Heeding the Call

Repentance, renewal & agriculture

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters December 2019

The Expedition of Major Thomas Mitchell: a 'harbinger of mighty changes'. Mitchell's expedition passed through a verdant and well-watered land. Paintings by Eliza Tree, 2010.

In 1836, a large convoy of wagons, boats, bullocks, horses, sheep and twenty-five heavily armed men lumbered through the western region of Dja Dja Wurrung country (where I live), what is now central and western Victoria. The heavily laden wagons sank into soft, spongy topsoil more than a metre deep as they crossed vast lush grasslands and open woodlands. They passed through an ocean of grass – tall, rich, diverse and magically nutritious for the sheep – that seemed to go on and on, punctuated with frequent, clear-running, shallow, grassy creeks. The leader of this expedition, Major Thomas Mitchell – a man of the swelling self-importance so common to nineteenth century British “adventurers” – wrote rapturously of a landscape that seemed to have been providentially designed for a race of people who were subduing the globe with spectacular speed:

... a land so inviting, and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds; I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and the animals for which it seemed to be prepared.

Of course, the landscape had been designed and, although we shouldn’t leave providence out of the picture, much of what Mitchell was praising was the result of careful tending and shaping by countless generations of the First Peoples of this continent, a fact that Mitchell seemed almost willfully blind to. We do not know what the Dja Dja Wurrung people, who must have witnessed this strange convoy, thought. Did they guess that it was indeed a harbinger of mighty changes? In this present era of dangerous climate change, when so many of us are becoming anxious about the fate of the planet, we must not forget that we live in the presence of people who have seen the end of the world and yet still are here.


Driving through western Victoria today, you wouldn’t guess that it is the same landscape that Mitchell wrote about so rapturously. Topsoil? The ground is an unforgiving, hard substrate that more properly deserves to be called dirt. “Creeks” are deep erosion gullies with no water, except briefly and torridly after heavy rain. It is a landscape that radiates heat and dryness. And where there is grass, it is a sparse stubble. Many of the landscapes that we have for so long simply assumed to be typically “Australian” are in fact the product of a comparatively recent transformation whose speed and scale has been breathtaking. Yet, in another sense, what we see today are indeed typically “Australian” landscapes, if we remember that “Australia” is, by definition, the product of European conquest and colonisation.

What is now becoming evident is that the unravelling of a once bountiful landscape happened with alarming rapidity. When, in 1840, Scotsman John Robertson laid claim to a sheep run west of present-day Hamilton, he was occupying an open, well-watered, easy-to-traverse, grassy landscape with deep soil. His flocks of sheep flourished like nothing he had ever experienced before. By the time he sold up and returned home an affluent man, only fourteen years later, the ground was hard, cracked and becoming salty, the nutritious grasses were all gone and the landscape was riven by constant erosion gullies that created an almost impenetrable obstacle to a man on horseback.

After diseases and guns had wrought their first cataclysmic impact on the original cultivators and custodians of the land, it was the sheep who effected the rest of the revolution. Contrary to the standard story, however, it wasn’t so much their hooves that did the damage as their mouths. Left to graze the native pastures at leisure, sheep ate all of the sweet, deep-rooted perennial grasses that held the soft, ancient topsoil together, stored water, and held back the salt, leaving only shallow-rooted annuals of little value for pasture. And as the landscape hardened, dried, eroded and toughened, so too, perhaps, did the souls of the conquerors.

It is common to point out that Europeans simply did not understand the strange landscape, ecology and climate of the continent they had taken over. They didn’t understand how fragile were the ancient soils, how prone to salinisation, or how fickle was the ENSO (El Nino – Southern Oscillation) climate system. They didn’t know that European methods of agriculture would not work in the same way here. This is all true, but what is not adequately remembered is that when the post-1820 ‘great land grab’ began in earnest in Australia (perhaps the fastest land grab in human history), the British squatters who claimed land treated it in ways that they never treated land back home. They knowingly broke all the principles of good land management which had so revolutionised British agriculture in the preceding 150 years.

These were not ‘farmers’, people rooted in a country, in a community, in a tradition, in a history; they were the opposite. They were uprooted people who were literally on the other side of the planet from everything they loved and that provided boundaries of law, culture and relationship. Here, no matter how they rationalised their actions, they were fully conscious that they came as invaders, so it is not surprising that they experienced the land as not only alien, but hostile. Historian, Cameron Muir, has commented:

There is a dimension of ‘war’ about the way settler Australians have approached their land - understanding it as a ‘mongrel country’ rather than a functioning ecosystem […] The same society that executed massacres caused ecological degradation on the nineteenth century grasslands.

