Sunday, 2 February 2014

Honouring the Gospel and God: the radical nature of the beatitudes of Matthew

The beatitudes are perhaps among one of the most well-known and loved pieces of scripture. Jesus’ setting out who is ‘blessed’ can be understood as an invitation to a modern reader to place themselves among the meek, the mourners, the righteous and the peacemakers. But the question must be raised about whether we are really understanding this passage. It seems to me that Matthew’s Jesus would not have set out categories that were easy for most people to slot into. Jesus was much more subversive than that. The way of the cross as outlined in Matthew’s gospel was much more difficult than being ‘meek’ or ‘peacemakers’ as we might understand these things. So what did Jesus mean?

Perhaps the easiest way of exploring this is through a dialogue between two first century people, a husband and wife, who are debating what was really meant by Matthew’s beatitudes. They will perhaps bring a first century perspective to this problem.

The ideas for this dialogue came from the online websites of Sarah Dylan Brewer, Jerome Neyrey, and John van de Laar. I thank each of them for their ideas, words and inspiration.

BOAZ: Deborah! It is time we had a serious talk about this so-called preacher you have been following. I have heard some disturbing reports. Deeply disturbing. I can’t have my wife seen to be hanging out with such a person. Your visits to hear him speak must stop.

Deborah: Must stop, dear Boaz? Instead of ordering me about, why don’t you just calm down and tell me what has made you so agitated.

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am the man of the house. If I say you must stop going to these talk fests, then that is all there is to it.

Deborah: I think not, Boaz. Unless you plan on chaining me up, and then I will scream loudly and cause you much dishonour among the neighbours. And I am sure you wouldn’t want to risk your reputation, now would you?

BOAZ: Well, um, yes, honour is important. In fact, it is honour that I wish to speak with you about. This preacher is talking about honouring the riff raff, the marginalised, the outcast, I am told. Honouring them. This is not acceptable in a decent society.

Deborah: I have no idea to what you are referring.

BOAZ: I am referring to that wandering preacher you persist in listening to, Jeshua. I am told he sat on a mountain yesterday, preaching away about who is honoured by God and who isn’t. Who does he think he is, Moses?

Deborah: Well, some have certainly drawn those parallels, you know. There are lots of similarities between Jeshua and Moses. They are both great prophets, just for starters.

BOAZ: What nonsense you are talking. As if a wandering pauper could be a great prophet. No wonder he includes riff raff like himself in his preaching. “Honoured are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, he would say, that wouldn’t he? He is as poor as a desert mouse. He is just seeking to bless himself. And everybody knows that ‘meek’ is code for those who refuse to engage in contests to defend the honour of their family. Such men are not men, they are mice! They should defend their honour when challenged. It is their duty.

Deborah: Really? Then you will be defending me when the neighbours criticise me, for following Jeshua.

BOAZ: Now let us not be hasty. These things must be discussed and clearly thought through.

Deborah: I fail to see what is wrong with saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Or “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

BOAZ: Let us first begin with a better understanding of the Greek word that Jeshua is using in his teaching. I understand the word he uses is makarios, and it does not just mean “blessed”, and certainly not “happy”; I think it is better understood as “honoured”. I am sure your gloomy preacher is not a pop psychologist, telling people how to be blessed or happy; he is ascribing honour to those who are rightfully pushed out to the margins of our culture.

Deborah: Well then, “honoured are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Honoured are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. What is wrong with this?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, let me explain. In our world, the honour you command is in large part a function of how important your connections are. Your family members, your patrons, and your clients all define who you are. If you are a part of a very important family, then you are very important. If your family is less important, you are less important. If you aren’t connected to others, you are nobody. And nobody wants to do business with a nobody. So you see honour is important. Being honoured means you are acceptable, you are part of a network. Having no honour among friends and family means being left with nothing. We would be poor, dishonoured, contemptible in this position.

Deborah: So you prefer a collection of pious platitudes then, about how you go about your business? Where we make excuses for all sorts of unethical behaviour so we can make money from those who can least afford it and gain honour? Where we treat the poor and lowly with contempt? Is that really what God asks us to do? What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

BOAZ: Now don’t you go quoting those minor prophets to me. They are not part of Torah, as you well know. The do not uphold the laws that our society is built upon. Indeed, they are subversive, I say.

Deborah: What about the idea we are honoured when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, then? Isn’t doing what God wants the honourable thing? “Honoured are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Do you want the reward of God or of human beings?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am a pragmatist. Consider the hardships that such a situation would bring about. The people Jeshua is honouring, those pushed out by their families because of him, could end up destitute. I am sure for them the hunger and thirst that Jeshua talks about is very real hunger and thirst. What price such extreme righteousness as Jeshua redefines it? No wonder he also honours those who mourn. There would be much mourning in the lifestyle and cultural values he is advocating.

Deborah: I don’t understand why you think the families of Jeshua’s followers would push them out. Surely he is advocating good things, like mercy and peace, and honouring God.

BOAZ: What an innocent you are about business matters. Don’t you see how scandalous the behaviour of Jeshua’s followers is? They apparently left their families to fend for themselves. They did not follow social convention in our culture. They would leave their families with little choice. Just think. I hear there is free social intercourse between men and women, that respectable folk eat with sinners, that holy rituals are not always followed. Such behaviour is shocking to many, and people who behave like this will pay a steep price.

Deborah: Well, I don’t get it. Why should the followers of Jeshua get into such trouble? They are being urged to be “merciful” and “peacemakers”, and to seek reconciliation rather than revenge with those who have wronged them. They are the “pure in heart” because of this, surely.

BOAZ: And they break bread with anyone, and without washing, which renders them impure in everyone else’s eyes. But perhaps even more shocking is the way Jeshua tells his followers to treat their fathers. I have heard it said that he advocates abandoning one’s aging parents, leaving them alone to go off and follow him, rather than caring for them until they died, and giving them an honourable burial. What is he thinking? Such wilful disobedience would shame the whole family, and threaten everyone’s welfare in the process.

Deborah: Perhaps these people are not as honourable and self-satisfied as you and your friends, then. Jeshua is gathering in all sorts of people, the ones that the respectable have despised, and the ones who already have no honour in our culture’s eyes. It seems to me that Jeshua gives them two wonderful gifts which more than compensate for the sort of losses you are describing.

BOAZ: Like what?

