Bridge over the Yarra River at Banyule
This article is based on a talk given at the symposium, Care for all that exists, held at the Carmelite Centre, Middle Park, 26-28 May 2016.
Environmental crisis and response
The environmental crisis we experience, of which global warming is the most conspicuous indicator, did not happen by accident. It is the consequence of a particular view of the good life. This view is one in which the natural world and its ecosystems are seen as having no intrinsic value. They are reduced to a set of resources for human benefit alone. This view constitutes the ruling ideology of the day.
However, at the same time, many people around the world are trying to come to grips with the present crisis. We now have some large and dynamic movements and some important initiatives. For example, many people are trying to stop or limit the further development of fossil fuels, including coal and coal seam gas. They are trying to practice energy conservation and the development of renewables.
A deep conversion
All of these initiatives are vital. And it is important to situate them in a clear and articulate view of the world and of the good life—a view that calls for a different kind of engagement with one another and with the natural world, one that challenges the ruling view radically. As Pope Francis puts it in Laudato-si: ‘There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality…’
It is a task for all of us to help develop this distinctive way of looking at things. It will be a view in which there is no longer a domination over nature, or of some people over others. It is a radical view, though not new, in which there are dynamic relationships between human society and the natural world, and God.
As the encyclical notes: ‘(Nature) as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of his presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship with him. Discovering this presence leads us to cultivate the ecological virtues.’
So in this view, when we engage with the world reflectively we engage in a deeply spiritual activity. The ecological virtues involve our relationships with one another in community and our relationship with the natural world. We recognise all creation as filled with the divine presence—with power and meaning.
We are called then to an ecological conversion, in which we take a stance, and bear prophetic witness, calling for a new relationship among people and with the land.
This conversion takes us on a journey, of a kind that differs greatly from one person to another. Generally it will start from the local, with a strong sense of the place we live in and all that is special to it. This is where we are meant to be.
Food production on farms
To explore this conversion, I will start with one of the most basic things, food production. For many people today the journey towards sustainability involves growing food and producing what they need locally.
In Australia many farmers are practising conservation on land devoted to crop or livestock production. They know it is important to retain remnant trees, which are generally part of a remnant woodland ecosystem. Many have also found ways of integrating native groundstorey species into their farming, enhancing both biodiversity and farm productivity.
An interesting example on record is a family who have a sheep and cattle property Lana on the northern NSW tablelands. Following a drought they began a ‘holistic management’ approach. In each paddock they graze the stock intensively for a short period and follow up with a long rest period, so that 95% of the property is rested at any one time.
Consider some of the outcomes. The groundcover has improved and with it the soil structure and carbon content. Native perennial grasses are abundant. Water in rivers and dams is clean. Streamside vegetation is recovering. Grazing-sensitive wildflowers are turning up again. Woodland birds, for example the brown treecreeper and speckled warbler, that are declining in some places, are present here.
One third of the property is forested hills. Trees are important for stock shade. And the insect and bird life present there affects everything, including pest control.
Following all this ecological work it is important to note: Their business profitability has improved, while they are working with nature to enhance their farm ecosystem’s productivity and biodiversity, and improving the natural resource base.
And in cities
Similar things are happening in the cities and there is much food production there. In Melbourne, for example, groups of people are developing the most diverse and productive gardens in private yards or in community plots.
I visited one food-growing project involving a network of about ten young families in a Melbourne suburb. The gardens are full of dense, luxuriant vegetation. Trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers grow close together in ways that mimic wild ecosystems. The trees include fruit trees, other exotics and natives, such as Black Wattle and Drooping Sheoak that fix nitrogen in the soil.
Most of the families have chickens. One has goats. All do composting, with layers of scraps, grassy material and manure. Adults and children work together.
As well as constituting a key to the good life, such activities have wide environmental implications. If we produce more of what we need close to where it is consumed, we reduce the need for long distance transportation, while participation in local ecological or cultural activity also reduces the need to travel and the consequent demand for fuels. We are shifting towards an economy based on sustainable and equitable living.
Engagement with the land: planting indigenous species
As part of my own journey I have been involved with ‘Friends’ groups that work to restore elements of the indigenous ecology and protect animal species through planting, weeding and systematic monitoring. Through this work we discover a great deal about the land. Consider a couple of examples.
