Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tony Hughes-D'Aeth and Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture: a response

Dialogue Boxes, New England's Western Slopes Harry Pidgeon is one of a number of artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

My attention was drawn Tony Hughes-D'Aeth piece in The Conversation Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture by a tweet from  @billy_griffiths  "Nice piece by Tony Hughes-D'Aeth on the Australian environment as an actor rather than a stage".

I referred to Tony and his new book,  Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt in a piece I wrote (Musing on Geraldine Doogue's new RN radio program on new genres in Australian history) back in March.

I had not yet read the book, I still have to do that, but based on the interview I liked his approach. I also liked the idea of Geraldine's radio series itself as described::
Saturday Extra brings you in the month of March emerging and established historians who are embarking on studies of particular regions in Australia and using different means to trace the history such as literature and the environment. Eminent historian Tom Griffiths provides his take on this new genre.
I wasn't convinced about the the new genres part, but was pleased to see a renewed interest in regional history as well as a focus on using different sources to explore different aspects of life. In a comment on the program website, I expressed the hope that there would be some New England material given the long intellectual tradition in that area. In the end there was not nor was there much really on regional history itself, although the segments were quite interesting.

Oxley Highway, Julia Griffin, another of the artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

Following Billy's tweet, I read Tony's Conversation piece  I tweeted back: "There is a danger of a new urban theology here, Billy. The discussion is much older and deeper than is allowed at least in Northern NSW, the area I focus on. Rolls was not an accident nor, for that matter, was Isabel (McBryde). They form part of a tradition."  I then sketched some history in a subsequent set of responses. Given my reaction to Geraldine's program, I was a bit miffed that  all the back history was still being ignored.

Reading Tony's article a little later, I realised that there was less history and far more theology than I had first thought, a view confirmed by the commentary stream. It is this element that I wish to address. I will bring up more detailed historical material in a post on my history blog.

Because I am about to be very critical, I repeat the link to Tony's piece so that you can check my arguments against his. I note that Australia is a varied place and that  that I am writing especially about an area that I know very well. Experience in other areas such as the WA wheat belt may be very different. I note, too, that I am not an urbanist. In Australian parlance, I am a townie with country links who has written on and shares at least some of the ethos of the various country movements, including opposition to metro dominance whether economic. political or cultural. All this will be clear to anyone who reads my blogs and other writing.

The Theology of  Tony Hughes-D'Aeth 
Herding sheep near Armidale when Australia still rode on the sheep's back. "it (agriculture) is as much religion as it is an industry" 
Tony adopts a religious tone early on. "What if Australia were to stop farming?" he asks. There would be a big economic hit. towns that are dying would collapse, jobs would go:
 But really the scandal of this thought goes beyond economics and into the very soul of the nation. The crucial insight to emerge from such a thought-experiment is that agriculture in Australia is a religion — it is as much a religion as it is an industry. 
Hughes-D'Aeth The powerful ideological connection between Australia and agriculture, Tony suggests,  is being increasingly and diversely scrutinised and comes to the fore in Charles Massy’s iconoclastic epic, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2017. This throws into question 200 years of assumptions about what it means to graze animals in Australia.
Massy’s joins a spate of recent books that seek to recast the basic assumptions on which Australian agriculture was built. They include Don Watson’s The Bush (2016), Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014) (which has recently been turned into dance by Bangarra) and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012). If agriculture is a religion in Australia, these writers are its heresiarchs. . .
The idea of the heresiarch, the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect, is deeply embedded in Tony's thought. I don't think it unfair to say that he see himself in this role.

