Listening to Land

At a wedding a number of years ago, I was berated by farmer friends for choosing the vegetarian option rather than meat. They were incredulous that I, a farmer’s daughter, would betray my roots (and by extension, them), in this way. I tried explaining my reasons for my choice (industrial farming and climate change), but there was no space for a conversation, just anger and disbelief followed by jokes about eating sausages made of lettuce.

The vehemence of their response shook me. I grew up on the land. I know something of what it means to be a farmer. I know how hard it is. I know that no farmer intentionally sets out to cause damage. I know that those who grow food for others should be valued – financially and culturally – in ways they’re currently not. I know, too, that things need to change. That industrial agriculture is a broken system, benefiting a small few while wreaking havoc on soil, communities and natural systems the world over. My dad, the ex-farmer, says farmers are not necessarily unwilling to change, but that the systems they’re working within often make it hard to do so. The problem is, I reply, that we cannot afford not to change. We don’t find solutions, my dad and I, but at least we have the conversation.

It is not until I read Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, a New Earth, by regenerative farmer and author Charles Massy, that the questions of farming I’ve been pondering for years begin to make sense. The book joins the dots for me, connecting what it means to farm with what it means to live. Land, people, care. Hope, writ large. Transformation, writ larger. The book cracks my heart, too, opening it to the damage done in the name of care. When I loved our farm, I loved a compromised landscape. I hadn’t wanted to see this before. Charles Massy pulled the wool from my eyes.

THERE IS AN ENERGY in the low, rolling hills of the Monaro region of southern New South Wales. This harsh, sensuous landscape is the traditional land of the Ngarigo people, and a place where the horizon does not fold in but reaches out into what might be forever. We drive down a series of narrow dirt roads, flanked by paddocks bare as a maple in winter. Boulders recline in clusters on hillsides, and the rich, dark red/brown soil waits, as always, for rain.

I know we’ve arrived at the Massy family’s property, Severn Park, not because of the sign next to the mailbox, but because of what’s happening in the paddock surrounding it. Knee-high native grasses wave in the early morning light. Unlike the paddocks we’ve just passed, there’s no bare earth to be seen. The landscape vibrates with the thrum and buzz of insects, birds, life.

Charles Massy strides through the garden to meet us. A firm handshake and a voice that grows from the soil. Tanya, his third daughter, soon appears from house. We’ve spoken a few times on the phone and a kinship born of questions of land has already made itself known. We hug hello.

A quick cuppa and a chat in the kitchen, and Charles heads off for meetings and stock work. I arrange to spend the morning with Tanya and reconvene with them both at the homestead later in the day, after all the jobs have been done and the sun begins its return to the other side.

Landscape managers are in a unique position to have a really meaningful contribution to change. That’s both scary, in what we’re facing, but also exciting that we might be able to play a constructive role.

Charles Massy

We jump in the ute with Tanya – a farmer, writer and thinker, who moved back to work on the family property in 2019 – and head for the hills. It’s early September, too early in such a cool climate for spring’s abundance. The grass is short and laden with dew. The wind is brutal, pulling streams of clouds across the sky, causing noses to drip and toes to numb.

‘When I was growing up, being a farmer wasn’t really an option. You just didn’t see women doing it. It took me a long time to think of stepping into it.’ Tanya tells me it was the land that pulled her back. ‘I was living up in Tennant Creek working across remote Indigenous communities as a music and dance teacher. Being in such a powerful landscape and seeing community connection to land really got me thinking about the country I grew up on, how the path I was potentially following would take me a long way from it.’

Returning to southern Australia, Tanya enrolled in a masters in agricultural science at Melbourne University in 2012. Two years previously, the family had sold part of their farm and had ‘a Cortés burning the boats moment’, according to Charles. ‘We sold everything – industrial machines, drought feeding gear. That was a big moment, we were fully committing to holistic grazing. I didn’t want the temptation, and we needed the cash.’

While Tanya was studying agriculture at university – ‘The Dean had previously worked for Monsanto and it was pro-GM’ – Charles was traipsing around Australia talking to regenerative farmers for his PhD in Human Ecology, completed in 2012, which evolved into Call of the Reed Warbler, published by University of Queensland Press in 2017.

The pair were, in their own ways, meandering down a similar path.

Charles and Tanya Massy.

MY DAD ALWAYS USED TO SAY that the important thing was to leave the land in better condition than when you acquired it. To leave a good legacy. It is, of course, entirely subjective, pointing to deeply held questions of value and perception. What gifts, what burdens, do we pass on, consciously or not?

‘I feel, and I think our whole family feels, a deep sense of responsibility to this land because it’s held us in a way that nothing else can or has, regardless of wool prices, droughts, or what’s going on in the world,’ Tanya tells me. ‘And yet, damage has been done to it by us. So, there’s a sort of double responsibility.’ To acknowledge, repair, regenerate. Work that stretches beyond the confines of a single human lifetime.

Australia has some of the nutrient-poorest, most fragile soils on Earth. It is not ‘a splodge of plasticine waiting to be remoulded’, writes Charles in Call of the Reed Warbler, but a fragile and ancient landscape with some of the most diverse and wondrous flora and fauna on the planet. ‘Few land managers understand this still, with but a tiny minority appreciating that humans must adapt to this ancient land and its climate and biota, not the other way around.’

The legacy of industrial agriculture on the Australian landscape leans closer to destruction than flourishing. ‘ … over the last 200 years more than seventy per cent of Australian agricultural land has been seriously degraded’, Charles writes, as a result of ‘ongoing land degradation and modern management practices’ and activities such as ‘set-stocking, intensive cultivation, bare fallowing, and stubble, pasture and shrub burning’.

We have inherited a world view borne of another hemisphere, another world. Charles calls it the Mechanical mind – referencing ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant. Within this mindset, which first sprouted in the lead-up to the Renaissance and Reformation in 15th century Europe and was influenced strongly by Judeo-Christianity, nature is viewed as a resource to be controlled and utilised by humans. Systems are simplified, life is objectified, progress is paramount, and the language is of war. Throw capitalism and neoliberalism into the mix and by the 21st century, according to Charles, ‘the Mechanical mind had gone “rogue”. And it had gone rogue for the craziest of reasons and the most seductive of all illusions: consumption and greed.’

In less than two centuries, ‘agriculture in developed nations has stopped being a system that was essentially self-contained, labour-intensive and biologically based … Today it is a fossil-fuelled, energy-intensive system that is hugely dependent on mechanical and chemical intervention, that disempowers humans and their communities through a labour-saving focus, and that is entirely market driven.’ The consequences are huge – both environmental and psychological. Pollution, destruction and damage inflicted on landscapes, ecologies and minds.

‘The Mechanical mind as expressed in industrial agriculture has led to our lack of empathy and care for a living, diverse world in this timeless Gondwanan continent,’ Charles argues. He links this mindset, too, to the ways in which white Australians continue to behave as aliens in this country, to the sustained prejudice against First Nations Australians. We don’t seem to know how to be here because our frame of reference doesn’t fit this place. ‘If we can’t stand in the truth of our history – invasion, colonisation, genocide, land degradation and everything that’s followed – if we can’t do that in honesty, we can’t move forward,’ Tanya tells me as we look out over the homestead and surrounding paddocks.

When we’re working on healing the land, the land is working on healing us

Tanya Massy

‘There is hesitancy around speaking the truth in relation to Indigenous history and landscape degradation because of shame, whereas I think we need to find a better way of holding that conversation,’ she asserts. Tanya tells me of some research she’s been doing – looking into challenges facing the next generation of farmers. And how those who are considering becoming a farmer, or are already on the land, are ‘really thinking about Indigenous questions in a different way. And that’s really heartening because I feel like that conversation hasn’t been allowed previously. I think it’s a real time of reckoning.’

Reconciling a legacy of damage, both ecological and cultural, is ongoing work at Severn Park. Charles tells me about his friend, Indigenous Ngarigo Senior Law Man Rod Mason, who has taught him much about the pre-colonial understanding of their shared landscape, and who does slow burning workshops at Severn Park. ‘He’s got cultural memory of hunting diprotodons … We’re talking 20,000-plus years that he can culturally pass on.’ The Massy family has just come to an arrangement with Bruce Pascoe’s business, Black Duck Foods. ‘The Yuin women at Eden are going to use our place to raise their yam daisy seeds,’ Charles says. ‘So, there’s a whole lot of layers, isn’t there?’

‘There’s damage that’s been done, there’s Indigenous history that’s still not reconciled,’ Tanya says. ‘I’m so proud of Dad and the journey he’s been on. I feel like there’s a real need to continue that because otherwise we’re just not standing in an honest place.’

When I ask Charles about legacy, he’s quick to point out that in in his case it’s been both positive and negative, before suggesting that Tanya ‘brings a lot of new thinking that our generation wasn’t sensitised to, particularly on Indigenous issues, feminism, and new food cultures’. The baton has to change, he says. ‘I’ve done my dash, made a lot of mistakes. She can learn from them and make her own.’

AT THE END OF THE DAY, we return to the homestead, and Charles and I settle in the living room. ‘You were asking how I stay positive?’ he asks. ‘Very simple. This is unbelievably exciting stuff.’ Regenerative agriculture, in his view, has the ‘best solutions, immediate not theoretical, to the great challenges of the Anthropocene’.

