Book Review: Heartwood by Rowan Reid

Regular readers will know that I love trees. On the Rock Farm we have planted trees for bio-diversity, stock shelter and visual amenity. The Rock Farm also has an amazing history, with ancient eucalypts that I am confident pre-date modern settlement, giant Elm trees from early settlers, and 50 year old tree shelter belts that define some of our paddocks. It is an eclectic mix of trees, of various ages, native and exotic species with different purposes and they all bring their own story and value to the Rock Farm.

Jo and I have talked about removing all stock from the Rock Farm, and creating a plantation of trees. Our harsh climate, irregular rainfall and topography mean we will never grow commercial grain crops on the Rock Farm. But we can grow grass and we can grow trees. Near neighbours have plantations of radiata pine and other neighbours have planted thousands of native trees under forestry conditions. Some plantations are for production, meaning at some time in the future the trees will be harvested. Other plantations aim for conservation, where trees are to be saved. And it has always seemed to me that each approach is mutually exclusive of the other.

This dichotomy has always puzzled me, and many people have taken opposite sides in the production versus conservation debate. Sadly the entrenched sides have often confronted each other with violence, neither side open to seeking an alternative model that meets both their needs.

Rowan Reid has also puzzled over this dichotomy. A forest scientist, his book presents a third way of growing trees. Trees that can be for conservation and for profit. And his story is not based on some theoretical analysis, it is based on his own lived experience on his farm Bambra in the Otway Ranges. His story is fascinating.

I must admit I was a little intimidated by Heartwood when I opened my Christmas present from my wife. At first glance, I thought this would be a technical Silviculture text book with each chapter on how to grow a different species of plantation timber. It is not. Reid winds a thoughtful, indeed beautiful easy to read narrative through each chapter. It is as much an autobiography as it is a journey into the language of trees and timber.

What Reid shows in this book is that there is a place for “new forests that are not primarily commercial but make good business sense,. They don’t look like conservation, yet improve diversity and reduce land degradation., They are not compromises…. They are elegant solutions, appropriate for each owner, their place and the time, which provide a balance of conservation, aesthetics and profit.

Each chapter investigates a particular species. Reid doesn’t just examine the living tree and its characteristics, such as its ability to stabilise eroded slopes or gullies, or provide winter fodder for stock. Reid also takes the reader into some of the techniques to grow straight tall trees, how to prune the branches and then into the mills, the market and in many cases through to the end user. We see examples of furniture and panelling made from timber that Reid planted at Bambra after he purchased the property in 1987, since grown, harvested, milled and then sold..

The end of each chapter explains the scientific or forestry terms used in the preceding chapter. We are gently introduced to terms such as Geotropic or Phototropic, meaning does a tree grow against gravity or does it direct its growth towards sunlight. Also milling terms such as quartersawn timber or backsawn timber and what this means for shrinkage and expected twisting or warping on boards. You don’t need to delve into these couple of pages if you don’t want to – but they have increased my vocabulary and has allowed me to have confidence that if we are to trial an agroforestry or silviculture paddock, we should be able to produce timber of real value.

Reid reminds us that sixty percent of the Australian landmass is managed by farmers. The primary reason we have lost so many native species in recent times, and have declining soil and water health is not logging for timber but clearing for agriculture. Reid saw an opportunity to develop his blend of agroforestry and decided his calling was to be a forester among farmers. As such, Reid opens his farm to visitors and has established a “Master Tree Grower’s Course”.

Many commercial foresters say my example is too complicated, too expensive and lacking the efficiencies of scale and uniformity that they strive for in their own plantation models. Many of those working in the conservation sector view any form of timber harvesting from Landcare plantings as an anathema and my attempts to mix the two, abhorrent. But the farmers who visit, it’s just common-sense to manage waterways on farms for both conservation and profit.