Moreover, the European colonisation of Australia differed in important ways from the concurrent colonisation of North America. There, the westward expansion was driven in large part by smallholders looking to farm and establish semi-subsistent farming communities - they were seeking a permanent home. In Australia, the first land rush was driven by men of capital looking to exploit a cheap and plentiful resource (the land) to produce a commodity (wool) that was, from the outset, destined for the international trading economy. Many had borrowed heavily and were therefore looking for a quick return. Although they were known as ‘pastoralists’, in these early years they had little interest in stewarding pasture. Rather, they were more akin to miners: they were mining the soil of its nutrient to export it overseas. Pastoralism began in Australia as an extractive industry selling into a internationalised capitalist economy.

Since that first rush for land, the history of agriculture has gone through a number of phases: the move to cropping and dairy; experiments with closer settlements of smallholder farmers; the development of large-scale irrigation and water diversion; the rise of mechanised, industrial agriculture with all its fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides; the growing role of international investors; and the recent development of genetically modified crops with their suite of new chemical applications.

Of course, on a continent this big, the experience of agriculture over the last 200 years has been complex and diverse. As with all history, there are always heroes and villains. Nevertheless, I do not think it is inaccurate to say that, on the whole, European agriculture in this continent has been an ecological catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. It has been a story characterised consistently by destruction of habitat, loss of topsoil, compaction, salinization, erosion and invasive weeds and pests. The result is that, in our own time, we live in a rapidly drying continent with collapsing river systems and the highest extinction rate on the planet; a continent where agriculture and rural communities are facing an existential threat from drought and bushfire.

Facing up to this reality is deeply confronting. It brings out the moral skeleton that is in the cupboard of all settler colonial societies - that the very existence of our nations stems from actions and choices that cannot be morally defended - and links it to present crises. We are confronted with an unresolved past and an uncertain future. To evoke an ancient prophet, we have come to a crossroads and, unless we recognise this moment of choosing, a chance to change direction, we will plunge headlong into judgement (Jer 6:16).

Repentance and Hope

All three synoptic gospels record Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the kingdom as beginning with the call to “Repent!”. This is not a call to whip ourselves into a frenzy of guilt - the Greek word used here (metanoia) means literally to change your mind. It has the connotation of seeing things in a new way, such that we begin to walk in a new direction.

The way of Jesus is predicated upon facing up to reality. In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven - a new possibility where all things are in right relationship - as being opened up by the admission of spiritual impoverishment (Matt 5:3). Contrary to the common perception of the Christian message as pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, the consistent Biblical message is that there is no hope unless we attend to what is real.

It should not come as a surprise to Christians, then, that one of the books that most clearly rings the alarm bell on the state of agriculture and ecology in this continent is also one of the most hopeful books you could read.

Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler might well be one of those rare books that is a game-changer. It is a manifesto for a new form of agriculture that can be part of the solution to restoring ecological health while also shoring up human health, broadly conceived. It is also a profoundly religious book. To my knowledge, Massy is not a professing Christian, yet his book could almost pass as a case study in the ecological worldview of the Bible. If we take seriously the idea that ‘the gospel’ is not merely some private assertion of faith but rather something that uncovers the fabric of reality, then it should not surprise us that people who are closely and humbly attentive to reality tend to come close to kingdom principles.

Massy is clear-sighted about the scale of the damage that has been done and he does not shy away from locating the causes with the violence of European conquest, the greed of our society and the reductionism and spiritual blindness of the Western scientific worldview. And yet Massy is hopeful, because he has seen a different possibility. He has been to productive and commercially viable farms where the land is being healed - not just improved for agriculture, but restored as a healthy habitat that supports ecological diversity.

Call of the Reed Warbler tells the stories of a series of Australian pioneers of what is broadly called ‘regenerative agriculture’. Massy, a farmer himself, takes us to visit farms in NSW, WA, Victoria, Queensland and the NT, where soil is being built, not washed away, where creeks and waterways are beginning to flow again, where native grasses, birds and mammals are beginning to return. What really impressed me about this book is how quickly regeneration can happen. The Soil Association used to say that it takes a thousand years to build soil; it turns out that, with the right management, it only takes about 3-4 years. Within a decade, striking transformations are possible. Within a couple of decades, wonders can be achieved.