Charles is not alone. ‘There are at least twenty different practices that constitute regenerative agriculture in its fullest scope,’ states Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, in an article published by National Geographic, ‘and when all of these practices are added together, it represents by far the single greatest solution to the climate crisis.’

This is the big picture. This is the terrain of Call of the Reed Warbler. Written over many years, in the early hours of the morning in an old stone outbuilding, the book sites the work of the farmer within a broad cultural, ecological and philosophical context – offering a way of thinking about care of the land, each other, and our world that is tethered not in speculative technological fixes, but in the Earth.

It is in this space, between ideas of change and the reality of making it happen where much of my conversation with Charles and Tanya hovers. If shifting from industrial to regenerative farming can address the largest challenge our civilisation may ever face, it seems a no-brainer to focus significant energy on making this happen. But, of course, the issue is highly complex, politicised and the responsibility for addressing it cannot lie solely on the already weighed-down shoulders of farmers. ‘Change is a risk. And if you’re trying to support a debt or feed a big family it’s even harder to enact … I don’t condemn that at all,’ Charles says. But at the same time, ‘our species has got two or three decades to avoid extinction. I don’t think many people appreciate how huge this Anthropocene challenge is … We landscape managers are in a unique position to have a really meaningful contribution to change. That’s both scary, in what we’re facing, but also exciting that we might be able to play a constructive role.’

Change cannot be forced. And, as Tanya points out, even the words ‘regenerative agriculture’ have become politicised and divisive in certain farming circles. She’s tells me of a project she’s been working on recently – an investment impact report focused on regenerating agriculture across the Great Barrier Reef catchments in Queensland. She mentions a farmer she interviewed for the report who suggested the regenerative agriculture question is becoming tribal, like climate politics. ‘He said, “It doesn’t matter how much evidence you guys are going to bring up, we’re not going to be able to hear it.” We need to find a way to get past that identity politics.’

No farmer willingly wants to do damage to the land. ‘Going in and saying, “We’ve got the answers,” or blaming the farmer isn’t the solution but, at the same time, all of us need to take responsibility,’ Tanya says. She looks to systems thinking as a framework for approaching change. Historically, she writes, there have been attempts to change farming practices through education, as if a farmer’s lack of knowledge is the cause of environmental problems. What this fails to address is the complex socio-ecologic, political and economic systems that farmers operate within. ‘Educating farmers about the positive benefits of changing a particular farming practice will be ineffective if there are, for example, capital, labour, cultural or family constraints that prevent them from being able to implement that change, and vice versa.’ A systems approach to change might investigate deeper questions relating to world view, values, culture and identity at the level of individual and community, and also explore how these relate to national and global processes and policies.

‘Taking a broader systems lens also prevents the over simplified and damaging blame-game that positions farmers as stand-alone actors whose lack of knowledge about (or care for) the natural environment leads to perverse ecological outcomes, and that the sole means of fixing the problem lies within their power,’ Tanya writes.

The Massy farm, Severn Park, is located on Ngarigo country in southern New South Wales.

CHARLES TELLS ME THAT of the regenerative farmers he met while writing Call of the Reed Warbler, around 60 per cent transitioned from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices due to a ‘head-cracking moment’ – a dramatic life event that forced them to see the world, and their place in it, differently.

It strikes me that Charles has had a few such moments in his life. His mother committed suicide when he was aged four and a half. His father had a heart attack during Charles’s third year of university. A sense of duty called him home to a farm he wasn’t sure he wanted to farm. ‘What do you do? Walk away from aging parents and break their hearts? No, you can’t. I had to make a living, support my family.’ Charles took over the farm and finished his university degree part-time. His father passed away seven years later.

Charles had once dreamed of becoming a wildlife behaviourist. He mentions how he used to trap white-winged choughs and put coloured rings on them and watch how the birds – sisters and aunts – worked together to raise a brood. ‘Australia has the greatest number of collaborative breeding birds in the world. It’s an adaptation to our tough environment,’ he says. He tells me about delivering a paper on his long-running observations of the birds to a professor he had at the Australian National University in Canberra, who was visiting from Oxford University. ‘He gave me a bare pass. He didn’t quite rip it up, but he said “Massy, I don’t want this sort of stuff. I want precise measurement.”’ Soon after, Charles shifted focus from zoology to human ecology. From the quantifiable to the relational. Another head-cracking moment.

FARMING IS NOT SIMPLY PLANTING, growing, selling, repeat. It’s relationship, and relationships are not straightforward, easy, or reducible. Relationships require attention and interrogation and can never be neatly unpicked. ‘I have learnt the folly of trying,’ Charles writes, ‘to stamp my authority and preconceived ideas on both our domestic animals and the landscape. To the contrary, I have learnt there is a truly magical yet complex, mysterious dialogue going on between us, our animals and the landscapes we all occupy.’