Deborah: Jeshua gives them honour. In front of all those crowds, Jeshua is saying that there is honour for the poor, the lepers, the lame, the oppressed and the scorned. Jeshua declared that these people are the very people whom God himself honours. Their human families may have disowned them, but they are the true children of God, to whom all honour belongs.

BOAZ: That sounds very fine, but how will they live without family? Without friends? Without the means to do business?

Deborah: Well, you could argue that some of them never had the means of which you speak. But that brings me to my second point. Jeshua makes them family, don’t you see? He says they are the children of God, who is their Father in heaven, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be at a loss for a community that functions as a family, and that cares for each of its members in ways that show that they take this relationship very seriously indeed.

BOAZ: (sarcastically) And what a family it would be! Honoured by all! Unclean, uneducated, untutored in the ways of doing business, oh, I can see it has a great future.

Deborah: How about you think seriously about what it would mean if we honoured those whom God honours? What would happen if you men stopped playing all of your silly cultural games where you vie for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply in the ways of justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings and honour might await if we took the plunge and risked the way of God? Maybe then we will be the ones Jeshua talks of when he says, “Honoured are you who strive after righteousness, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

Conclusion
What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not a four hymn sandwich in Sunday worship; not achievement or respectability: simply, justice, mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living this out in our culture comes at a cost.

The idea of obeying a few laws, and keeping ourselves ‘pure’, and ‘righteous’ until we get to our reward in heaven, is very attractive, and a popular idea in our churches today. Such a belief demands little from us in the way of sacrifice, discomfort or even simple change. We tend to go along with the status quo, we seek respectability, and we fit in with the corrupt business and political systems of our world because it is safer and easier to do so.

In a theology such as this, it makes sense to keep using up the planet, with little care for the impact of our consumption of its resources. In a theology such as this, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the marginalised are seen as ‘unclean’. We can even blame them for their plight, and believe they are deserving of their disadvantaged lot in life, because they are not pure or righteous or separate from sin, and because they clearly have not worked or tried hard enough.

Such a theology is not the ‘gospel’, the good news or the message of Jesus’ Gospel. If our world is to become more whole, and if the injustice and inequity in our world is to be addressed, we desperately need to revisit the Bible’s teaching about what God requires and take seriously what Jesus actually taught. Otherwise, we contribute more to the problems of our world and our individual piety detracts from the work God requires us to do.

In our bibles, we discover that God is found working always for justice, in caring for the least and in the opposing forces of violence, destruction, materialism, greed, and power. Jesus invites us to revisit the cross, and embrace again its call upon us. As Paul puts it, we are called to be “foolish” in the name of Christ, to confound the accepted wisdom of the world, and to bring justice and compassion whenever we find the opportunity to do so.

The challenge to us is whether we have really have the courage to commit to both a real and transforming relationship with God, and to a life of loving sacrifice in the service of God’s kingdom and the poor for which it should be the good news.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rubbish to the left of me, and rubbish to the right....


I am sitting here, with a week’s worth of rubbish. I am in the process of tallying it, to see what we really are accumulating, particularly in regards to plastic rubbish, plastic being more of a problem and more insidious in our environment, not to mention more disposable.

In terms of average household rubbish I am guessing it is a fairly small pile. We have a plastic shopping bag sized bin behind the sink cupboard door, and we haven’t filled it. It mostly consists of packaging, from food wrapping such as bread and crackers, the small gladwrap squares we cover the pet mince with, and plastic wrapping from mail, especially magazines. We have also realised with some horror our favourite locally-made chocolates are all in individually wrapped in cellophane. We have:

2 bread wrappers, pectin packet, recycled paper towel wrapper, 6 plastic cake mix bags, cling wrap on purchased melon, feta cheese packet, chocolate wrapper, 5 medication cards (Panadol and prescription drugs), 7 bits of gladwrap on the pet mince portions, four cellephane chocolate wrappers, 4 wires from underwire bras, plastic from a tissue box, 2 underwear packets, plastic bag on free local paper, meat pie wrapper.

The recycling is mainly junk mail catalogues (time to get one of those No Junk Mail signs), the local newspapers, cardboard and paper packaging from crackers and beer and cider six packs; glass bottles, bottle tops, aluminium cat food tins and discarded mail and envelopes. We have three small boxes full – there is a lot more than the rubbish. We have:

17 bottles and their aluminium caps
Cardboard medication packets, three gluten free cake mix packets, recycled paper packaging off recycled toilet paper, 3 cardboard milk cartons, a huge wad of junk mail, envelopes and discarded mail weighing 1.6 kilos
Plastic face product bottle, calcium bottle, empty plastic wool wash bottle
14 aluminium pet food tins and their pull tops, aluminium foil used in cooking and from choclate wrapping

Why are you bothering, I hear you ask?

I am bothering for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is useful to see just how much rubbish we accumulate. Whilst our rubbish-holding plastic shopping bag that is two thirds full of what is mainly plastic packaging may not seem much, times it by 52 and it becomes a small mountain over the course of a year. That’s a lot of non-biodegradable stuff heading for landfill. It is sobering to contemplate it. It is even more sobering to think of the resources that went into making this plastic. If you are wondering what this means, have a look at Hungry Beast’s life cycle of a plastic bottle at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B19zvES7RC8

Secondly, looking at it and counting it reminds me we live in a disposable society. I am amazed at how commercially produced food portions are getting smaller and smaller and more and more packaged. There seem to be far more individually wrapped processed food products on the shelves of the super markets now, things like single breakfast bars, chocolates, biscuits and even single-serve cereals. Cheese, yoghurt, rice pudding, soup, tuna and baked beans all come in single serves, to name but a few. Apparently we have lost the will to drink tap water, needing instead plastic bottles of water and gaudily coloured products for allegedly increasing stamina. Buying in bulk is getting harder and buying in cardboard, paper and glass is becoming more of a challenge.

Thirdly, it appears almost impossible to send a magazine through the mail without a protective plastic bag. Why? It is not like plastic is the only protective covering. In our household, only The New Internationalist arrives in a recycled paper envelope. The Open Road, our Diggers’ Garden catalogue, the local free newspaper and a few other catalogues that have followed me to Wauchope all come plastic wrapped.

Lastly, I realised how much we rely on it to keep food fresh. Gladwrap (or its equivalent) has insinuated itself into our lives to such an extent that we depend on it to keep food fresh in the fridge, wrap our sandwiches, cover our cut fruit and in our case, package cats’ pet mince for freezing. It is also a useful thing to cover food being cooked in the microwave oven.

