What if Australia stopped farming? At around 3% of gross domestic product, removing agriculture from the economy would be a big blow. This would affect our balance of payments – 60% of agricultural products are exported and this contributes 13% of Australia’s export earnings.
Slowly dying cities would collapse, jobs would disappear. But really the scandal of this thought goes beyond the economy and into the very soul of the nation. The crucial idea that emerges from such a thought experiment is that agriculture in Australia is a religion – it is as much a religion as it is an industry.
Australia‘s powerful ideological link with agriculture is increasingly scrutinized in diverse ways and comes to the fore in Charles Massy’s iconoclastic epic Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2017), which questions 200 years of hypotheses. on what it means to graze animals in Australia.
Massy’s joins a series of recent books that seek to recast the basic assumptions on which Australian agriculture was built. These include The Bush (2016) by Don Watson, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014) (which was recently transformed into dance by Bangarra) and The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012). If agriculture is a religion in Australia, these writers are its heresiarchs.
It is a truism that Australia, predominantly urban for most of its modern history, derives its identity disproportionately from “the land”. These Qantas TV commercials with choirs of angelic children scattered elegantly in front of Uluru or the Twelve Apostles trade in the basic fact that Australians identify with and want to identify with the continent itself.
In this sense, Australia (the continent, the land, the soil, the bush) is imagined as a metaphysical substance that gives unity, meaning and destiny to what might otherwise look like a collection of recently federated, formed settlements. to extract resources for the benefit of a once powerful European nation state. The practice of agriculture is central to the belief that Australians as a people express Australia, the metaphysical ideal. Without this link between agriculture and Australianity, we couldn’t make sense of fashion icons like Akubra, Blundstone, Driza-Bone and RM Williams.
Serious questions about how Australia supports people through the plants and animals that are raised on its ancient soils are of course not limited to recent years. The revision could be attributed to The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery (1994), or even earlier to landmark works in environmental history like A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls (1981), Discovering Monaro by WK Hancock (1972) and Between by Barbara York Main. Wodjil and Tor (1967) and Twice Trodden Ground (1971).
What each of these writers did was make the Australian environment, or part of it, an actor rather than a stage. The environment of these writers was not a globally passive, albeit resilient thing that had to be overcome, fought, tamed, subdued – it was a dynamic system of interdependent parts, where every action had cascading consequences and repercussions. complex.
At the center or just below all of these books is the attempt to try to locate some sort of basic environmental baseline. It seems indisputable that the agricultural colonization of Australia by Europeans had considerable consequences on the organization of the continent’s biota.
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In almost every possible way, the earth has undergone serious and widespread intervention. The introduction of new predators, including cats and foxes, has caused (and continues to cause) massive species extinctions. The introduction of hoofed animals, in addition to their totally different grazing patterns, has also hardened the soil and altered the extent to which rain is absorbed or run off the soil surface, often washing away the soil in rivers that now flow faster but also silt and slow down.
Removal of deep-rooted perennial vegetation for annual crops raises groundwater and dissolves crystallized salt in the soil, resulting in soil salinity. The regimes of fire have radically changed. Rabbits and other rodents outperform native herbivores, while European carp have transformed major river systems in the southeast. The list is long, and surprisingly familiar to us.
But as these things continue to plague and major questions begin to arise about the sustainability of agriculture, we seem to be being sent back to the origins of these problems. And as we put them back together, we run into the tantalizing question of what it looked like before that. Before what? Before the arrival of Europeans. What did Australia look like in 1788, in fact? This is the question each of these writers seems to answer, or at least react to.
How it was before
In this regard, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which draws heavily on Gammage’s previous book, provides the most concerted attempt to answer the question of the quality of the country – in particular, the interface between the man and nature – in the pre-colonial period. era. Due to the oral quality of indigenous societies, many of these questions have traditionally been considered beyond the realm of history itself and fall within the scope of the study of prehistory (archeology) and anthropology.
Indeed, there is a sort of demarcation conflict around this crucial hinge between Indigenous and European colonial lifestyles. One of the strengths of Pascoe’s book is its ability to bridge archeology, anthropology, archival history, indigenous oral tradition and other more esoteric but very revealing disciplines such as ethnobotany. and paleoecology.
The key point of Pascoe’s book is that the whole distinction between the agricultural settler and the indigenous hunter-gatherer is based on a radical and downright selfish misunderstanding of how the indigenous peoples of Australia lived in their countries. Pascoe brings together a compelling case that Indigenous Australians cultivated their land, lived in villages, built houses, harvested grain, built complex aquaculture systems – perhaps the first stone structures in human history – and led the kind of sedentary agricultural life that was not supposed to have happened with Europeans in 1788.
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Pascoe is an Indigenous historian and is clearly motivated by a desire to right the serial denigration of Indigenous peoples. His cards are on the table, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a rigorous and demanding judge of the historical record.
Massy, ââfor his part, was born and raised on a sheep and cattle farm in the Monaro plain, a farm he has run for over 40 years. By his own admission, he has spent most of his farming life assiduously contributing to the problems he now diagnoses just as assiduously in The Call of the Reed Warbler. The book is in many ways a conversion story, documenting when the scales fell from his eyes and he truly saw the world as it was – not an earth made efficient and productive by the application of science. agricultural, but a land emptied of its relationships and life networks by a sort of collective psychosis. Agriculture did not support the land, it ruined it. It was an extractive industry that had swallowed up thousands of years of sustenance in a few generations of sustained plunder.
Don Watson’s book, The Bush, is the most literary of these recent contributions, and it moves effortlessly and elegiacally between science, history, reminiscence, and anecdote. It has an epigramatic and sonorous writing style, reminiscent of how, in an American context, Wallace Stegner handled the tumultuous history of the American Great Plains.
Against the bluffing empiricism that underlies Gammage and Pascoe, and the ardor of the convert that galvanizes Massy, ââWatson offers something more elliptical and rhapsodic. He moves from his native Gippsland to Australia as a whole in a sort of sly mimicry of Australian bush speech. The bush is both the object of Watson’s study and its linguistic mode, since it draws its disillusioned sensitivity directly from Joseph Furphy or Henry Lawson. The distinctive blend of sharp humor, dark melancholy, and a poignant apprehension of the absurdity of life that was the hallmark of the Bulletin school of writers.
Something is broken
What all of these books say, and why they’re gaining popularity now, is that something is broken. These books don’t advertise that the environment is broken – they just mention it in passing, taking it beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, what these books advertise is that agriculture is broken.
This, in the context of our self-image, is something much more terrifying and it will be savagely resisted. But each book is also a bearer of hope in its own way. Nothing more than Charles Massy, ââwhose subtitle of the book “A New Agriculture, A New Land” is overtly salutary and The Call of the Reed Warbler is a detailed plan for the regeneration of a degraded pastoral country that enables both agricultural production and environmental recovery.
A few weeks ago I was visiting the rock formation that we white people called Wave Rock in the Southern Wheatbelt of Western Australia. It is a breathtakingly beautiful granite outcrop and central to the way of life of the Noongar people of this region.
What stands out now is the contrast between the cleared fields stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions and this tiny oasis of bush surrounding the rock. The paleo-river channels that shaped the landscape are now heavily inundated by the rising water table and everywhere you see signs of salinized soil – dead and dying shrubs and trees.
But as tourists, we carefully look away and pose for photos on the rock. It is in many ways a microcosm of determined blindness that these recent books attempt to rectify.
Bangarra’s Dark Emu is set in Sydney at the Opera House until July 14, then will tour Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne.