Regenerating Our Relationship to Agriculture

Environment, Food
Regenerative farmer and author, Charles Massy. Photo thanks to Amy Browne.

Regenerative farmer and author, Charles Massy.
Photo thanks to Amy Browne.

Charles Massy in conversation with Anthony James, host of The RegenNarration podcast
Photos thanks to Amy Browne, whose documentary 'From the Ground Up' explores regenerative farming practises

Charles Massy, regenerative agriculturalist and author of the hugely successful ‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth', outlines the importance of regenerating both our physical and mental landscapes.

This edited conversation is brought to you by The RegenNarration podcast (formerly Rescope Radio), in collaboration with The Rescope Project. For the full podcast and more, including interviews with Tim Winton and Paul Hawken, head over to The RegenNarration. A big thank you goes out to interviewer Anthony James.

Anthony James: In your studies you looked at organic versus mechanical mind—the use of metaphor. It's so pivotal to how humans understand our place in the world and ourselves even. Do you have any insights on how metaphor can be engaged to help people manage to understand what's at stake?
Charles Massy: That's a really good and deep question because if you're going to look at mind change you've got to look at how the mind works. I [went] back into cognitive psychology and all that sort of stuff doing my PhD. The modern human mind really evolved, they think, maybe a couple hundred thousand years ago, which is when we could think symbolically. Central to that [evolution], and very deep-wired in our oldest part of the brain, is metaphor. That's seeing a picture or something that represents a symbolic form of something else, which is what language is about and ideas.

And so what I try to do in my talks is make them very visual. The other thing I looked at [when I went] back to uni is the power of mental models and paradigms – worldviews – which become very deeply embedded and that's part of that metaphorical role. It's almost like it's locked-in cement in your brain, which is to do with metaphor and the rejigging of the whole way your brain works and that determines your worldview and what you're comfortable with. And that's why [it usually] takes a major life shock to get people changing. It's something I talk about like a tortoise shell – a carapace – something pretty out there challenging to crack open that carapace and open the mind. It's that sort of shock that opens the mind to new thinking.

And then when you do start doing courses and stuff what’s become quite sophisticated in Australia – compared to say in the 90s when it was only just going with Terry McCosker and the Savory group and others – [is] what we've got now. If you look at some of the grazing groups, the Otway Agroforestry Network, some of the biological farming groups and most of the different regenerative farming groups have got a very sophisticated social learning approach. So you go and do a three, four or four five-day course. You've got mentors. If you come home and you're making mistakes you've got people you can talk to, they can nurse you through the uncertainty. It's quite often lonely because you're sticking out in your district. This district we're in, out of 1000 farmers there’s probably only seven or eight doing regenerative ag. It's quite conservative.

So the thing is evolving now there's better support networks to get you through that. It's basically that [the] worldview or paradigm is slowly shifting across and doesn't happen overnight. You've got to learn by doing and you make mistakes. Some people then fall away of course and then they become the worst critics of it – I learnt that in the sheep breeding game. But we're getting into a much better space. You've gone to the heart of the matter, it's about worldviews and paradigms and how you shift them.

“You’re a small part of a big system.” – Charles Massy.  Photo thanks to Amy Browne.

“You’re a small part of a big system.” – Charles Massy.
Photo thanks to Amy Browne.


I had a student once, an older student in this case – I think he was about 70 – in our postgrad course, that [was dealing] with these things. But he was grappling well – and by and large most do when they've opted in to this degree in my experience. But, indicative of what was at stake, his comment to me one day I've never forgotten. He said " I feel like I can't talk anymore. I've had my language taken away," because every time he would talk he would hear himself talking out of the old worldview, the mechanical worldview, which of course previously he didn't even see. So now he can see it, but wow, what an insight into how it can feel. I don't know if 'debilitating' is the word but potentially if you're not held or guided or know what's up or where to go next, how it can be so. And I guess, you know, it is a hint of what's at stake when you want to try and navigate what's really needed to change.
That's a really powerful story and that guy has really nailed it because when I was analysing metaphors I also analysed what the language of the metaphors were. I also interviewed some of the leading industrial farmers and their metaphors were all – not all, but largely – about domination, control, it was quite harsh – more mechanical. Whereas the metaphors, the language and the verbs [used by] the leading regenerative farmers was what I would call organic. It was more loving and gentle and, well, you would just have to say it was organic. It wasn't about control, it was about humility – that you're a small part of a big system. And that is [a reflection of] how their worldview now operated. They didn't see themselves as separate and in control, it was rather the opposite. All you can do is facilitate processes of change which is the other big thing I got out of my thesis was catching up on – I don't know if you want to address this later, about self-organisation, or not – but...

