Manicured fields are not the best places

Wilding, Isabella Tree, Picador

In Wilding Isabella Tree writes about letting nature take its course on an increasingly uneconomic farm in England’s south. She describes spending vast amounts on fertiliser and equipment in order to keep up with modern farming demands, only to see little improvement on the bottom line. In the end, it was more effective not to farm, economically, and certainly for the health of the land.

This meant not doing nothing of course, and the book is a description of how much effort it was to let the farm lapse, so-to-speak. And conservation entails choices, as Simon Barnes notes in his recent book On the Marsh. Conservation is about deciding what to conserve, and one always chooses between species. In Tree’s case (interesting, by the way, that her name is Tree – perhaps she was predestined for conservation efforts?) she was only allowed to do things within certain limits, especially as to what animals her and her husband could reintroduce.

There was a fairly quick upturn in the health of the soil, abundance of birds and butterflies, and an obvious strengthening of symbiosis. Neighbours, on the other hand, were appalled that ‘good’ farming land was going to waste. Yet the farmland was marginal, and only worked heavily in the last century when the war effort prompted an upscaling of agriculture and ridding of hedges and small fields and verges, places that were important for wildlife and therefore the health of the land. (She notes that 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared from the UK, and during and after the war 75,000 miles of hedgerows were removed. Imagine the size of the forest that equates to.) Elderly neighbours remembered the natural untidiness of the landscape and were more sympathetic to Tree’s ‘wilding’ efforts. Baby boomers, on the other hand, tended to see the land through the lens of agricultural industrialisation and modern tidiness.

This is all interesting in itself, but some of her asides are just as interesting – for example, her writing on oaks, which can live for hundreds of years (200 y.o. is just a youngster), and which, as they mature, hollow out and provide homes for a myriad of creatures, as well as being more resilient to storms. So many oaks die because of ignorance of how they live. On Tree’s farm, the oaks were dying because they were ploughing almost up to the base of the tree, destroying the vital shallow roots. Oaks spread as mature trees, and their boughs sag and rest on the ground, providing support, but on Tree’s farm they were cutting off low lying boughs, effectively destabilising the trees. We are as intolerant of trees ageing as we are of the human elderly, she says. And, indeed, only recently has there been widespread acceptance of the idea that dead trees need to be left standing in farms and forests as habitats for all manner of creatures.

Tree notes also that oaks rely on thorny scrub to protect the seedlings. So while oaks do well as solitary mature trees, open, manicured fields are not the best places for their initial growth. She also argues against the idea that Europe was once one giant, dense forest, as is often argued. It would more likely have been patchwork, because of the disruption that grazing and digging animals make. She sees first-hand on her farm how animals and plants interact, often in counter-intuitive ways.

Another aside is her Robert Macfarlane-esque observation about language for the land. In Landmarks in particular Macfarlane lists all the words being lost that are unique to places and as abundant as nature itself, but like nature, are being killed off in numbers, and homogenised. Tree lists all the words for the sticky mud used in her community: clodgy, gawm, gubber, ike, pug, slab, sleech, slub, slough, slurry, stodge, stug, swank. And more. All this diversity is healthy, and although Tree, as owner of a large estate, might seem to have the luxury to indulge all this diversity, it’s a necessary corrective to all that is being lost.

Haystacks

Indigenous fire-stick farming is well known, but in the eye-opening, vital Dark Emu (Magabala), Bruce Pascoe goes way beyond this to totally upend the view of pre-colonial Indigenous Australians as all primitive hunter-gatherers. Using primarily the written accounts of early white settlers and explorers Pascoe notes that Indigenous peoples had permanent dwellings, sometimes of stone, in villages of hundreds of residents. Some European settlers claimed that the roofs of these domed stone dwellings could be ridden over with a horse, they were that substantial. Indigenous Australians constructed kilometers of fish traps and weirs, and dug wells. At Lake Condah archaeologists simply refused to believe the structures were made by Indigenous people, as that didn’t fit the stereotype of primitives the archaeologists had in mind. Indigenous people cultivated fields of yams, stored surplus harvests, domesticated grains including rice and traded seeds across the continent. Major Mitchell noticed fields with wide paths and haystacks. They made hoes, smoked and pickled food, and made intricately stitched clothes.

In the words of another historian of Indigenous Australia, Henry Reynolds, why weren’t we told? Much evidence on the ground has since been destroyed in colonization, but this evidence also didn’t fit the stereotype of hunter-gatherers which was a convenient fiction to justify the European takeover of tribal lands. The written evidence was often edited out (as have been the reports of massacres on the frontier). Pascoe’s work is not only important for our understanding of the past; its descriptions of Indigenous land management also may help with confronting our country’s future agricultural challenges. And a new design and cheaper paperback price makes this new classic of Australian history even more accessible.