One of the local farmers who gets it is John, who runs Woodvale near Yass. His enterprise is based on a sheep and forestry operation. I met John several years ago – he introduced us to Wiltipoll Sheep and commenced our journey down the regenerative agriculture path. I joined our local regenerative land managers network a couple of weeks ago to revisit John’s place and look more closely at his forestry operation – planted on the ridges around his property. It can be done – and done locally. John’s trees are now 25 years old, and are looking magnificent, You can follow Woodvale’s story here:

Reid is justifiably proud of his trees, which he sees as a gift to future generations. Whilst many of the trees he has planted have been harvested and many more will be harvested in his own lifetime, there are also those slower growing trees such as Black Walnut that won’t. “The reward I seek – what motivates me – is how our children’s children might think of the person who planted them“. I would argue that perhaps Reid’s greatest legacy is the seed he has planted in the minds of thousands of farmers around the world, who in turn have planted millions of trees. This is a great book for anyone who owns some land and wants a balanced outcome that both improves the soil and water quality, that also makes a return on the initial investment whilst allowing for livestock production.

The best part is you can meet Rowan and tour his magnificent property Bambra during a 2.5 hour ‘lecture in the paddock’. It is going to be on my calendar as soon as I can make it. More information and dates can be found here:


Book Review – My Father and Other Animals by Sam Vincent

Over the summer, I had the great pleasure of reading Sam Vincent’s heart-warming memoir, My Father and Other Animals: How I took on the Family Farm. Sam, a twenty something millennial returned to the family farm to help his father who was becoming increasingly accident prone. Part apprenticeship, part journey, part discovery, Sam’s account of his time learning the rhythm of the farm is touching, hilarious and brutally honest. Of course I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed taking some time out of the heat of the day to turn some pages before nodding off!

Sam Vincent
For any reader desiring to understand contemporary rural Australia, his entertaining and important book is a must-read. CHARLES MASSY

Sam might have grown up on the farm Gollion, and his memories as a child recall a magical place with dams to swim in, trees to climb and gullies to explore. Returning as an adult, it is an entirely different proposition. Sam shares his apprenticeship building fences, managing livestock and growing fruit through the eyes of a total newbie. Sam relates how we gains a deeper connection to not only the farm but also his father,

Sam’s journey is far more than a book about his relationship with his father. Sam shares many of the challenges facing contemporary farming in Australia, especially the responsibility that a custodian bears. He shares some of his philosophies gleaned form his holistic management courses developed by Allan Savory, lessons from Peter Andrew’s Natural Sequence Farming and some of the ethical and moral issues facing small farmers like us in finding markets for respectfully grown and cared for livestock in a mechanised feedlot based industry. Many of these stories are shared through humourous anecdotes with his father as the unwitting star,.

Through our local Regenerative Land Managers Network and nearby Landcare group, not only did I have the opportunity to meet Sam, but also get a tour of his beautiful property Gollion late last year. Gollion is kind-of-famous in a way regenerative agriculturalists will understand. Charles Massey visited Gollion in 2016 after receiving an invitation from Sam’s father to address their local Landcare Group. Touring Gollion, Massey was impressed with a gully filled with rock that had formed a leaky weir. In the reeds growing in the pool of now-permanent water, Massey heard the call of a Reed Warbler bird, not seen (or heard) in the area for 130 years. Inspired, Massey concluded that the reed warbler could only be a talisman of a watercourse and landscape function on the path to regeneration – and named his seminal work “Call of the Reed Warbler” after this experience. I reviewed Massey’s amazing work last year:

I connected with Sam’s book on so many levels. I felt many parallels with Sam’s experience growing up on Gollion as I felt growing up on Saltersgate, a small farm owned by my parents. Sam articulates many of the feelings I felt about the farm, however he is able to share them with a gentle humour that I cannot hope to posses. My father with his cattle and sheep, and my mother with her horses were inadvertently the main influence on my journey that led me to the Rock Farm after a career forged at sea. Sam’s is a beautiful story, and I loved every page.

My Father and Other Animals has helped me reconsider how I encourage my boy’s to interact with the Rock Farm. Sam reminds me that the Rock Farm is not their dream, it is mine. Secretly I am happy my boys have already lived some of Sam’s apprenticeship. They have helped me build fences, mark lambs and calves and repair cantankerous farm machinery. But I am also glad that they have also made their own happy memories on the farm, exploring gullies, swimming in the dam, testing their courage on motorbikes and cuddling horses or cattle.

