Water in a dry land: How PA Yeomans uncovered Australia’s hidden water systems

Dead river gums and limestone cliffs on the Murray River near Blanchetown, South Australia. Image: Willem van Aiken / CSIRO.

by Charles Massy | December 20, 2017

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, and yet many of its farming practices see water routinely squandered. One visionary farmer’s insights, however, have had a global influence on water use in the landscape and might yet help avert agricultural, and ecological, collapse.

Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise – Aldo Leopold, ‘The Land Ethic’, A Sand Country Almanac

Water seems so abundant but also so integral to life that we take it for granted. In the form of steady, soaking rain, it can be soul-replenishing to a drought-stricken farmer; heart-stoppingly beautiful on an early morning as mist rises off a river dappled by damsel-flies or concealing a platypus that bobs and ripples the secret shadow-surface; incredibly sensuous as one slides into a hot bath or lets the frigid cascade of a waterfall pound and prickle one’s skin on a blazing-hot day; hellishly destructive when raging in torrents or coursing across exposed soil; and chameleon-like as it mysteriously shifts between liquid, steam or ice. To boot, when clean it is utterly transparent, tasteless and odourless.

We know that much of our universe’s water is a by-product of star formation and has been around since not long after the ‘Big Bang’. And we know that life on Earth evolved from primitive microorganisms that developed in water. As ground-breaking writers on the microcosmic world Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan put it, our cells live in a medium of water and salts that mirrors the composition of the early seas, so much so that our bodies, ‘like those of all life, preserve the environment of an earlier Earth’.

The reason water is vital to us and all life resides in its physical and chemical nature. At the macro level, because water exists in all three states of gas, liquid and solid, it plays a major role in climate control. It lessens climate extremes because it absorbs and releases energy during its transformation between its different phases. Water therefore enables the transfer of energy around the globe via ocean currents and vast storm systems. Equally importantly, water vapour, along with carbon dioxide, is a major component of Earth’s temperature buffer in the atmosphere, thus crucial to the maintenance of Earth’s steady-state temperature, which is so vital to today’s life on the planet.

Water’s chemical nature and the strong attractive forces between molecules gives it its high surface tension. Just watch a water boatman on a pond’s or river’s surface: she skates around like a coxless four in thin treacle. It is surface tension that controls drop formation in rain clouds, without which we wouldn’t have agriculture and human society. But the same molecular chemistry in water also gives rise to capillary forces: the very factor that allows water to move up a narrow tube in the face of gravity, and thus the crucial property enabling all vascular plants such as trees, shrubs and grasses to function and sustain agriculture and life. In fact, without water, both respiration and photosynthesis could not occur in life’s organisms.

Beatrice River, North Queensland. Image: CSIRO.

We know water covers nearly seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface, though only a tiny 2.5 percent of our planet’s water is fresh. Around seventy percent of all fresh water is used in agriculture, yet many of us farmers squander its abundance, and yearn for it in alleged drought times. Water is also a great energy carrier, and this, combined with its solvent capacity, can do huge damage to mismanaged landscapes, in the form of either erosion or dissolved salt.

If one manages the solar-energy cycle and regenerates soil to health, huge ecological and production benefits accrue. Lose soil moisture and you risk losing diverse soil- and other life-forms, and thus extra and longer active plant growth. This echoes the catch-cry of regenerative agriculturalists, ‘Bare soil is dead soil’, especially in a harsh Australian environment.

Over the decades since Europeans came to Australia, there have been individuals ahead of their time who attempted to throw off their previous cultural training concerning water and soil. One such person was Percival Alfred Yeomans, who came to have a worldwide influence on the use of water in the landscape.

Yeomans’ very surname is apt, given that the old English word means a ‘self-sufficient family farmer who lives close to the land’. He was born in the New South Wales wheat–sheep town of Harden in 1905. His father was a train driver and close friend of fellow train driver and later prime minister Ben Chifley. Like many in the depressed days of the late 1920s and ’30s, Yeomans struggled to find work, and tried many jobs to sustain himself and his young family. Eventually he gravitated to the mining industry, where he built a reputation as a reliable and trustworthy assayer.

Not only did Yeomans drag his wife, Rita, and young family widely through remote areas of eastern Australia and New Guinea, but in the process, as land-use historians Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill recount, ‘he developed a sensitive eye for landscapes’. This meant he learnt to detect patterns in the landscape, such as being able to associate plant communities with particular mineral-carrying country, and ‘was able to observe a diversity of landscapes and appreciate the importance of access to water, so essential for mining as well as agriculture’.

The extraordinary architect-cum-artist-cum-philosopher Christopher Alexander was able to recognise that nature, like the built environment, has a ‘deep geometric reality of order’, an order he called ‘pattern language’. It is clear that Yeomans could read this language. That is, his sensitivity to the broader landscape allowed him to be able to grasp and perceive its distinct patterns and their meanings.