One winter day members of Friends of French Island and Landcare got together for their annual tree planting along the coast at Long Point, French Island. It was a bright sunny day. I jotted down my impressions:
‘Warm, clear sky; low tide. The bay is a blue-grey mirror. Rocky exposed sea floor with clumps of mangroves; grassy fields above. Many swallows are wheeling. Did we stir up the insects? Goldfinches call. Cisticola and Flame Robin show themselves. Many textures, shades of green in the planting field. The workers are at home in this. Quiet voices, mutual aid, the way to sustainability.’
Monitoring at Banyule Swamp
Monitoring of animal and plant species and of ecosystems—observing changes and keeping records—is just as important as this physical work.
I often go for walks along the Yarra River. One place I visit, to observe and reflect, is Banyule Swamp, Heidelberg.
A long time ago the swamp was drained but in the 1990s the local council restored it and Friends groups have replanted some of the indigenous vegetation. The southern portion of the swamp consists of open water, with patches of floating vegetation. There is a line of dead gum trees in the water and some healthy mature red gum specimens on dry land. One March day I was sitting on the east side of the swamp and I noted:
‘The swamp is full of water. It is mid afternoon. The sky has cleared. There is a lush band of tussock-grasses and mat-rush between me and the water. Three white ibises are perched in the big dead trees over the water, preening their feathers. Two swans swim idly, separate. Then one speeds up, gliding gracefully over to some floating vegetation and stops to feed there. It is quiet. The breeze whispers. A few birds call. I can hear occasional shouts from a far cricket oval. A wagtail alights on a branch of a young tree, then flits off towards the water. If we like, we can learn from these creatures. They are in no hurry to go anywhere—just here in the present, in our local place.’
On every visit the swamp is different. Well into the dry summer, in late February, it had only a little water. I noted: ‘Five red-kneed dotterels feed at the edge of the mud—a rare species in such an urban setting. There are a few Latham’s snipe; most have left on their annual migration to Japan. A great egret and a yellow-billed spoonbill sometimes perch in a dead tree and then go foraging in the water—the egret slowly stalking, the spoonbill swishing its bill from side to side.’
Truly we experience a wildness here—even in the midst of the suburbs. There is something majestic, even primeval, about these creatures and their movements—a sight that would have been witnessed again and again over the millennia of human habitation.
From my activities of revegetation and especially monitoring I have become familiar with the patterns in the land. The landscape is structured. It is everywhere different; its ecosystems were shaped by topography, the rock types, the rainfall and the history of human management.
In exploring the spatial patterns in the landscape I have built on the work of others. Beginning in 1953 the Soil Conservation Authority initiated a series of land system studies of various regions, generally coinciding with a river catchment. A land system is an element in the landscape based on a particular pattern of topography, rock, soils and vegetation.
These studies were directed towards soil conservation and land use planning. However, we can put them to wider use. By throwing light on the structure of the landscape, and the connections between the parts, the studies enable us to understand and appreciate the land more deeply and so to develop approaches to living sustainably on it.
The Yarra floodplain that contains Banyule Flats is an example of a land system. It features deep, alluvial soils and a woodland dominated by River Red Gum and Silver Wattle. The ground is grassy in places, with tussock-grasses dominating. Elsewhere, there is thick shrubbery, especially of tree violet and, along the bank, river bottlebrush.
The ecological matrix:
The land systems define the elements of the landscape. And these are all interconnected. For example, they are linked up through the network of rivers and creeks, or in hilly country through ridge lines, and also through the vegetation along roadsides and railway reserves. Many of these links form corridors rich in remnants of the original vegetation, retaining much of their biodiversity.
The whole countryside is criss-crossed by such corridors. They make possible the daily foraging and migratory movements of mammal and bird species. The old trees are of special importance in these remnants. They provide a protective environment for the small plants and for animals.
I will call this network of remnant indigenous ecosystems the ecological matrix. It is the fount of biodiversity. It is also necessary for human health; it is the matrix in which sustainable production can take place, on farm, garden or factory.
Friends groups and Landcare have directed their efforts towards enhancing and developing habitat corridors that link up separate major conservation reserves. Such projects involve both protecting remnant vegetation and planting trees to fill up the gaps in the corridor.
So rich sites like Banyule Flats are not isolated. They are linked to many other sites through the Yarra River and its band of streamside vegetation. If we follow the Yarra upstream the terrain varies and the river flows through both gorges and floodplains. The vegetation corridor varies also, with sparse woodland on farmland and rich forest in the parklands and water catchments.