He suggests that it is a "truism that Australia, overwhelmingly urban for most of its modern history, draws its identity disproportionately from “the land”" as evidenced in the Qantas ads.
 In this sense, Australia (the continent, the land, the soil, the bush) is imagined as a metaphysical substance which gives unity, meaning and destiny to what might otherwise seem like a collection of recently federated settler colonies, formed 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 are expressive of Australia, the metaphysical ideal. Without this connection between agriculture and Australianness, we couldn’t make sense of such fashion icons as Akubra, Blundstone, Driza-Bone and R.M. Williams.. 
He goes on to state that serious questions about the way that Australia sustains people through the plants and animals that are husbanded on its ancient soils are not, of course, confined to the past several years.
The revision might be traced to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters (1994), or even earlier to such seminal works of environmental history as Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981), W.K. Hancock’s Discovering Monaro (1972), and Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) and Twice Trodden Ground (1971).
What each of these writers did, Tony argues, was to make the Australian environment, or some part of it, an actor rather than a stage.Ffor these writers the environment  was not some broadly passive, albeit resistant, thing out there that needed to be overcome, battled, tamed, brought into submission — it was a dynamic system of interrelated parts, where every action had cascading consequences and complex repercussions.
At the centre of, or just beneath, all of these books is the attempt to try and locate some kind of basic environmental baseline. There seems to be no dispute about the fact that the agricultural colonisation of Australia by Europeans has had far reaching consequences for the organisation of the continent’s biota.
Tony then briefly discusses the adverse effects of agriculture in terms of species loss, the impact of hard-hooved animals, new predators and vegetation loss. He contrasts this with Aboriginal management of the land before returning to his theme: 
What all of these books are saying, and why they are in fact getting traction now, is that something is broken. These books are not announcing that the environment is broken — they merely mention this in passing, regarding this as beyond any reasonable doubt. Instead, what these books are announcing is that agriculture is broken. 
This, in the context of our self-image, is something that is much more terrifying and it will be savagely resisted. But each book is also hopeful in its way. None more than Charles Massy, whose book’s subtitle “A New Agriculture, A New Earth” is openly salvationist and The Call of the Reed Warbler is a detailed plan for the regeneration of degraded pastoral country that allows for both agricultural production and environmental recovery.
To Tony, all these books are an attempt to remedy current blindness. 


In responding to Tony's article, I want to focus on adding a little historical depth rather than getting caught in the more theological or ideological elements.

The Aboriginal Period

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps. As the environment stabilised at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and populations increased, the Aboriginal peoples invested in new structures and developed a sophisticated land management system  

In recent works, both Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia) talk about Aboriginal land management. There are some problems with both books, but I don't think that anybody would challenge that the Aborigines had modified and managed their environment to meet their needs. They had also introduced Australia's first known feral pest, the dingo.

The fact that the Aboriginal peoples had sophisticated economic structures and modified their environment has been known for some time. Because memory is an imperfect beast, I went back and checked my 1966 UNE honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth century. This was an ethnohistorical study attempting to analyse Aboriginal economic life at the time of European invasion.. Topics covered included the natural environment; population distribution; patterns of seasonal movement and the degree of settled life in terms of "Nomadic" society (the italics are in the original); division of labour, specialisation and and cooperation; property; trade contact and the distribution of goods; capital formation and industrial development; food production including farming and the extent to which the Aborigines were changing their environment.

While I'm quite proud that I did pick up issues that would later be important, some of my conclusions still stand, the thesis does have obvious weaknesses. However, it provides a snapshot of knowledge at the time.

The Pilliga Scrub. As Eric Rolls describes, the forest now known as the Pilliga Scrub did not exist in Aboriginal times because burning kept the country open. 
In 1966, the extent to which the Aborigines modified their environment especially by use of fire was still open to some dispute, although the general use of fire was well documented. Looking at the evidence that was available that showed that fire had considerable impact and that by 1892 some previously open areas were being claimed by vegetation, I concluded that fire kept the country open and that non-fire resistant vegetation died out to some extent.

Since then, of course, so much additional knowledge has emerged. By the late sixties or early 1970s (I can't find the exact reference) the idea that the Aborigines deliberately burnt the Liverpool Plains, for example, to maximise productivity was being argued in the UNE Botany Department. Then we have Eric Roll's detailed 1981 study of the Pilliga. Since then, knowledge has continued to accumulate.

The difficulty that arises, though, is to know just what conclusion to draw from a comparison of now with the Aboriginal period recognising variety across the country including issues associated with the rolling date of European occupation. On the surface, for example, the creation of national parks intended to preserve the natural environment was in fact creating a new environment different from that which applied at the time of European occupation. This doesn't make them wrong, just indicates a need for care in drawing conclusions.