And this is just the waste. Looking at my cupboards, I have plastic storage, plastic crockery, plastic furniture, plastic bowls and plastic utensils. My cleaning products, medications, and my bathroom products all come in plastic. There are plastic bits and pieces in our garden equipment. And the list goes on. How on earth did my great grandmothers manage without the stuff? It is everywhere.

Over the last year I have become more and more aware of the damage that plastic does to our environment. Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our environment every year. This plastic pollution finds its way into our water ways and then into our oceans. It then hitchhikes on the ocean’s currents until it ends up either in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or is eaten by marine life. It lasts longer than nuclear waste, taking up to a thousand years to break down in the environment, turning into smaller and smaller pieces that don’t disappear. Unlike cardboard, paper or glass, plastic just doesn’t go away. It is stubborn stuff, and it is lethal stuff.

According to Clean Up Australia, every piece of disposable plastic that I have ever used is still hanging around somewhere today. Their statistics are sobering:

• Almost 90% of the marine debris found on Sydney’s beaches is plastic, mostly bottles, caps and straws.
• Australians buy 600 million litres of bottled water a year.
• We use 10 million plastic bags a day (that's 3.9 billion plastic bags a year)

Planet Ark makes the point that the time we use a plastic grocery bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to our homes. But only an estimated 3% of Australia's plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets. Why? Are we lazy, or do we find many new uses for these bags – such as collecting household rubbish? And while this is commendable to reuse these bags, what happens once I dump them into the red bin and they trundle off to the Council tip?

Having asked this question, I needed to answer it. I discovered that we are not off the hook by disposing of our plastic bags in garbage bins. Approximately 30 to 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia annually. Of that litter, 47% is wind borne plastic litter escaping from the landfills where our garbage ends up.

Once windborne, it ends up in our oceans and in our environment. In the marine environment plastic bag litter is deadly, and kills many sea birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. And due to its longevity, when an unfortunate beast is killed by plastic it decomposes much faster than the offending plastic, which is then released back into the environment where it can be ingested and kill again.

One example Planet Ark gives in regard to the deadly nature of plastic as litter was a Bryde's whale which died on a Cairns beach after ingesting 6 square metres of plastic - including plastic bags. This is potentially making my mind implode. Six metres? How did it find six metres of the stuff so readily?

And it isn’t just the ocean. Planet Ark also reports the story of a calf on a farm near Mudgee NSW, which died unexpectedly. The farmer carried out an autopsy and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500. One has to ask how 8 plastic bags found their way onto the calf’s pasture.

The worst thing for me though was Hungry Beast’s clip on albatross chicks. I was searching for something on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and I came across this little documentary on Chris Jordan, who is a Seattle based photographer. He photographed the most heart breaking pictures of dead baby
albatrosses on the Midway Atoll (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7vHrMsnRFA). All of them had died from being fed plastic litter by their parents, who are unable to tell the difference between pieces of plastic and small fish. I sobbed the first time I saw it. It still makes me cry. The death of all these small chicks just tipped me from knowing that plastic was a problem to doing something about it.

The 15 to 1000 years that plastic takes to break down in the environment seems a high price to pay for my convenience. Recycling is not enough, and rescue is not enough anymore. Time to actually change our habits and banish the demon plastic from our shopping as much as possible.

Planet Save has a helpful infographic at http://planetsave.com/2012/08/26/life-cycle-of-plastic-bag-infographic/ and a good factsheet on bottled water at http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/Whatelsewesupport/avoid-bottled-water.html

Plastic pollution is a global problem, but it can have a local solution. That local solution is me. In the coming weeks, we need to consistently and doggedly work at turning our plastic addiction around here at Shenstone, our sustainable house and garden. Today’s garbage tally makes it clear that this will not be easy, and some things, like our medications, can’t be replaced. The plan is to keep recycling those we can, and thoughtfully disposing of those we can’t. I will be following up with our local Council to find out what happens to such recyclables, and enquiring how I make sure my litter doesn’t fly off and kill a nearby calf or whale. But widespread plastic use surely can’t be sustained in a world where oil (the basic ingredient for plastic) is growing scarcer, and where climate change is threat enough to our birds, fish, animals and creeping things. The bottom line is that it is unsustainable for all sorts of reasons. Time to really change habits and not just tinker around the edges. Less convenience, and more mindfulness of exactly what the consequences of our throwaway plastic society are is called for. My great grandmothers would be proud.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Setting sail on the SS Low Impact

Recently we watched a documentary called “No Impact Man”, based on a year where writer Colin Beavan and his family tried to live a carbon neutral life (you can see it here at http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/no_impact_man/). I found it interesting enough to buy the book: No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

Quite a title. For me, it was both compelling and damning reading. Because, I suspect, most of us just tinker around the edges of changing our lifestyles. We recycle, we visit a farmers’ market maybe, we buy fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these things are good, but aren’t going to change the way the world works or our individual carbon footprints.

Prior to No Impact Man, we liked to think we live a lifestyle that has less impact than the average Westerner. On examination, our lifestyle was not a patch on Colin Beavan’s year of near carbon neutrality. Not even close. It raised quite starkly the possibility that one can always find a way of living more sustainably. So with fear and trepidation, we thought we would have a go at living more simply and with a reduced carbon footprint. And to keep the whole thing honest, blog about it so reneging is much harder.

Why bother, I hear you ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we belong to a climate change group, and we talk a lot about how important it is to do something about climate change. So our little group gives out information, holds events, it ran a candidates election forum, it has a Facebook page where the latest research and articles on the subject are placed, and it releases press articles on various topics like the IPCC report. We all think something should be done. Whilst a number of us think it should be governments that do something, there are also those in the group who think that each one of us has a personal responsibility.

I think that is right. One needs to put one’s money where one’s climate strategy mouth is.

Secondly, as the title of this blog suggests, we are both ministers in the Uniting Church. Around two years ago, I prepared a number of bible studies that were meant to encourage people of faith to re-examine that faith in the light of environmental concerns. The studies had two central tenets – ‘love your neighbour’ (and this meant all people, even the ones you can’t see overseas and by ‘love’ we mean do them no harm); and secondly, respect and treat well the creation that God saw as integrated and ‘good’.

