The Big Picture

The Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group blog is a collaborative effort. We’re happy to publish your contributions as part of this Landcare Network discussion. See the collaborate-contribute page for a range of topic suggestions or get in touch to discuss your idea.

The following is a generous contribution from Alex Televantos, a young man starting on a journey to save the world. Here, Alex recounts how he set off from his home in Canberra intending distant travel, but became unexpectedly tangled-up with Peter Andrews, finding more than enough inspiration just a short trip from his own front door.

The Big Picture

Hi. My name is Alex Televantos and I am 21 years old. I spent the year of 2014 working and saving, spending very little money and trying to become as aware of current global environmental issues as possible. At the end of the year, I quit my job and since then I have been living on the road, out of a tent, and I have been actively searching for a way to stop humanity’s downward spiral to extinction.

My first step was to leave the city. Born in Canberra, I grew up without a fundamental connection to nature (which I believe is the root of our environmental problems, incidentally), and thus I was deprived of the opportunity (that the vast majority of my ancestors have had) of observing and understanding the interactions of the natural world. If I wanted to get anywhere in terms of preserving and fostering life on Earth, I felt that I first needed to understand it.

So I joined an organisation called WWOOF Australia. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms- the organisation provides the opportunity for members to get in touch with organic farmers (and other environmentally minded people) so that they may stay with them for negotiable lengths of time, providing four to six hours of work a day in exchange for food and accommodation.

My intention was to hike to the east coast and then travel north- on a suggestion from a friend. He had been living and working on the land north around the Uki/ Nimbin area, and he recommended to me that if I wanted to save the world, that’s where I should head. Maybe my travels will still take me there- but as is well known, nothing ever goes according to plan.

My first port of call was a family- run sheep farm in Bungendore, about 40 minutes from Canberra by car. With a bounty of home grown and homemade lamb, milk, cheese, yoghurt, beer, bread, eggs and vegetables, and on more than enough holistically managed Australian bushland, Millpost was the perfect introduction to the natural state of human being. After ten days of peace, I moved on, believing I was in for more of the same. But Baarlijan had other plans for me.

Twenty five kilometres out from Braidwood (another forty five kilometres east from Bungendore), Baarlijan was to become my home for the next two months. With one thousand acres of protected bushland, bordered on one side by the Mongarlowe River and home to a host of different native animals and plants, you couldn’t ask for a better home. And though the property didn’t have a particular agricultural output (apart from an experimental garlic crop), the people there had a lot of knowledge to offer.

Baarlijan is an old sheep farm now owned by Sydney Catchment Authority. It is within the Upper Shoalhaven catchment which is part of Sydney’s water catchment area. It is run by a pair of environmental scientists, specialising in water and biodiversity. In my time there, I had the opportunity to learn many things related to biology, chemistry, ecology and more- but the best was yet to come. One of the scientists there was (and is) chiefly involved in a large scale land restoration project at Mulloon Creek, between Bungendore and Braidwood. One day, I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Mulloon Creek and observe discussions and planning onsite, and to assist in land surveying and measurement. It was on this day that I first met Peter Andrews.

Born in the early forties, Peter spent his childhood years on his family sheep farm deep in the Australian Outback, near a town called Broken Hill. At a very young age, Peter was subjected to the fullest effects of environmental destruction- a sandstorm, borne on the hot desert winds, which blew through the region, devastating the land in its path. In an hour of roaring, skittering darkness, the land, beyond the scope of vision, had turned from a grassland to a wasteland. He had witnessed firsthand the growth of a desert.

Over the course of his life, Peter bought, ran and sold rural properties, focusing particularly on horse breeding, but in the back of his mind there always existed the knowledge that something was wrong with our environment. Wherever Peter went, he examined the environment, as a mechanic would examine a car; considering the components of the landscape, their particular functions and interactions, and how these small parts contributed to the overall sustainability of the system. And everywhere Peter experimented, refining his understanding and testing his theories, the land improved drastically.

My first impression of Peter was that he was a man on a mission- one that he had evidently been on for a long time. Having read his books (‘Back from the Brink’ and ‘Beyond the Brink’) before meeting him, I knew that he was a man worth listening to, and I attempted to learn as much from him in person as I could. But when he began talking, I was taken aback completely by the breadth and depth of his knowledge. His intimate and thorough understanding of natural processes, from the interactions between soil microbes and plant roots to the formation of large scale geometric landscape features, set me mentally reeling. And when he began asking me questions, as if he expected me to already know the answer, I realised- this was the knowledge and understanding that I had set out in search of.

Fortunately for me, this was only to be the beginning of my Peter Andrews experience. Weeks after the meeting at Mulloon Creek, it was mentioned to me that Peter was heading to Baramul- a multi-million dollar horse stud in the upper Hunter Valley. Recognising a once in a lifetime opportunity, I volunteered to travel with him and assist him where possible, and just like that, I was heading north with Peter Andrews.