Plenty River corridor
I hope to explore further the land systems around Melbourne. Right now I have begun to explore the Plenty River from its junction with the Yarra near Heidelberg to its source at Mount Disappointment.
As we travel north along the Plenty we pass through a number of different land systems. In parts of its lower and middle reaches the Plenty is bordered in places by River Red Gum, like the Yarra, and by Manna Gum in the steeper parts.
On higher ground on the old Silurian sedimentary rock, away from the river bank on the east side, the land system contains remnants of a Grassy Dry Forest, dominated by Red Stringybark, Red Box, Long-leaved Box, and a whole variety of shrubs, grasses and beautiful wildflowers.
However, it varies. On the same rocky bedrock plateau at Plenty Gorge, north of Greensborough, we encounter a woodland of Yellow Gum. This often flowers profusely in the autumn, attracting lots of lorikeets and honeyeaters.
Further north along the river we pass through other land systems. Eventually we come to the forested ranges at Mt Disappointment and in Kinglake National Park. This was the scene of devastation in the 2009 bushfires but the land is slowly recovering.
All these remnants of the original landscape are a great treasure. They constitute the ecological matrix. A greater range of plant and animal species once flourished. But the remnants contain the potential for healing and recovery. This landscape is full of power and meaning, if we care to encounter it and appreciate it. Every bit of it is worth exploring and reflecting on.
I would like to consider now the economic implications of what I have been saying. Some people regard the kind of sustainable farming and revegetation activities I have just described as being marginal to the real economy. On the contrary, I see them as central to our sustainability and well-being.
For our culture and economy to be sustainable all our productive processes, all our urban planning and activity, must take place within the limits of the ecological matrix, in harmony with the cycles of the ecosystems.
We have already seen, in the case of the farming family in northern NSW, that a sustainable approach to farming brings economic as well as ecological benefits.
Some people use the term ‘ecosystem services’ to describe the economic benefits we obtain from natural ecosystems.
Forests are a good example. The economic value of a forest is much more than the timber and fuel provided by its trees. It includes services such as control of the climate through absorption of carbon dioxide, protection of freshwater sources, and recreation. Our Mountain Ash forests have much greater economic value when they are left standing to produce water resources rather than cut down for wood products.
Wetlands are particularly diverse and productive ecosystems. They mitigate floods. They do this by storing water, delaying and reducing peak flows. They capture and cycle nutrients from upstream. They convert energy, nutrients, water and gases into living biomass.
Wetlands store carbon. They develop rich ecosystems with a lot of vegetation. They support a large amount of biodiversity, including fish and flocks of waterbirds. Banyule Swamp is a fine example.
Wetlands benefit agriculture, for example through biological pest control. The flocks of waterbirds, such as Ibis, consume great quantities of insects.
Engagement with the land will be at the core of our response to the environmental crisis. In becoming familiar with the land, in its complex diversity and connections, we are living out our conversion. At the same time, we discover the way to live sustainability on the earth.
How do these insights into the land systems and the ecological matrix relate to other ways of understanding the land? Let us consider first Aboriginal culture and religion.
In Aboriginal culture the central concept is commonly expressed as the Dreaming. As anthropologist Stanner explains, this has a complex of meanings. A central meaning is that of a sacred, heroic time when people and nature came to be as they are. However, we cannot fix the Dreaming in time; it is also, in a sense, still part of the present. It is a narrative of things that once happened; a charter of things that still happen and ‘a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man’.
It is tempting for people in the cities to regard the Dreaming as something of the past, with relevance only for those Indigenous people who are still living out their traditional culture. On the contrary, this is a living tradition that has relevance and urgency far beyond these communities. It brings an inspiration and a message for all of us—calling us to a sense of Country in all its uniqueness. And the Dreaming, with its songlines, is surely relevant to our own efforts to explore and define the patterns in the land—and the ecological matrix.
Science and art
There have also been some important developments over the past 200 years of Western history where the Christian tradition and secular trends overlap. The dominant materialist view that reduces nature to a set of resources for human benefit is strident but it is by no means the only tradition in the west. Let us explore some developments, especially in science and the arts.
The great scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a key figure. He is considered as the forerunner of Darwin, whom he inspired. He recognised in nature an underlying unity informed by the laws governing the universe; all aspects of the natural world are interrelated.
