Call of the Reed Warbler—Charles Massy
Occasionally, too rarely, a book falls into your hands that sets you back on your heels, and suddenly in your mind lights are flashing and bells are ringing. Alarm bells and hallelujah bells. The voice is not strident, but a lyrical, humble and learned tone, and, as I discovered, a voice with an unmistakable Aussie twang and slow drawl of a thoughtful farmer.
Charles (Charlie) Massy is a fifth-generation farmer from the Monaro. He is also an academic attached to the ANU, having returned to university in his late fifties a few years back, to pursue a PhD in Human Ecology. Now, further down the track, he has become a voice, a writer, of immense gentle power and erudite persuasion.
His move to academia eight years back was prompted by concern and observation of the degradation of his own as well other landscapes, and the ongoing challenge of an inherited stewardship that continues in much of the country, to be devastating and destructive. Presumably, being the modest man he is, he did not expect to find an immediate solution.
Yet, like Alice down the rabbit hole, it seems once one starts wondering, observing, asking questions, seeking answers, doggedly persisting, following one trailblazer after another, it all begins to link up and point to the inevitable: humans have screwed up the landscape.
But this is not an accusatory, depressing, nor trudging academic tome to bore one, but is, simply, uplifting. It has totally changed how I look at my country.
Firstly, it is a beautiful book to read. Lyrical in a manly way. I’ve always found that men on the land appear reluctant romantics. When in fact, they are passionate men who observe and rely on the minutiae of their environment to guide their farming practices as much as they appreciate the beauty around them.
However, these are men who have followed in generations of footsteps harking back to the first settlers in their farming methodology. Which, Charlie illustrates so tellingly, has been quite the opposite to how the Australian landscape should be managed by its farmers. In the book he acknowledges his own mistakes, and admits to sometimes farming by trial and error over the decades.
Charlie journeyed around Australia to visit farmers who have come to the same conclusion of managing the land by what is now becoming the new paradigm: regenerative agriculture.
Suddenly it’s like the way some women feel when pregnant, everywhere you go there’s a pregnant woman, with whom one exchanges secret smiles.
Across the country, people on the land are coming to the same conclusion that there is a new and better, more productive and healthy way to farm in Australia, that is, with nature. According to scientists and thinkers on such matters, it seems we have moved into a new epoch, that of the Anthropocene, human-caused, as humans influence, indeed determine, the future health and survival of life systems on our planet.
Charles Massy subtitles his book, ‘A New Agriculture, A New Earth’.
He points out that the problem with traditional industrial agriculture—through practices such as burning vegetation for land clearing, using fossil fuels (in fertilisers and chemicals, and to power farm machinery), overgrazing, ploughing and fallowing—emits, rather than stores, carbon.
But it need not be this way.
‘Basically we need to step aside and let mother nature do her thing,’ Charlie tells me as we sit on stage at the Perth Writers’ Festival. And he proceeds to explain ‘regenerative agriculture’, which can reverse this carbon-emitting signature of industrial agriculture to a riveted audience.
White settlers and farmers have been doing the opposite to how the land was managed by Indigenous caretakers. Since European settlement, sheep have eaten the heart out of the country, cattle have crushed the fragile soil, waterways are choked with weeds, trees are still being felled, and the soil, built up over thousands of years, in many places has dried of nutrients and simply blown or been flooded away. (Note to Queensland. Stop those land clearing laws being redacted!)
Charlie is first to admit he followed the same practices, but once there came a chink in his thinking he set out on a journey to learn what others had achieved and discovered in their methods of regenerative farming, a movement of great hope as twenty or thirty years of work has proven it to be successful. He observed farmers stumbling upon the same path, and he learned of others coming to similar conclusions – such as Allan Savory in Zimbabwe, and the likes of our own Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe and historian Tom Griffiths.
The flow-on effects from these regenerative farmers is a movement to produce healthy land that grows healthy food and to raise an awareness in urban dwellers of its necessity. The influence, even in universities, as well as in big business and among politicians, of the powerful chemical companies, one dominant indeed, could, Charlie believes, become ‘bigger than tobacco, in that it is well, killing us’.
It makes one look at the production, management, retail and consumption of food in a new light. Instinctively we know junk food and some cruel large-scale industrialised farming methods probably aren’t the healthy option, but what’s one to do when confronted by plastic wrapped food in a supermarket?
Charlie’s impeccably researched book makes one pause and think, be inspired, and see there are alternatives.
Above all it is a book of hope. There is a quiet revolution going on by farmers who ‘get it’, who see it proven, that by being on side with mother nature, erosion, dry rivers, degraded land, cruel animal husbandry, loss of habitat, mass-produced unhealthy food, can be reversed.
All it takes is a little space, and here Charlie points to the expanse between his ears, to remind ourselves to consider that agriculture is invested in nature.
There will be and are of course, those who denigrate the scientific evidence against chemicals, big industry and dismiss the heart from the equation. I believe they are in the minority. I now find a plethora of other thinkers, doers, writers, in what seems to be a new and evolving genre of ecological environmental history, philosophy and practical handbook. ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’—’should be in the back of the ute beside the pliers, the fencing strainers and the kelpie’ as farmer and author, Sam Vincent attests.
This is not a depressing book. It is beautiful to read, and I was deeply touched by its message. While scales fell from my eyes, I also shed a tear or two, at the waste, the ignorance, the well-meaning hardworking men and women on the land who have worked and lost, done it tough, yet always believed in what they were doing.
And now they learn, there is a whole new way to do things.
Charlie swallowed that bitter pill, and stoically, started again, doing things differently. He, like so many others who’ve seen it with their own eyes and been inspired, have earned their reward in seeing clean water now flowing in old dry creeks, seeing rich grasses growing where there was dust, healthy animals on healthy land, and they are achieving more with less.
So I feel great hope, where before I fretted at what my grandchildren might inherit on this earth. For, as Charles Massy observes, now he can sit by a rejuvenated creek where rushes flourish, and hear in this valley, for perhaps the first time in over 140 years or so, the call of a reed warbler. . . and he knows that its message is loud and clear.
Di Morrissey is one of Australia’s most successful novelists with 25 best-selling novels and five children’s books published.