Philosopher Farmer

Jabiru who knows where its next meal is coming from

A jabiru is a lovely (and highly intelligent) bird found in Northern Australia. An adult bird stands at least a metre tall.

I snapped this one some years ago at Kakadu National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory, a place where they thrive. Then, on my recent road trip out west in Queensland, I came across another of these adorable birds on a property where we stayed for three days. Actually, at the time, I was quite surprised. I hadn’t thought jabirus ventured that far south.

The property was more or less due west of where we live on the coast near Rockhampton, at a quite hefty distance from the sea, very remote, and of prodigious size as befits an Australian outback property. Dan (not his real name) ran it. He had nursed the injured bird to health, and now, though preferring to go its own way, the critter always liked to stay within cooee of the homestead.

I had first talked to Dan on the phone, when organizing the farm stay. His Aussie accent was so thick you would need a blade of the keenest obsidium to cut through it. I thought to myself, What am I letting myself in for here? Who is this bogan? I needn’t have worried. When I got to meet him in the flesh, we (both of us, I believe) really clicked. It’s extremely rare that I hit things off with a person to the extent I did with Dan.

Janet and I were accommodated for the duration of our stay in a converted shearing shed. When I say ‘converted’, believe me it was luxurious. Janet, who never says no to a little luxury, was impressed.

I judged Dan to be in his early forties, with a wife (whom I shall call Adele) somewhat younger, and a girl child about six months old. These three people were the only permanent residents of the property, which must have made for a very lonely existence. Mostly, the only company they had were themselves and the contractors brought in as required for specialist jobs, e.g. mustering by helicopter. More on this later.

During our stay, I talked to Dan quite a bit. He was sent by his farming family to Rockhampton Grammar School, but didn’t last there long. A regimented life with academic overtones did not suit him at all. He ducked classes and was soon ‘let go’ by the school. Accordingly, he went, and bummed around in the far north of the country, before settling down to run the family farm. He was self educated, and very effectively at that. He was no ignoramus. Nor was he a fool.

Sensing, I guess, that I was not the usual punter to whom he might throw open his farm, he wanted to know my backstory in detail. So I gave him the goods, from my early childhood on. On learning of my background in nuclear physics – a background surely as rare, in Australia, as alchemy – he asked if I thought nuclear energy was a go-er for Australia, given that contemporary reactors were reportedly a lot safer that those of previous generations. I replied that I suspected these selfsame safety features did not come free, but would require customers to fork out a hefty premium, putting the finished product out of economic consideration in comparison with alternative energy sources, e.g. renewables.

This, then, was how that imposing edifice comprising Dan’s self education was built. Brick by brick as required and with the help of his irrepressible spirit of inquiry. I had provided him with the latest brick.

Dan showed me round the property. He ran mainly cattle and dorpers, the latter being a breed of sheep farmed for its meat rather than for its wool. I was impressed to find that he ran the property on sound sustainability principles verging on the scientific. He was no redneck farmer.

For example, he was in the process of reclaiming, over the long term, a large swathe of unproductive land, by ploughing a tight series of ditches across it at right angles to the direction of water flow across it. Thereby, water run-off after rain was slowed right down to something approaching a trickle. He pointed out to me two adjacent fields, one of which he had treated in this way and the other which he had not. After what had been only a couple of years, the field that had been given the treatment looked distinctly promising, whereas the other looked rubbish.

Naturally, Dan was all in favour of capping renegade bores that accessed the Great Artesian Basin, either with permanent plugs or with on/off valves. On his very own property, he participated willingly and eagerly in the project to give the Basin a chance to replenish by this means. That this simple and obvious tactic is starting to bear fruit is readily verified by a certain recent and remarkable event that happened on his property.

So, let me fill you in.

On the occasion, an agitated visitor to the property told him a camel was stuck in the mud ‘out there’. There’s no mud out there, said Dan. But he followed the visitor to the location and, sure enough, there was a camel up to its neck in a mud pool that had never existed before, not in his tenure over the land anyway. This was a clear example of the Great Artesian Basin breaking through the surface as a result of its natural recharge. Nature was just putting things right again after a century or so of abuse.