What is called ‘regenerative agriculture’ in this book is not one thing; all the farmers whose stories are related in the book are doing different things, however they are all converging on the same core principles. And the first principle is that all have acknowledged that something was deeply wrong and that radical change was needed. Strikingly, for many of them (including Massy) this realisation came about in the form of a personal crisis during the long drought of the 1980s. Again and again, farmers related how, although they had done ‘everything right’ by the best lights of conventional agriculture, the drought exposed the lie in the promises that had been made to them. They had come to the end of the line. They realised that business-as-usual was a path to destruction and, if there was any hope, it had to lie elsewhere. In a moment of spiritual impoverishment, they became open to a new possibility. In other words, one of the central movements at the heart of Call of the Reed Warbler, is the movement of repentance.

Massy is quite clear that common to all of these farmers was not just a ‘conversion’ in terms of finding a new agricultural technique, but a moral and spiritual conversion. At the heart of their change was a transformation of what they valued and how they viewed the purpose of their lives and work. Their farms were becoming works of care which, although they still needed to be commercially viable, could never be measured in such terms. Many discovered that farming from a basis of nurturing the earth was also a more human way to farm that provided a healthier and more nurturing place for their families. A number of farmers recounted how they came to see their farms as not just functional spaces, but as works of beauty - in a sense, they were becoming artists.

Although Call of the Reed Warbler documents a variety of practices depending on the particular landscape, ecological niches and personal preferences of farmers, the results were fairly common. [See the story on Danthonia Farm in this editon for an example of regenerative practices.] Most gave significant space on their farms (one third of the farm was not uncommon) to tree planting and biodiversity, thus significantly reducing their productive space. Many reported the gradual return of native grasses and wildlife that had long been absent - sometimes for generations. The title of the book comes from an encounter the author had on a farm in WA, witnessing a reed warbler - a locally rare bird whose habitat was virtually non-existent in the area - enjoying a restored wetland.

But on the other hand, as they improved their management practices with the attendant improvement in soil health, the spaces that remained in production produced higher yields, whether of crops or livestock, and higher quality product, attracting higher prices. At the same time, as they shifted away from the treadmill of chemical inputs, they also significantly reduced the recurrent costs of their farms. The result was that despite reducing their productive space, nearly all of the documented farms either maintained their profitability (for good years) or improved upon it. But much more significantly, all of these farms were beginning to once again store water in the soil rather than letting it run off. This made them significantly more resilient in times of drought. Whereas, in good years, the regenerative farms were generally on a par with their neighbours commercially, in bad years, which in Australia are common, they far out-performed their neighbours. The end result was a more solid commercial viability in agriculture.

Moreover, not only were these farms storing water in their soil, they were also beginning to store carbon (the two are linked). A University of Melbourne study of a sheep property near Canberra managed on regenerative principles found that the farm sequestered eleven times more carbon than it emitted. Currently, agriculture is a major carbon emitter – around 14% of national green house gas emissions (GHG). But if managed along regenerative systems, agriculture could become a massive source of carbon drawdown, with the potential to sequester, by one estimate, as much as half of the nation’s GHG emissions.

Finally, alongside all of these benefits, many of the farmers whose stories are told in Call of the Reed Warbler reported that they found their farms more fulfilling places to be. More than that, in a nation everywhere facing a farm succession crisis, many reported that their children wanted to stay on the farm too. Their imagination had been captured by a creative and rewarding work that was truly worth their while.

Justice still to be done …

In one sense, Call of the Reed Warbler is a series of stories about healing and hope - healing of the land and healing of human souls. In a world of bad news, this is truly a valuable commodity. But the healing is not yet complete. Just as the book is grounded in consciousness of the amount of damage that has been done to the pre-European Australian landscape, so too it is grounded in consciousness of the massive act of dispossession that made this damage possible. For Massy, the discovery of new ways to farm in Australia was tied to a deepening appreciation of the ways that Aboriginal Australians managed the land for thousands of years previously. Books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu have revealed Aboriginal food systems that were radically more sophisticated then has generally been assumed.

The persistent ranking of indigenous Australians at the bottom of our national wellbeing indicators testifies as to how deeply the wound of dispossession runs. There is much that needs to be done to heal this wound, but I cannot shake the conviction that somehow beginning to meaningfully restore Aboriginal communities as economic and ecological land managers must be an important part of the picture …