Listening to the Discordant Harmonies of Land

I have stood on hilltops in the south and felt the bone-biting blast of Antarctic winds. I have felt the difference between that and the relief you get when you shift to a space three to four tree heights out from a shelterbelt, or mid way down the sunny lee slope. I’ve felt the climate shift from winter to spring in 150 metres.

Catlins tops.jpg

I’ve watched stock move in the morning from their night camp on the northeast of the ridge, sheltered from the winds, then work the gentler tops and spurs before heading down the face for the valley, and then back up to the ridge with the waning of the day to escape the coming frost and catch the early sun.  The face a route, not a place to be until the feed grows short on the best places.  I’ve worked with stock GPS collars and mapped the patterns on a page.  I’ve watched stock seek out shelter and shade at times, and not in others, and lamb in the dumbest places.  I’ve watched some respond by planting trees, and others who prefer “the good clean farm.”

I’ve looked at how the height, form and species of trees in a natural woodland shift with topography and edge.  I’ve seen pines grow only to the height of the dunes,

McBride Flood Taranaki

buds sheared by salt-laden gales, ancient and sculpted to the land.  I’ve seen them in the depth of dissected gullies reach for the sky.

I’ve seen cattle bogged in a wetland; desperate rescue efforts with a tractor and a chain.

I’ve been woken from a deep sleep by a big slip on a back face that should never have been in grass.  The land growls.  I’ve been woken by the sound of a grandmother Rimu falling on a calm night – just its time to die.

I’ve seen gorse cleared in gully systems for yet more grass, and the stock travel there once for every five times they

gorse on facesfeed on the ridges and valleys.  I’ve seen the gorse come back, and seen the helicopters fly to douse it again with chemicals to clear it once more – because there is a god called grass … and then again …

…. because you get no wisdom in the classroom, only the capacity – or not – to learn lessons for yourself.  Lessons that sink into your soul come from your observation, not from taught commands, and if you do not observe the patterns and music of the real world outside the theories, you do not learn.  I’ve seen those educators who open the capacity of minds and souls to see and think and be, and those that close them.

I’ve seen creek banks falling, and streams in flood snaking like a garden hose on the lawn, cutting and gouging a wadi out of the bottom lands – scouring away all that is good.  I’ve seen streams filling with soil like an arterial spurt from the land.  Blood you won’t get back in your lifetime or those of your kids.

Whitehead the flux of things

Shifting conditions in time and space. The patch dynamics of ecology.
Interrelationships. Patterns. Linkages. Multiple function and polycultural forms. Uncertainty and combinations of indeterminism and chance.

Variations and patterns in production of pasture.  Variations in woodlands and trees.  Variations in how animal and vegetable combine, in how water meets and moves.  Variations in the species mix, where the ‘weeds’ appear and where the ryegrass hold in, and doesn’t.  Patterns of birth and death.  Variations in the costs of care.  You don’t just see these patterns, you feel them.  And you can music when you feel.

Flux! Though we’re not always taught about the Whitehead the-flux-of-things-is-one-ultimate-generaliza-image-black-backgrounddominance of that integral experience of flux; the dominance of diverse pattern and interrelation creating something new with each step and breath; the difference in the combinations of things and which one drives the system – on this day, in this hour, in this patch.

Discordant Harmonies.  One of those books that makes you go “Yes!  This is what I see.

We’re told to presume in most cases a regularity, all the better to formulate, to predict, to regulate, to measure, to control, to command.  A presumed regularity in all things, which – like Dark Matter – isn’t necessarily there.

We’re told to prefer the one function, and make it one form. We’re told to push the complexity into something that suits the less patterned monochromatic view of life …. as a machine.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, and is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.


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Instead of Dam Thinking from the 50s, Look to the Landscape

Reblogging because this article is far less about the Ruataniwha Dam than it is about shifting our gaze away from the idea that we cannot change the paradigm of land use, and so we demand more dams, more fertiliser, more technofixes, more industrial thinking. But the solutions lie in the land. In rebuilding a healthy land. And that is good for family-owned farms as well. All the rhetoric toward the big technology solutions are motivated by a way of seeing the land and communities and the environment and what farming is, as all cogs in a factory. It is visionless.

Chris Perley's Blog

In the lowlands of the Otago Peninsula, within the hill streams that flow into the harbour, there are water wheels.  They stand as monuments to what once was, to what ‘functions’ there once were within our society, and – vitally – within our water landscape.

For these water wheels now lie within dry stream-beds, redundant, and could only function now immediately following a rain when the streams flush full.  As the bush was cleared, the wetlands (‘swamps’) removed, the tussock replaced with short English grasses, as soil and organic matter were lost from the land, so the ability of the land to slow and store water steadily reduced, and the streams flowed more intermittently.  And now when they do flow it is with a more extreme pattern of potentially flash-flood and dry bed.  The total water that exits these catchments is probably higher than it once was, but the pattern…

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Confessions of an ex-Public Servant: Watching the slow death of the Public Sector

Remember Geoffrey Palmer suggesting we need an it-is-not-power-that-corrupts-but-fear-aung-san-suu-kyi.jpginquiry into the public service in 2014?  Low morale and the fear culture which gets in the way of “free and frank advice without fear or favour” were some of the issues.  There were no surprises in Palmer’s comments for me.  I wrote this blog for The Daily Blog in Winter 2014, herewith very slightly edited.  Nothing has improved.  The underlying ideas are still prevalent.  And now we have Trump, whose own fear, and that fear he creates, corrupts.

Back in the 16th century, good Queen Bess said to her Privy Council of advisors something along the lines of: “I want your free, frank advice, without consideration of fear or favour.” In other words, tell me what you think, and don’t expect either a new estate, or a beheading. New Zealand inherited those traditions.

