Living Systems

Introducing the ‘Living Systems’ community platform.

On Monday the 9th March, Jono Frew and Dan Regtien have an authentic, unedited conversation about why they started Living Systems. In this conversation Jono and Dan cover some FAQs about regenerative agriculture and also discuss the power of different perspectives and how to harness those without conflict.

Jono and Dan bring great diversity of skills knowledge and perspective to the collaboration. The core reason for Living Systems existence is to connect and empower people who are growing healthy food on regenerating landscapes. There is no advertising, no ‘pending approval’, just a friendly, land-based bunch of folks who encourage authenticity, trust and reverence.

By the way, like all really good things, it’s free! The cost of maintaining this is to be covered by those participating in Patron Branches and Courses. We are proud and excited to be here with you! You are welcome to bring your ideas and inspiration to the continued growth of Living Systems.

See to join the community

We made a start, now let’s grow this together!

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”

Book Review : Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore

I would like to acknowledge and thank all who are involved in creating this book: Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore- A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook (edited by Jessica Hutchings and Jo Smith). Although it has a mouthful of a title, it leaves you with a puku full of wisdom!

In this review, I will just provide a minimum amount of detail and relay a few quotes in order to give you a flavour. I don’t want to take too much away from the experience of reading it for yourself (which I highly recommend). This book is written in a refreshing way: very readable English but with plenty of translated Māori terms mixed in; 11 different authors contributing to a diverse, inclusive and holistic discussion about the vitality of soil from a Māori values perspective. It is divided into two parts, the first providing frameworks for understanding the narrative, and the second showcasing people who are walking the talk (“soil heros”). In all, it is a generous gift, written in an accessible way for all types of New Zealanders to integrate some of the centuries-old, Aotearoa specific wisdom into not only land management and food production, but also how we look at ourselves.

A strong theme of the book is whakapapa and identity, with every chapter having some acknowledgement of this. Whakapapa is a familiar aspect of Māori culture and is generally translated to mean ancestral lineage, but to Māori it is much more than that. Maanu Paul (a respected champion of Māori food and organic production methods) laid it out clearly: “My whakapapa gives me my existence and identity… the question is not ‘who are you’, it’s ‘where are you from’… I’m from the land in Ngati Manawa and I’m known by my mountain, I’m known by my rivers that nurture my soil- that’s how important soils are to me”. Maanu explained the literal translation of the word ‘whakapapa’ to mean ‘to make like soil’.

In the book we are provided with a diverse range of insight, including analysis of the historical ways in which soil and land was traditionally managed; the many Māori words for soil and related land management terms; a description of Hua Parakore (the Māori Organic verification framework); information regarding Māori homeopathy; description of diverse cultural uses of soils; the process of building a ‘whare uku’ (rammed earth house), explanation of how the natural environment can inform horticultural practices; description of a Māori secondary school devoted to kaitiakitangia (caring for the land); and much more. There is a strong emphasis on the role that food plays in Māori culture, with bonus recipe cards in the back of the book (which make great bookmarks by the way).   

All up it was a smorgasbord of wisdom and a thoroughly grounding experience. This is a very important book for helping to redefine how we relate to soil, land management and food production in the future, with an authentic and local flavour. Reading this book may cause self-reflection with questions such as “how do I appreciate the life-giving properties of soil?” or “what is it like to be of the soil?”. I very highly recommend it.

“Kihai koe I whangaina ke te maunga tawhiti, naku koa i whangai = You were not fed on foods of distant lands, but it was I who brought you up” – ancient lament from Taranaki.
“For me, diversity is a strength, and the role of kaitiaki in maintaining this is an important one”. – Gretta Carney
“Soils do not have a voice – few people speak out for them. They are our silent allies in our food systems, a crucial part of our living economies and they provide an anchor point for our identity and memories of place – our turangawaewae” – Jessica Hutchings
Illustration of the Hua Parakore framework- from Papatūānuku Kokiri Marae
“Importantly, the holistic value of the soil resource is going through a renaissance and its value is being better understood.” – Nick Roskruge
“This reciprocal relationship between land and people is a fundamental aspect of Māori cultural identity and lays the foundation to a complex and interconnecting values system.” – Jessica Hutchings.
“ko te whenua, nga wai me te tangata, Kotahi tonu = the land, the waters and people are one and the same” – Ngāhuia Lena, referred to as Kaitiaki of Moroiti (caretaker of micro-organisms)
“kaitiakitanga flips the instrumentalist logic of capitalism around to ask, what can we do for our lands and waters rather than, what can these natural resources do for us?”  - Garth Harmsworth

Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au, ko au te wai, ko te wai ko au. Whakarongo mai, whakarongo atu, whakarongo ki te whenua.” = I am the land, the land is me, I am the water, the water is me. Listen, listen more, listen to the land.