Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth
by Charles Massy
St Lucia, QLD, University of Queensland Press, 2017.
Book Review by Janine Banks
This a big book, 500 pages, and covers a lot of territory. It is easy to read, however, so the size is not so daunting as it may be with some other books. In fact, as I’m rereading a bit as I write this, I feel like it’s almost like having a yarn with Massy. He often opens chapters and sections with a personal description of his current situation.
It is early March and the season is turning. This morning, I take the sheepdogs for a dawn walk. Below me, a long bank of fog fills the Bobundara valley, and an apricot cloud layer merges with soft azure on the eastern horizon. The air is cool on my hands and face, the grasslands netted by hundreds of thousands of cobwebs strung across grass and fence lines, and laden with dew. Capping it all, a quarter way up the sky is the thinnest sliver of a crescent moon.
Two more paragraphs describe the extensive birdlife and vegetation he experiences on his walk, before the now disused milking shed brings back memories from his childhood in the next couple of paragraphs. He does mention again that five generations of his family have lived on that farm, just like the five pairs of resident magpies, “generations holding the same territory in joined association with five generations of my family”.
So this all makes for a pleasant read about the history and progress of regenerative farming throughout the world but particularly in Australia.
From his ranch Dimbangombe near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, wildlife ecologist Allan Savory has sparked a revolutionary grazing management system that regenerates landscape functions and complex ecological systems. He calls it holistic planned grazing, and it is having remarkable impact across many millions of acres of the world’s degraded landscapes, including on our own farm.
However, holistic planned grazing is just one form of regenerative farming.
Regenerative agriculture therefore implies more than just sustaining something, but rather an active rebuilding or regeneration of existing systems towards full health. It also implies an open-ended process of ongoing improvement and positive transformation. This can encompass the rebuilding or regeneration of soil itself, and of biodiversity more widely, the reduction of toxins and pollutants, the recharging of aquifers, the production of healthier food, clean water and air, the replacement of external inputs, and the enhancement of social capital and ecological knowledge.
Massy has traveled all over Australia visiting many farms that have shifted to regenerative farming. The body of the book is the stories of how these farmers were at the end of the line with farm health and looked for a better way, or were inspired by what they had heard or read. Massy keeps the book friendly and personal by physically describing the farmers and families, and always how much acreage they are farming and what the farm looks like. We are also told how many generations that family has lived on their farm. So we’re talking about a “mere 1,630 acres” north-east of Perth to 59,280 acres near Broken Hill, to 2.6 million acres on the Barkly Tableland in NT and everything in between and all over.
Permaculture gets a dozen pages at the end of the Human-Social Landscape function chapters. Massy does visit David Holmgren and gives a history of the beginnings of permaculture with David and Bill Mollison. He also gives a fairly detailed description of David’s parent’s religious and political beliefs and talks about that time as the “post 1960’s counter-culture” era, and the beginnings of the environmental movement.
Massy has divided the book into the four essential ecosystem processes of solar energy, water cycle, soil mineral cycle and the symbiosis of these dynamic ecosystems. The fifth, of course, is our role, the human-social role. So the nearly 30 farms that he has visited are distributed according to these various ecosystem processes and the issues they have worked with healing and developing their regenerative farms.
I read at least two thirds of the book before getting a little disillusioned. The brevity of the permaculture section was disappointing. And the realization that there is virtually no mention of fruit and vegetable farming. I think the following is one of the 2 times he mentions small farms:
The crucial point, however, is that what we farmers carry in our heads determines the health of a landscape, whether that land comprises a 125-acre (fifty-hectare) suburban ‘block’, a one million-acre (405,000-hectare) pastoral lease in the Kimberley or an entire continent.
It’s all about cattle and sheep and maybe some grain crops like wheat . I guess he wrote about what he knows. He also says that you cannot be healthy if you don’t eat meat! As a vegetarian for many years of my life, I totally disagree. And he also mentions the “looming shortage of world protein” by which I guess he means everyone must have meat.
However there is a huge amount of information in this book and it is very well written and I guess I have to say, most of it is quite inspiring. He even includes some lovely poetry and there is also an excellent bibliography. Knowing that folks have realized what they were doing wasn’t working and then turning it all around so their land becomes more a part of the healthy natural world and their production increases because they’re fitting in with nature instead of destroying the planet makes it a good read. I certainly recommend “Call of the Reed Warbler” to everyone.