As with many innovators, Yeomans’ personal development was spurred on by a series of sudden mental and physical shocks, which changed his perception. The first occurred in 1931 when the twenty-six-year-old Yeomans was on a family camping trip in the western Queensland desert. One day, his eldest son, three-year-old Neville, wandered off and became lost. With the boy close to death, it was an Aboriginal man who tracked and found Neville, and then, using his desert knowledge, he dug for water and gently nursed him to health (later aided by Aboriginal women). Such an experience could not but have a profound impact on a parent. Researcher into the Yeomans family Les Spencer states that the life work of both the son, Neville, and his father, PA, ‘was informed and guided by a … familiarity with Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wisdom about the social and natural life-worlds’, including their ‘loving and affectionate relating to Earth as their mother who nurtures them’. This was a vastly different relationship to non-Aboriginal people, who saw ‘Australia as a harsh and hostile place to be conquered and tamed’.

Les Spencer further related that PA Yeomans ‘was deeply impressed by the Aboriginal tracker’s profound knowledge of the minutiae of his local land’ and of ‘minute traces left as evidence of the movements of a little boy that would not be made by other creatures or natural phenomena’. That is, the Aboriginal man was reading a pattern language, and he did the same in being able to find and then dig for life-saving water.

Black Flag Lake near Kalgoorlie, WA. Image: Willem van Aiken / CSIRO.

Stuart Hill, after interviewing Neville Yeomans, stated, ‘According to Neville, it was probably this incident that gave his father his enduring interest in the movement of water through Australian landscapes. He could see that an understanding of this would be a huge advantage for people living in the driest continent on Earth.’

The second influential traumatic incident in PA Yeomans’ development occurred in 1944, by which time his career had moved into farming and earthworks. By the late 1930s, Yeomans had become a successful earth-moving contractor. This experience added to his knowledge of soil, geology and water, and of how to engineer landscapes. In 1943, Yeomans bought 1000 acres (400 hectares) of run-down, ‘light’ country at North Richmond, just out of Sydney. This comprised two farms, which he called Yobarnie and Nevallan.

Yeomans’ brother-in-law, Jim Barnes, became farm manager, and he, with Yeomans’ guidance, began implementing the popular soil conservation practices promulgated by the New South Wales Soil Conservation Service. This approach, said Yeomans’ second son, Allan, had ‘unfortunately originated with the agriculturally illogical practices “invented” by the United States Corps of Engineers, guided and advised by US Army construction officers’ in the wake of the 1930s American dust bowl. In effect, it was a badly thought through, land-dominating, engineering-based thinking that took no account of landscape function, seeking as it did to limit damage (‘conservation’), and not regenerate soil and landscapes. But before the folly of this approach could be fully exposed on Yobarnie, tragedy struck in December 1944.

Barnes, along with Neville (then aged sixteen), were out on the farm when a fast-moving grassfire swept in. Neville survived by squeezing into a hollow tree, but his uncle was killed. This second trauma compelled Yeomans to fire-proof the farm through effective water use. Already dissatisfied with traditional soil conservation approaches, he now began experimenting in earnest. His knowledge and experience told him that holding water in the landscape, not hurrying it off, was key to successful farming in Australia.

Yeomans developed his regenerative agriculture practices through the late 1940s and into the ’50s, bringing his unique attributes and experience together in a process of trial and error conducted on his own farm. This also involved extensive reading of leading ecological agriculturalists combined with international travel, plus consorting with a rare few open-minded academics.

By 1954, he was able to prove that the accepted belief that it took 1000 years to build an inch of topsoil was false. He showed that you could turn nutrient-poor, light-coloured Australian soil into rich, dark, healthy and biologically alive, self-sustaining topsoil to the depth of many inches in only three years. He saw that water was the key to this and that, if done properly, farmers could set themselves on a path of ongoing improvement and regeneration that would lead to dispensing with industrial artificial fertilisers. In short, Yeomans’ approach was to regenerate the solar, water and soil-mineral landscape functions first, and then later the dynamic-ecosystem function. He also believed he could fire-proof and drought-proof a farm with the astute capture and use of water – water that, in the driest inhabited continent on Earth, often fell quickly and hard and raced off a landscape, taking with it impoverished, degraded and non-absorbent soils.

Backwaters of the River Murray at Murbpook Lagoon, South Australia. Image: Greg Rinder, CSIRO.

