Call of the Reed Warbler

To Australians who have lived more than a few decades and travelled even occasionally outside major cities it must be apparent that the countryside has degenerated. Most obvious to us is the reduction in even ponded water, let alone flow, in the Lockyer Creek which we cross at Helidon and near Gatton on our way East to Brisbane or the coast. There is usually a little water covered in weed under the bridge at Helidon but a few kilometres downstream the dry bed of the creek is typically covered in well established grass.

Given that there are several tributary creeks running down from the hills between those points we might expect more water, rather than less, downstream. Instead the only water we are likely to see is what might be spraying from irrigation systems. Farming in the Lockyer Valley seems to involve water mining with what little gets down the creek seeping into aquifers from where it is pumped out onto crops. People need to eat and farmers need an income but might that be possible without destroying the country in the process?

I grew up in Toowoomba and from age 7 to 20 lived on a street that ran down to Lake Annand, a bit less than 3 km further down East Creek from where we live now. In those days Lake Annand was a new impoundment formed by a weir under a new bridge on Perth Street. It was mostly edged with bluestone but the bottom had not been sealed with concrete and it supported a healthy population of yabbies (freshwater crayfish) along with some small fish and waterbirds. The group of kids I played with spent a good deal of our free time on weekends and school holidays using raw meat on cotton to fish for yabbies which we took home for our mothers to cook or occasionally sold to somebody as bait for a fishing expedition.

East Creek fed the lake at its top end, running in through an extensive patch of reeds, and ran out over the weir and away to join the Condamine River and ultimately reach the sea via the Murray River. The creek ran year round. Sometimes it slowed to a trickle but I don’t recall that it ever stopped entirely. When we were not catching yabbies we dug in the grey clay banks of the creek to build dams and other structures to control the flow until it overwhelmed our engineering efforts and burst down the creek.

Now, by contrast, the lake is sealed with concrete to prevent water loss and is periodically drained for the silt to be scraped out. When it is full it is appreciated by the local duck population but does not look healthy. Except in good wet seasons after rain there is little or no flow in East Creek so whatever is deposited by the ducks tends to stay in the pond between flushes and scrapes.

The creeks that flow through Toowoomba are on the western side of the great divide and part of the Murray-Darling basin. As kids we also spent time on the other side of the divide in the headwaters of the Lockyer and its tributaries. We hiked off the edge of the range and down to a valley behind Withcott where the creeks had waterholes big enough to swim in. We usually left Toowoomba from the Curzon & Jellicoe Streets corner and often visited a trickling waterfall just 100 m or so down the hill into the bush. Other small streams ran off the hills to feed the holes that we swam in.

Over the years that we hiked the upper reaches of the Lockyer Valley, mostly as small groups on Scouting activities, we were always able to source clean water from flowing streams. If we were far enough down a valley there was sufficient water to bathe. Further down there were rumoured to be holes with platypus though I don’t think I ever saw one.

Based on recent drive by observation and limited walking, it seems that few of those streams are flowing now. It’s tempting to blame climate change. Perhaps that is part of the reason but I doubt it is the whole story.

0003929_300That childhood background came to mind when, late last year on my regular morning walk along East Creek, I listened to a podcast episode of Late Night Live in which Phillip Adams was talking to Charles Massy, author of Call of the Reed Warbler. I was intrigued by talk of how Massy and other farmers had managed to make substantial progress on restoring the land they farmed while often increasing productivity with less effort. I was interested enough to add the book to my list of things I should/might read and eventually put it on my request list with Toowoomba Region Libraries where I found myself on a queue to borrow what was evidently a popular book.

The library robocall to say it was available came while I was still a couple of hundred pages short of finishing Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. ‘No matter’, I thought, ‘this is not likely to be a big book.’ I was wrong. It was 500+ pages and, presumably because of the long wait list, the borrowing period was 2 weeks rather than the usual 4. I eventually managed to finish it and get it back with a marathon reading effort over the 2 days before it was due.

It is an interesting read, though sufficiently repetitive in places, and laden with unnecessary details like physical descriptions of people, that it could probably be shorter by 50 to 100 pages. The overall message is that humans and other animals, including our microbiota, have co-evolved with the plants and microorganisms in the soil. That has resulted in complementarities that are disrupted by industrial agriculture. Although recent developments have intensified the use of industrial chemicals, all agriculture from the earliest times has taken us down the same path to imbalance with negative effects on the health of humans and the environment. Massy proposes regenerative agriculture as the solution and provides examples of multiple approaches in Australia and elsewhere that have demonstrated the possibilities. The improvements described are persuasive.

The major section of the book deals with regenerating what Massy calls the five landscape functions – solar energy absorbed through photosynthesis, water cycle, soil-mineral cycle, dynamic ecosystems, and human-social. In most of the examples he offers for each the key seems to be to replicate the effect of migratory animal herds as found in Africa through short term grazing followed by long rest periods in which plants grow and soil disturbed by animals is able to absorb organic material and ultimately hold more water for longer. In some cases cropping has been successfully done over the same land as grazing and a proportion of land is typically turned over to trees and shrubs that support more diverse wildlife while helping with water management. Regeneration is based on his understanding of the living world as a complex creative system which naturally tends toward a state of dynamic balance. That is consistent with recent thinking about chaos theory, complexity and similar threads around emergent phenomena.

In the final section Massy makes a case against industrial agriculture, especially the prevalence of glyphosate and other chemicals that he argues destroy the productivity of the soil and endanger human health through multiple generations by epigenetic pathways. Most of that appears to have some reasonable basis in science but occasional references to dowsing and similar ideas have less foundation. He then argues that we need a transformation of mind that merges the original Organic mind of primitive people with the best elements of the post-Enlightenment Mechanical mind to produce an Emergent mind.

For me that has echoes of Teilhard de Chardin and his theories of the evolution of consciousness. As has been noted in at least one review of the book, there is a quasi-religious element in some parts. Although there is no specific reference to Genesis, the ascription of degeneration of the environment and the human condition to the advent of agriculture and knowledge represented by the Mechanical mind has echoes of the Fall of Adam and Eve through eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Simple observation of the local environment and reading about the decline in health of the population is enough to persuade me that there are problems with current approaches to food production and consumption. If a more holistic approach has any possibility of regenerating the landscape and improving health without causing starvation then it seems worth trying.