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.