On a dark and stormy night in late May friends drove us back to Perth from a meeting held in the Midland Arts Centre. The conveners of the meeting were two Johns: one a whitefella, John Thompson, descendant of convict and settler colonials and co-founder of The Nature Code and John Mogridge, a Bibbulman Boodja man.
The two Johns are from the same country and two very different cultures and they were offering participants – this -from the invitation: ‘a discussion born of a shared love of country and a desire for a more just and sustainable future depending on respectful connection with mother earth, our nature and each other. Don’t miss this opportunity to join as brothers and sisters in a reclaiming of identity, right to heal, personal wisdom, the formation of tribe and the right to peacefully determine our own future.” It goes on…’both Johns are committed to directing the process toward furthering their work of preserving cultural integrity and wisdom access.’
I loved the idea. I was going.
But it was one of those nights where I felt put out from the first. On the way home in the car, I let loose with the anger that had been growing in me over the few hours of the meeting, an anger I didn’t understand but felt compelled, as one does, to throw around in the meantime.
Why weren’t there more Aboriginal people there? I demanded from the back seat. This was ground hog day; I had been here before; 20 participants, a couple of Aboriginal people and the rest a bunch of whitefellas eager to do the right thing. It always seems to be this way …. The do-gooders and the token Aboriginal man.
I was scathing in my assessment of some of the non-indigenous people at the meeting. Seriously, I carried on, they grew up in Perth, surely it is not news to anyone in 2018 that we lived in a state of apartheid. Aboriginal people were invisible, they were not written into the history books, they were deemed lesser people – we all know this!
The one who really annoyed me was the woman who placed her burden of perceived spiritual incapacity and disconnection from land at the feet of this fabled Aboriginal person. Talk about racism, I ranted: Not only did we take their land and snub their culture we now want them to be the guardians of our spiritual health and connectedness because we are too steeped in materialism and stupidity to work out anything for ourselves? Oh please! I have so been here before!
‘Where’s the sacred fire?’ I whined, in imitation of a dis-empowered whitefella, the one’s who seem to have taken in with their rusks the notion of cultural inferiority along the lines of ‘whitefellas can’t dance’…. Is this like a race to the bottom? If we say we are culturally inferior then we have something in common with the Aboriginal people who have had cultural inferiority beaten into them for over 200 years?
I calmed down a bit after this… even felt a little ashamed by my outburst. Anger dissipated in face of my friends in the front seat, who listened. They could tell I was worked up, let me vent and responded mildly. Such grace to have such friends.
The rules of engagement were great I conceded somewhat lamely. The way it worked was everyone was given a chance to introduce themselves, and say why they had come, then the ‘talking stick’ a piece of wood crafted by John M was placed in the centre to be picked up by whoever felt the need to speak. Once you held the stick you held the space – everyone else was bound to listen without interruption. We were exhorted to listen with our full heart’s attention, with respect, without judgement. Nice.
The surprise of the evening turned out to be one of the women, John Mogridge’s wife, Lea. She had an engaging way of speaking with a direct, upfront manner. She was an Aboriginal woman, steeped in her culture and proud of who she was. Someone who could pass as white at first glance and someone you knew would let rip in the face of casual racism dished out by people sure of their audience. She would be the bomb in the works and she had a moving story to tell.
In my car rant, I went easy on the handful of people present who were born overseas but had chosen to live in WA. One young man, shocked by actions and words he had seen and heard directed at Aboriginal people by non-indigenous Australians wanted to find a way past the racism.
He described the ceremony that had recently welcomed him as a resident of Australia. He was delighted to be accepted into the country but was disappointed that this ceremony lacked any meaningful reference to the First Australians – he was starting to understand that the racism he had experienced was part of the system.
It took me days to process that evening. First, I was angry, then dismissive. Then I thought to actually look at my anger and frustration; beneath it all a sense of deep sadness emerged: Aboriginal people do not trust white people. That’s it. And with that insight came two opposing thoughts. One: Why the hell should they? And two, but they should trust me!
I started to see that in terms of that meeting I had wanted things to be different than they were – always a fatal desire. I had done work on the subject, I had educated myself, I had done art projects with Aboriginal people in Victoria and WA that had dealt with difference and inequality; I was someone who understood white privilege and black disadvantage. I, I, I…… the continuing pain and anger, the rawness of Aboriginal experience was an affront to me – as was the perceived ignorance non-indigenous people had about our history.
