In the late 1940s my father came down from the East Coast to be a shepherd on Omakere Station in Central Hawke’s Bay. Part of the work was removing regenerated shrublands of manuka and kanuka and turning them into pasture using war surplus bulldozers and aerial fertiliser.
He always had an eye for stock welfare, and so for shelter and shade. He thought it would be a good idea to leave a contour strip of kanuka mid-slope and another adjacent to the stream. But he admitted that he never thought to raise it, because he knew they’d laugh at him in the local pub. Such is the power of myth. We forget that this was still the age of the colonial pioneer. And in many ways we have still to grow up beyond production myths.
His concern was for stock in the event of storm or heat, though he had a romantic eye for beauty as well. He thought a little about reducing soil erosion, but almost nothing about water retention, extending or maintaining permanent stream flows, stock water quality, water infiltration and holding under woody vegetation, or the stream ecology. Certainly nothing about energy use, biodiversity, green house gases, or free ecological services like the benefits of anthelmintic browse or pollination. Those weren’t the times.
But his idea would have done all of that, and more.
More profit, lower risk, more beauty, a better environment, and that often overlooked satisfaction there is in feeling that a landscape is well, and you well within it. Concerns tend to reduce when you can hear a morepork at night, watch a glossy cattle-beast chewing its cud in the shade, or wake to the sound of a shining cuckoo.
What could be is so starkly contrasted with what we have become in pursuit of a mad singular goal of pushing our lands to yield more and more of fewer and fewer things. And we don’t just lose the multiple values within our landscapes, we lose potential profit and the health of our communities along the way.
We lose scope in pursuit of scale. And because it takes imagination to see a scope of potential, but only a spreadsheet to see economies of scale (with all the soul of land and community removed), the man (they usually are) with the spreadsheet gets promoted where they can drive a stake through those who dare to think conceptually. We cannot seem to get off the madness of maximising production and treating the land as a factory.
Picture this. Let’s look at another system as if were a machine. In the interests of cost efficiency and production line economics, let us raise children by focusing on calorie intake in order to produce ‘work units’. We concentrate them in a camp and feed them nutrient gruel to make them into obedient cogs for the machine. All those qualitative things like love, the potential of imagination, touch, belonging, worth, spontaneous spirit, creativity, community, consciousness, soul, and life’s meaning are considered ‘unscientific’. Numbers trump values. Meaning is reduced to a delusion of value-free ‘objectivity’ by the state or the corporation. Consider the Picassos we turn into lever pullers, the Mozarts into button pushers. The psychopaths we mold.
We would never – beyond the insanity of totalitarian despotism and the Industrial Revolution – consider a child in such a narrow way. Yet we do for land and adults as mere numbers in a financial spreadsheet.
There is the same analogous potential for making Picassos and Mozarts in our landscapes. You will not hear, see or smell them if you are not looking for them, if your mind is monocultural – or worse, mechanical – in how it views the world. Perhaps, like realising the potential of a child, you first need love to see. You have to love the land. Perhaps we need to foster the artist in each of us in order to see and create.
The opposite of the seeing eye of the artist is industrial thought – and that is our iron cage.
It is the root of our inability to conceptualise and realise potential, because we see the land and its people as units of production within a factory emphasising volume over value and static sameness over dynamic diversity.
And by so doing, by pursuing a narrow end through a narrow lens, we actually destroy rather than realise potential. We make less money, become reliant on more artificial inputs, are more vulnerable to every shock imaginable – a drought, a flood, a cost increase, a price decrease – and end up having to sell. One less family owned farm.
There are at least five principles to realising the joint economic, social and environmental potential of land.
- Quality soils that are sponges of water, and givers of health to the whole.
Diversity across the wider ‘polycultural’ patchwork quilt of our landscapes by realising the potential of each particular place – Terroir – its qualitative potential; its value potential.
- Diversity within each patch, so each woodland, wetland or pasture patch is more than one thing; building layers of multiple function and values.
- Build connection and value between and within the patches so this woodlands builds on the value in this pasture; herbs, browse, beneficial fodder, wood, honey, bird habitat, that shelter or cover to keep the stock well. See the patterns – the water flows in the landscape, the energy flows, the kidneys of wetlands that trap the sediment and clean the water.
- And lastly, create social connection and enrich meaning beyond the economic. Create memory. Many of us are who we are because we treated the land as a much loved playground to which we belonged.
Make a diverse, highly value, complementary Tuscany-style landscape as the future for Hawke’s Bay – multiple values. Let other countries follow the agribusiness factory model. Let them be the agri-corporate Nebraska where the small towns wither and the hamlets cease to be.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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