He argued that art and science were parallel and complementary disciplines. In particular he proposed that a painter, like a scientist, should be committed to the detailed and accurate observation of natural phenomena. Also he urged landscape painters to go out from Europe and paint the landscapes of the new world.
Eugene von Guerard was one who responded. His painting was based on the close and scientifically informed observation of nature.
His picture (a lithograph), Track over the Otway Ranges, looks out across a clearing in the forest of giant Mountain Ash. In the foreground are graceful tree-ferns, and a man on horseback dwarfed by the trees. The steep slopes below are covered with the dense forest, in strong sunlight on one side of the ridge and in shadow on the other. In the distance is the sea beneath a cloudy sky.
In this picture, along with the accurate detail, we gain a sense of the timeless mystery of the land. Von Guerard was profoundly influenced by the German Romantic painters. In the romantic perspective, through contemplation of the landscape we can enter deeply into the cosmos and so find God. Von Guerard saw no contradiction between the sublime aspect of his work and the scientific documentary aspect.
In the words of Ruth Pullin, curator of the exhibition Nature revealed: ‘Von Guerard’s great imaginative feat as an artist was to resolve the details of the natural world, nature’s “diversity”, into the uplifting, sublime “unity” of his compositions.’
Poets and nature writers have also evoked the power and mystery of the land. Among nature writers, one I am fond of is Jean Galbraith (1906-1999), the botanist and gardener who lived in the Latrobe Valley. She was self-taught while keeping in touch and comparing notes with some of the prominent botanists in Victoria. She propagated native plants and encouraged people to grow them in their gardens, and also took part in the conservation struggles in Gippsland. She published a much-used book, Wildflowers of Victoria.
Jean once wrote a series of articles on wattles for the journal The Victorian Naturalist. The series inspired other botanists to write for general readers. Consider, for example, her simple description of the familiar Silver Wattle:
‘The spring raiment is wattle bloom, especially the bloom of Silver Wattle, touching the stream-side trees with gold in July, cascading over them in August and September, and in October reaching the mountain gullies where the wattle grows into tall trees…
‘Silver Wattle belongs to the group with feathery or bipinnate leaves… In blossom time the leaves are hidden by clouds of living gold… Every golden ball is a cluster of minute yellow flowers, each with a halo of stamens tipped with their sacs of pollen…
‘Silver Wattles are… 20, 30 or 40 feet in the lowlands but may be 100 feet high in the mountain gullies.’
There are common threads that run through these various reflections on the natural world. There are connections among the different traditions: the Dreaming, the insights of scientists, artists and nature writers, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. They all draw us into an ever deeper relationship with the land.
The sustainable city
In the spirit of ecological conversion, we grow in familiarity with the natural environment around us. We know that the Indigenous people understood everything in Country in terms of the Dreaming and traced its patterns in their songlines. So it is important now for many of us to become more familiar with the ecological matrix with its corridors of biodiversity.
We need to re-connect and extend the corridors of biodiversity throughout the countryside and to integrate the farms, towns and cities into this matrix. I envisage a gentle overlapping, without definite boundaries, between city and farm and bushland—an organic harmony between city and countryside, between the natural and the built environment.
The outcome of all our efforts is not something we can predict. Yet it is important to be constant in our stance, to bear witness, to articulate the different ecological vision—in the hope that others may listen. We must awaken a will to conserve the treasures of creation and heal the damage done to it.
In our ecological conversion, the active, reflective and mystical dimensions of our lives come together. As Pope Francis reminds us: ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face…’
Notes on sources
Food production on farms. D. Norton & N. Reid, Nature and farming (CSIRO Publishing, 2013, pp. 172-7).
Sustainable economy. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Living beyond our means: natural assets and human well-being (published on-line, 2005). D. Lindenmayer et al., Mountain Ash, (CSIRO Publishing, 2015). S. Wratten et al., Ecosystem services in agricultural and urban landscapes (Wiley, 2013).
The Dreaming. W.E.H. Stanner, White man got no dreaming (ANU Press, 1979, pp. 23-24).
Science and art. Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guerard: nature revealed (National Gallery of Victoria, 2011).
Nature writers. Jean Galbraith, Silver Wattle: Acacia dealbata, Victorian Naturalist 76:11 (1959).