. As our friendship deepened in the ensuing years, I realised he was gently revealing an entirely different world view from that of Western and Linnaean science which reached back millennia, with stories of animals now extinct and of their relationships and connections with one another. For Rod, the rocks, trees, birds and other fauna, along with certain natural spirits, had a place and a story in an existence where each element and creature, through being deeply known and cared for, played a crucial role in sustaining life and the regional ecology.
Occasionally, Rod also shared with me painful stories of early European arrival in the 1820s, 30s and 40s; of the unacknowledged massacres (in one case, he was even able to name a police sergeant who had issued government shells to the white settlers who carried out the murders); of the mustering of Ngarigo people into concentration camps; and then finally their trans-shipment to locations far from their traditional country and ancestral connections.
Some years after our first meeting, Rod and I sat high on the side of a hill under an old snow gum, gazing down across our landscape to the coastal range. In the middle distance was a 200-acre ephemeral lake, named on European maps ‘Buckley’s Lake’ after an early white settler. At that moment it was typically dry – just a large expanse of black, capped soil. In my lifetime it had rarely been full. Rod quietly told me its ancient name was Bundawindirri, and that it was a sacred lake, where the spirits of his people both arrived and departed from Earth.
As we talked, Rod told me how, in the 1860s, his great-grandfather had speared a jabiru stork on Lake Bundawindirri; that it had been covered in flocks of magpie geese, and that overhead vast mobs of grey-and-yellow budgerigars had swooped about, glinting in the sunlight. The fauna and flora he began to describe now only exist 2,240 kilometres away in the tropical north of Australia.
Drawing on his powerful cultural memory, Rod then carefully described a landscape that, only 170 years before white settlement, was totally different. There had been no incised creeks or steep banks. In their place were spongy, moist grasslands, woodlands, forests and river valleys and lakes, all fully hydrated and connected from top to bottom down our vast continent. On most days in summer and winter, mist and fog would have hung around until near midday. I realised he was painting a picture of massive ecological change, wrought initially over just a few decades, then subsequently and savagely escalated by the mouths and hooves of badly managed sheep and cattle – and by axe, gun, rabbit and plough.
Rod went on to describe how his people overwintered on the coast, then arrived up on our Monaro tableland in spring. The Ngarigo people were the famous moth-hunters who, along with other Indigenous Nations, moved into the Snowy Mountains from November to April to feast on bogongs. These jelly-bean-sized moths, a relic of the ice ages, annually migrate from as far as southern Queensland, over 1,000 kilometres away, to aestivate (the reverse of hibernation) in the cool of summer under granite rocks in the dark. For the Aboriginal peoples they were a rich and nourishing food. Rod said that after burning off the hair and wings, his ancestors then mashed the moths into a rich and delicious paste called Dubbal.
I said to Rod: ‘So you came up for the bogong moths?’ He just smiled. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They were the final bonus. We came to this country here – Narrawallee, the Big Grass Country – to hunt the big grass birds: the plains bustards, the bush turkeys, emu, the big pigeons, curlew and others. On our way up here and into the mountains, and especially going back before winter, we carefully burned country; and we gardened, to manage our different resources: our orchards, our herbaries and pharmacies, and the special riparian areas around lakes, rivers and swamps. We were always managing, Charlie. We created patterns and mosaics; lovely meadows where we hunted kangaroo and wallaby, and dug for yam daisies. It all needed managing.’
Before us, 1,000 sheep or more were cutting across the pulverised black soil of Lake Bundawindirri, raising a large dust cloud. Rod looked down at his hands, then back at me. The anguish in his eyes caused me to clasp his shoulder, but I felt totally useless.
It was then that I realised I had to change my way of farming. I assiduously researched and visited leading regenerative farmers and adopted their ecologically sympathetic grazing and biodiversity management practices. Within a few years I had dispersed our beloved merino sheep stud and accelerated our native vegetation planting and protection. Rod had shown me not just what was lost, but what was possible.
One Saturday morning, a few years after I had met Rod, our family formalised our change of heart and held a large clearing sale of all our industrial farm machinery: a large tractor, various old ploughs and tillage implements, a range of seeders and combines; our only spray rig; drought feeding carts and grain self-feeders for sheep. All this gear represented the past: domination, poison and harm. I knew some of our neighbours were puzzled at our actions, but I didn’t care. Somehow, a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. We had scuttled our boats and were now fully committed to an exciting but as yet uncharted journey. The benefits of shifting to an ecologically simpatico farming approach continued to build. By increasing ground cover and soil health through holistic grazing, and planting over 50,000 mixed native trees and shrubs of local provenance, landscape functionality soon followed. One obvious benefit was the cessation of grasshopper plagues. Since the 1920s, every five to seven years our farm had been denuded by millions of these little wingless grasshoppers who ate everything in their way. They even ate the green paint off veranda posts and green patterns on tablecloths hanging on the clothes line. The cost of these recurring attacks was incalculable because the plagues had regularily plunged us into virtual drought. This meant lost production, increased fodder costs, less environmental resilience.
Now, with good ground cover and a higher soil moisture profile, the adult grasshoppers have no large areas of bare ground in which to lay their eggs, and the in-ground moisture enables nematodes to predate any egg beds. With increased grassland diversity and enhanced native plant corridors and mosaic patches, there has been an appreciable increase in grasshopper predators: reptiles, small and large insectivorous birds, including large mobs of crows, and insects, including a wide variety of praying mantises, parasitic wasps and spiders.
Just the other day I was out at dawn with my sheepdogs, high up on a hill. Spread below me, as the eastern sky began to change from pink to apricot, was a waving grassland bedecked in silk: glistening spiderwebs, virtually one to each plant, dew-dropped in silver and orange.
