In birthday cards I often wish the recipient a coming year of “the right kind of challenge”, optimistically suggesting it will herald positive growth and empowerment through problem-solving and negotiation. This year, I got a taste of my own medicine, with a winter of biblical proportions just the beginning of the challenges.
November marks four years since we began the Yarnauwi project. Four years of attempting to regenerate the property to our optimistic standards on the weekends, of packing and unpacking the car, of ferrying and entertaining one, then two, small children, of revegetating, managing erosion, managing pasture, managing water, managing livestock, managing weeds and managing the legacy of past land managers. These are all admirable, ambitious intentions, and what we’ve achieved has only been possible through the support and enthusiasm of our community of neighbours, friends and family.
So when the winter hit, and the rain fell, and the wind blew, we were reminded of how much beyond our own vision a landscape and its climate reach, and how they have a momentum, if not a will, of their own. A rainwater tank blew off a hilltop and into a flooding river, soils collapsed into sinkholes, ridges became swamps, sheep feet grew to resemble Aladdin slippers on the soft ground, shed builders procrastinated, weeds germinated en masse, pasture rocketed skyward and, happily, our four years of seedlings spread their roots into the saturated subsoil and grew.
All of this, combined with the complexities of family life and maintaining off-farm employment has prompted much contemplation about our successes, our failures, about what’s working and realistic, and what is beyond our abilities, despite noble intentions. Our flock of sheep were intended as a pasture management strategy while we focussed on other elements of the property, but inevitably, they grew to become the focus, at the expense of our main interests. Our strongest motivation has always been the prospect of restoring habitat to a neglected patch of ground, and by exploring tree crops that can thrive in the southwestern Fleurieu climate. While we haven’t yet fully resolved the “sheep-have-taken-over-our-lives” dilemma, we are working to realign our focus on trees, for both habitat and food.
This realignment has been useful in reminding us of the essential merits of patience and to reconnect with our unofficial motto from Wes Jackson, that “if you life’s work can be achieved in your lifetime, then you’re not thinking big enough”. After four years of planting, in 2016 we saw our first acacia blossoms on the property, possibly the first in decades, if not a century. We had our first sightings on the property of birds often associated with woodlands (pardalotes, cuckoo-shrikes and others). Agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry writes, “In a country once forested, the young woodland remembers the old, a dreamer dreaming of an old holy book, an old set of instructions. And the soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest. And under the pavement, the soil is dreaming of grass.” We are early in our succession back to woodland, and much of what we plant may not truly reach maturity in our own lifetimes. While some seedlings are now visible from the front gate, for many, it may be another 5 years before they cast a shadow, or provide discernable shelter from the wind. In our impatient enthusiasm, they remind us to slow down, keep pace with the ecosystem, do things steady, carefully, properly.
Despite the contemplative air, 2016 has had some fantastic successes. Through the support of our community, we’ve continued to clear the final section of gully junk and constructed erosion control structures, focussed around our inaugural Waterway Restoration Day. Many erosion control structures, constructed from field stone and dumped gully rubble proved to be highly effective with the rains, catching sediment, slowing flow and raising eroded gully floors. With the relentless rain, Asher was inspired to plant out a waterhole in Zephyr Creek, clearing weeds to plant out reeds and sedges. We’ve continued our tradition of annual tree-planting days, this year cracking 4,000 seedlings planted in 4 years. We propagated and planted a first wave of productive pioneers: carobs, feijoas and stone pines, and Sophie and Asher initiated an experimental potato patch. Our third attempt to revegetate a section of north-facing cracking clay took root, supported by careful plant selection and generous mulching: from now on, in places like this we’re going for a more systematic, a-patch-per-year approach rather than large scale plantings. Our woodlot of Eucalyptus occidentalis filled our hearts fit to burst with the enthusiasm it shows for hostile soils. We nailed the timing and method (“tongs-of-death”) for control of Cape Tulip. We launched our Etsy shop to sell farm-inspired art and craft items. We harvested sheep for meat and hides, and were delighted by the positive response we received, with one contented customer describing our mutton as, “Very tender, very tasty, rates with the best meat we’ve ever tried.”
In the spirit of new year’s resolutions, we’ve been tossing around some intentions for 2017, with the underlying theme of doing a bit less, a bit better. We’ve been reading Alan Savory’s work on the holistic management approach, and are looking to explore this further to assist with sustainable decision making on the farm. We’ll continue to tweak our flock towards climate resilience. We’ll refocus on waterway restoration, consolidating existing revegetation and erosion control structures, while also pushing on with clearing gully junk. We hope to begin preparations for an experimental dryland orchard, planting out pioneers for future shelter and pest management. We’ll hike, and swim, and snorkel. We’ll build cubbies and have picnics. We’ve already started propagating seedlings for our fifth annual tree planting extravaganza, and we hope to see you there!