One recent development here has been the attempt to reintroduce traditional Aboriginal burning practices. A New England example can be found in the work being done by a UNE postgraduate student and the Bainbai people.

More broadly, if we assume that Aboriginal society in 1788 was at a point of balance with the environment they had created, and this is an assumption although its one I would broadly accept, then how should this actually inform the present?

The European Period

European occupation involved two broad types of environmental changes. One was the impact of the removal of  Aboriginal land management practices, the second the impact on the environment of European land management techniques. I really struggled in this area because I thought that Tony's arguments lacked historical context. The remarks that follow focus on the broader New England because that's the area I know. They are also partial because this is an area that I am still researching.  

Poet and environmentalist Judith Wright. He love of the land and support for environment causes was strongly influence by her her father P A Wright and her life on the family property Wallamumbi.
Tony starts his story in a sense with Tim Flannery's 1994 work The Future Eaters although he then cites earlier references going back as far as 1967. The story goes back much further than that and involves many more people. It's a long and complicated story that I can only roughly sketch.

By the 1920s, there was awareness in the broader New England of the affects of erosion and declining productivity. There was also interest in the application of science to agriculture. This led to initial attempts at conservation and soil improvement.  In his Mother's Country (1988), Maslyn Williams describes concerns and conservation efforts during the 1920s on the property outside Tenterfield where he was working as a young jackaroo.. They have a very current ring.

A number of people were involved in the attempts to improve land management practices. These included P A Wright, Judith's father, and Roy Vincent. In addition to his community and agricultural activities, Wright loved the Falls country east of Armidale and pushed for the creation of a national park to protect the area.The initial park, the New England  National Park, was gazetted in 1934. For his part, Vincent was responsible (among other things) for the creation of the NSW soil conservation service and for the creation of what is now the Dorrigo National Park.  .

In 1939, Wadham and Wood published a widely read book on land utilisation that that described (among other things) the interaction between agriculture and land degradation and fed into discussion. The year before, the campaign to establish a Northern university had achieved initial success with the establishment of the New England University College.

From the beginning, its proponents wanted the College to play an active role in agricultural research as part of its broader role. This was to take time, but they had more success in encouraging an interdisciplinary approach focused on the resolution of Northern problems. By the 1960s, NEUC/UNE had generated a considerable body of work across zoology, botany, geology, geography, soil science, history, agriculture and regional studies
Colonel Harold White, Bald Blair, one of the founders of organic agriculture in Australia
Another member of this New England group was.Colonel Harold White from Bald Blair Station. 

White experimented with the application of fertiliser to pastures. This gave great initial yields which then diminished despite increased application of fertiliser. White concluded that much farming was soil mining, that healthy food required healthy soil, that monoculture was part of the problem. To his mind, action to increase the humus content in soils was central to sustainable agriculture.

White began to experiment with various techniques that might increase the humus content. This focus on practical experimentation was one of the features of the New England group as a whole.

The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne, appearing first in Northbourne’s manifesto on organic farming, Look to the Land, published in London in May 1940. The book reached Australia quite quickly, and was widely and favourably reviewed. White became actively involved in the formation  of the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society and was a prolific contributor to its journal. In 1953, he joined with Professor C Stanton Hicks to write and publish Life from the Soil setting out his ideas in some detail. The book was a considerable success, going through three editions. 

Another in this group was Don Shand, the founder of East West Airlines, who was involved in the development of aerial crops-dusting and of hybrid seeds. The first aerial aerial spreading of super in Australia took place at Walcha using a modified tiger moth.

Just from this brief sketch, you can see the spread of interests, as well as the desire to experiment. You can also see a divergence between some of White's views and say those of Don Shand.

 The combination of pasture improvement with fertiliser led to a dramatic increase in productivity, with carrying capacity increasing in some cases from one to three plus sheep equivalents per acre, something that was critical at a time of falling prices and rising costs. However, that plus previous  tree clearing contributed to the emergence of dieback in the 1970s, a problem that would emerge in other areas a little later. Again the result was a period of research and experimentation that led to new approaches.One result, for example, was the spread of Landcare groups, an organisation that had begun in Victoria in 1986.