I cannot recommend My Father and Other Animals enough for anyone interested in pursuing a tree-change, or adopting regenerative practices. It is a book for anyone who cares about the future of Agriculture in the world. It is also a book about families and the special relationship between a father and his son.

Book Review: Ten Acres Enough by Edmund Morris

I suspect Edmund Morris never expected his little volume published in 1864 to remain in print and popular 150 years later.

On one read, it a delightful autobiographical account of how one family moved to the country and became financially secure. On the other, it is a well reasoned and explained approach to managing a small farm with diverse production whilst creating a healthy lifestyle, in an era before the use of chemicals.

Nothing better on a dreary winter night than to curl up in front of the fire… whilst my humans read books!

I see echoes of Morris’ approach to farming his ten acres in modern permaculture, regenerative agriculture and the homesteading movement. Indeed that is perhaps what makes it such an important work. Morris has inspired countless farmers over the years, who have found his account inspirational, and I see echoes of his work everywhere.

Morris opens the book by sharing with readers the reason he chose to leave city life, and also hints at the research he undertook prior to selling his business and purchasing ten acres in New York State. His wife and large family feature large in this account, especially their influence in the purchase of a milking cow, managing the vegetable garden and preservation of foods.

Morris carefully catalogues his expenses and income, including his initial outlay and capital expenditure. The location of the farm is important, as it needed to be near to a large city for a market for his produce. Morris’ farm, between Philadelphia and New York City also took advantage of the new railway, which meant he was able to deliver his fresh produce to consumers in under 24 hours.

What I found fascinating was how Morris was able to generate so much production on his small plot, with the land carefully tilled and vertically managed. His main production was an apricot orchid, but he also produced tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries and also ran a cow for fresh milk, some pigs and hens. Morris’ astute observation allowed him to recognise the importance of birds in management of weevils and other insect pests against the small losses to his orchids and other crops.

Here now were six acres of ground pretty well crowded up, at least on paper. But the strawberries would never grow higher than six inches, the raspberries would be kept down to three or four feet while the peaches would overtop all. Each would be certain to keep out of the other’s way. Then look at the succession. The strawberries would be in market first, the raspberries would follow, and then fthe peaches, for of the latter I had planted the earliest sorts, so that, unlike a farm devoted wholly to the raising of grain, which comes into market only once a year, I should have one cash-producing crop succeeding to another during most of the summer.

Morris and his large family obviously relished in the change of lifestyle to farming. However between the lines, his success is down to a lot of hard work. I am amazed at the physical labour required to create the profitable business of his farm, but that is through a 21st century lens full of labour saving innovations.

If you find the phraseology dated and difficult to follow, there are updated editions that have been edited to assist the reader in understanding the intent of the original work. I found the original text easy to follow, if a little quaint, but I think that adds to the charm of what is such a wonderful little book.

Morris’ work is especially relevant today as the movement back to chemical free farming methods continues to grow. It seems to me that we will not be learning new lessons in this process, rather we will be relearning old lessons. Morris gives a us a great resource for us to draw on. I can’t recommend it enough.

Regenerative Agriculture Reference List: Books, Podcasts and Films

There are so many wonderful people who have inspired us through sharing their story or their experiences. I thought I would start to create a reference list of books, podcasts and films that have opened our minds to the possibilities created through the regenerative agriculture journey. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I will keep adding to it as I am introduced to other wonderful resources and stories.

If I have missed anyone who has inspired you, please share them here so I can build this repository of regenerative agriculture excellence!

I hope you can find something here to help inspire you. Where possible I have provided links to the page of the author so you can find out more about their stories.


Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe – ISBN 9781921248016 –

Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen – ISBN 9781741177268 –

Grassland Flora: A Field Guide for the Southern Tablelands (NSW & ACT) by Sarah Sharp, Rehwinkel Rainer, Dave Mallinson and David Eddy – ISBN 731360214 –

Heartwood: The art and science of growing trees for conservation and Profit by Rowan Reid – ISBN 9781925556117 –

Millpost – A Broadscale Permaculture Farm since 1979 – David Watson – ISBN: 9780646984827 –

Ngunnawal Plant Use – A Traditional Aboriginal Plant Use Guide for the ACT Region – produced by the ACT Government in partnership with local Ngunnawal elders and their families – ISBN 9781921117152 –

Ten Acres Enough The Classic 1864 Guide to Independent Farming – Edmund Morris – ISBN 9780486437378 –

The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency – John Seymour ISBN 9780571110957

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage – ISBN9781743311325

The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future by David Wallace-Wells – ISBN 9780141988870

What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife – Lead Author David Lindenmayer ISBN 9780643102217 –

Woodland Flora: A Field Guide for the Southern Tablelands (NSW & ACT) – Sarah Sharp, Rehwinkel Rainer, Dave Mallinson and David Eddy –

You Can Farm The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Success in a Farming Enterprise – Joel Salatin – ISBN 978-0963810922 –


Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with John Kempf

The Curious Farmer with Kate Field

The Regenerative Journey with Charlie Arnott

The RegenNarration Podcast with Anthony James

Working Cows Podcast with Clay Conry


The Biggest Little Farm – John and Molly Chester –

2040 – Damon Gameau –

Regenerating Australia – Damon Gameau

Book Review: Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massey

Few people have the courage to critically examine the path they are following, and after consideration, deliberately choose to take a different one. Massey not only embraced a new form of agriculture, but has also sought and interviewed others on similar journeys . Call of the Reed Warbler is a book about that change in direction, that looks deep into the heart of modern agriculture and provides an insightful and hopeful vision for the future.

Using the following main themes, Massey explores the relationships between humans and agriculture. He intersects the science, literature and shared experiences with deeply personal insights from his own farm. A practical dreamer, Massey provides real examples of the improvements that can be made with a paradigm shift in mind set. The book is structured along the following themes:

  • Regenerating the Solar Energy Function
  • Regenerating the Water Cycle
  • Regenerating the Soil Mineral Cycle
  • Regenerating Dynamic Eco Systems
  • Regenerating the Landscape: Role of the Human-Social

All these themes are closely related of course, and because of this there are many stories that overlap and are linked. This means that the same observations are repeated from different perspectives. Massey takes us into the lounge rooms of hundreds of farmers around the world and introduces them to us in a sensitive and endearing manner. We learn about the trials and tribulations that forced many farmers and their families to alter their farming practices and embrace what is now termed regenerative agriculture. By its nature, animals and grazing management is a large part of the story, however also Massey shares stories of those farmers who are using regenerative principles with their cropping, in most cases with outstanding results.

Widely read, Massey quotes scientists, philosophers, presidents and farmers throughout his book. It is clear that the genesis for regenerative agriculture can be traced at least as far back as the origin of modern industrial agriculture. However humans have been making mistakes with agriculture for thousands of years with ignorance and greed playing a part. Massey even quotes Plato, who bemoaned the deforestation of Attica due to grazing back in 360BC.

Massey traces the development of agriculture throughout history. He explains regenerative aquiculture “implies more than just sustaining something but rather an active rebuilding or regeneration of existing systems to full health. It also implies an open-ended process of ongoing improvement and positive transformation. This can encompass the rebuilding or regeneration of soil itself, and of biodiversity more widely; the reduction of toxins and pollutants; the recharging of aquifers; the production of healthier food, clean water and air; the replacement of external inputs; and the enhancement of social capital and ecological knowledge“.

Massey has travelled the widely across Australia and Africa, and the stories within the pages come from the innovative regenerative agriculture pioneers around the world. Massey interweaves their story with anecdotes from his own farm in the Monaro Plains of NSW. Massey’s farm however plays a secondary role in this story, unlike Rebank’s farm which is the star of his book English Pastoral.

Call of the Reed Warbler is not a text book, nor is it a “how to guide”. Rather it is an engaging story showing the breadth of regenerative agriculture practitioners in Australia. Each of these farmers is on their own journey, and Massey hopes to share enough of their stories for readers to find a part that resonates with them. I found old school friends, neighbours and role models in this book. There are techniques mentioned that I will do more research on, and others that aren’t particularly relevant for us here on the Rock Farm.