Ten days after this event, talking it over with a friend, the penny eventually dropped. Why was I taking this so personally?
Every authentic effort to connect – no matter how inauthentically met –– is a great thing if one is prepared to learn. I belatedly recognised the meeting as an opportunity for personal and social growth, and I started to process John Mogridge’s words. At times he spoke at length; rambling, easy to listen to stories about his work at the local Council, his personal life and his ongoing engagement within the Aboriginal community involving responsibility to culture. John gave us a fascinating insight into the tricky processes operating as Aboriginal people found their own voices, their own pathways and negotiated new ways of crossing the cultural divide. John and Lea also gave us an insight into their own way of keeping themselves and their culture strong – their engagement with country.
That night forced me to realise how tired of my anger, tired of my guilt, tired of my old tired attitudes I was. Tired of trying to bust past my own perceived sense of undeservingness and tired of the Aboriginal sense of victimhood. I could do nothing except change my own attitude.
This meeting was indeed, a beginning. Was I finally ready to move past white privilege and misplaced guilt? I have been convinced for a long time that Australia has paid way too high a price for privilege; these conversations felt like a way forward, a possibility for inclusion and the chance to share in the richness of Aboriginal culture. I started to see how I could walk with Aboriginal people, forging real alliances and offering support to strengthen culture – all on their own terms.
At the meeting had actually wanted the Trust thing to have been done for me. I wanted to be sitting down with a bunch of tuned-in Aboriginal and non-indigenous folk already on equal footing – no one pissed off, no one bearing their little bundle of guilt, no one feeling hard done by, no one feeling much at all come to think of it. The Robots guide to Reconciliation perhaps- everyone on board with the necessary facts and nicely organised feelings - everyone eager to enter the new world hand in hand. I don’t know - whatever I wanted, it wasn’t real - that conversation had not yet happened.
I could say my heart was in the right place – but I would be kidding myself - it wasn’t. My mind was reacting to experiences from the past and my heart was nowhere to be seen. All people have their own raft of problems and self-defeating attitudes to deal with, no-one will ever need me telling them what to feel. The invitation was to stop taking other people’s stuff personally, to be open, to listen without judgement or comment. It took a while, but I eventually realised that within this type of open-hearted listening lies the potential for transformation in that I could allow myself to be changed by what I heard.
Marcia Langton on the radio, recently, had just completed a book she was commissioned to do - a tourism guide to Aboriginal Australia. She understands there is a hunger for white people to learn about Aboriginal culture, but, for Aboriginal people, it needs to be on their own terms. There needs to be respect for culture. Simply that.
Too much martyrdom amongst the well-meaning makes for what my mum used to call ‘po-faced’ behaviour - time I dropped the martyr stance.
When the clouds parted and a small truth shone out in the days following the Midland event I went on to have an oddly parallel experience in the world of organic farming.
I drove south to do the WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) thing on two farms I was interested in. The first was Bee’s Organic Farmacy, 27 acres in Nannup, an outfit run on permaculture principles by the redoubtable Bee and her partner Stewart. Bee’s is a one-stop shop for organic food, offering a year-round smorgasbord of fruit, nuts, meat, meat stocks, eggs, vegetables and home-made sourdough bread.
Bee’s is a house of virtue. Hard work, few indulgences, no climate-change light here, Bee and Stewart are committed and principled about their desire to live lightly on the earth. The best thing was a hands-on learning about soil, getting a glimpse of the subterranean world of soil microbes via a microscope lens. And the food……mmmmm, a rare and wonderful opportunity of eating nutritionally-dense food grown in biologically alive soils. Bone broth made from their animals, cooked for hours on a bio-gas machine that runs on pig shit. Fruit hanging from the trees until it is ripe. Bright orange persimmons placed like xmas baubles on branches dotted with bright orange leaves. Beauty that is soil deep.
Three days hard yakka here. I needed gum boots and did a lot of digging. My forte is digging, I fancy myself with a spade. We busted through kikuyu, setting up furrows that Bee flooded with water and planted a mixed lot of perennial plants seeds; then more watering, composting and mulching the rows. I spent a few extra hours cutting back and pulling up boysenberry – like all berry bushes, tenacious, quick to spread and very satisfying to uproot.