Yeomans was so fascinated with running water that whenever there was a big rain he would go out to see what water was doing on his land and how his new engineering constructions were faring at any time, day or night. Stuart Hill, who knew Yeomans and studied his work, relates the crucial moment on one of Yeomans’ water-studying excursions in heavy rain: ‘[Yeomans] had noticed a reflective band running across some of the hillsides where they change from being convex above to concave below.’ This was Yeomans’ ‘aha!’ moment. Said Hill, ‘He later called this line the “keyline”, and the points where it crosses the drainage lines within primary valleys the “key points”.’ From this flash of insight, based on pattern perception, Yeomans cracked the secret to his Keyline system of regenerative agriculture, as he set out in his 1954 book The Keyline Plan. This ‘whole of landscape’ approach started with the key point, where one could build the first dam, or from where you began cultivating and designing. Yeomans’ son Allan, who continues his father’s work, said that starting from the keyline ‘and cultivating parallel to it, both above the line, and below the line, produced off contour furrows, which selectively drifted water out of the erosion vulnerable valley’ and towards the ridges.

Every component of Yeomans’ plan fitted together. He introduced tined cultivation implements into Australia – later developing designs of his own. These multi, chisel-like implements didn’t invert the topsoil but, on progressive workings over three years, went deeper and deeper, allowing water and plant-root penetration and the creation of necessary air pockets to develop healthy soil, while at the same time drifting water out of the gullies towards the ridges. This, combined with the introduction of rotational grazing or else mulch-mowing, allowed litter and dead root material to feed microbial life in the soil. And it was this combination of practices that allowed Yeomans to show that farmers can build healthy soil in only three years. Furthermore, based on his deep reading, Yeomans also saw that a healthy soil and landscape translated into healthier animals and people.

Yeomans built a series of contour channels across his landscape, beginning along the keyline, which intercepted water and channelled it into storage and flood irrigation dams: all designed to check erosion and allow maximum soil penetration of water or storage for later. What he was doing was enhancing the water cycle by slowing movement of water over his land. His contour channels were sited at intervals down a slope with tree-breaks below them so that a completed farm could look like a forested landscape, where the tops of trees were level with the bottom of trees in the break above. And all of this fitted into what he called ‘The Keyline Scale of Permanence’. In some respects, this conceptual extension of the original Keyline Plan anticipated by decades Allan Savory’s approach to a regenerative decision-making approach for farmers. Yeomans developed a list of ‘permanent’ factors that needed to be considered in a priority sequence in the planning, development and management process if a successful Keyline Plan was to be implemented. In his own words, these key factors provided ‘a yard stick or guide to every type and kind of decision that has to be made’ in a Keyline Plan’s execution.

In order of priority, these permanent factors included: climate, landscape, water supply, farm roads, trees, permanent buildings, subdivision fences and soil. While he rated soil fertility of utmost importance, Yeomans placed it last of the eight factors ‘because the fertility of the soil can be lost in less time than a line of fence posts will rot’, while ‘a poor soil may be converted into rich fertile soils in a tenth of this time’.

In his last book, The City Forest (1971), Yeomans explained how his plan also applied to sustainable urban planning: enhancing aesthetics and energy use while recycling water, sewage and waste, and growing food and timber crops. He was way ahead of his time, and in effect his strategy involved triggering all the landscape functions: himself epitomising the best of the fifth function, the human–social.

One of Yeomans’ strongest supporters was nutritionist Professor Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks. Hicks stated in 1955 that Yeomans’ landscape design ‘appeals to me as the basis for renaissance in Australian land use’. However, like most major innovations in agriculture and elsewhere that require a paradigm shift to be fully embraced, only a few early adopters persisted with his ‘whole of landscape’ transformation. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being that he really was ahead of his time in respect of holistic and systems-thinking.

Stuart Hill aptly summarised the issue. Opposition to Yeomans ‘trying to change farming practices’, he said, ‘relates to the fact that his ideas posed a direct threat to the powerful pharmaceutical and chemical companies that were increasingly becoming the major players in world agriculture … A demonstration of increased production without the need for purchased inputs [such as chemicals, fertilisers and implements] would certainly have been viewed as bad for agribusiness. As such, it would have been subjected to all the usual “damage control” strategies by the threatened industries, government departments and “colonised” academics, i.e., ignore as long as possible, then ridicule it, describe it inaccurately, conduct fake experiments, make false comparisons and then dismiss it.’

Nevertheless, Yeomans’ ideas not only lived on but they had a profound impact worldwide and, in an unexpected way, played a major role in influencing one of the greatest Australian contributions to a sustainable farming movement: that of permaculture.

Charles Massy gained a Bachelor of Science (Zoology, Human Ecology) at ANU (1976), before going farming for 35 years. Concern at ongoing land degradation and humanity’s sustainability challenge led him to return to ANU in 2009 to undertake a PhD in Human Ecology. Massy was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service as Chair and Director of several research organisations and statutory wool boards.

This is an edited extract from Massy’s new book Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth, published by University of Queensland Press and available in all good bookshops.