Shelter from the Storm

It is hard to remember during the sunny days of summer that we had some freak snow storms back in August, and a few wintry blasts in early October.  The television news ran lamb death stories, as they did the year before – dead lambs on the transport trays.

Coastal shelter Southland.jpgThere is always a lot of talk about shelter after those storms occur right on lambing, some of it apparently suggesting it is a new idea. Not so.  I was trudging through mud in Mid-Canterbury around Highbank in the early 1980s studying old radiata pine shelterbelts planted in the 1880s and 1890s.  Like the old guys on the cheese advertisement, the mixed cropping farmers in the area were saying the trees were just about ready to mill.  You don’t want to be hasty with these decisions, especially when that shelter meant the difference between growing barley or not.

Without shelter, the northwest winds would come down from the Rakaia Gorge and beat any unsheltered barley into submission.  The farmers there relied upon a mix of barley and wheat to hedge the climatic risks; dry years giving good wheat returns, wet years suiting the barley.  Without protection from the wind, the barley lodged, and farm risk increased.

Shelter and wheat

It has all changed now with the move away from mixed farming to continuous cropping and the rise in irrigation.  Just increase inputs.  Don’t use stock and legumes in the rotation to rebuild the soil quality before the grain cash crop.  Just add soluble fertiliser and demand more irrigation.  Never mind the low input and resilient system we once had.  Never mind the effects on the climate, the soils, the streams, downstream water supplies, kids playing in the brooks.  Industrialism, industrialism.  And when the prices drop, demand more production, more inputs, more energy, less democracy.  Demand we see the world as a machine through soulless corporate eyes.

Some of us look back on the farm foresters of old and wonder at their wisdom – whatever Lincoln taught in favour of simplistic agronomy without the wit to see consequences.

Shelter was only part of that wisdom.  And it wasn’t just for stock losses.  The increases in crop yield are real. The late Joan Radcliffe found a grass production increase of 60 percent in the calmest part of the well-sheltered paddocks at Hororata, on the opposite bank of the Rakaia from Highbank. It’s an often quoted figure, but at the high end of the range. That’s because Hororata is subject to the same northwest winds that hit Highbank, channelling down the Rakaia Gorge and fanning out over the plains once free of those pesky mountainside constraints.

Rakaia Gorge.jpg

Rakaia Gorge, Canterbury, New Zealand

Not far from Hororata, just outside the Gorge, is a place called Windwhistle, which just may suggest something to those of you who are not in a coma.  The soils were light Lismore stoney silt loams, variously described as four inches of dust over river gravels, or as “having the water holding capacity of your average sieve.”  (I liked that one.)  Reduce the evapotranspiration effects of the hot, dry norwesterlies on those sorts of soils, with those sorts of winds, and you’ll have big gains.  But elsewhere, depending on winds and soils, you might get a gain from effective shelter of up to 35 percent.  ‘Effective’ is one of those wonderful variable things that is elusive to technical study.  Length, height, porosity, alignment relative to wind, relative to the crop, relative to the time of year, relative to stock, relative to the soil, relative to the storm and the vulnerabilities right here, right now (which if you ‘measure’ for merely three years you may never observe), relative to the type of wind – its speed, its heat, its dryness.

Relative, contingent, conditional, variable, irregular, developing, growing, falling down, place-based.  You have to feel the land and know its nature to make the call in these wonderful complexities of land.  You have to listen with open ears to the people – to the wise old gaffer who points out what happened in the blow of ’75.

Define knowing in that context.  Don’t listen to the mechanical agronomists with small trials on regular pieces of land with simple variables – more irrigation, more fertiliser, more inputs of x and y and z, measuring only yield and never the contingent – never the neverending rambling story that is land and the people who belong to it, who are within it.  Shelter is like that.

action-research-diagram.jpgI could go on about appropriate ‘research’ and the need to stop putting small-scale, few variable statistical designs on a complex that will hide her secrets from such telescope minds …. but I won’t be able to stop.

…… OK, just a short paragraph.  In complex spaces – like landscapes where communities, politics, nature and economies combine (a complex as irreducible and unpredictable as a child or a game of cricket) – we need to rethink research; embrace Action Research, Learning by Doing, adaptive, integrated approaches, 4th Generation Assessment, socio-ecological systems views, the embracing of anecdote and all the traditional and local knowing of the people of the land.  Forget trying to regiment art and seeing, forget trying to reduce what cannot be reduced without destroying something significant – like ordering a child’s purpose and “its” ‘management’ as a mere calorie factory.  (More objective to treat ‘it’ as a thing of course, a unit, a consumer of resources, a machine ….)

If you want to learn, ask the old gaffer.  Get in a vehicle with him and let the talk of land come out of its own accord.  And feel it yourself.  Step away from the spreadsheet and feel.

