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focus – ecology

In harmony with Rob and Maria, a farming couple in W Australia, are grappling with all the problems of sustainable agriculture.

On Rob and Maria’s farm in WA: planting salt bush and grass on raised drills

But, says their friend Frank Hoffmann, their creative impulse arises from a sense of love and gratitude for the world they have been given

had been killed by a passing motor vehicle. She raised it on the bottle and endured for two years the growing animal’s insistence on equal rights to the house, like the rest of its inhabitants, cat and humans.

Colonizers all over the world have had to learn that imposing their culture, even with the best of intentions, has unforeseeable consequences. As often as not the result is rebellion, be it from the land or from people.

ucalyptus, nothing but eucalyptus, apart from a few shrubby acacias. What a bore! Until the eye becomes attuned to seeing the characteristic shapes, bark colour and texture, leaf size and shape etc. On our drives through the countryside I called out, often incorrectly, the names of the various gums I had learnt about: white gum, salmon gum, red river gum, York gum, as well as the lemon-scented citrodora. Odd one out is the mallee gum which from a single central root radiates out up to five trunks at precarious angles.

But I have been lucky to watch the efforts of an enlightened new generation who bravely tackle their inherited problem. Mental and physical energy, as well as hard-earned cash, are invested in saving precious cropping land from further decline. Farmers who, in uncaring fatalism, just sit it out, find that the ominous small patches of salt grow ever larger and will finally drive them off their land which, once flourish-ing forest, will turn into desert. During my stay I had plenty of opportunity to view the tell-tale signs – bare patches, fenced to keep the sheep out, in various stages of regeneration.


When the early settlers felled the bush they were not aware that the indigenous gum trees had evolved over millennia in a delicate balance with the water table. Their roots absorbed enough of the rain to prevent it from raising the saltwater table which lurks only one metre below the surface. Devoid of thirsty tree roots the salty water now reaches the surface where it evaporates, leaving the destructive salt to produce ever-growing patches of barren land. Those settlers, who needed to wrest a living from the land, did not know what they had set in motion.

10 Tui Motu InterIslands

Maria wrote: “We live in the Wheat Belt here in WA, but it’s not irrigated. Over 70 percent of Australia’s saltaffected land is in Western Australia. The problem arises because there is very little drainage to the sea. With the centre of Australia being some 15 metres below sea level, there is ingress of salt water into the aquifers, which drain inland where lakes which rarely overflow serve as evaporation ponds and become saturated with salt in the process.” Last year Maria had raised from seed and planted out 11,000 trees. The latest

attempt involves a 40 hectare ‘patch’ which will need 4 km of fence. Planting trees is not straightforward. A tractor is used to make parallel ridges in the light ochre-coloured soil, into which saltbush and Rhodes grass are seeded to establish a cover that will finally create a friendly environment for the eucalyptus plants. In conversation with one of the consultants, I heard Maria advocating the use of indigenous grasses. He countered that much research would be needed first to identify them, but listened with interest when told that only two days earlier on our visit to the New Norcia Monastery we had viewed the work of Charles Gardner, a botanist who in the first half of the last century had classified and documented much of Australia’s flora, which included a special section of native grasses. Maria and I had been enthralled by his pen and watercolour paintings of flowers and grasses, whose painstaking detail never got in the way of artistic sensibility, a rare gift reserved for the select who truly love their subject. (Albrecht Durer comes to mind). Sometimes my friends have to face failure when the rains do not come and their efforts are in vain. Yet one can look beyond temporary failure and let one’s eye rest on the many green oases of well established eucalypts, the work of only 12 years. They both know that to save the farm they will have to give much of

Tui motu 2003 february