Sunday, 8 July 2018

In the company of others

In Landcare, we exclude people who are different. People of colour. People who pray three times a day to Allah. People with tats. Young people. People inventing other versions of Australian than ocker or gentleman farmer.

We’re at a Landcare Forum. As she says this, the Landcare coordinator knows she’s edging onto thin ice. Landcare groups assume they welcome everyone. But the coordinator tells us that the Green Army team that worked for her Landcare Network for six months last year (the ones with the tats and all considerably younger than the members of the Landcare committee) had told her—‘We feel we’re outsiders here’. And the coordinator herself has noticed a tendency for men to speak first at Landcare gatherings, and for women to speak later, and often only when they insist on being heard.

Volunteers and staff from across Landcare in Victoria gather twice a year, and this time we're on the Bellarine Peninsula. After an afternoon looking at nearby Landcare work, and a convivial dinner, 45 of us have convened to share with each other what is getting stronger in the way we work in our communities, and to reflect on where Landcare needs to break new ground.

Being more inclusive is one area where Landcare needs to break new ground. We talk around the issue, move away from it, then come back. It’s a difficult subject. And as we talk, another tough question surfaces: what is Landcare’s role now? Many of the valleys have been treed up. Properties have their shelterbelts and are fenced so the landscape can be better managed. The proportion of people who want to change have changed. What’s next? As a community-led movement, Landcare has done a lot in its 30 years, but how can it hold its sense of purpose?

These forums, run by Landcare’s advocacy organisation, Landcare Victoria Inc, are a time to go back to fundamentals. Landcare members want to remain effective in the social landscapes in which they operate, and they want communities and government to understand the role Landcare plays. Communities are changing, government policy is changing. Having been successful in the past is no protection against obsolescence, and our idea of who we are may need an up-grade.

As we move through the weekend, we talk a lot about how to get younger people into Landcare. The challenge of inclusiveness and the challenge of relevance join together in this bedevilling issue of how to speak to younger people. The grey haired elders who started the Landcare movement 30 years ago as young adults sit and ponder how to pass on the torch to a very different generation. There’s deep listening going on, and respect for differing points of view. We don’t all immediately agree that there is a problem with our inclusiveness, but we come back to it, rather than dismiss it. We know we need to rethink our role, but this is a big question from which many paths open.

Sometimes it feels like we’re going round in circles. But we are experienced enough to know that to break new ground, you do have to move around and go back over things to get the measure of a situation. And we’re mature enough to tolerate uncertainty without needing immediate answers.

By the end of the weekend, I feel that the world has tilted a bit for all of us, and that the difficult questions that have been raised are there now, in our shared awareness. We will need to make room and give them attention. But in the company of others, we can do that. We learn and reinvent together, and revive our spirits in the process.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Indoor Landcare

I’m at my desk on one of those blessed sunny mid-winter days, doing some indoor Landcare. Paul, a long-term Landcare member down Gippsland way, was wont to protest, when he showed up at a Landcare conference, that there was too much bloody indoor Landcare and whatever happened to outdoor Landcare! Paul had left the Melbourne scene in his twenties and settled on 40 acres of old dairy country in West Gippsland, where he proceeded to fatten a few steers and run his van on used cooking oil and rehabilitate Archies Creek.

When I visited his property on a field trip in 2005, the creek had been transformed from an eroded gully into a light and airy temperate rainforest. Paul said he hadn’t had to do much, just knock the weeds off and let the seedbank spring back, and the birds had done the rest, bringing in seeds from the remnant bush around. When he’d got started on his place, he’d worked upstream on his neighbour’s bit of the creek, and downstream too.

Some seed dropped into me that day, the idea of a lovely bit of creek to look after, and when I trundled up Gap Road one stinking hot summer day ten years ago, I found my creek. So thanks Paul for showing me what was possible, though I have to make the point yet again that it just isn’t enough to do the outdoor stuff. Indoor Landcare is important too, because it’s the place where we work out how to govern ourselves.

It’s easy to get fixated on government and what it is and isn’t doing, when government is just one player in the collective business of governing. An intricate mix of hierarchies and social networks wraps itself around each place and issue in the landscape, and that social web is where we think about what is happening to the landscape, and work out how to repair the damage done. ‘Natural resource management’ we call it, in our technocratic way—‘NRM’ for short. And ‘integrated catchment management’, to situate ourselves in the living landscape (‘a catchment’) and prompt us to integrate and not work in isolation. Alongside those terms, and older than them, there’s Landcare, land care, to remind us that caring for the land is the ethic that should underpin our governing.

Imagine a collection of people sitting around a map, governing. They are listening to each other’s understanding of what is happening to the land. Each is from a particular place in the governance structure—a community group, the Council, Melbourne Water or Parks Victoria. As they listen, they get a more complete picture and begin to get at why things happen the way they do—that is, the drivers behind the bad and stupid things damaging the environment. Out of all that talk and analysis, we hope they pull together wise decisions that influence what humans are doing. That’s all we can do in governing—influence what humans do.

This is indoor Landcare. It is a rational process, allocating effort where it will make most difference, but it is also a delicate negotiation between differing perspectives and interests. Our role as community members is to trust what we know and speak out, to learn how government works and treat those who work there with respect, and when decisions are made, to make sure they are put into action. Then to meet again, to learn from what happens, and keep the pressure on.

To keep going, indoors and outdoors.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Joining the dots

We swarm around the pieces of paper the on the walls of meeting room, putting on our dots. There are maybe 35 of us, people from Landcare groups, Friends of groups, Melbourne Water and Shire staff. We all care for the environment, as an aspiration and as a practice. We are the top of the Macedon Regional Park, in the cafĂ© by the Cross, to review progress on the Macedon Ranges Shire Council’s Biodiversity Strategy.