We confront some very serious questions about what it is to know, and how you build knowledge when you are faced with complexity.  You cannot but recognise it within landscapes, and what you can do to make it better.  You can realise a scope of potential if you know the patterns and connections of land.  But you won’t see them – let alone realise them – if your view is specialist.  We focus on mechanical factory ideals and scale of course.  Our colonial and corporate – and university technocratic – mythology.  The nonsense of production as a prime focus rather than value potential and resilience to the inevitable surprise, the storm, the market shift, the political awakening, the public backlash.

And so we cut down the shelter …

We treat land as a regular unit, a factory.  Potential scope doesn’t get much chance.  The factory mind bulldozes it all.  Destroy the potential created by shelter, the free gifts provided by a healthy environment, or the gully woodland, the wetland, the water absorbing soil; the healthy herb.  So much of this potential polycultural functionality is trumped by the poisoned agronomic mind, blinkered, buried in a bunker far underground, never seeing the beauty of the hovering skylark.  Measuring inputs of soluble fertiliser, water and yield.  With all negative system effects dealt with by adding another input, and another, and another …

We make the world in that bunker image – thousands of hectares of shelterless dairy factory, regular paddock sizes, regular water, regular fertiliser, a regular Gulag with regular vulnerabilities requiring regular political and commercial power to keep them afloat, ever more teetering on the edge of some abyss they cannot see in the model.

Ask the gaffer.  He’ll tell you about the abyss.

Was that more than one paragraph?

Back to shelter.  Down south the concern is more to do with protecting stock than reducing winds for herbage growth. After the pictures of dead lambs there were some suggestions that farmers could do more to look after their stock. Some probably could. There are still those who think that any square foot of land planted in a tree or shrub represents a loss of a potential grass patch.  A few agronomy professors I could name used to speak like that.  If anything, that mindset has hardened with the rise of the irrigation lobbies and their political friends.

Stock shelterBut most southern farmers appreciate trees. Otago and Southland host the strongest farm forestry communities in the country.  If you go out and ask them why they plant trees – but don’t bother, because we already have – they place shelter at the top of the list. And not just low stock shelter, but tall shelter to stop the northwesterlies drying up the soils, and for the cold southwesterlies reducing the growing season. Farm foresters will tell you that their country is warmer with shelter, that they can grow more types of plants, that the birdlife is better, and that the grass grows sooner in spring and longer into the autumn – and that’s without mentioning the benefits when the blizzard hit right on lambing in 1989.

The trick with shelter is to make sure it is effective from the ground up. That means no gaps from dead trees or from a browsed area beneath which just accelerates the wind – and the wind chill. That means fencing both sides, and keeping the stock out from under the trees.  If they need shade, put some trees out in the paddock.  Some brilliantly thinking agroecologists like Dr Marion Johnson were suggesting just such internal paddock systems for deer; using blocks of trees planted within paddocks along with properly designed shelterbelts to provide multiple functions: shade, stock shelter, grass shelter, fodder, animal health benefits, reduced deer stress, fawn cover – not to mention the odd bellbird and walnut.

It’s not just about lambs and spring storms.  There is such scope in our landscapes.  Building the social capacity to realise it is our constraint; the capacity of ideas and the hearts that can see.

Chris Perley

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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A long following note …..

The bulk of this article about shelter was written in 2004 for the Otago Daily Times.  We had had a bad winter, with storms at the worst times around lambing.  

It’s an unusual thing to study, but I did my honours 20 years before this on shelter within a complex landscape system:  what it meant to the strategy and management options of the farms; what it meant to animals; how conditional and contingent the effects of shelter were; how complex and shifting.  Add shelter to the system, or take it away, and what do you get?  

I think I was always a systems thinker – “but what about?” – and I loved connecting the landscape to social, as well as environmental, as well as economic domains – rather than reduce down into looking at a bug in a bush, or conversions in a mill.  It’s why when I read Aldo Leopold’s essay Thinking Like a Mountain it so resonated with me.  He was advocating the viewing of life within its complexity, without which we do the unwise things – and shoot all the metaphorical ‘bad’ wolves because we want more of the ‘good’ deer …. and then the mountain falls down.  

We cleared woodlands and wetlands because we saw them the same as Leopold’s ‘wolves’.  Our Modern Colonial obsession, augmented in the last 30 years with our Modern Corporate obsession.  We planted ryegrass and radiata pine because we thought they were ‘good’.  We are taught by mechanical theories of analysis not to see, or we are blinded by our own short term and narrow avarice, that we cut away the thing that keeps the whole functioning.  

I saw it very clearly when jumping from an education in forests as multifunctional systems linked to society, environment and economy in many ways, to agricultural fields whose only meaning was to produce more for Mother Britain (who had left by then … but never mind).   And so agronomy professors at Lincoln pointed to shelterbelts and arrogantly stated, “That is a waste of good land.”  The storm, or the resilience of the farm to limiting winds, or anything for that matter that didn’t involve a myopic study of crop production and land area in production in a perfect mechanical world, was completely outside the analytical thought of the great man.  The irony being that he built lower production and more fragile farm enterprises that put farmers out of business.  

