Book Review: Call of the Reed Warbler

A new agriculture, a new earth, by Charles Massy

Group review by NPA book group

The NPA book group had a very interesting discussion of this rich book on February 8. Members brought different perspectives. Some had farm backgrounds but most of us had not. One member had a family connection to the author. Another has a son considering farming as a career. A third found it valuable to read the book twice.

It’s a chronicle of Massy’s journey and life work, from inheriting a degraded farm in the Monaro, building a successful merino stud enterprise, but at a cost to his land and pocket until faced with near bankruptcy through a series of dry years. Determined to survive, he changed tack, exploring regenerative methods and switching to a new form of agriculture based on natural cycles of energy, water and minerals. This involves working with nature in our distinct Australian landscapes rather than trying to master it with chemicals, industrial machinery and northern hemisphere ideas.

The title seems obscure until he explains that the Reed Warbler is now a rare wetland bird. If an area can hold water, reeds will grow and the warbler returns, so it’s an indicator of a restored landscape and a symbol of hope.

Massy went on to do extensive reading, research and a PhD. The book incorporates a lot of this, as he visits and interviews innovative land managers and thinkers in Australia and round the world. All the case studies showed a transformative improvement in farm ecology, with many also experiencing improved productivity over many seasons, as the land was better able to cope in seasons considered ‘poor’.

There is perhaps too much detail for readers not contemplating following the same path. No examples are given of farmers who tried or seriously considered regenerative farming, but didn’t succeed or proceed. The book is also possibly too ambitious. He addresses major issues of food supply and human health as well as the challenge of overhauling our general patterns of thinking. He claims that ‘the emergent mind’ must replace ‘the mechanical mind’. But how?

Despite our frustrations that he oversimplifies or downplays some of these challenges, we all agreed that it’s a great and refreshingly positive book. We all know that many family farmers are struggling to stay on their family farms and many of us feel that same feeling of dread about the future. But here we meet the farmers personally, who prove to us that the future need not be so bleak. Through their struggles we know there is the simple answer of learning to work with Mother Nature to give her a chance to heal and thrive. We all hope that this lesson will spread far and wide, city and country and we shall all contribute to healing our Earth.

For more on Massy’s fascinating journey see Australian Story on ABC iView –

And the related story on regenerative farming

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