Book Review: Peter Andrews - Back from the brink - agriculture for Australians
This book paints a picture of the ecological mechanics of this continent, using clear, concise prose. It is a painlessly educative book. The bold claim of its subtitle, "How Australia's landscape can be saved," stands up to scrutiny.
Take a new look at thistles, dock plants and other hardy weeds. Enjoy trialling the author's theories in your neglected front garden or replot your broadacre farm. Re-examine the cause of total re-nativisation in the light of galloping desertification. Peter maintains that his simple hydrological theory holds true for the entire continent. He re-interprets the history of this land; he may well be right.
It is a pleasure to read an inspired ecological work by an Australian farmer for Australian farmers. This book is full of practical experience and experiment. The author tells a tale of several farms in his life, of discussions with other farmers and with scientists. He has acted in his life with confidence and conviction, in accordance with his observations. He has learned and remembered lessons, which he knows to be important and hopes to teach the reader. He has lived his research.
If you break down what he says, he is a systems thinker and he has a systemic theory and methodology, which means that his arguments are logical and testable.
Australian deserts are man-made
I found the chapter, "Australia's deserts are man-made" very satisfying because it linked the removal of trees to the drying of climate. God knows why this isn't being shouted from the rooftops everywhere. (Well, perhaps because you cannot package it and sell it as toilet paper or recycle it as plastic.) Andrews doesn't say this, but I will; we should not wait for climate change policy and practice to be agreed at the global, national or even state level. We can start locally - by paying attention to the landscape and protecting the trees and other plants it already has, and adding many more. Trees lower temperature and increase humidity locally, below and above ground; they are not just carbon sinks.
Peter argues clearly that aboriginal use of fire massively transformed Australia's landscape by changing and reducing the vegetation varieties. The effect of this was drying. On top of this, the effect of 220 years of mechanised agriculture, with industrial fertilisers (like feeding soil vitamin pills and no food, as Alice Friedman writes(1)) and half-baked economic propaganda has brought us right to the brink of ruin.
Without mentioning Gaia - or fractals for that matter - Andrews conveys the idea of Australia as a huge organism with fractal systems which can be managed from micro to macro, using the hydrological properties of trees and other plants, like reeds, and identifying topographical forms peculiar to the Australian landscape. The swale and contour system writ large. But he says it like this, "Unless we all come to understand how the Australian landscape functions and then conduct our agriculture in harmony with it this country is dead. It will collapse, no question."
He describes familiar landscape elements like deeply eroded streams and shows that they are produced by damage to live systems, causing water to flow faster and more forcefully than it otherwise would. The immediate solution is weeds, reeds and trees.[video] The finer choices of trees can be worked out later in cases of emergency.
(Andrews' familiarity with the concepts of erosion, salt and fresh water tables, and transpiration comes as a relief. I could contrast this with three days I once spent at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), trying to defend an ancient coastal creek against more development of its catchment. The question of run-off was crucial. Engineers claimed that they could reduce run-off by putting in mechanical devices - basically holes - to retard the flow of water into the creek after rain. Quite apart from the question of biodiverse habitat, this incredibly dumb and clunky non-solution failed to replace the hydrology that trees provide - in their ability to stabilise the water table, through osmosis and transpiration. It completely ignored the heat and moisture exchanges involved in transpiration above the canopies. It was blind to the remarkable ability of trees to vary the amount of water they pump from the ground and transpire through their leaves according to the weather and the moisture in the ground. After a while I realised that the sitting member and the barristers had absolutely no idea of what transpiration was. What was more they did not intend to find out. That was the point where I gave up on Australia's medieval legal system and just another thing that made me an activist. This kind of self-defeating institution that maintains a fatal system is what Australia is up against.)
Why underground water?
The author retells the story of the importance of Australia's underground water, as part of his theory of Australia as a living continent. Why is so much of our water stored underground? Because of the huge risk of evaporation above the ground. With this principle in mind, he has a whole chapter about farm dams - should we damn them or not? Dig them much deeper and shade them, he suggests, and build them along landscape contours and so that the water can overflow usefully. Make your own little flood-plain. There is much more; simple, practical and effective, in line with his hydrological theories.
At the end of the book Andrews congratulates the reader for coming so far, but I found this a direct and refreshing book. Not a hard read. True, some complex bits, which one can always return to. Secondary school children could and probably should read this book.
Fixing the Murray-Darling
Andrews writes, perhaps tongue in cheek, of "well-intentioned people [who] have come up with proposals for constructing a pipe or canal to transport excess water from the tropics in the north to water deprived areas in the south..." Then he says, "(...) yet the objective - bringing excess water to where it's needed - is certainly a sensible one. What's more, we don't need a pipe or a canal. We already have a conduit capable of moving huge volumes of water from one side of the continent to the other at virtually no cost to anyone. It's called the Darling River."
Peter's recipe for fixing the Murray could be undertaken by the people who live and farm there, together. Once again it isn't top down; but bottom up. It requires careful observation of the natural topography and the lie of clay and sandy soil.
It requires vegetation - trees and reeds. Livestock would have to be managed so that they did not destroy the reeds. Peter Andrews reluctantly suggests that the major part of the early work of fixing the river system could no longer be done by native trees. It could be done by willows - the latest in a series of trees which governments have been ripping out. Remember, our land is dying - any plant is better than man-made desert. If the flood plains were restored, the natives might grow back again; at the moment they are all dying. (For more on natives following willows see Peter Andrews video)
Andrews patiently deals with the issue of trees and reservoirs... Governments have been taking trees away from water-reservoirs in the belief that they use up water. This is totally half-baked, since it completely ignores the greater fact that trees shade water stores above and below ground, preventing evaporation.
As Peter Andrews says, talking elsewhere, about irrigation, "In other words, you want a system where there is transpiration, not evaporation."
Human, not corporate
But he isn't talking about millions of kilometers of expensive pvc pipes and engineering works. That is the only reason, I am sure, that his ideas have not been taken up by government and agribusiness and promoted. The engineering and construction and corporate lobbies want a totally prosthetic environment, paid for by the rest of us, to their great profit. They seem to be trying to turn Australia into a huge concrete drain punctuated by retardant basins. (Consider the North-South pipeline currently being pushed down our throats by the Victorian government, or the costly pipelines they have cruelly inflicted on the Wimera-Mallee farming communities.)
Andrews doesn't say we must relocalise government and economy and get rid of centralised bureaucracies and big-engineering; he doesn't say that we should start using our eyes and ears and stop listening to people who are paid to tell us what their masters want us to believe, but that is the message I get out of this book.
Apparently Peter Andrew's story, when first told as television, was the most popular in the history of the ABC program, Australian Story. Obviously a lot of people care about this message getting out. Andrews has created something very valuable and true, which can unite us, city and country.
Here is Peter Andrew's site, Natural Sequence Farming at http://www.nsfarming.com/principles.html
(1)Alice Friedemann, "Peak Soil" in Sheila Newman, The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto Books, UK, 2008