Massey has created an incredible legacy with this book. It is a elegant manifesto, profound in its observations, complex in its nature yet easy to understand. It is well worth enjoying in front of the fire on cold winter evenings or on those precious rare rainy days… even the dog will agree!

Book Review: English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Under the Christmas Tree this year was a wonderful gift from my mother, English Pastoral by James Rebanks. Rebanks is a farmer in the Lakes district in the UK, an Oxford graduate and an expert adviser to the UNESCO on sustainable tourism. You might be forgiven for thinking what is the relevance of this book for a small hobby farm half a world away, but this book captures many of my frustrations with ‘conventional agriculture’ and provides guidance for me in our journey on the Rock Farm.

Rebanks opens his book with a memory of riding with his Grandfather as he ploughed his fields. When he was old enough, his Grandfather started sharing the traditional farming techniques used on a mixed rotational farm. Rebanks loved his apprenticeship, and learnt the old way of farming that had been largely unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years.

As a young man, he witnessed his Father struggle with the lure of modern agriculture. With the drive for efficiency, farms started to grow in size. Fertilizers and high yielding pasture, along with specialised farms replaced mixed farms. This modern miracle increased yields enormously. But it came at a cost, and rested uneasily with Rebanks and his father.

A watershed moment came when a young woman, Lucy came from a local river conservation charity. With some simple changes, Lucy showed how the water courses running through their farm could be returned to their more natural state. And she had funds to help pay for the fencing that would be required to make it happen. Small changes made more natural areas in the farm, and Rebanks realised he was now a guardian of these wild spaces. This first step changed Rebanks as well as the farm.

Rebanks is a realist. He knows the future of farming lies somewhere between the vast industrial scope of broadacre agriculture with its intensive feedlots, and the small scale mixed farms. He is concerned with the increasingly binary arguments that place farmers at odds with environmentalists. He knows that the old style of farming is hard work. The health of animals and plants is hard work, and requires constant vigilance. I am reminded of the words of Allan Savory who believes all problems stem from poor management.

The idea that land must be either perfectly wild or perfectly efficient and sterile is unwise and blinding; it is a false and unsustainable simplification. When we despair and reduce our world view to black and white – ‘farming’ is bad; ‘nature’ is good – we lose sight of vital distinctions and nuances. We make every farmer who isn’t a saint a villain. We miss the actual complexities of farming, the vast spectrum between those those extremes and the massive scope for nature friendly farming that exists between them.

What I really enjoyed about reading Rebanks’ book was his descriptions of the land and all that lived in it. It was once said to me that a farmer’s footsteps are the best fertiliser. Rebanks embodies this, with his delight in the detail of his farm. He takes us on constant journeys around his farm, and shares the magic of sighting a barn owl in the hunt, the rising of the sun above the mist at dawn, the gentle cow nursing her new calf.

The more I learn about it, the more beautiful our farm and valley becomes. It pains me to ever be away; I never want to be wrenched from this place and its constant motion. The longer I am here, the clearer I hear the music of this valley: the Jenny wren in the undergrowth; the Scots pines creaking and groaning in the wind: the meadow grasses whispering. The distinction between me and this place blurs until I become part of it, and when they set me in the earth here, it will be the conclusion of a longer lifelong story of return. The ‘I’ and the ‘me’ fades away, erodes with each passing day, until it is already an effort to remember who I am and why I am supposed to matter. The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noise age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue.

This book is beautiful. It is shocking. It has challenged me to take time to get to know the detail of our farm. The wild things that live here, the changes of the seasons, the flowing of the grasses. It has also reminded me that our farm is a luxury. It is a hobby that I love, but I don’t stay up at night worrying about how I will provide for my family.

It seems the lessons of half a world away are equally relevant here too.

Book Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

With the recent cold snap bringing 30mm of rain to the Rock Farm, it has been the perfect opportunity to catch up on some reading.  This review is on Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe.  First published in 2014, this edition was updated in 2018 and incorporates many changes that were unearthed after the book was first published.