These studies were run with mixed results. Those who took part agreed in principle to what their scripture was telling them. Yet despite the dire consequences that the biblical book of Deuteronomy promises for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68 if you are really interested whether you risk being struck with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, or with blight and mildew, that will plague you until you perish), many saw it as ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient for my lifestyle’ to actually adopt habits that would in effect, not support child labour, sweatshops, over-consumerism, environmental degradation, climate change and unethical food practices. Others attempted to make small changes in their eating and consumer habits.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to acting in ways that will build a just and compassionate society. It is dedicated to working for the common good of all humanity. It seeks to transform unjust social structures, and to protect and renew all of creation. The 1977 Statement to the Nation clearly says that “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources for their use and enjoyment.”

In other words, this church is a political church. It is not afraid to tackle thorny issues as they arise on the political landscape. It lobbies governments, it has helped to create policy (and occasionally history as with the Safe Injecting Room), it pushes issues of justice in the media and it urges its congregations, councils and members to actually live out the faith of a disciple of Jesus. In recent times, this has included more and more environmental issues.

Living out the teachings of Jesus are particularly challenging to the Western world. Congregations don’t especially warm to his teachings on personal wealth (give it to the poor) or his teaching that disciples should do something about the unjust structures of society (don’t extort money, free the oppressed and liberate the captives). His statement "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15) runs counter to western consumerism. And we also have the Hebrew Bible, which forms two thirds of the Christian canon of Scripture, that has quite a lot to say about the protection of our environment and its belonging to a creator God who declared it to be ‘good’.

On 1 November 2006, the Uniting Church Assembly voted to adopt the statement "For the Sake of the Planet and all its People: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change" (http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment/uca-statements/item/481-for-the-sake-of-the-planet-and-all-its-people)

This document encouraged Uniting Church members, congregations, groups, agencies and councils to:
‘model ways of living and working that minimise the production of greenhouse gas emissions; and advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources.’

So in the light of this and No Impact Man, we decided to commit to modelling sustainable ways of living in line with our church’s statements; and we have decided to take up the challenge of becoming, if not No Impact People, at least Low Impact People. So stay tuned for the next instalment as Low Impact Life comes to the Mid North Coast.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On earth as it is in heaven: a response to Luke 13: 10-17

This is a shortened version of a sermon we gave today at our local church. It is based on Luke 13:10-17, today’s lectionary gospel reading. I have decided to place it here on the blog as it is a timely reminder when we are debating the rights of asylum seekers that Jesus welcomed those on the outside of society, and encouraged others to do the same. The first half is a narrative given by Rachel, an attendee at the synagogue. The second half is a brief commentary, followed by a poem about the bent over woman. The illustration is Jesus heals a crippled woman by Cortney L. Haley


I am sitting in my normal seat in the synagogue, as I always did in the Sabbath. I like watching the people come in. Then that woman came into worship in the Synagogue as she had every Sabbath for the last few years. Others had told me she had been coming like this for 18 years. She came as she always did, bent over, with a back that was twisted.
Her face looked like she was always in pain. I wondered what she could actually see. It seemed to me she must have spent most of her time looking at the ground beneath her feet. It was impossible for her to look anyone straight in the face. If she tried to do so, surely her neck would have hurt her. Just walking seemed to hurt her, and there seemed to be nothing she could do to ease the pain.

People tended to avoid her. Can you imagine coming to the Synagogue for that number of years and no one seemed to even know your name? She was just known as ‘the bent-over- woman’. If people thought about her at all, it was probably with scorn. Physical deformity is seen as a curse by many people. I even heard some even said she was possessed, her condition a punishment from God. To be honest, any physical infirmity is thought of as God’s punishment or even as the work of the Devil. I don’t know what to think. She seems harmless, but I am afraid of how she looks.

She usually sits on the far side of the other women, way up the back, off to herself. No one rushes to welcome her. No doubt about it, whatever has caused her condition, she is oppressed by many other things and I think of her as being bent over with many burdens. Though all we can see is the physical burden, I sit and wonder what other burdens she may have, emotionally and spiritually.

Could part of her oppression be just that she is a woman, which definitely diminishes her worth? I wonder about the other women at the synagogue. What kind of burdens do they feel? For that matter, what about the men? It would be especially shameful if they showed themselves to be burdened and bent—and isn’t that a burden in itself - trying to hide emotions and pain? That is not always easy either. We sit, in synagogue, waiting for something. A glimpse of God, a healing touch. Sometimes it seems to happen. But often we just sit, and wait, and worry.

And then, one day, a visiting preacher came. A man called Jesus. He came to teach in the synagogue. But then he didn't. Teach I mean. Not straight away. He called out "woman". “Woman,” he said. Somehow the bent over woman knew he was talking to her. Can you imagine what a shock it must have been when she heard Jesus calling her? No one had called to her in all those years. Then Jesus called “woman” to her.

She moved, from her place way at the back of the synagogue, into the centre of the crowd. And then Jesus did an amazing thing. He laid his hands upon this bent over woman and told her that she was set free from her ailment; and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’ Amen! What a blessing for her! Amen, and hallelujah’, we said. ‘Praise the Lord!’ God was moving in our lives, and especially hers.

And then he did another thing—it was a little later on when he was debating with the disapproving leader of the synagogue—he gave her a new name: he called her the daughter of Abraham. It was amazing - Jesus really gave two gifts to the bent over woman—the gift of healing from her bent over, painful existence, and just as important—the gift of recognition as a daughter of Abraham, a member of the chosen people. It was a great moment.

I mentioned an argument. Remember I said that this happened in the synagogue? And it was on the Sabbath, our holy day. Jesus healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath, much to the disapproval of the leader of the synagogue. We Jews are instructed in the importance of the Sabbath from our childhood. We are taught it is a day set apart, a day that is holy and honourable, a joy for those who observe it. Observing the Sabbath has not only been not only a part of our Law since Moses’ time, but also a part of our worship of God. Well, this Jesus showed he could argued like the best of the Pharisees, and he was pointing out that it was hypocritical to care for an animal then not recognize the need for care of a human being.

You people may not recognise it, but Jesus was making a classic rabbinic argument. You know, it follows a pattern, a kind of “you say, I say” pattern. Jesus did it beautifully. Firstly, he moved from a matter of minor importance to something of major importance. What I mean is the donkey was a minor action, a little thing. The big thing was this poor woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. Jesus is saying that if it's true for the minor thing—your ox or your donkey— then how much more should it be true in relation to a major thing, namely, this woman's life? And was it not a greater blessing to receive such a gift from God on the day God had blessed and set apart for the refreshment of humankind?

