“Call of the Reed Warbler”

Book review: Call of the Reed Warbler – A new agriculture, a new earth
Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017

Charles Massy takes the reader on a meandering route through seemingly endless case studies of sustainable agricultural practice, mostly in Australia, in the manner of an aimless road trip or a sightseeing wander around a diverse farm. In fact, each chapter begins with him describing a bit about a particular trip to visit an inspirational agricultural innovator, or a walk through his back paddocks, before launching into the substantive matter of the chapter. It’s a slow way to tell a story but the book is worth reading as an introduction to many of the ideas available for making agriculture more sustainable, and the slow style is nevertheless readable and enjoyable.

This is a book of hope. Were I to rate it for the central premise, of making agriculture contribute to healing the world and ourselves, I’d give it five stars. Instead I give it 3.5, (rounded down to 3 – no half stars allowed – on Goodreads) because most other reviewers rated it so highly and I think it deserves a critical review. Critical, because it’s important, and influential, and deserves to be considered carefully — not because it should be ignored or written off. Continue reading


Reveg plastic pollution

Re-vegetation has the right aims, but the tools available, and their use, sometimes leave a lot to be desired. I’m thinking about the ubiquitous plastic tree guards, mainly (and a couple of other things mentioned at the end of this blog post). I wonder if anyone else has come up with solutions to any of these problems (leave a comment please! – EDIT: some suggestions are now available in the comments). Anyway since it’s new year coming up, lets make a resolution to reduce plastic pollution from revegetation in 2019.

Tree-guards have a purpose, which they fulfil more or less well, but the downsides are not usually addressed properly. The plastic corflute construction of the most commonly used types these days is sometimes a significant litter problem.

Plastic is one of the more obnoxious kinds of litter. Paper breaks down fairly quickly. Metal cans and glass are relatively inert (and more or less natural). Plastic, however, does not break down easily but nor is it inert. We know from many news stories now that it breaks up into micro-particles which can enter the food chain and may cause all sorts of problems.

There’s a lot of sources of litter, but environmental efforts like revegetation shouldn’t be one. And yet… they are. A lot of revegetation happens along waterways, in the flood zone, because that’s where you can’t clear for housing and other purposes (yes, as usual, ecology only gets what no-one else wants). What happens when it floods? Tree guards washed downstream. Continue reading

What’s in your layer cake?

Layer cake

Community volunteers planting trees is a great sign of people starting to care for the environment. But just planting trees does not equal restoring the environment. Ecologists tend to view vegetation as coming in structural layers, like a layer cake. The simplest scheme breaks it into three: Tree canopy, understorey (small trees and shrubs) and ground layer (grasses, herbs, logs and leaf litter).

5 structural layers in a woodland
The 5 structural layers in a woodland or dry forest. From www.recreatingthecountry.com.au

Unfortunately, some of these layers are easier to recreate than others, and the most difficult – the grassy ground layer – often gets left in the “too hard” category. So our layer cake might have great decorative icing, sturdy top layers of sponge and cream and whatever, but the bottom layer is unfortunately shit (weeds, more literally). Who wants to eat that layer cake? Continue reading

Graduate ratios in a sane world

This blog has been in hiatus as I’ve been a bit busy. Earlier this year I graduated from my BSc (Botany major) with first class honours. Hooray for me! And hooray for neuroplasticity which means I could still learn and do well despite leaving school some 20 years or so before I started university, and come to think of it I didn’t do any science at all in year 11 and 12 anyway. I think being interested goes a long way to crossing any hurdles like that.

The graduation ceremony was a bit bizarre. Not just the strange medieval costume, but the graduation session I was in had about 80% commerce students and the rest life sciences (a mix of health, agriculture and ecology, mostly). I don’t know if that’s representative of the entire semester’s graduates, but I think the ratio would be reversed if we lived in a rational world. Continue reading

Dismantling feral ecosystems

Basalt escarpent, overrun with serrated tussock

I’ve been privileged to work for a few weeks on a basalt escarpment in Melbourne’s western suburbs. The area is spectacular; I love the views and geology and flora of the escarpments. Even this one, which is seriously infested with invasive exotic species.

The section I’m working on is overrun with serrated tussock (Nasella trichotoma), a South American native that causes big problems in agriculture and native grasslands. It’s an attractive species, but tends to smother everything around it – and its seeding panicles (seedheads) break off and blow in the wind, spreading it far and wide. Native animals, stock, and even rabbits barely touch it, preferring to eat almost anything else including all the native species. So it has a great competitive advantage, and easily takes over (especially under heavy grazing). It sets thousands of seed per plant, building up a huge reservoir in the soil seed bank. Continue reading

Autumn burning

Here’s a few photos of an ecological burn I was privileged to be on for work. Hopefully I can explain a bit of the why and how as far as burning native grasslands goes.

The grasses here were forming a thick thatch of dead matter, which can smother out all the smaller plants, annuals, and even the grasses themselves eventually. I arrived early so I had a bit of a walk around and although it was a great patch of Themeda triandra (kangaroo grass), it was getting a bit rank. You couldn’t see a single square centimetre of bare ground.

Autumn burns remove all that mostly dead biomass so that the winter growing C3 grasses have a chance, and many of the herbaceous plants (think: wildflowers). Come next summer, the Themeda will also take off again. It may be choking everything out again within a couple of years, needing another burn; if the local climate is dry, it might take a bit longer. Continue reading

Far, far away

A review of two books and partial review of a third. Details of books at end.

Steppe. Something you may have heard of in tales of the Cossacks and Scythians in European history and literature. What is it?

I bought the book Steppes:┬áThe plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions for a global, biogeographical comparison with Australia’s temperate grassland bioregions. And indeed, there are many parallels. But as I learned, Australia does not really have steppe in the sense this book uses the word.

Continue reading