Call of the Reed Warbler

Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy

ISBN 978-0-7022-5341-6

When Australian farmer Charles Massy was young he was climbing a snow capped mountain in New Zealand when he noticed that the snow had a red tinge to it:

Using my ice axe, I chipped into the sugary layer, thinking the colour came from some type of algae. To my enquiry, and with an air of aggressive accusation, my companion said, ‘No, that’s not algae. That’s your Mallee drought of the early 1930s.’

Anecdotes like this one about one of ‘Australia’s darkest, yet virtually unacknowledged, ecological disasters’ are what make Call of the Reed Warbler worth a read.

Charles Massy did a science degree in the 70s before returning to the family farm near Cooma after his father had a heart attack. He has been farming since and is well known for breeding merinos and several books, including Breaking the Sheep’s Back.

One thing that makes Massy interesting is that after farming for a few decades he returned to university to complete a PhD in Human Ecology—‘an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans and their natural, social and built environments.’ An unusual undertaking for a farmer who had been schooled in the industrial agriculture paradigm.

Call of the Reed Warbler was born out of a thesis in which Massy interviewed dozens of farmers working in the field of regenerative agriculture; an approach to farming that rebuilds topsoil, increases biodiversity and importantly for Australia, resurrects eroded land. The book is full of aha moments:

Then he told me that, about fifteen years ago, just after chemical agriculture had fully ramped up, ‘we went down there for our holidays again. There were no oysters…The whole lot were dead, every one of them gone, and they’ve never come back. And that was after a really wet winter when there was just bare ground everywhere and everyone got into growing canola and insecticides, weedicides, and all that sort of shit.

Massy examines early colonisers and recent farmers failed attempts at farming Australian soil using European methods—‘Managing grazing animals in grasslands, you would think, should be pretty basic. In developed countries such as Australia and America (where shepherd labour is prohibitively expensive) the fence is the method of control. Once the straight lines of steel and wire are arbitrarily stamped on the landscape, managing one’s animals can be done easily and without much planning right? Just lock them in a paddock, ensure they have enough feed and water, and bob’s your Uncle.’ —and goes on to explain in detail why this is a flawed idea.

The book takes in many topics and examples including Allan Savoury and holistic planned grazing, water-dreamers, Col Seis, diversity of grass types, C3 and C4 plants, upstream management, permaculture, keylines and biodynamics to name a few.

I remember I was about eight or nine coming home from a family Christmas party. One of my older cousins had married a biodynamic farmer (the practice being quite new in Australia then.) …On the drive back home, the way my stepmother and father discussed this bloke you would think he consorted with the devil and cavorted with nymphs and goblins as they danced around a fire under the moon.

Call of the Reed Warbler is structured around gaining ecological literacy and regenerating land through the application of Savoury’s concept of four ecosystem processes: the solar-energy function; the water cycle; the soil-mineral cycle and dymanic ecosystems, but the main thrust of the book is a fifth process—what Massy terms the human-social aspect of farming.

The greatest of all determining factors on the healthy regeneration or else degradation of those very landscapes boils down to the way we think, and what we believe, and how we model in our minds the way the world and our landscapes work.

A fellow farmer and author says that Massy’s book is destined to be a classic of Australian nature writing. Both meditative and instructive, this book belongs on the shelf beside Don Watson, Eric Rolls, Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe- and in the back of the ute beside the pliers, the fencing strainers and the kelpie.’ I’m no farmer, but for somebody who is trying to develop ecological literacy from deep within the latte belt, this book is a good start.

You can listen to an interview with Charles Massy on Greening the Apocalypse tonight.


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