One other thing I think I should point out to you in case you missed it. When Jesus responded to the leader’s words, he was very clever with his use of words. You know, he said, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey and lead it away?" In the next sentence about the bent over woman, he says "then ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day."

The connection he was making was very clear. Let me put it another way. Jesus said "You guys untie your ox or your donkey. I am untying and releasing this woman who has been bound for eighteen years and that's a great thing to do on the Sabbath." The crowd applauded this great wit. The point was well made.

I felt very happy for the bent over woman. She had been restored from a life lived on the margins to one that would be now lived in the community. Jesus, when he called her from the back, also symbolically was calling her back to life. I felt angry at the synagogue leader, and so did most of us. Jesus certainly won that argument, in our opinion. And I did feel some shame, I confess. I hadn't bothered to get to know this woman and help her. I should have. And I decided that in the future I would at least make the effort to say ‘Shalom’ to others, even if they seemed different from me.

Back to our time
The story of the woman who was bent over is a story of two types. It is a story of confrontation about Sabbath laws, but also a story of liberation. It is a story that reports debate and argument over interpretation of laws, but also release and freedom from repression and regulation.

In the background of this story is the argument about the character of the kingdom of God. Actions such as this—a woman being set free from an evil spirit—are an obvious and physical proclamation of the coming of the kingdom. When she is able to stand up straight, to have dignity again, and to be set free from her affliction, we can see a clear sign of the presence of the God and of the wholeness and equality and shalom promised by the kingdom.

This is a story that combines a miracle of healing with a controversy about the law. In that sense, it is like the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2—the story of the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends. The move from the miracle and subsequent celebration to conflict, is a story development that makes his story very interesting.

That is the same move, in that story, as we find here, in this story about the woman bent double. Furthermore, it ends with an even greater degree of joy on the part of the entire crowd, who were rejoicing at the things Jesus was doing. So it's a great story of hope. It’s a story that points to the healing, the resolution, of all our problem issues.

Can you imagine a world where poverty is healed? where racism is ended? where indigenous people are respected? where there is no longer discrimination or prejudice towards gay and lesbian people? where environmental problems are resolved? and so forth. What a world that would be!

This isn’t a story where we should be saying, “Go Jesus, you showed those legalistic synagogue leaders.” That is not what the story is about. Because in many ways, we are like the leader of the synagogue, clinging to our traditions and wanting others to agree with us and think like us. We don’t like change and we don’t like doing things differently.
In many ways we are also like the bent over woman, waiting for our burdens to be lifted from us so we can be freed and stand up and be transformed and praise the name of God.

I want to conclude by reading some excerpts from a poem called
OH WOMAN … DEAR NAMELESS WOMAN, by Anna Murdock

Oh woman, dear nameless woman,
how your heart must long
to look into the eyes of others once more;
to seek hope and acceptance and love.
But alas, you cannot, can you?
Your head cannot be lifted.
For whatever reasons, it is bent low.

You see only the dust of the streets
and the feet of those who step over you
and around you and on you.
Oh woman, dear bent-low woman,
God has brought you to this place …
to this synagogue … to this person
who is teaching freedom from bondage.
On this day … yes, on this very Sabbath day
you will be set free
and will stand tall once more.
He has called you … not by name, but “Woman”.
Even before his touch,
even before you might stand tall,
he proclaims that those things
that had kept your head low
and your back so bent
be gone forever.
Did you hear his words, dear woman?
SET FREE!
Set free from all of the bent-down bondage!
His eyes are the first eyes
that you have seen in so long.
How can you not respond
in the way that you do!
Standing straight … Praising God!
********************************************

May all of us be set free from whatever bends us low and keeps our eyes on the ground instead of raised upwards.
May all of us help others to also stand up straight, to live the lives of dignity and inclusion that God intended them to have.
And God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Eating your steak and caring about it too - the ecology of sustainable communities

Early on Monday morning we took off for Ellenborough, in the Kindee Valley, some 30-40 kms west of Wauchope. Our first destination was Ewetopia Farm, a 130 acre property located on the mid-north coast hinterland. Ewetopia is run by Jill and Ian McKittrick, who embarked on this significant tree change around ten years ago.



Wanting to escape the Sydney rat race, they decided that there was a niche market for gourmet sheep’s milk cheese, and took a punt on a small milking herd of sheep. They have now received Council approvals to build a specialised dairy & cheese making area. Having experimented with some success on family and friends, Ian and Jill hooped to have their ewe's milk cheese available from September 2013, initially at the local Wauchope markets. We are really looking forward to sampling the future products of the new dairy!



Jill and Ian are also working to regenerate their soils, and are participating in a soil carbon project with Hastings Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Management. The highlight of the tour for the children was the milking of Butterscotch the house cow, who placidly stood as the fascinated youngsters watched her deliver over 2 litres of rich Jersey milk.



Ian and Jill also run a farmstay cottage, with a well-appointed cabin that can sleep six. If you and your family want to stay on a small working farm, you can contact them at http://www.ewetopiafarm.com.au/



After idling away an hour or so at Long Flat Cafe, it was time to head to Kindee Valley Farm. You can find them here http://www.kindeevalleyfarm.com.au/ This somewhat tested our poor little Honda hybrid, which is simply not built for driving on dirt roads, fording river crossings, climbing grassy knolls, or cross country motoring. We eventually arrived on the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the valley and nearby rain forested hills. Around 80-90 people arrived also, which did test the parking and the area thoroughly – and the kitchen skills of Kerry, who was busy making lots of delicious Kindee bacon BLTs for the hungry visitors.



The farm is around 622 acres, with a 100 of these under rainforest. It is in the midst of this picturesque scenery that our hosts, Brian and Kerry Wehlburg raise their cattle, pigs and chickens to produce fine ethically pastured food. Brian and Kerry Wehlburg are also committed to improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon in the soil. This is one reason why the Wehlburgs run Kindee Farm - to do something about climate change. Carbon sequestration is one way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Wehlburgs pride themselves on raising stock that never sees a feedlot, pigsty, or chicken cage. The animals are regularly moved onto fresh pasture to keep flock and pasture worm and disease free and healthy. Brian says that this is better for them, better for the environment and creates a more nutritious, flavoursome product.