His inability to think like a mountain meant that the mountain fails.  Welcome to colonial New Zealand, where to discuss complexities and building the landscape’s – the socio-ecological system’s – “functional integrity” to immeasurable uncertainties brings all the analysts out wanting you to give ‘evidence’ by numbers.   The gaffer didn’t need numbers, nor are numbers the language that can communicate his wisdom, the land’s knowing.

That is the thing with shelter.  Its worth is so dependent on contingencies.  Measure it for five years based on stock deaths from a storm, and a storm won’t occur.  Pack up the gear, and the storm on lambing will arrive the next week.  Meanwhile you don’t measure the other things it does, because you are only looking at one thing.  Your stats say there is no significant difference between shelter and no shelter.  And the farmers who know – because they live *in* a place rather than just visit with myopic measures for short periods every now and then – just sigh and shake their heads.  

It is why I am so suspicious of any utilitarian keep-all-the-parts-leopoldapproach to life …. because compartmentalising life in units of value or happiness will end up with more of the same mistakes as Leopold’s culling of wolves.  We are doing it now in our world, reducing the functional integrity of the whole because we have some view of life in bits, disconnected – actually dys-functional – where some things are placed in the ‘good’ column and others in the ‘bad’, and everything has to happen *now*.  

It is culture and intelligence to keep all the parts.  It is wise to understand the contingencies of life over time and place.  It is the least you would expect to know what uncertainties are a reality, and how we as a people, and we as the land to which we are embedded, will cope with the inevitable surprise.  Meanwhile we march in ordered steps in our mechanical construct of the world, with all the unmeasured bits discarded as being of no value – and we destroy the potential and the integrity of our landscapes, and our cityscapes, and our communities, and our economy.  

We convert what is perceived to be unimportant to what is perceived to be important.  The kauri forest for a dollar (and grass), the aquifer health for my extracted wealth, the soil and water conserving woodland for water-shedding grass (and then cry for irrigation because the water-holding function is destroyed), the huia for its feather ….. 

….. the shelter of trees for enough room for the irrigation pivot to swing in an ‘important’ arc.  Factory thinking reduces complexity to the simplest mechanics – land to hydroponics and units. 

Scale, scale, scale – because someone thinks overheads are fixed and unrelated to the functionality of land and people (but that is another story – a shift from scale thinking to scope of potential thinking – from transaction to transformation).  Bigger is better.  “Get big or get out.  Plant fence row to fence row.”  The legacy of Earl Butz written across our mass-production factory landscapes.    

Place a value on a thing, especially with a dollar attached, and you very soon stop thinking about wider system effects; you reduce your vision to the part without constant reference to the whole.  The whole is not of any interest in our analytical minds.  We analyse without a context of synthesis; of bringing thing together as a necessary step to understanding; the opposite of reductionism to random measurable bits.  A cricket match reduced to bats and balls; to ‘things’ without reference to how they combine – dynamically and unpredictably – creating something more.

Be assured, the whole still has a very great interest in the part.  Reductionism assumes that the parts build the whole.  Complexity and systems thinking reveals that the whole also builds the parts.  You are a function of your environment.  You do not just shape society, society shapes you.  Or the organs and cells in you.  Or the shaping of the economy by the people and the people by the economy.  Stop building things in some silly nonsense hierarchical order of parts TO wholes.  See a wider view – the Humanities and Art – as critical to any analysis that can ever hope to be wise.  See synthesis as vital to good analysis.  


You can see stories within stories, the mindsets that lie beneath the visions and actions that so so many of us think are so so ‘rational’.  

That is ever the theme here, and ever our challenge if we are to have a better world for our grandchildren.  

That current thinking creates our storm.  And there is a bigger storm coming.  The predominant way we think – the Modern technocratic artless way of seeing – rips the raincoats off our kids, removed the walls and the roof, and points at the cost savings, and the money the commission salesmen have made … Black things made virtuous by a bankrupt way of seeing and being.

And “When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud…” sang Bob.

Chris Perley

Come in I'll give you shelter from the storm

Bob Dylan


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3 Responses to Shelter from the Storm

  1. Kate Moruarty says:

    ‘Shoot the wolves to keep the deer’…what are your thoughts about a ‘predator-free New Zealand’?

    • cjkperley says:

      I’d like our Conservation estate to be free of introduced predators. Extinction is permanent. The continued health of our systems demands it. The introduced pests are far too disruptive to remain unchecked.

      But predation is part of any ecological system. Mostly it is good. A necessary function. Possums & Mustelids etc go far beyond what is ecologically healthy.

  2. bohochick100 says:

    That was really interesting about shelter belts and the title of your article reminded me straight away of Willow by Joan Armatrading 😊

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