Bruce challenges the historical narrative that the Aboriginal people of Australia were hunter gathers.  Through in depth analysis of first contact documents and evidence, Bruce asserts that the Aboriginal people were in fact farming the landscape on a broad scale.  And the scale of agriculture was vast.

Whilst the journals of the first European explorers described the fertile parkland country they passed through, they failed to appreciate the subtlety of the managed landscape.  They thought the open fertile plains were ‘a happy accident of nature’, yet in the next page described how they supplemented their supplies by raiding caches of grain stored by the Aboriginal people.


Evidence of the management of the landscape covers the entire continent.  From the diversion of waterways to irrigate crops, to the symbiotic relationship developed between the yam daisy and people, the message is clear.  The Aboriginal people had a sophisticated agricultural economy that supported permanent or semi-permanent villages with ingenious and often labour saving technologies.

Pascoe often quotes the journals of the explorers, as it is the most authoritative evidence remaining of the landscape and its inhabitants during these turbulent years. The Explorers were often amazed at how little effort the Aboriginal people needed to exert in order to meet their daily requirements.

Within a year or two of first contact, the landscape had irrevocably changed.  Whether by the introduced cattle and sheep eating the yam daisy and other crops to local extinction, the deconstruction of fish traps to allow passage of steamers on the waterways, or through the change in fire regime, the first contact aboriginal people found themselves unable to continue their sustainable harvest from the land.  This led to conflict with European settlers,  forever and tragically shaping the future relationship.

Once facet of this book that I found interesting is that this is a book of hope.  It attempts to re-write the common narrative that the Aboriginals were unsophisticated hunter gatherers, without apportioning blame for past wrongs.  There is definitely a feeling of loss at what has passed, and occasional frustrations at ignorance from individuals who should know better, but I felt this a book of hope and reconciliation.

What does this mean for us on the Rock Farm?

This book encourages me to look at our landscape differently.  Our property has been almost completely altered being one of the earliest areas opened up.  A local history written in the 1970’s describes the last of the Aboriginal elders dying in the 1890’s.  The evidence of the first people on the Rock Farm is hard to find.

On nearby properties, ochre pits have been recognised and a relationship re-established with the Ngunnawal people.  I look more closely at the landscape now, and at the creek, and see if there is evidence of fish traps.  It will never be what it was, but our journey to restore the soil health of the Rock Farm involves the creation of a managed park land.  This will hopefully embrace some of the principles the first people used in managing their landscape…  And if like the original inhabitants, I can get the work down to a few hours a day to support my family, I’ll be really happy!



Movie Review – The Biggest Little Farm

Whilst we have been using a lot of our time in isolation to get some work done around the Rock Farm, it has also been a wonderful opportunity to take a few moments to feed our souls.  I was super excited when Jo suggested a movie@home for a date night a couple of weeks ago.  And it wasn’t just any movie – it was all about a little farm a bit like ours…

The movie is The Biggest Little Farm.  It is the inspirational story of John and Molly Chester, and their quest to create a holistic  farm from a run down orchid in California.  John, a film maker by trade, documented their journey, their struggles and their triumphs in a heart warming honest and open story.

In 2011, John and Molly bought Apricot Lane Farm, near Los Angeles with a vision of creating an well-balanced ecosystem that creates sustainable, organic farm produce.  The farm they purchased was none of these things.  The soil was dead, the trees were sick and the farm was not profitable.

The movie tracks their progress and set-backs as they attempt to restore health to the soil, establish orchids and farm animals.  It isn’t always an easy journey – but I found the movie inspirational in showing what can be achieved with a strong vision, a comprehensive plan and a willingness to go out on a limb.

The movie has caused me to pause and look at what is going on here on the Rock Farm.  I am taking more efforts to try to understand the role each plant is playing in my paddocks – even the weeds (especially the weeds).  We have a very different farm model, and different goals for our property – but there are elements I have taken that will help shape the way we manage the Rock Farm.

