Environment

People think my new project is weird but to me it’s entirely natural

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So I bought a farm. This wont surprise anyone who knows me. Ive wanted to for years. Its why I sold my house. But it surprises everyone else. “What, do you know anything about farming?” they typically ask. “Do you have any idea how much work it is? Have you had experience? Did you grow up on a farm? Or do you just want to re-wild it?”

Answers: yes, some, no, no and absolutely definitively not, in that order. This is not lifestyle. Its not a hobby farm. Its a small pocket-handkerchief of pasture, but its a real, working thing. Very real. Thats kinda the point. I scrutinised hundreds of farms online, and 35 in the flesh. So its been a while. Its my most exciting project for years. Just picturing it makes my pulse race.

Illustration: Simon Letch

People think its weird for a lover of cities also to be interested in farming. To me it seems entirely natural. Farming and cities are flipsides. They sustain, need and complement each other. Cities require food and farming requires consumers. Its a pattern: solid and void; artifice and nature; feeder and fed.

Whats unnatural is sprawl, the suburban in-between that, in wanting to be both, is actually nothing. Like Lend Leases new “rural lifestyle with the convenience of urban living” development near Campbelltown with the sinister, Handmaidly name of Gilead, this is a disgrace. Literally, unashamedly, a waste-land.

As to work? Yes, perhaps. I may have underestimated what it takes, or overestimated my capacity. Ive made mistakes before (mostly with men). But actually its the work that interests me.

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Ive never wanted a weekender. Your beach house and your bush shack leave me cold. I mean, fun while youre making them, sure. But what do you actually do there, except read, walk and plan your next meal, all of which you can do better at home? I want to engage physically with place. It may sound weird, for an intellectual, but I want to make things, grow things, do stuff. Maybe it was one too many mud pies as a kid, but I crave real dirt.

This is where farming and cities share most. Shelter and food are the two core entanglements between humans and nature. They drive our seduction-dance with mother earth, how we entice her into helping us survive her. I like that. We use our bodies to weave a relationship between our fragile spirits and our home planet.

As a teen I became fascinated by Descartes formulation of the “mind-body problem”. Its a simple problem to which there are, even now, no simple answers.

The problem is this. Mind and matter interact. They affect and shape each other. Everything from spaceships to football evidences this. But if mind is immaterial and “body” is material, how exactly does this interaction occur? These days, some remove the problem (rather than resolving it) by insisting its all matter, or all energy. But even so, even if Descartes famous dualism was mistaken, its not clear exactly how or why one form of energy (an idea, say) affects another (a baby, or a brick). This mysterious interface still fascinates me.

Unlike some very spiritual people I know, I have an abiding affection for the material world, but only really as shaped by mind. I think thats why I grew up thinking farming and farmers rather dull. All they seemed to do was chuck a load of superphosphate on the ground and make sure the cows got milked every morning. Thats not interesting.

Re-wilding is also not interesting, for the same reason. Nature doesnt need help being nature. Look away for five minutes and nature will reassert herself, no trouble at all. Nature does nature with aplomb. What nature needs help with, probably the only thing she cant manage, is us. In particular, feeding us.

Author Charles Massy on his property near Cooma.

Photo: Andrew Taylor

So this is whats interesting. How to feed ourselves while also helping nature survive; which is to say, without petrochemicals, without microbe destruction, without mass erosion, without depletion. This means you really have to get it. You have to listen, hard, to nature – microbes, soil structure, symbiosis, water cycles, growth patterns, grazing habits and so on. And you have to understand how to work with them to build your delicate needlepoint. Subversive? Sure. I think of it as guerilla nurturing.

Two brilliant new books document the how-to for Australia. Both are by longtime farmers-turned-thinkers, both tell a personal turning-point story interstitched with history, politics and farming lore. One, Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy, is set south of Sydney, near Cooma; the other, as yet unpublished, by Colin Seis (who spends much of his time now teaching sustainable agriculture all over the world), is set north, near Gulgong.

Essentially, they agree. Soil is the essential ingredient of life; grass is its protector, hard-hoofed grazing animals (contrary to popular belief) can build and restore soil, sequestering carbon and multiplying water-holding capacity by eight or more. In all, ploughing is the enemy. Ploughing turns farming into industry, turned Seis ancestors off the land, to become thieves and get transported to Australia and, worst of all, ploughing destroys soil.

That smell of newly tilled soil, so moist and delicious, so rural – thats the smell of zillions of crucial life-sustaining microbes meeting their maker. As profoundly as napalm in the morning, it is the smell of death.

At one point, Massy quotes from Seis a statement he says he hears repeatedly from leading regenerative farmers: “Most of the time, all weve got to do is get out of the bloody way and stop interfering and itll fix itself.”

So its not untrodden ground, although it is still surprisingly rare given that practitioners swear farming sustainably is cheaper, more productive and easier. For me, its an experiment – a bit Cistercian (bees, chooks, water, waving grass), a bit writerly, a bit mud pies. It could fail. I could fall flat on my face, or decide I hate the country, hate dirt. Either way, expect to hear more.

Twitter @emfarrelly

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Elizabeth Farrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include 'Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses, 'Blubberland; the dangers of happiness and Caro Was Here, crime fiction for children (2014).

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