More recently, the broader New England has been the battlefield for a number of environmental wars, this time focused especially on the conflict between agriculture and resource development from the Northern Rivers to the Mid North Coast up the Hunter Valley and onto the Liverpool Plains.

These are outside my immediate purpose for the purposes of this post. They form part of a later story that includes the further development of sustainable agriculture as well as fights over water. For the present, I simply wanted to provide a broader context to the arguments mounted by Tony in his article, placing the issues in a broader historical context focused on the area I know best.   


marcellous said...


I won't say you are tilting at windmills but maybe worse belting a straw man.

TH-D is primarily a literary historian and he is wriing about the wheat belt in WA, and primarily about literary accounts of it. Yes, he makes the hardly controversial assumption that it has been an ecological catastrophe. The blindness he refers to (when tourists avert our gaze from the monoculture of agriculture in comparison to the sliver of remnant bush at the foot of Wave Rock) is hardly gainsaid by the fact that agriculturalists around Armidale tried to manage their soil better and establish some national parks.

Jim Belshaw said...

Afternoon marcellous. The cat managed to destroy my first attempt at a response by stepping on the keyboard. Beginning again.

If TH-D's Conversation piece was about his book and the WA wheat belt then I would be, worse, my arguments would probably be irrelevant. But it's not.

If his piece was just about the importance of environmental history, of making the environment a central player in historical studies instead of a by-blow or outcome, I would support although I would note that such studies began earlier than the studies he referenced. I would also support the argument about environmental benchmarks. But it's not.

If his piece was an historical study of changing attitudes to the environment over time, and it has a little of this, then that would be a different question, but it is not.

I used the term theology in referring to TH-D's arguments. I would stand by that remark.

The New England material that I briefly sketched was not just about the actions of a few agriculturalists around Armidale. Concern about and discussions around the issues he raised began well before his earliest cited reference. This was true for Aboriginal land management as it was for discussions about European impact on the land. Flannery's book may be a turning point in terms of the development of certain popular attitudes and stereotypes, but it's a current book. Well, relatively.

I think that the thing that really got me onto my horse, lance waving in the air followed by the cat in the role of Sancho, was that this (the environment and land management) happens to be an area that I have been interested in for a very long time and have been trying to tease through from Aboriginal times to the New England environmental wars and the emergence of bodies such as the Knitting Nannas. If you regard TH-D's article as an historical piece then it lacks context. If you regard it as theology, then I disagree.

I will put my lance back into my holder. Even the cat has left!

marcellous said...

I wouldn't say his piece is either theology or history - it's literary history which makes a few assumptions but not (if you read it carefully) quite as many as I think you think it makes - I've read some of Tony's stuff and he's a bit of a slippery post-modernist type.

Did you read this piece in The West?:

Jim Belshaw said...

hi marcellous. Just to be absolutely clear, I was responding to the piece in the Conversation, not to any other writing.

I hadn't seen that piece in the Western Australian. I found it an interesting read. I need to read the book to see how he handled it as compared to the interview I heard and the newspaper piece. My main history deals in part with writers and writing. Because I am dealing with a larger area - Tablelands and surrounding river valleys to west, east, north and south, essentially Lake Macquarie to the border - there are many more writers as well as variations in writing between areas.

I am not writing a literary history, of course, but a general history within which literature forms a thread. I guess that I'm trying to indicate a richness that might tempt others to do more work How I organise it. how I indicate patterns and differences remains a challenge. That's in part why I have gone to New England Travels as an easier, intermediate step.

Interesting comment on TH-D and post modernism. I fear post modernism largely passed me by while I was concerned with other things!

Jim Belshaw said...

I brief follow up since I have been refreshing my memory on post modernism. I did an earlier short post Monday Forum - fin de siècle, the decadents and other such matters. The post was triggered by a book I was reading, Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties on artistic and literary movements in London in the 1890s. Reading it, I was struck by some of the parallels, although I wouldn't overstate them. While Jackson writes well, I am a bit out of sorts with some of the characters covered, so its taking me some time. A third of a chapter sends me off to sleep!