I encourage anyone who cares about the future of agriculture to check out the trailer – or even better, download the movie.  It is the start of a wonderful night in.  More information on John and Molly’s farm, and a link to the movie, can be found here:

An inspirational story – Trees & Regenerative Agriculture

With the glorious sound of rain falling on our roof, it is extremely pleasant to take refuge inside with a steaming mug of happiness.  Well, after feeding the calves and repairing the tractor…. and buying some more bags of feed for the calves…. and making sure the tank inlets are clear of debris to ensure every drop is making its way into our tanks.

As I write, we have 13mm of steady beautiful rain in the gauge – just perfect timing after our big fall a fortnight ago.  All the established grass responded to the last fall and has been growing well, but the clover and other grass that germinated was just about to curl up and die.  This might be enough to get some good feed on the ground before it gets too cold to grow.

A day inside is never wasted, it is a wonderful opportunity to delve back into the books and online to find stories that inspire and motivate.  It is even better when one of those stories is about an old school mate, Michael.

I hope you have 12 minutes or so to enjoy the story of Taylor’s Run and how trees have not only made their property more beautiful and diverse, but profitable, especially in this drought.  I am exceptionally lucky to count this fella as a mate, and look forward to dropping in to check out what his family is achieving on our next drive through the New England.


Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future

This summer I planned to spend a whole heap of time with my boys working on the Rock Farm.  Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way.  Total fire bans and hot dry weather have caused us to stop working on our projects and nearby bush-fires have created a toxic smoke haze that has limited our ability to get out of the house.  This has created an opportunity to catch up on some reading.

This title comes from my professional book-club, however has an application to the Rock Farm.  Indeed it has an application to all of us, and it is one of the most important books I have ever read.

David Wallace-Wells approaches an enormous topic with his book The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future.  It is the product of his two year immersion in the science of climate – and he attempts to make sense of it all in a way that we can understand.

It isn’t comfortable reading.


It has been thirty years  since Al Gore published his “Inconvenient Truth”.  In that thirty years, humans have emitted as much carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels as in the entire history of mankind up until that point!  Wallace-Wells bemoans our indifference to the threat of climate change and wants to spurn us into action

Wallice-Wells breaks his book into two main sections.

The first section addresses the elements of chaos.  This section looks at the physical manifestation of climate change.  What an increase of temperature will mean.  How it will affect the oceans, the air we breathe, the behaviour of wildfires, the production of food.

The second section looks at the impacts of a changing climate on society. It examines how society may be shaped through the challenges of climate change.  Wallace-Wells asks will we find solutions in technology, or will humanity descend into some post apocalyptic Mad Max type scenario?

To address these issues, Wallace-Wells has collated the best science from around the world and turned it into a non-technical book accessible to most readers. By trying to keep the book non-technical, I feel that Wallace-Wells has cherry-picked the figures that best support his case – and this makes me feel he is often overstating his argument.  One example about sea-birds reads: “one researcher found 225 pieces of plastic in the stomach of a single three-month-old chick, weighing 10 percent of its body mass“.  I found this example of one bird particularly odd, especially when Wallace-Wells is arguing that the entire sea-bird population is declining rapidly due to plastics in the ocean.

One of Wallace-Wells arguments is that disasters will no longer be considered ‘natural’.  Severe weather events will be of higher intensity and occur more frequently than in the past.  The impacts of these events on  infrastructure and human population will be greater.  Wallace-Wells puts forward that societies will get to a point where it will be uneconomic to repair the damage.  This introduces the concept of climate refugees.

Climate refugees are people displaced by climate change.  Wallace-Wells asks whether the current ongoing crisis in Syria and the rest of the middle east has its roots in climate change and pressures on food supply?  Perhaps the combination of climate change and poor agricultural practices has led to the desertification of what was once the Garden of Eden.

Heat from a global temperature rise will affect food production – drought will become a huge problem for agriculture attempting to feed an increasing population.  Wallace-Wells states that at 2 degrees warming, “droughts will wallop the Mediterranean and much of India“.  At 2.5 degrees warming, we could enter a global food deficit.  Due to the nature of drought, many of his claims are difficult to accept directly, however the overall message that drought will impact food supply is terribly important.