And, as Brian said a number of times, their animals ran on solar, reproduced themselves, and when they died you could eat them. They were also handy tillers and fertilisers of the soil. What more could you ask?



Brian told me that his philosophy and methods are based on Holistic Management, a process developed by fellow Zimbabwean Allan Savory. Brian is himself an Holistic Management Educator and describes it as a way of making decisions that are socially, financially and environmentally sound. American Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms provides many of the "how to's" for practically managing the farm.



It is the word sustainable that is the key here. Though it is true that modern farming techniques have delivered profits to many – most notably the Colesworths of this world – it is equally true that such techniques have come at a high cost to our environment, the integrity of the food supply, and to small farmers. Australia, which has poor and ancient soils, has always battled with loss of topsoil and salination of its arable farmland, now also faces challenges to its food production areas from development, coal seam gas mining and contaminated groundwater. Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and artificial petrochemical fertilisers have compromised pasture and waterways and even put ocean reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef at risk from nutrient rich fertiliser run-off.

Many small holding family farmers feel forced to leave their land, due to increased costs, recent drought or flood conditions, and their inability to compete with larger, corporatised farms, or unable to make a living on the pittance that Colesworth is prepared to pay them for their produce.

Climate change is not going to make food production easier or more lucrative. With peak oil, peak soil, peak whatever, our food production is going to come under increasing pressure. Surely one answer staring us all in the face is to increase the number of sustainable farmers, and to promote greater amounts of local, safer, sustainably produced food. We need farmers who will maintain healthy soil and clean waterways, and who will produce fresh, healthy food for generations to come.

Lastly, we need communities who will support our farmers, and who are prepared to share equipment, facilities and work together. As Joel Salatin says, the ecology of community is as important as that of the land. Community ecology takes time, care and innovation, and anything less tends to create social and environmental upheavals. Factory food and huge chemically-dependent monocultures do not factor in the intrinsic and hidden costs of pollution and environmental degradation, or the increased CO2 in the atmosphere caused by overuse of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Food from sustainable farming is actually cheaper for the planet because it factors in all these costs. Using manure instead of artificial fertiliser, moving stock frequently instead of needing to worm, using chickens and pigs as pest destroyers and cultivators in working with, not against nature, encouraging microbial activity and building soil are all sustainable practices that do not spoil or pollute. And it results in animals that are less stressed, and free to express their natural instincts. It also means that they eat what they were meant to, not industrialised fish waste or the like.



We should all be reacquainting ourselves with real food. We should all be cutting food miles and finding our food closer to where we live. The UK has a 100 mile food movement; maybe we should develop such things as well here in Australia. It means that we should eat food in season, and cook the produce of our regions in our home kitchens.

As a wise farmer once said, if you eat food, you should care about how it’s grown. Our farmers are rightly proud of their produce, and we feel so blessed to live in the Hastings Valley with all this wonderful food from sustainable farms, readily available at our local Farmers’ Markets. And by eating local we are saving on food miles, and we are supporting our local and regional economy. So support your local markets, eat fresh, choose organic and sustainable options and everyone and thing, including the planet, is a winner.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

What’s the dirt on dirt – day two of the Hastings Valley farm gate tours.

Day two of our Farm Gate tours began at 9.30 am at Redbank Organic Farm. Redbank is run by the Eggert family, and has been owned by them for 5 generations. They are a certified organic farm of approximately 500 acres, located across the Hastings river not far from us in Wauchope. Redbank produces Oxhill Organic Eggs, and they also have organic dairy cows producing organic milk that is commercially produced under the Norco label.



Our tour was conducted by Chris and Ann Eggert with help from their three sons. We started by inspecting the dairy herd of approximately 180 head, with Friesians, and Jersey/Guernsey cross-bred cows roaming around river flat grassy paddocks. As well as being organic cows, they were also curious and friendly, and it was a chance for anyone unfamiliar with them to get up close and personal.



We then moved on to the chicken sheds and hen paddocks, which are regularly moved every three days by the Eggerts behind the cows, and which breakdown the bovine manure and any attendant nasties before the cattle are moved onto the pasture again. The pasture also gets a good dose of chicken manure. The hen houses (‘chicken caravans’) are an astonishing blend of practicality and ingenuity. They are completely movable with a tractor, and have a self-organised watering system for the birds, and nesting boxes gently sloped that connect with a hand cranked conveyer belt that can be used to move the eggs to the end of the shed for collection. The chickens were clearly at home in them and happy to lay many eggs in the comfortable boxes.



The flocks are guarded from foxes by alpacas, whose smell is repugnant to foxes, and who apparently have an innate dislike of this predatory and cunning canine. They will spit on them, and kick them when they spot one. Certainly both hen and alpaca seemed comfortable in each others company. The Eggerts create paddocks by the use of movable electric fences, which means pasture is properly rested before reuse by cattle and chooks. Paddocks are fertilised by their own farm-made organic compost with the hay and sawdust which is used in the dairy yards, and then composted for 6-8 weeks. The compost is then spread over the paddocks.



The Eggerts went organic in 2000, and it is an impressive and symbiotic system that they have in place between pasture, cow, hen and alpacas, and the dairy. Chris was very clear about the benefits they had gained from going organic, and by rotating their hens and herd regularly. He found conventional farming using urea was very expensive, as his animals were often sick and needed regular drenching for worms. After massive health problems, the farm went organic, which meant rotating stock, making their own fertiliser, and cultivating the creatures of the soil such as microbes and dung beetles. He no longer ploughs the fields, but plants directly, as this is much better for the soil. He uses more deep rooted grasses and pasture plants, and by moving stock it prevents the build up of the micro and other organisms that cause disease. He has not vaccinated the cattle in all this time and has had no problems. Chris believes that good management prevents disease, builds soil fertility and health and means chemical-free produce.

I asked Chris why he went organic and why it was important. Initially, he said, it was about money – saving money from the cost of artificial fertilisers and from treating disease, and gaining better returns from a more saleable product. But he said he was now passionate about organic farming systems, as he could see how much better they worked. His cows did not need vaccinating or worming, his fields did not need urea or other artificial applications, his stock rarely gets sick, and his soil and pasture are much healthier and lusher – though this took longer than using conventional farming methods.

