Wild Genius Refits Fractal Chaos
story and photographs by PHILIP WHITE
Peter Andrews OAM is into mud pies.
He's a fair dinkum bioneer.
It must have been infernally irritating for the ABC producers to capture the breadth and depth of Andrews’ vision: he talks with barely-measured agitation, leaping from one confounding fact, theory or anecdote to another, covering the most complex realms of hydrology, hydrogeology, plant physiology, geomorphology, climate, carbon and anything else that happens to drift into the machinegun stream of his infectious imagination, understanding and recollection.
George Aldridge, the revered painter, illustrator and friend, suggested I attend the farm of vet Bill Harbison, who’d brought Andrews, his old Gawler horse-training mate, home to work some magic on the dried-out chip of a farm he’d bought on the stony ridges one or two windfarms west of Burra, near Spalding. The Yacka Moorundi Land Care Group arranged a morning of lecture and question-and-answer in the local hall, with mountains of local tucker, then a full afternoon of field work on Harbison’s farm before a great thirst drove the throng back to the cool Spalding boozer.
“What’s the point of creating a surface that will ensure rapid run-off, and send all your water down there somewhere, where you dam it, evaporate it, and then pump what’s left back up here for irrigation? Save your water. Slow it down. Let it spread. Use your water where it falls!
Andrews grinned with the satisfaction of a four year old in a taddy puddle. “See?” he marveled. “Wetlands! And look what happens when I put this rock back here, or put some of this dead grass across here! What if I make a little embankment across here. Look at that water: look! It’s going sideways! It wants to spread! It’s spreading seeds and nutrient across your country! Look at that froth! It’s forming its own retaining embankments and pools!”
And how good are our kids gonna be if they don't get their fair share of mud to grow up in? They'll die of allergy in a world of too many clean flat things. And one suspects by the fierce glare in Andrews' bright eyes that he thinks we're about to starve to death watching them.
Like a good geologist, Andrews thinks in 3-D. He reads landscape quickly, always imagining how he’d rework it, to put it back more like the intricate way it worked before we cut everything up into little squares and killed anything that grew there that we could not sell.
He’s radical. He believes grass is a monoculture, and that eucalypts are too.
When challenged by Sally Hawker of North Bungaree Station why he wouldn’t just go out on Bill’s stony hill and plant some lovely natural gum trees, he said “What? Plant the most water-wasting things you can get? A plant that guzzles enormous amounts of water from your ground until it’s all gone, when it gets the sulks and covers its leaves with protective wax and goes toxic, so nothing else can compete?”
It is impossible here to explain the vision of Andrews much beyond that, although I shall attempt to extend this essay once I’ve let my current headful sink in. It may crawl to the horizon before me.
In the meantime, you can dig out the essential Australian Story episodes as a primer, check Andrews’ website, which he gets no time to work on, then read his two books: Back From The Brink and Beyond The Brink.
And the notion of imposing this practical intelligence on the Big Rivers while there’s plenty of water has him glowing with excitement, but that’s another 100,000 words. Let it rest on his suggestion that there’s no better time to change attitudes than one like this, when politicians, scientists and bureaucracies really do have their sweaty backs to the wall.
On the phone, comrades!
And yes, I haven’t mentioned wine. One of the reasons I made my way north was my interest in the crippling salt problems some vignerons are having in the Lower Flinders Ranges winegrape region just over the range from Harbison’s farm. This is a direct result of their interference with the chaos of their country: vignerons are amongst the most brutally efficient organizers of terrain, of waterways and plant species. Plant vineyards on thrashed pastoral country, and you’ve got trouble. Which is exactly what I recall warning growers the day I opened their new appellation, what, a decade ago?
"Beware the dull mono-cultural petro-industrial grapeyard." That threadbare mantra has got me fired from most of the good newspapers in Australia, but it hasn't yet got me fired from my own blog. So I have a comrade. Andrews’ theories and practical examples are anathema to most modern Australian viticulture.