I found parts of the book frustrating in the way the science is collated and presented.  Wallace-Wells uses a lot of numbers to make his points- and deliberately chooses the numbers that sound the worst.  When talking about the threat of micro-plastics to the ocean, he uses absolute numbers: “in one square mile of water near Toronto, 3.4 million micro-plastic particles were recently trawled“.  It is hard to understand what this means, especially when we are told that each washing machine cycle can release 700 000 of these microscopic bits.  By trying to use specifics, I find the numbers almost meaningless, despite the overall message being very important.

I found the predictions as to the future shape of societies and ethics in the future concerning.  The book is intentionally alarmist – and I find that sometimes it is hard to understand the claims behind the figures presented as facts.  At least Wallace-Wells has a comprehensive notes section with references to most of his claims, and there is no denying he has done a mountain of research to base this book on.

One story that I found particularly concerning and highlights how little we know about the climate feedback loops concerns the central Asian Saiga – a dwarf like antelope.  In May 2015 over a few days 60 percent of the global population of Saiga died in what is termed a “mega death” event.  Their deaths were caused by a bacteria, pasteurella multocida which lives naturally in the animal’s tonsils.  Suddenly it proliferated, entered the animals’ blood stream, then liver, kidneys and spleen.  The cause was an extremely hot and humid weather pattern – with the highest humidity ever recorded in the areas where the deaths occurred.  Wallace-Wells described the scenario in this case as: “Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.”  We are entering uncharted territory and many of the feedback loops remain unknown at this time.

So what does it all mean for us at the Rock Farm.

As many of you know, we are trying to establish a woodland type setting with deciduous trees providing a shade, shelter and food source for our grazing stock.  We have sections of native trees and plants for habitat, however we want to make sure that we can protect our pasture from the buffeting winds and drying sunshine, to give us more capacity to deal with drought.  We want to offset the carbon emissions of our car travel.  We want to understand the research that suggests that holistic pasture management with cattle is actually a net carbon sink.

When looking at what plants we want to grow, we are looking at plants that thrive not just in our local area, but also further west of us, where the climate is more ‘Mediterranean’ tending arid.  We want to set our farm up to deal with the changing climate.  The current drought and bush fire crisis has sharpened our focus, and whilst it has made it hard this year to get our trees established, we remain committed to trying to improve this patch of earth we have the responsibility to care for.

It worries me that the debate about climate change and the cause of the fires on social media (and even in the mainstream media)  is increasingly binary.  I see friends using the internet not to open their minds and see different perspectives, but rather to seek other’s opinions that match their own, and then argue that because someone doesn’t share their opinion, they’re an idiot.  The internet was invented to share information, not to watch cat videos and argue with strangers.

We only have one world.  Surely it is too precious to get it wrong. I am the first to admit we live a life of extreme privilege.  It is fair to ask whether it really too hard to make a difference?  Bear in mind, that if the top 10 percent of energy consumers dropped their consumption to just the EU average, total global emissions would fall by a staggering 35 percent.   Now that is something we probably can do, and once we start, I am sure the groundswell of humanity will get on-board!

As Lydia Dotto asked in her piece Storm Warning, Gambling with the Climate of Our Planet twenty years ago

Imagine for a moment you’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical condition.  The diagnosis was difficult but the doctors think they have caught it early.  The prognosis is uncertain:  they can’t fully predict what’s going to happen, but they do know you face difficult choices because this condition gets worse before it gets better.”  

Do you wait for the proof of your condition to become undeniable, before you start treatment, even though it may be too late for that treatment to be effective? Do you take treatment that may drastically reduce your quality of life now, whilst other people say that you’ll barely notice the effects?

I think we all have a responsibility to try to make a difference – and it starts at home.  We can’t afford to wait for the politicians to catch up with us. I am an optimist, and I know that there are many wonderful people working hard to help our world solve its many challenges.  Books like The Uninhabitable Earth remind us how important it is that we stay focused on making the future a better one, for our children’s sake.


The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future by David Wallace-Wells  ISBN 978-0-141-98887-0