“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





30 March 2012


The dry-grown stumps of farmer and veterinary surgeon Bill Harbison, who's watching one of Peter Andrews' brand new mini demo wetlands forming along the top of a ridge on Bill's farm in South Australia's mid-north.

Wild Genius Refits Fractal Chaos
Aussie Bioneer Busts It All Up
Sellout Mob Next Time She Rains
story and photographs by PHILIP WHITE

Peter Andrews OAM is into mud pies.

Having just spent two days with the radical environmentalist in the Mid North of South Australia, this writer feels like he’s been up and given his heart to the Lord at a revival crusade, and is still so buzzy at the epiphanic sight of Andrews playing with mud that attempting to explain it all here is awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Give Andrews water, and he’ll tip it on the ground, get down on his knees and start playing with it.  Give him a bulldozer, and he’ll redesign the whole damn farm.

He's a fair dinkum bioneer.

I’d watched the AustralianStory episodes which attempted to account and explain Andrews’ one-eyed determination to restore buggered Hunter Valley farmland by putting some healthy fractal chaos back into it.  Contentiously, this usually includes an initial explosion of weeds, as part of his program of deliberately disorganising the ground water patterns that farmers have trained and altered, flattened and straightened for 150 years. 

Peter Andrews, left, with George Aldridge and the Harbison brothers, Michael and Bill. Notice Peter's newest wetlands forming just behind his right foot. 

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. 

This challenge is so confronting that the brain tends to vague out as one's next question begins to arise before the previous one can possibly form language.  One fatigues.  Like the disappearing puddles, dubs, duckponds, cattle wallers and sheep wets that once covered this place,  Andrews' logic disappears into the fast-drying landscape.  Unless you respect it, acknowledge its force, get your beery arse home and think about it.  Then take a deep breath, and get the dozer out.

George Aldridge, left, with Peter Andrews.

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. 

Andrews had been at work there - farm not boozer - for some days, building a dead-level contour to slow and spread the run-off from the top 40% of the hill, and perforating that at the points that needed the water, not simply the creeklines.  Then he began dozing disruptive walls, islands and meanders in the creek line at the foot of the hill. His major theory is that Australia has survived because its waters were never particularly big on rushing out to sea the way we have recently trained them to, with bare earth, lineal concrete gutters and channels and whatnot. 

Andrews explaining how he's rebuilding chaos into the worn-out creekline at Bill Harbison's place in South Australia's mid-north.

“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!

“You’ve got sheep.  Sheep will eat ninety per cent of whatever plants you have by the end of the season, and turn it into neat little pellets.  When it rains, because there’s nothing here to hold it, that all washes down into the fast-draining creek you’ve made.  You lose it.  Ninety per cent of everything you’ve grown!  Then you pay big money trying to replace it with the wrong chemicals.”

When we arrived, he ran a trial run of one of the exercises he would show the farmers next day.  Basically, he had Bill park his fire-fighting unit at the top of a dry ridge-top track, and let a few hundred litres of water run out.  As it trickled down the hard red dust, it made eddies and mini wetlands, and sent little spreading floodplains out to the sides.

This is the same infant microswamp photographed the night before in the shot at the top. The feather's still there.  A vehicle has driven right through the middle of it, the opposite of the plan, yet even that simple accident has put more chaos into the stream.  It'll all begin again, if it's allowed.

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!”

When he repeated the exercise to the keen, curious and often sceptical mob of farmers who came next day, they stood gazing in silence, absorbing Andrews’ disarming display, remembering what it was like to play in the mud as they watched the delight of the infant lass there who couldn’t believe her luck.  Adults who made mud pies.  Amongst the disarming innocence of it all, the most obvious reality was the most sobering: farming science, politics, bureaucracies and population have forgotten about country.  They’ve lost it.  And this dried out old chip of a joint we call Australia -- from austerous via austral: southern, harsh, severe – will buck us off if we don’t very quickly revolutionise the way we see it.

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.

Some of the very old geology in Bill Harbison's hill.  This is from the Burra group, which fills the gap between the Umberatana (650-750 million years back) and the top of the Paleoproterozoic Basement (1.6 billion). It seems that Peter Andrews wants to put some of this ancient chaotic energy back on top.