In 2017 Paul Hawken, one of the world’s leading social and environmental activists of the last few decades, edited the publication Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. The title is taken from the atmospheric term for ‘that point in time at which greenhouse gases peak and begin to decline on a year-to-year basis’. Meticulously researched, Drawdown posits one hundred substantive solutions to the challenge of excessive, Anthropocene-linked carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The book is about hope and remarkable existing solutions to combat the Anthropocene: solutions that, in Hawken’s words, ‘lead to regenerative economic outcomes that create security, produce jobs, improve health, save money, facilitate mobility, eliminate hunger, prevent pollution, restore soil, clean rivers, and more.’
Drawdown includes eighty methods of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, each accompanied by calculations, in gigatons, of their impact on total atmospheric CO2 reduction. Out of the top twenty methods, ten are regenerative agriculture techniques. When I combined these methods, I discovered that regenerative agriculture is the outright leader in sequestering carbon (with far more than double the impact and amount of the next best method, re-engineering refrigeration). The emerging practices of a healthy ecological agriculture can make significant headway in our greatest of all challenges – the environmental and climate change crises of the Anthropocene.
I find it increasingly difficult to grasp the enormity and challenge of these times. When in doubt or turmoil, I walk our farm. Recently I set out to take a mob of sheep down a laneway to our woolshed. Attracted by a splash of green on a hillside, I left my sheepdog to hold the tail of the mob, and climbed the fence to examine a clump of ferns protruding from the crevice of a granite rock. The rock ferns (Cheilanthes) are a reminder of a moist Gondwanan history when Australia was still linked to Antarctica and South America, where their ancestors appeared 360 or so million years ago. The granite boulders themselves hark back even earlier. Weathered, knobbly, grey-white and moss-encrusted, these ancient granite tors were laid down somewhere between 390 and 420 million years ago.
I noticed the boulder had a horizontal crevice midway along its northern end. This made the mossy grey rock resemble some antediluvian dinosaur, grinning as it basked in the sun. As I drew closer, miniature dinosaur descendants – Cunningham’s skinks – scuttled from their sun-baking and squeezed back into the crevice. Here, I reflected, were the spawn of Jurassic times basking on granite even older.
At the base of the rock, a lone bull ant spied me as he went about his business. Around 2.5 centimetres long, this fearless ant, unfazed by my size, reared up, exposing his sharp pincers and a row of teeth. Anyone who has spent time in the bush will be aware of the excruciatingly painful bite these little blokes inflict with a modified ovipositor sting at the end of their body: a sting that can sometimes kill a human if anaphylactic shock is triggered. A member of the genus Myrmecia or bulldog ants (of which Australia contains all but one of the ninety or so known species), this red bull ant was true to his ferocious and aggressive kind as he advanced on me.
We know now that, like the grey scuttling skinks, the bull ant is a Mesozoic creature. He belongs to the most ancient of all ant genuses, his ancestors tracing back to early Cretaceous times, some 112 million years ago in Gondwanan Brazil, and the ant’s archaic heritage is revealed in his primitive anatomy and social life. This is because, unlike most modern ants which reside in huge colonies, bull ants not only live in small colonies with no subcastes, but the queen is similar to the female workers or gamergates. But these little guys are not primitive creatures. Their compound eyes enable acute colour vision, and they also possess sophisticated broad-spectrum, antimicrobial glandular secretions. Such complex attributes do not evolve in moments.
It made me think of the fifth and last great extinction event on Earth, which occurred at the end of the Cretaceous epoch, some 65 million years ago, when a massive bolide collided with Earth.
Luckily, the bull ant’s ancestors must have been deep underground. And this happenstance saved them from the impact’s accompanying shock-wave blast, heat pulse and the killingly high carbon dioxide concentrations, not to mention the resulting earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and massive tsunamis. Somehow, these ancient ants also survived the acid rain caused by the release of gases, as well as the release of mutation-causing chemicals (pyrotoxins).
While North and South America felt the main shock of the impact, the global temperature spike, the poisoned atmosphere and the ensuing decades-long cold darkness ensured a global extinction event. It was not, however, total. Ironically, for Australia, this extinction event marked the phoenix-like rise of distinct Australian land flora, fauna and associated co-evolved ecosystems. While 100 per cent of all non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out, along with 75 per cent of lizards and marsupials, some life survived. Within 5 to 10 million years this life had radiated and diversified, and included in this cohort were the ancestors of the feisty bull ant, with his indomitable ‘will to live’.
Our Earth is now experiencing its sixth great extinction. Millions of species are rapidly dying out due to human agency. There is a high chance we ourselves could be collateral damage: that we too may end our days gasping for oxygen, our body systems collapsing under excessive heat and radiation, or from thirst and civil strife. Our inertia in the face of the Anthropocene brings to mind the fabled Icarus: we believe we are immune from natural forces, including an ever-hotter sun.
At this time, I am putting my money on the bull ant as the most likely to survive the next great Earth-systems challenge. For the bull ant knows only how to ferociously fight for life. By contrast, we humans appear maladapted to extended life on this planet, as we continue to exterminate the very ecosystems that sustain us.
But we still have a fighting chance. There are cracks in the dominant, destructive pattern of our presence here on Earth; perhaps the Covid-19 crisis will trigger a more sustainable economy and way of living; and in pockets of the globe, down quiet rural roads, along urban footpaths and in backyards, farmers and city folk alike are finding ways to become nurturers and enablers of nature and its self-organising systems.
By transforming what we think of as ‘civilised’ agriculture as first furrowed by the ard, through to a new form of regenerative agriculture, we may find a pathway to sustained life that would complete a 10,000 year cycle of redemption: from ard to absolution.
Image © Jørgen Håland