Next stop was to the east via Manjimup through the small town of Franklin River and onto Payneham Vale Organics run by Ron and Suzanne Watkins. PVO is broadacre permaculture in action – over 500 hectares of free range eggs, lamb, beef and some cereal crops, mainly used to feed their own animals.
The free-range chickens are an integral part of the whole in that they are moved weekly so the eggs benefit from the regular green pick and the paddocks gain from the intensive workout 350 odd chickens can give to the soil as they play their natural game: scratching, digging and fertilising the earth.
The farms are different in many aspects, not least in scale, but the parallels are interesting.
· Both run on true organic principles, using intensive animal rotational grazing to keep the soil alive for growing pasture, trees and annuals.
· Both farms have as a central concern the health of the soil – including ersosion control and effective retention of water in the soil.
· The workload on both places is intense. Relentlessly so.
· Both farms are committed to weekly showings at their local farmers market: for the Watkins, in Albany, for Bee and Stewart, Margaret River. Both have a deep commitment to the customers: it is a symbiotic relationship, customer loyalty and appreciation are a continual reminder to the growers of why they work so hard in such a tricky industry.
The way our forebears farmed could be called organic in contemporary parlance – meaning it was farming done free of industrial-chemical inputs. POV is the case of a farm that had always been organic - chemical farming has only been around since World War 2 and the Watkins never adopted chemicals during the decades from the 70s to now, when many were lured by modern industrial agricultural methods….except for a brief flirtation with round-up some years ago, Ron’s farm carries no poisons.
But colonial farming techniques were rarely in tune with the conditions - its not enough to just grow stuff – there must an understanding of the way the environment works, and we are only just starting to get there. There is some irony in the fact that Ron and Sue’s replanting efforts have been to replace what was cleared over decades by previous generations, by Government decree and farmer inclination. What is different is that the new plantings, done over decades have been placed in the service of water harvesting and use and with full cognisance of how rain and other elements affecting life on the land works in their landscape. The Watkins’s farm is living proof that good returns can be achieved using organic principles.
Proof of just how far our society has to catch up when it comes to the perceived value of organic, regenerative farming is that when the Watkins decided to sell this property there was no premium put on the fact that they are selling - as Ron puts it - a safe asset.
What is the real value represented when the contours of the land have been used to effectively manage water flow by the placement of drains? How to measure the way the planting of tree belts have minimised potential wind damage and allowed water and carbon to store and build up in the soil? How to measure the extent to which small cell chicken grazing and large cell livestock grazing maximises soil fertility and the value of rotating crops to allow regeneration –these modifications and additions have created a farm that is as climate-change resilient as it is possible to be…it won’t be Ron’s soil you see blowing across the paddocks in the face of a high wind around seeding time - and …..in times of drought, the Watkins farm will still be viable when most conventionally-run farms in the district will struggle to grow thistles.
The Watkins farm is as safe as it is possible to make land – but this is not considered an important aspect of the sale. Of the dozens of inquires they have had re: the sale of their property, none have been interested in its natural capital – well, not beyond its capacity to be turned into farming dollars.
Go figure. This tells us how far we have to go.
Ron tells a funny story. He gets called in to help a farmer deal with a water logging problem. He surveys the farm, suggests the placement of drains, tree belts and dams. The farmer complies and a few years later the problem is solved. Some time after this the property is sold and eventually it becomes known that the new farmer is pulling out trees and filling in the drains to get more acres for cropping to maximise his profit. What water-logging???
Ron sees the humour in the situation, but finds it wearying, it would be nice to look ahead and see a crowd running towards him eager to get to work with the rich canvas he has prepared so any number of profitable niche agricultural business opportunities could be developed.
There’s is a certain generation of organic people, growers and retailers showing signs of late onset martyrdom. They never had and still don’t have institutional support, they don’t have the big bucks. They have chosen to live modest lives, ploughing most of their gains back into developing their land, living modestly in a world that values the opposite. They want to hand on the ecological riches held in their land and share their knowledge…how can this be done?
For Bee and Stewart change was also afoot. In her book Nourishing Soil, Regenerative living soil for Global Healing, written as an adjunct to her compost making workshops, Bee notes that 2008 was the year when it became clear that they needed to do things differently.