We had started with the country itself, where we came from, then, projected on a wall, a map showing connectivity in biodiversity of the Shire. Green spreads out from larger cores of land, north and south, east and west, like filaments of nerve cells. We see where the connections flag and thin to less than 150 metre gaps between large trees. That’s the distance at which woodland birds will not traverse open country, for fear of predators (Sophie Bickford from the Central Victorian Biolinks Alliance thinks 80-100m is a truer limit).

This map is quite a lot to take in! I could happily have spent half an hour with a few people talking about this map, but we are onto the next task, then the next, until we have in front of us A3 sheets with the possible lines of action. 

They’re all terrific things to do, and they are our ideas, drawn together by Krista, who has the job of pulling the Biodiversity Strategy together. Educating landholders about land management. Ramping up requirements on new developments to plan for the environment. Ensuring that zoning and planning provisions lead to protection of native vegetation. Educating staff and Councillors themselves so they understand the challenges we face in Macedon Ranges. Giving people living in our towns and children in schools ways to connect to nature and understand the bush. Supporting community environment groups.

We’ve done some assessment of these actions, and now it’s time to prioritise. We each have six gold dots, to represent the time and money we have to get things done. Where should these go? A scrum forms along the wall as we scan the options and make our choices. We’re each trying to hold the whole system in mind and sense what will make most difference. In 15 minutes it’s done. We break off into twos and threes, in conversation over muffins and hot drinks.

But the next day I feel unfinished. We didn’t talk about why we each distributed our dots as we did. We each had a hold of the big picture, but we’re didn’t talk about strategy – that is, how a bit of this and a bit of that could combine to change our situation in the Shire. We didn’t join the dots. Instead we lined up the solutions in a row, and targeted each of the players individually - environment groups, townies, blockies, farmers, developers, Council.

But in natural resource management, what makes the difference will be how those people interact. It’s the same as with biodiversity, but here it’s not bugs and soil and plants, but us humans in a social system. As with ecosystems, the relationships are where the life of the system exists. We all know this, but when we put on the dots and rank one item against another, our systems thinking stays silent.

For the Biodiversity Strategy, the devil will be in the details of the money and staff time the Shire budgets for these actions, but also in the way actions will work together to shift existing relationships. This needs discussion. When you’ve been building an addition to your house, or pulling out your summer garden, or putting in new drainage, you lean on the shovel and looking at what you’ve done, and let it sink in. You think about what’s next.

We need to do this locally, in each part of the Shire. The forces affecting biodiversity come together in unique ways in each part of the Shire, and the Biodiversity Strategy will only generate strategic action if we find a way to keep talking locally and join the dots.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,


‘Biodiversity’ means the bush. Look up to the north of Riddell—those low hills cloaked in trees and remnant grasslands, and sometimes in cloud—that green stuff is biodiversity. The ‘diversity’ part of the word reminds us that the diversity of plant and animal relationships is what matters. Each species is interdependent with the other plants and animals that live there. That interdependence is life, just as much as each individual plant or animal.

So there’s diversity in each ecological system. The other meaning of biodiversity is the diversity of ecological systems. In each part of the landscape, a mix of plants and animals develop to make the most of the soil, slope, weather, and light. Macedon Ranges has variety in its landform, so many slightly different ecologies develop. We live in a biodiverse part of the world.

‘Biodiversity’ is a word that gets used a lot nowadays. When the term first can into use 20 years ago, it sounded strange to my ears. Bio-divers-ity It’s a made-up word, unfamiliar at first, but if that’s what ecologists and government want to call it, well and good, and now it rolls of the tongue.

And now Macedon Ranges Shire Council is doing a ‘Biodiversity Strategy’. The Riddells Creek Landcare committee sat down with the maps the Shire sent us, to answer three simple questions - where was biodiversity in good condition? where was biodiversity present but needing to be strengthened? and what action was needed?

Here’s what we decided. The really good stuff is Barrm Birrm (north of Gap Road, unprotected), the existing reserves - Mt Charlie, Mt Teneriffe, T-Hill Reserve, Sandy Creek Reserve, and Conglomerate Gully. The reserves are all legally protected, though the zoning for Sandy Creek Reserve might be weak. Barrm Birrm isn’t protected as a reserve – it’s open season every day of the year. All of these areas suffer from weeds blowing in, birding in or getting horsed in.

The rail reserves and along road reserves of Amess, Sutherlands, Gap and Sandy Creek Roads, damaged by weeds and careless graders and excavators, remain nonetheless corridors for wildlife to move. It is okay but needs to be built up, and the same goes for the creeks—Sandy Creek and Riddells Creek. Melbourne Water gives financial help to people living along these creeks to get rid of weeds, and replant, and the condition of streamsides and of the creeks themselves is improving, we think, or at least not getting worse. BTW, if you’re on a creek and want to fix it up, phone Melbourne Water’s Stream Frontage program.

We wrote all this down and sent it off to the Shire, along with the actions; for the creeks and roadsides, weed control and replanting; for the reserves of bush (that really good stuff), consistent weed control, and more control of the humans.

Ah the humans—now there’s a challenge! Greedy, self-centred humans, doing what they want without thinking about the rest of the living world. A fence, a sign, a strategy, a pamphlet do a little, and better signage in particular would educate people about what’s around. That's the Shire's role, and that's what it is equipped for in terms of its powers.

But in Landcare we have different powers, and our tool of choice is friendship. If you get together with others in a friendly way, you can do a lot, and learn a lot, and enjoy a lot. Talk with us at the Farmers Market. Ask to go on our mailing list to hear about talks, walks and working bees here in Riddells, and tucked into all those other biodiverse landscapes of the Macedon Ranges.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,