That's exactly where I was going to go, let's keep going.
All right, because I ended up going back to uni having witnessed my own course of change and thought it was pretty important. I had a long way to go, mind you. Doing all those interviews helped a lot. But I had a 40 year catch up basically from being an undergraduate going out and living life and having a merino stud and all the rest of it, and then deciding to go back to uni. And in that period we'd had remarkable developments in thinking. We had the electronic age, the computers coming on – I don't want to make myself out to be that old [laughs]. The 80s and 90s were extraordinary and part of that was the new systems thinking – initially hard systems, [like] computer programs, and then what they started to call soft systems. But out of that, if you then tapped into a lot of the new discoveries in physics and biology – chaos theory, string theory, all that sort of stuff – they realised that we are operating – the universe and the earth – as what's called a complex adaptive system. [That’s what] a society is, a city is and the world wide web is, which means that there are so many cross threads of complexity. When [the complex adaptive system] is destabilised or a change happens, if it's allowed – and that's a big ‘if' – it can equilibrate back to a position of stability or functioning.


"I also interviewed some of the leading industrial farmers and their metaphors were all – not all, but largely – about domination, control, it was quite harsh – more mechanical."

Charles Massy planting trees on his property in NSW. Photo thanks to Amy Browne.

Charles Massy planting trees on his property in NSW.
Photo thanks to Amy Browne.


"We don't have to be the masters of the universe after all."


And there is a leading group of ecologists working in areas to do with landscape ecology, in particular resilience theory, that has spun out of this complex adaptive systems thinking. I had to teach Masters students about complex adaptive systems. When I looked at the literature there's about 12 definable traits of a complex adaptive system, say a landscape or a paddock or a catchment or whatever, but it can be the World Wide Web or even a city. I'm not going to go into those 12, but the key ones that really hit me in the eye were that within your landscape or ecosystem, the solutions for recovery or regeneration are there, they just have to be enabled. They’re solutions that are called emergent properties. Once a farmer stops belting the landscape and steps back, and starts doing things to encourage the regeneration, the solutions will pop up. It might be a deep crawling beetle pulling up a seed that's been buried for 150 years to get a grassland going with new C4 grass. It could be bacteria emerging out of a cow's stomach or whatever. Because similar bacteria and microorganisms that reside in an animal’s gut reside in the soil. This starts to build in disease prevention.

In time, those complex systems, once they’re enabled to function again – and function properly instead of being controlled and dominated like our farms – they will self-organise themselves back to stability, complexity, and health. Of all the ideas I came across that just hit me between the eyes. It was the key explanation of what we do as regenerative farmers. As one farmer said, "My job is to get out of the bloody way of nature and let her on with it. She's had a few billion years to do it." And that's exactly what it is. Once I grasped that idea of self-organising capacity so many things make sense.

We were speaking with Chris at Kachana Station, for example. What he found was that between deciding they were going to try and get that property to when they actually got out there two years later it had got worse without tending. So it's not that we have an idea still of humans being separate from this self-organising process, in fact the human presence – ought to, can be – part of what makes it work.
Now you're absolutely right. When I when I was using the analogy of stepping away and letting Mother Nature get on with it, that quite rightly doesn't mean you lock it up. I mean that's where, say, people like Allan Savory and Terry McCosker struggle with some of the academics and scientists who think that if you lock up a national park or something it's going to improve. If it's destabilised past a certain point – what the resilience theorists would call down to a lower level of functioning, a lower base level – it can't [regenerate]. So it needs a kick start of energy or planting stuff or animal impact – as in the ecological grazing – to kick more positive things into gear, to get the self-organisation going. So it's not just stepping away, it's, yes, stepping back from that arrogant control but yet intervening if necessary to put in the right ingredients to get the process of regeneration going.

I often think it takes the pressure off in a way. We don't have to be masters of the universe after all.

Anthony James headshot.png
Anthony James has two decades of experience as a facilitator and educator in ‘sustainability’, or what is now better referred to as regenerative development. This experience has been applied in a range of settings, from post-graduate to primary school levels, with public, community and private sector organisations, and with communities in Australia and Central America. Anthony runs The RegenNarration podcast, which we highly reccomend you follow for discussions on the regenerative movement.