Ngarigo country.

It is this – Charles’s ability to link the vast and minute, philosophical and practical, spiritual and spatial aspects of farming – that I find compelling. I am drawn, always, to unanswerable questions and ambiguity. Yet my experience of being a farm kid, growing up surrounded by farmers, was that farming and farm life was all about the simple, practical, useful. No talk of spirituality in relation to land, no open expression of love of land. This doesn’t mean the connection is not there – I’d argue that all farmers, whether willing or able to articulate it or not, feel a deep connection to and love of place. But, as Charles suggests, within the Mechanical mindset there’s rarely room for such emotion, because land exists as a resource to be used, controlled, dominated.

I can’t help but wonder if deleting love from the dictionary of modern farming means violence is easier to justify? ‘It is clear that pouring herbicide on the earth is not an act of love, nor is aggressive ploughing, clear-felling healthy forests,’ writes Charles. No, instead, ‘these activities represent a culture of death.’ There’s a dissonance here. No one truly likes killing and causing harm. And yet that is exactly what our current paradigm tells us is the right way to farm. How, then, does this affect farmers psychologically? Charles points to this in Call of the Reed Warbler, and it’s a question that has stayed with me – can high rates of mental health issues in rural areas be tied to the ways farmers treat their landscapes? ‘Can this be because our deep inner psyches are in revolt?’ he asks.

 Love is, according to Charles, the essential ingredient in human-Earth relationships. And sometimes, love is about stepping back, watching and listening, and letting nature take its course. ‘When we’re working on healing the land, the land is working on healing us,’ Tanya suggests.

What both Charles and Tanya highlight, through a shared focus on relationality and holistic thinking, is that enacting transformative change within farming goes beyond economics, science, education, politics. It comes down to world view. World views, and therefore relationships, are shaped and grown by stories. It is this simple and complex. ‘I realised we are made for story, that story cuts through … I’m not the inventor of it. I just packaged other people’s great stories,’ Charles tells me, with no-nonsense modesty, typical of every farmer I’ve ever met.

‘We can’t force change,’ he writes, ‘instead we have to make sure that regenerative agriculture readily presents itself as a viable alternative for whenever people are ready for change. I believe the key to this is telling stories or narratives that are meaningful, substantive and relevant depictions of a new reality. And if there ever was a time for the citizens of this Earth to be galvanised by story … that time is now.’

‘HERE’S THE DAUGHTER WHO CAN WRITE much better than I can, says Charles, as Tanya settles on the lounge next to him, having just returned from moving a mob of sheep.

‘She’s also much further down the track of understanding regenerative agriculture than me’, he says.

‘You’ve got to take what he says with a grain of salt,’ grins Tanya.

‘Are you saying I’m lying?’

‘No, I’m just saying you’re my dad.’

‘The work Tanya has been doing is remarkable,’ Charles continues. Tanya gently interjects: ‘Watching Dad go through the process of writing the book – going back and forth, questioning himself, we all saw how incredible his brain was.’

‘Bullshit,’ says Charles.

We talk land and change and home, and while Charles is too modest to agree that his is a legacy worth building on, Tanya clearly disagrees. ‘I just feel this incredible humility in relation to Dad, in relation to the family I was born into, and to being born into this place. And when Dad says I bring new knowledge, I don’t feel I do, I feel like everything we’re learning now has always been here, it’s just been forgotten. That’s one of the attractions of farming – it’s so all-encompassing that until the day you die, you’re learning about how ecology works, what the land’s really telling us.’

Charles agrees. ‘This land is not for buying and selling, it’s something far deeper and more profound. We’re really only at the start of a journey of trying to regenerate it and understand it.’

IN 2019, FARMER, PHILOSOPHER AND WRITER Wendell Berry invited Charles to spend a day with him on his farm in Kentucky, USA. ‘He didn’t want to talk. He said, “No, let’s go for a drive.” We just walked his acres. He wanted to be out there and have a yarn about farming, not agrarian philosophy. It was a wonderful day. Because I can get all his philosophy from his books, but to spend a day with him in his own country … As soon as we’d finished, he said, “Are you right to get on your way?” He could hardly wait to get back to his writing.’ There is, perhaps, something about walking land from which great thinking, writing and relationships have grown, that communicates more than any number of conversations can.

It’s dusk when we leave, and while I know Charles is not heading directly to his writing shed on our departure, I know, too, that he’ll wake early the following morning – around three or four AM – and head straight to his office to write. We leave the Massy family in the warmth of the homestead kitchen and head off into the waning light, Tanya’s words rolling around my head ­– ‘The land will tell us all we need to know.’

I WALKED THE LOW ROLLING HILLS of Ngarigo country with Charles and Tanya Massy and it was hard to know who said the most, the farmers or the land.