He’s radical.  He believes grass is a monoculture, and that eucalypts are too. 

“Somebody said to me ‘Look this is a eucalyptus forest: there’s sixty different types in there’, and I say ‘Eucalypts, like grass, is a species.  This forest is a monoculture’.”

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?”    

When quizzed about weeds, he pulled an unpopular type aside and pointed out the number of grasses and tiny plants that were thriving below its shelter, in the humidity its shade created. 

“Now I’ve pulled this out,” he said, plucking the offending intruder, “you come back after two days of sun and tell me how these little plants are going where they were enjoying that shelter.  And we'll leave this one here [selecting the next weed along] as our test.  See the little grasses underneath there in the shade?  I can promise you, that lot will be all right."

The Sermon on the Mount

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.

A really good backgrounder is the extended interview with John Williams, a former Head of Land and Water at the CSIRO, on the Australian Story website.

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. 

It will be a brave industrial winemaking group who first engages this visionary for some initial technology transfer, but the booze brains will surely leave buzzing, struggling to understand how Andrews’ challenging realities and wilder theorisings can assist them improve the vast areas of ground they have sprayed, fertilized, bashed, and neatly organized to produce grape ethanol in the most efficient manner possible.

There were no Southern Flinders grape farmers in attendance at Bill Harbison's place.  None from Clare, either.  Nobody from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.  Or from anywhere much, for that matter.  But as Bill Harbison said with a dry grin, “There’ll be a sell-out mob here next time she rains.”


Sal said...

One of those 'Of course! That's exactly how it should be done!' ideas ... Hope we haven't left it too late.

Sal said...

Just watched Australian Story ... Wow. This man is a genius. I now totally understand your evangelical reaction. Everyone should be doing this. Now! Am now off to see if I can find out more about whether the idiot bureaucrats are any closer to dismounting their high horses and allowing common sense to prevail ...


That won't take you long. Start with the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

Julia McKay said...

Long time advocate (38 years) of Peter Andrews... still beavering (not accidental) to get his message across. Our Natural Sequence Association pushes his cause with puny muscles - need more oomph to counteract the naysayers in DAFF, MDBA, CSIRO, DPI and the list goes on. Go to your local member and demand action on the regulations that prevent Andrews' work. More voices singing from the same hymn sheet please.

Berls said...

“The San Ysidro River runs through the San Juan valley, turning and twisting until it discharges sluggishly into Black Rock Bay under the protection of Bat Point. The valley itself is long and not very wide, and the San Ysidro River, having not very far to run, makes the most of what distance it has by moving from one side of the level stretch to the other. Here it cuts under a cliff, against a mountain, and then it spreads thinly out on sand-banks. During a good part of the year there is no surface water at all, and the sandy bed grows full of willows which stretch their roots down toward underground water.

"Rabbits and raccoons and small foxes and coyotes make their homes in the willows of the river bottom when the water is down. At the head of the valley to the north and east the river rises, not as one head, but in many little branches, so that the source on a map looks like a tree with small, leafless branches. The dry and stony hills with shoulders and gullies and canyons do not supply water to the river during all the year, but when the rains fall in the late winter and spring the rocky shoulders absorb a little of the water and cast the rest in black torrents to the little streams that tumble out of the creases, and the streamlets combine and join larger creeks and the reeks come together at the northern end of the valley.

"So it is that in the late spring, when the hills have digested as much rain as they can, a heavy storm may swell the San Ysidro River to a raging flood in a very few hours. Then the foamy yellow water cuts at the banks and great hunks of farmland cave into the river. Then the bodies of cows and sheep go tumbling and rolling in the yellow flood ...” AND WAIT FOR IT... once again the man ties the huge description into one perfect sentence.... “It is an unstable and precocious river; dead during part of the year and deadly during another part.” John Steinbeck, The Wayward Bus, 1947

Big Fan said...

Loved your article on Peter Andrews.

We had him in the studio for a chat and I felt like i’d been in the presence of a great man.

He’s like Jesus Christ – with his view so outside the box yet so goddamn sensible.

Anyway, well done.

Scott Heidrich said...

This is a very good article! It's encouraging to see passionate people taking this kind of approach. We should all be spreading these ideas and messages.

Well done Philip!