The Eggerts also trade under a label called F.U.N. Organics. Their website states that:

The family decided that it would be a good idea to have a marketable brand name to take the farm forward. The name F.U.N. Organics came from a core belief that a lot of the joy of producing food has been taken away today with the onslaught of mass produced, industrial agriculture. We believe that farming should be fun, that farmers should be proud of what they do and what they produce, and that farms should be a safe and happy place to bring visitors and raise children. Farming with nature, not against it, is a central basis to the way we farm and is especially important when farming organically. So our farming business is now F.U.N. Organics – Farming Under Nature! You can find some videos on the farm, and more information at

In the afternoon we went off to Foodprints. Foodprints is a 40 acre farm run by Jeremy Bradley and Kathy Eggert (yes, she is related to the Eggerts above and spent a lot of time at Redbank when she was growing up). Foodprints is about good soil health and sustainable food production. Find them at www.foodprints.com.au



We started with a sausage sizzle lunch under two magnificent magnolia trees (made from the free range beef raised on their farm) and this was followed by a talk on the importance of microbes: bacteria, algae, fungi and other tiny creatures such as protozoa to soil health. Symbiotic relationships between plant and air, water, sun and microbes eventually produces humus, the stable medium which is the key to healthy soil and sustainable farming and nutritious food.

Part of the talk which was new to me is that we are using soil faster than we are making it. This concept of making soil had never occurred to me. I thought, along with many others, that soil was just, well, there. Apparently this is not true. Artificial fertilisers such as urea do not build up soil, and have a huge carbon footprint due to their being made of natural gas that has been shipped to China, converted to fertiliser, and shipped back to Australia. Better to grow one’s own nitrogen via healthy soil and microbes. It seems the right regime of natural soil enhancement grows new soil at rapid rates, replacing what is used and what is lost.



Interestingly, a by product seems to be reduced weeds. At the border of FoodPrints pasture, fireweed is seen obviously growing on the neighbour’s side. It is missing on Jeremy’s side. Jeremy and Kathy put this down to their rotation of the cattle and subsequent mulching of the paddock, which as Kathy says, disadvantages everything equally, including the weeds. Their neighbour keeps asking how they do it. He apparently keeps failing to get it.

The FoodPrints website stresses that:
We are not a global company, in fact we are the antithesis of a global corporation, because we have a global ethic. With every farming decision we make we consider the planetary consequences. We believe in growing and consuming low input local produce and continuously improving our management practices. Our farming methods are traditionally organic and we do not do anything unnatural to our soil, our plants or our animals.

The name ‘foodprint’ comes from the idea of food miles and food production miles. Jeremy and Kathy encourage us all to think of our ‘foodprint’, and to support local famers, eat food that is grown in season and reduce our "foodprints". FoodPrints fresh vegetables include garlic, pumpkins, shallots, potatoes, carrot, silverbeet, rainbow chard, eggplants, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot, rosellas and a variety of herbs. They prefer to grow traditional open pollinated varieties and save the seeds.

John and I regularly buy the famous Jack’s pumpkins from Jeremy and Kathy. I have to say it is the only pumpkin we have successfully grown in our own backyard. (And it is quite delicious, John adds!)

Kathy’s special passion is conservation of local vegetation and the fauna that inhabits it. Their farm is managed to enhance existing native forest and wildlife habitat, and they have signed a conservation agreement to ensure this habitat is preserved into the future on their property.

The thing that has struck me mightily about both these farms is their reduced costs in regard to fertiliser, reduced illness and reliance on chemicals, and how much they have enhanced their soils, pasture coverage and their increased output.

We keep being told by big companies like Monsanto that organics will not feed the world, and GM RoundUp Ready GM food is the way forward in a world populated by increasing numbers.

I find this extremely difficult to accept based on the evidence of the farms here. It is clear that soil is crucial; I can’t see how using fossil fuel derived fertilisers can build it up, replace it or make it more efficient. A crop is only as good as what you grow it in – how then, even if GM seeds are the most efficient crops in the world, can they thrive in inferior, nutrient deprived soil?

Secondly, it seems to me from my reading that monocultural crops are much more prone to disease. Biodiversity encourages predators and soil improvers and crops and livestock to work together in symbiotic relationships that keep disease and pests to a minimum. It is much cheaper than paying for drenches, vaccinations and pesticides and herbicides. The subsequent enrichment of the soil gives better crop yields. So can’t see the superiority of GM crops here. And there is the small matter of pollution of soil and waterways. Clean water is essential to life. Run off from herbicides and pesticides is not helping. And good soil can sequester carbon, which helps the issue of CO2 emissions.

And if companies like Monsanto persist in merging small farms into big farms, or seeling their seed particularly to poor indigenous farmers who can’t afford to buy seed and herbicide etc each year, then we are not feeding the hungry world but indeed depriving it, in the name of Western greed, of its dominant means of feeding its subsistence farmers. Indian cotton farmers used to save seed, replant and have enough to feed their families. Monsanto’s cotton seed has greater need for water, less yields and requires more chemicals. The result has been the regular suicide of Indian cotton farmers caught in a cycle of debt and Monsanto’s indifference.

In the USA, big food companies are becoming bigger. They appear to have unprecedented power over the market, and for years now have been putting small farmers out of business in favour of factory farms and the cultivation of GM crops, especially GM corn and soy, which just happen to be the essential ingredients in most of the Western world’s junk foods.

Lastly, the carbon footprint of huge agribusinesses like Monsanto is immense, and reliant on fossil fuels. I see no chance of this changing in the near future, not while there is a dollar to be made.

Food production needs to be unhooked from fossil fuels and monocultures and the direct and indirect pollution these things cause. In their article in “The Conversation” Can we resolve the ‘peak everything’ problem? Alexandra and Campbell state that:

because biodiversity conservation, water and land use, energy production, carbon intensity, disaster management and global food supplies are all intimately linked, the 21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues. (http://theconversation.com/can-we-resolve-the-peak-everything-problem-13070)

For example, this means a much more integrated approach to land use planning, involving all tiers of government working together, with industry and the community. It may sound tedious and expensive, but the alternatives — staying in our silos, then wringing our hands after big shocks — are much worse.

In other words, our organic farms, in all their biodiversity and their consideration of the smallest microorganism to the immensity of the planet, are showing us the way forward.

Redbank Dairy

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Gateway to real food and real solutions for the future

In the Hastings Valley, the 2013 Farm Gate Tours are underway this long weekend. It is an event designed to support local farmers,especially those into biodiversity, organic methods and boutique type produce.

