Book Review: Call of the Reed Warbler

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth’ by Charles Massy

I offer here my reflections after first reading of this highly nutrient-dense, regenerative book. I hope it will inspire you to read or listen to the whole book yourself, it is a truly worthwhile experience.

‘Call of the Reed Warbler’ will be an appealing read for farmers and non-farmers alike, addressing such topics as as industrial farming history, capitalism, climate change, desertification, mental health, colonisation and much more, with all the wit and charm you would expect from a classic Aussie farmer. I would like to note that the Australian reed warbler, with it’s petite size, light brown colour and chirpy calls, is not a particularly exciting bird. Regardless, the reed warbler features only briefly as a fitting symbol and harbinger to the book’s enormous subject matters.

One bird sitting quietly on a leafless tree branch, sang the world into a premature spring, Because he gave all of his strength to his art, and fretted not, of the yield he would bring.

Lulu Curme Bretnall, c.1922

Charles Massy, who has 35 years of farming experience under his belt along with a Bachelor of Science, PhD in Human Ecology and Order of Australia Medal, delivered a book that is lyrical, scientific and with the sharpness and courage of a true leader- a book that is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. It will get under your skin, full of hope and amazingly positive stories from Charles himself and numerous other progressive farmers working in some of the toughest environments in the world. I, for one, was left with more positive ideas and excitement for the future. But be warned- Charles does not adhere to any cultural fences, he calls a spade a spade, and like reading of a friend’s betrayal, you can’t un-read it. Once you know the details, repairing the relationship is a challenge that you must now either start working on from the ground up, or consciously choose to ignore.

There are several themes running through the book. The most prominent is the concept of farmers moving from what he calls a “Mechnical mind” to an “Emergent mind”. He elaborates on what this means with highly intriguing stories, from both a personal perspective and from a range of farmer case-studies. Charles distinguishes the Emergent mind from the forerunner to the Mechanical mind, the “Organic mind”, which is a generalised mindset held by indigenous cultures for millennia. Both Organic and Emergent minds see themselves as inseparable parts of nature, with cultural development intent on better understanding and communication of how to live in harmony with natural systems in order to survive. The Emergent mind “combines elements of the previous Organic mind with the best of the Mechanical mind and modern science, but in addition has a capacity to respect and encourage the processes of self-organisation, open-ended creativity and thus emergence”. In the words of David Marsh in Chapter 19, the Emergent mind is “simplifying to complexity” and is “open to ongoing disturbance, adjustment and equilibrium”.

Another clear theme is the concept of “ecological literacy” and the identification of five key landscape functions (namely “Regenerating the Solar-Energy Function”, “Regenerating the Water Cycle”, “Regenerating the Soil-Mineral Cycle”, “Regenerating Dynamic Ecosystems” and “Regenerating the Human-Social” influences) based on the work of Allan Savory and others. Charles shares his learning experience from his early years of farming when he had been effectively “ecologically illiterate” and blind to the needs of the land he was managing- with disastrous consequences. I will not be able to effectively sum up the five landscape functions model here, as more than half of the book is devoted to the detail. However, the illustration below emphasises the interconnected nature of these functions and, through the depth of understanding that Charles expresses in his book, I have now fundamentally changed the way I personally approach farm planning. The importance that Charles places on improving ecological literacy can not be underestimated. He reinforces the hope in Wes Jackson’s words throughout the book: “Since our break with nature came with agriculture, it seems fitting the at the healing of culture begin with agriculture, fitting that agriculture take the lead”.

The final theme that I will describe is Charles’ concept of “self-organisation”. Although closely related to the Emergent mind theme, it is a strong narrative in its own right. This concept involves explanation of the relatively new science of ‘epigenetics’, through which we are beginning to understand some of the mechanisms through which organisms (including microbes, plants, insects and animals) can communicate with each other. The common language is chemical signalling, and these signals are involved in “switching on and off” genes in the genetic code of the organisms to aid in the adaptation of individuals and communities to their environments, ultimately leading to co-evolution processes. Although there are many unknowns regarding epigenetics, what is clear is that it is not easily manipulated or controlled and, if an ecosystem is healthy, it can seem to be self-creative. A repeated sentiment from regenerative farmers featured in this book is “Mother nature knows what to do, all we need to do is get out of the way and let her get on with it”. Charles sums it up with this: “self-organisation is a bottom-up process where complex order spontaneously emerges at multiple levels from the interaction of lower-level entities”.

A reed warbler feeds a cuckoo fledgling. Image credit: Richard Nicoll.

My final reflection on this book is this: Through obtaining an emergent mind, one turns fully towards the task of nurturing the seeds and eggs in which they believe lies limitless potential. They know not what species will emerge nor whether they will persist, but they sing as they work, and cheerfully follow their own natural instincts, regardless.

I like to think it is a song for the Earth – a song of possibilities, an exultation that, if allowed, the Earth and its life forms and creatures can be regenerated again. Yes, she is calling us in a poignant, heartfelt cry for all creation – a metaphor for us humans to once more become the enablers, the nurturers, the lovers of Earth.

Charles Massy in “Call of the Reed Warbler”

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