The winter months, that used to be a time to expand the food growing capacity of the place were starting to fail in the face of drought and heat. Summers became longer and hotter meaning that it was much harder to keep things alive despite prolonged hand-watering regimes. Formerly fertile areas became non-wetting soils as water deserted the district.
Bee, a life-long devotee of composting, decided that they needed to work harder on getting their soil right so they could better manage the changing climate conditions that were affecting their neck of the woods. In 2013 they signed up to a course to learn about the latest in soil science from Dr Elaine Ingham an eminent soil microbiologist. They invested in a microscope, got serious about microbes, and a year later re-named the farm Merri Bee Organic Farmacy.
By this stage Bee was convinced that nutrient rich food grown on biologically rich soils have the capacity to stem the pandemic of mental and physical disorders which are besetting contemporary citizens. She has truly taken to heart the co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison’s, maxim: “All our problems can be solved in a garden”.
What interested me about this, was that although they had spent years on the land taking care of the soil, farming with animal inputs and without industrial chemicals, it was only fairly recently, under pressure from climate change, that Bee and Stewart started managing their land in a way that could be considered truly regenerative, into the future.
This has been a lengthy build-up to make a point, but here it is….
While contemplating the issues around organic farming, I suddenly realised there were strong connections to that meeting in Midland. In Midland I had come into the circle discussion thinking of black and white relations – but we are already there! Reconciliation is here. just as I have been going to organic farms thinking - yes this is it! The future is here! And, yes, there might well be something approaching a movement towards regenerative agriculture, and yes, at different times great leaps in understanding have happened across cultural divides.
But in answer to that venerable question: Are we there yet? The answer is an emphatic NO. As a society we are still approaching the starting line.
Organics in WA is definitely dying - but it might be a necessary death. I reckon there is a synergy happening here. The post-chem era growers are working out how to create truly biologically rich soils that work in our conditions at the same time as people are saying that gut flora linked to the food we eat is one of the most important issues for mental and physical health for our time. On the other side of the world they are working out that glyphosates - the most commonly used weed killer across the globe - destroys gut flora. Monsanto, producer of Round-up and Genetically Modified seeds, has a PR problem so big that they are undergoing a merge with global pharmaceutical company Bayer. We have our villain and we have our heroes so the lines are set for a mythic transformation.
People grew 'organically' (without inorganic fertilisers and chemicals) pre-WW2, the acknowledged marker for the beginning of broadacre industrial chemical farming, but they stuffed the land - so a lot more knowledge is now available for a New Organic approach.
This knowledge has been fed by the 1960’s revolutions and the decade after that rolled on into communality where self-sufficiency became all the rage. Individually, of course, people have been on this track for decades and Aboriginal people were employing nature-based management techniques for thousands of years to ensure their food sources.
All of the above influences have not grown into a mighty river – instead it has remained a small stream. The danger is we let the small and dedicated crew who have ridden out the decades learning how to farm organically, slip into their graves, taking their practical knowledge and showcasing outfits with them.
I reckon, the notion of organics, as a holistic, integrated way of working the land in tune with nature is an idea whose time is just beginning. It is as if the whole organic cycle is poised to start again at a level elevated above 1970s knowhow and set up for contemporary cyber-conditions.
Ron and Sue, on their modest broadacre farm in the deep rural setting of the Great Southern Region stand virtually alone in their part of the world. Ask at whole food places like Dunn and Waltons, they can count their WA suppliers on the fingers of one hand. 50%-60% of organic produce comes from the eastern states – no wonder vegies look a little tired and overpriced by the time I’m looking at them. And speaking of Dunn and Walton, I met the original owner, market grower turned retailer, on the shop floor. Anne was a bit dark that day: she and Ric her husband had worked with Elaine Ingham, the soil microbiologist 20, maybe 30 years ago…they had so been here before…
Hats off to all these people. Bee and Stewart, thank god we can buy their produce. What luxury to be able to access fruit ripened on the tree! At Merri-Bees you can buy food that has been grown to its full nutritional and flavour potential. To the Watkins’s, rejoice in their peerless eggs and meat keeping a multitude happy in Albany and a farm that shows us exactly how fertility, bio-diversity and economic return can be achieved on a broadacre scale using organic principles….and to the two John’s who are prepared to take a leap from their two hearts and see what happens….this time around…
it is always going to be this time around - we just need to make it stick - this time.