John and I are regular customers of the Wauchope Farmers’ Markets. There are a number of stalls we always patronise, and we look forward to the diverse range of fresh produce from macadamias through to herbs to pasture-fed meat. The 2013 Farm Gate Tour appeared invented just for us, as it provided a not-to-miss opportunity to not only meet the farmers, but access their farms as well.

Hastings Landcare Inc had recruited 11 farms covering poultry breeding, dairy, garlic and essential oils, beef, pork, eggs, native bush-foods, sheep cheese, alpacas, and macadamias. Conservation issues such as biodiversity were highlighted as a feature on the tour.

Today (Saturday) we visited Lorne Macademia farm and Justeph Alpacas.

Justeph Alpacas is a working alpaca and beef cattle farm run by Justyn and Stephanie Phillips. Justyn took the tour of the place, and is obviously proud of the farm and the work he has put into it. Healthy cows and new calves, and lots of woolly alpacas are testament to his hard work. He explained how he had set up paddocks and lanes, and the importance of having permanent water, good rainfall and good soil. It was clear that Justyn managed his soil and the manure from the alpacas very well. It was also clear that alpacas do not like cameras, and find ingenious ways to avoid a lens. But for us, our main interest was “the huge netted garden producing a big variety of foods” as per the Farm Gate Tour book.



As avid backyard fruit and veggie gardeners, we were keenly interested. Berries, herbs, espaliered fruit trees and edible greenery were growing in the netted garden. Guinea fowl had routinely patrolled the area, removing pests but not plants. I was impressed. Our chooks would have demolished the lot. Everything looked healthy, and many things were still producing fruit, including a few feisty kiwi vines, and a raft of citrus trees.



Later at the macadamia farm, our first task was to have lunch. There is an excellent cafĂ© with a delicious range of homemade goodies made by Joanne Scott. After lunch we were entertained and educated by Ray Scott who runs the farm (we buy from Ray at the local farmers’ markets). It was great to see the whole story behind the produce we buy: wonderfully tasty macadamias, delicious macadamia butter, and macadamia-infused coffee-to-die-for!!



Ray talked to visitors about the number of trees (1400), and how they needed to be cared for. Ray admitted he was a refugee from Sydney, and had been in quest of seaside tree change. He decided eventually to settle for the trees rather than the seas. New to macadamia farming, Ray set out to educate himself about their care and their harvesting.

Ray has embraced a pesticide and petrochemical fertiliser free regime on his farm, because he feels that the cost, both to his bank balance and to the environment is too high to do otherwise. “I got a quicker response to artificial fertilisers initially,” he said. “But long term the harvest was far higher using macadamia waste product mixed with the waste from our chooks on the trees.”

Ray also has a policy or reuse, recycle, repair and reinvent. All of his sorting equipment was repaired, built or modified by him and his father, with even an old supermarket checkout conveyor belt being adapted to make a macadamia sorting table. “We are not into wasting things around here,” said Ray. “And we share the costs of processing with a macadamia co-op made up of small growers like myself.”

It is heartening in a throw away, consumer-driven world, to meet someone like Ray. I love his sturdy independence and creative engineering. He saves money, saves landfill, and thereby saves the planet. And his macadamias are well worth it – they are delicious.



In his talk, Ray pointed out that already, at the start of winter, 40% of his trees were flowering, and that this was completely unseasonable. He didn’t know what it meant for the tree and its next fruiting. He was waiting to see what happened, especially since the honey bee hives in the area had mysteriously died, and his orchard was silent where it had once hummed with avian life. He thought the cause may have been a beetle. I thought maybe colony hive collapse was catching up with the mid north coast area.
I asked him about the change in flowering later, as a number of farmers in the area have told me that they too, had noticed things out of whack in their farms. One lady’s fig trees had flowered too early, before the wasp that pollinated them was around and they had therefore set no fruit. Others have told me that flowers were appearing on fruit trees now, instead of spring, and fruit was setting for the second time on their trees.



The changes taking place to the trees’ cycle seemed to be due to variations in the unseasonable weather, and incongruously nuts were ripening on the trees in preparation for falling and harvesting at the same time new flowers were blooming. We had an interesting discussion with Ray about the changes in weather and might relate to climate change. He told us his father had been keeping records for 16 years, and that initially a rain pattern could be discerned of wetter summer-spring and drier winters. This has apparently disappeared in the last two or so years, with no discernible seasonable rain patterns and with temperatures higher than normal, one result being cessation of frosts. Ray wasn’t sure exactly what had caused the change, but he knew change was happening.

The disappearance of the bees bothers me more than the unseasonable flowering and simultaneous fruiting, though that bothers me too, as the two are in fact linked. I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’, when Ray talked of the silence on his orchards. Changing climate and seasons may not be the greatest threat to food production, in the future it may actually be lack of pollination that brings on a food crisis.

Apparently pollination is needed for around 75% of global food crops. New research has shown the huge contribution of wild insects and honeybees to pollinating food, and indicates that the habitat of wild insects is being destroyed by monoculture crops and bees are under threat from climate stress, diseases and pesticides.
This puts crop and farm biodiversity squarely back on the agenda as one of the best preventatives to protect food production and its pollinators.

The other part to this is that climate change seems to be contributing to a mismatch between pollinators and plants. I mentioned the farmer who noticed the wasp was too late to pollinate the figs. European data shows there have been seasonal shifts in the distribution of pollinators, especially bees. And the food plants that depend on these pollinators are also undergoing seasonal shifts. If pollinators and plants cease to match up, food production is in real trouble.

The last part of this complex puzzle is the chemical companies that pedal pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers to farmers. They encourage monoculture food crops and genetically alter the DNA makeup of plants, then patent the seed. Pesticides do not help pollinators. Lack of biodiversity does not help pollinators. Even Roundup, touted by Monsanto as harmless as a herbicide gets, is developing super weeds. Ray tells me that his weeds are no longer responsive to low dose glyphosate, but each year need a bigger dose. Strangely, Monsanto is bringing out stronger concentrations of RoundUp each year. Coincidence? Probably not. Peter Newman, from the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative says an increasing number of weeds are no longer being killed by the herbicide glyphosate, and currently there are more than 360 known cases of glyphosate resistance in Australia. That number is expected to rise significantly by the end of the year.

Perhaps we should be thanking God for our small farmers, with their multi-faceted farms and their diversity of enterprise and best-practice land management initiatives. For their resourcefulness and resilience may well lead the way into an uncertain future.