I count my week spent with Peter as the most important, most influential week of my life. From the very beginning of the journey there was an atmosphere of education; as we drove through the Australian landscape, countless examples of different biological, ecological, hydrological and geographical natures were available as a somewhat frustrated Peter Andrews attempted to condense seventy-five years of critical analysis and observation into a seven hour car trip. Not only did we discuss landscape components and functions- individual plants and their particular attributes, the patterns of flooding and recharging of water tables, the cycles of fertility and the like- we also discussed history- both the history of Australia and its environmental development, and Peter’s own personal history. The more we talked, the more I began to piece together, with regard to the degradation of the environment and how we can enable nature to turn itself around, but inside was a nagging feeling that something was missing. So, as we began our descent into the valley, the sun setting deep orange over the sandstone cliffs, I was filled with more questions than answers. The next day we went to Tarwyn Park.

Tarwyn Park is Peter’s most impressive model, illustrating every aspect of his theories and demonstrating his understanding of Australian Landscape Functions. Bought in the 1970s, Tarwyn Park covers two thousand acres in the Upper Hunter Valley. It had fallen into disrepair after years of unsustainable agriculture, a condition typical of land around the country, if not the world. Over the years, whilst running a renowned horse stud, Peter implemented his theories and accumulated knowledge in an attempt to create a sustainable agricultural system- one that improves the fertility of its environment, instead of depleting it. By 1976, Peter had set up the Tarwyn Park model.

As we drove through Tarwyn Park, everything began to click- all the information I had been saturated in over the past thirty hours, and even that of the past two months, began to fall into place. Here I was, standing in the middle of a green ocean of tall, healthy grasses, when not two kilometres away there lay dry, desolate paddocks of bare earth, or the yellow, desiccated grasses that give the Australian Outback its sunburnt hue. Instead of referring to the skeleton of a system that once thrived, I was instead surrounded by its rebirth- the patterns of groundwater recharge zones, the path of water through the land and the direct impact of that slow moving, nutrient laden substance. Obvious, living examples of native succession- all this and more. Tarwyn Park was a living, irrefutable demonstration that Peter had it right.

Experiencing firsthand, even in part, the potential for regeneration the landscape has, and the veritable oasis that it can become has a profound effect on an individual. As we drove back to Baramul, I looked out upon the land, visualising the potential that it had, and recognising the state of decay that it was in. Compared to Peter, I knew that I still saw very little of what could be, and how to re- establish the natural system. But now, instead of piecing together concepts and relationships with no real experience to relate it to, I had a tangible sense of what I was learning, and I was beginning to see the fullest potential that Peter’s work had.

I spent the next few days at Baramul, walking around the land and sketching the topography, determining where features of the natural system would lie- steps, neck points, recharge zones and more. I walked down kilometres of creek, in rain and sun, observing the current patterns of water and envisioning the depth and breadth of the old wetlands, referring to the banks that bordered the land above. The more time I spent in the land, tracing the imprints of the old system, the more I understood of how it worked, and more importantly, how to re-establish it.

After three or four days, it was time to leave Baramul, and as we headed south to Bathurst I thought that my time with Peter was coming to an end. Once again, I was to have my expectations defied, as Peter had other plans. One more twist in the journey was set to see me in another extraordinary environment, and as we stopped in at Bathurst for the night, I learnt that Peter, and consequently myself, were to attend a meeting the following day involving environmentally minded individuals from mixed backgrounds including government, scientific, rural and more. This was how I found myself at The Flannery Centre.

The Flannery Centre is an office complex in Bathurst, operated by a commercial training group called Skillset. Skillset are currently acting as a contractor for the Australian Government’s Green Army Program, providing training for participants and negotiating contract details with applicants. Growing quickly, the organisation is looking to develop sustainable environmental care policies, and they are doing so with an economically efficient outcome in mind. Currently, the Green Army program receives approximately twenty-five percent of the National Environmental budget.

The meeting began with tea, coffee and introductions, and the scene was set in terms of defining the ideals of sustainability and environmentalism as the driving factors of the meeting. After a short time, we piled into a company bus and travelled to a site currently being worked on by a Green Army group. Consisting of nine young individuals (ages seventeen to twenty-four), an all-terrain vehicle, tools and a plan, the group was working on introducing native trees to a residential creek area in Bathurst. As far as I (and Peter) could see, it was a waste of time.

The point of visiting the work team was not to showcase how well the current methods of environmental conservation and rehabilitation were working- if it were, there would be no point of the meeting at all. Instead, the visit was to allow the members of the meeting (particularly Peter Andrews) to see where time and money were being wasted, where improvements could be made, and where the organisation was on the right track. And definitely, the enthusiasm was there, but the problems lay in a fundamental lack of understanding of natural processes- not a fault of the participants, but ultimately our agricultural education as a country, even as a species.