They pulled the unfortunate animal out, of course. Then they marvelled at what they saw. I marvelled too at what Dan was showing me now, and which I would describe as a rejuvinated ‘mound spring’ of the type the first nations’ people are/were so glad to have at their disposal around the Oodnadatta Track and elsewhere.

This was science in action. Those inclined to religion might see the finger of God pointing. ‘And here by My grace ye shall have a fresh water spring.’

Dan also knew his local history. He showed me a plant called nardoo that grew as a weed in parts of his property. Nardoo was/is used by traditional aborigines as a food source. Its seeds could be ground into a powder which could then be used as a type of flour. It was also used as food by the explorers Burke and Wills in their (literal) dying days

The trouble is that, unless nardoo is processed in a particular way (which the aborigines have always known about, of course), it would do more harm than good. Without appropriate processing, it prevented the body from absorbing vitamin B. The aborigines may or may not have heard about vitamin B, but they sure as hell knew/know how to process nardoo.

It was because Burke and Wills didn’t know this vital information (they ate the stuff raw) that nardoo contributed to the bad (and preventable) end to which they famously came.

The most exciting time for me happened the next day.

The dorper ewes needed to be mustered. They were – almost to the last animal – heavily pregnant, and about to drop their load. At present, they were grazing in an open paddock which afforded them no cover should birds of prey choose to swoop on the new born lambs. Which they, avian intelligent and opportunistic, would certainly be inclined to do.

So, the ewes were to be herded into a heavily treed and adjacent paddock. I was to observe the whole procedure as it unfolded. Adele would drive me to the location in their sturdy 4WD.

The helicopter was already in the air as we arrived. Dan was below on his industrial-strength bike, giving ground support. The terrain he had to cover was rough, presenting (I imagined) a not insignificant threat to the integrity of his ankles and other susceptible parts.

To watch several hundred (perhaps even in excess of a thousand) pregnant ewes being funnelled through a narrow gate into the wooded paddock, their heavy backsides bobbling in the breeze, was a sight I shall not forget . It was all over in about thirty minutes, thanks to the chopper pilot. Mission accomplished. Dan told me that, without aerial support it would have taken the best part of a day.

Job over, Dan suggested we go fishing. A handy creek passed through his property close to the homestead and, given it was a la nina year, the water in it was up. That’s where we headed. When Dan had identified a suitable site on this watercourse, we set to our task.

Let me make it clear. I am not a fisher. I don’t know the ropes at all. So Dan had to bait and cast my line for me. I imagined him thinking, Who is this turkey? But (smiling to himself, I fancy) he was the epitome of patience and tolerance. Amused? Yes. But he derived pleasure in some small way from my inept company.

And we had other company. A kibitzer. The jabiru.

I got the first catch. A turtle, for Pete’s sake. Then Dan pulled in two plump yellowtails, one of which he fed to the jabiru. He threw back the other, as he did the turtle.

Afterwards, the sun low, and we sucking on beers, I asked Dan how he got to learn all he needed to know about farm management, particularly the forward-thinking stuff apropos sustainable practices. Forgive me if I paraphrase his answer. I’m afraid I forget his exact words. But the gist of his reply was, I listen to the old guys.

What he meant was (and of this I am certain): if they’ve been on the land all that time and they’re still making a crust, they must know what works and what doesn’t. It’s that simple. Talk to the old guys.

I’ll tell you someone who knows what works and what doesn’t. B’Jesus. It’s got to be Dan. After all, he has figured whose are the right brains to pick.

In the title to this blog, I’ve described Dan as a ‘philosopher farmer’. I believe that description is appropriate. A philosopher is someone with a thirst for inquiry, someone whose tools of trade are the questions, ‘why’ and ‘how’. The ancient philosophers, Greek of course, built their city states using these tools.

We’re not talking city states here. We’re talking sheep-stations.