Over the rest of the day we travelled to other sites that had been worked on previously- eating lunch and discussing potential problems and positive outcomes. We returned to the Flannery Centre later in the afternoon and shared ideas, working towards the goal of environmental sustainability through the program, but as far as I could see, never agreeing on the logistics. Later, we headed to the Rydges Hotel on Mount Panorama for dinner and drinks, and as the sun set and the night passed on, the conversation turned to inconsequential matters. I was struck by the contrast of the experience- we had spent the day discussing environmental issues in a serious light, many around the table talking in terms of millions of dollars. We had witnessed firsthand how current government policies were doing nothing beneficial, and in many cases doing more harm than good. We had seen and surveyed the land, eroded and dry, as a typical example of the vast majority of Australian agricultural land. And here we were, wining and dining, having established no real plan of attack. If this was how the current set of organisations involved in environmentalism operated, I realised, we were going nowhere fast.

We left Rydges that night, and finished the journey back to Braidwood. With the events of the past week settling in my mind, I was becoming familiar with the big picture- from the specifics of Peter’s work to global environmental implications, and the lack of action from humanity in between. For insight and advice on what I should do next, I asked Peter “what would you do today, if you were my age?” Peter’s reply was just as I expected, though that didn’t soften the blow. He said “the way things are today, I’d give it five or ten years. Unless things have changed by that point, I’d simply take the time to enjoy the rest of my life.” To hear this from a man who has dedicated the past 55 years of his life to his work, work that has the potential to save the planet from total desertification, is sobering, to say the least.

But I believe that we can change- there is growing dissatisfaction with modern life around the planet. Everywhere, people are rebelling against injustice, fighting for a better future. Environmentalism is more powerful now than ever in our modern history. As human beings, we have the potential to improve, to change our world and to foster growth and harmony instead of decay and destruction- we just need a direction. So, instead of following Peter’s advice and signing myself off to one last party, I returned to Canberra and gathered those I knew best, those I knew had known me long enough to trust my judgement. I gathered twenty of my closest friends, those I had been with through thick and thin, and I held a meeting- not a meeting that would end in laughter and wine and food and sleepy thoughts of pleasant dreams- but a meeting that would produce a tangible outcome, a path to follow, that could unite us in an attempt to save the world.

5 responses to “The Big Picture

  1. folly gleeson

    This is indeed a generous message. And written with an honest and engaging style. Should be widely published.

  2. Hooray for people who care! Loved your article Alex. The Big Picture that comes from a lifetime of intelligent, immersed observation is as inspiring as it is daunting. People who love the Land, our Land, and who have lived long enough to see what has been lost alongside what can result from well planned, restorative, nurturing human endeavour are rare indeed – wonderful to read of your appreciation for the exceptional one you found so close to home! I am keen to hear of your plans for a tangible path to follow and how I and others might lend our support.

  3. Well Alex, join the club! You may not now be surprised but it only gets worse. What you discovered is the ‘environmental component’ of ‘compartmentalized system thinking’. It pervades all aspects of society and we promote it and protect it like an endangered professional species.
    Thanks for sharing your story. A word of advice for what it’s worth, don’t blow the whistle on it or you will bring the whole thing tumbling down; on top of you.
    Keep writing here and I will guide you my sun.

  4. Nice one Alex, your story struck a chord with me…. I have had a similar experience in New Zealand (& China) while learning and travelling with Peter’s contemporary, Haikai Tane. Isn’t it wonderful …..

  5. Lisa Johnston

    Thanks for your article Alex. A similar journey to my own – having spent 2 years WWOOFIng around Aotearoa, NZ, finishing with Haikai Tane at his research station in Twizel, where I helped him publish his book on ‘the crucial role of willows in sustainable river management’. We are fortunate to have these mentors in our lives, who can pass on the baton, help us see in a different way, and fill in the knowledge gaps that our conventional education is unable to provide. On the question of ‘what to do about it’….well, there’s no doubt it’s a bit of a monster that has quite a lot of inertia to it. But I also see quite a big upwelling of inertia in the opposite direction too…and a lot of people just need to hear an alternative narrative. Sadly, many people look to the big institutions for instruction on what to do, and here in NZ, that means the Department of Conservation, Forest and Bird, and other well meaning organisations, who are stuck in a dysfunctional paradigm. I say, we should do what we can do to give ourselves a voice…obtain skills, create sustainable rural livelihoods, communicate with integrity and strength, and don’t let the fact that the majority don’t see it your way frustrate you…..let it inspire you instead. Oh…and also I do agree with Peter, that ultimately we do just have to enjoy ourselves because it’s quite possible that it’ll just keep going in the wrong direction. But for me, the effort we put in to learn, inspire and practice what we believe in, it is part of that enjoyment. And so is connecting up with the like-minded ones, and enjoying the simple things – food, conversation, music, friendship and love…….. if you ever make it across the ditch get in touch Alex. cheers, Lisa.

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