The public service was born.

In the New Zealand of 1988, they smothered it.

In 1988 that Elizabethan Privy Council ethos, that moral compass of professional independence and at least an attempt at recognising practical wisdom as a virtue, was subjugated to the new world order of Treasury and the quasi-religious faith in the Lord Market.

The State Sector Act of 1988 was the tool, implemented by the Lange-Douglas government of 1984-1990.  But it was only the tool.  The real culprit was the new ideas, Human Resources - the pot-bellied man Sam Mahon.pngthe new concepts through which we ought to determine policy: rational choice theory; a world ruled by personal gain, not a sense of community and individual purpose; a world in which all interactions are essentially transactional market exchanges – such as selling my obedient labour for your desired outputs – a focus on ‘resources’ and things, not people and purpose.

The Cult of Treasury was on the rise, and, lacking as that cult does in any self-reflection through the usual philosophical tests – clearly false assumptions, poor logical structure, observed contradictions in the real world, logical consequences that are untenable – it remains so.

This rigidity of dominant ideas, dominant concepts through which we see, was well articulated by Jane Jacobs[1].  She argued that the entrenched and false metaphorical concepts that underlie so much of what we assume are ‘rational’[2] processes, are only finally brought down when the real world provides the ultimate test – an irrefutable collapse.

When the consequences in the real world come slowly – over decades or even generations (think climate change, planetary resource limits, an economic theory based on false assumptions, as well as the destruction of the functional core of the public service, etc.) – then:

“it is seldom the evidence itself that is slow to appear; rather, observers are blind to evidence or emotionally can’t bear to credit it. This is why the crashing of the Berlin Wall was required as an exclamation point, after unheeded evidence of many decades reported that Marxism was untruthful as an economic theory.”

Jacobs argued that the salient mystery is when culture discard something that is vital , and replaces it with an amnesia. And then the slow decay begins, until some exclamation point or other is reached.

the-salient-mystery-of-dark-ages-sets-the-stage-for-mass-amnesia-people-living-in-vigorous-jane-jacobs-240062She thought that the situation is made worse by our change in focus within ‘education’ toward mechanical principles of measured standards, obedience, and dealing at the level of outputs rather than values.  She argued that, at least in the Anglo-American world, changes to our education systems are reducing our capacity to make change prior to an irrefutable – and potentially disastrous – wake-up call.  The mechanical technocrats have raised ‘credentialing’ (whether as ‘standards’ or degrees) above education’s purpose to further the capacity in our people to see, create, engage, dialogue and think.  They replace the culture of society with the machine.

Neo-liberalism presents itself as the champion of freedom and choice and the individual, but its modus operandi is highly centralising and controlling.  It is strikingly similar to some state interpretations of Marxist solutions in many ways: mechanical and impersonal in construct; hierarchical and authoritarian in practice; accumulative of power (though with different beneficiaries; states vs. corporates and the super rich); marginalising of alternative thought and dialogue especially where it involves critique of its inner workings; and relying upon ‘rational’ utilitarian ethics rather than concepts of socially-cohesive virtues or duties.

The question is, do we have to wait for the real-world ‘exclamation point’ to recognise the problem and change, or can we demonstrate an ability to think our way out?

Calls for reflection seldom come from within the group

Kennedy people need to be informed

The principle of being ‘free and frank without fear or favour’ is a fundamental tenet – a vital cultural norm – of both the media and the public sector – increasingly lost since 1984.

zealously committed to the era of neo-liberal reform, though we do have thought leaders who will question.  Back in February 2014, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer called for a royal commission of inquiry into how we could make the public sector better.  He was making the challenge because the public service is not in good shape.  He specified how it was failing, and he pointed the finger directly at that State Sector Act of 1988 as the cause of that failure.  He claimed that some of the reasons why things are not good in the public service world are due to the rise of managerialism and the cult of the all-powerful Chief Executives, the loss of expertise, and the appalling morale.  Then he outlined some possible issues and options that an inquiry might consider.


Sir Geoffrey’s highly logical thesis caused a ripple of concern for a nanosecond or two.  A few ex-public servants got a little excited for a while.  I was one of them.  And then the damp squib went out.

Which rather highlights Jacob’s thesis above.   The dying of the damp squib of concern and the restoration of amnesia makes doubtful whether we can make any necessary change without a potentially very nasty ‘exclamation point’.

We certainly cannot expect it from Treasury.

A personal journey

Back in the 1990s, less than a decade on from the State Sector Act that started all the destruction of the public service – and I mean ‘service’ – one of my policy colleagues was a respected ex-MP.  I gently chided him over office coffee of the powdered kind that perhaps the worst thing the 1984-1990 Labour government did was enact this State Sector Act.  I know, a big call given the destruction and corporatisation of old operational departments, but hear me out.

He would politely riposte with talk of ‘efficiency gains’, ‘accountability’ and ‘greater George-Orwell Newspeak.jpgeffectiveness’; all cliché-laden Orwellian Newspeak non-thought Big Bertha PR leaflet barrages that seem highly meaningful to those that just love the metre and rhythm of 10-second sound bites. I’m unconvinced he believed any of it, but loyalty runs deep.

All this jargon was part of the conceptual framework embraced by some of the zealots of a neo-liberal economic persuasion – corporatise, deregulate, ‘reform’ by redesigning every social space using the market transaction and machine metaphors (spaces that were not acknowledged as ‘social’ but rather a collection of individuals acting selfishly), and privatise.

Key to that agenda was to bring the same principles to bear on the public sector, to rebuilt it in the image of the corporation; ‘efficient’, focused on its bottom line, delivering of its outputs as defined by the chairperson (Minister) and directed through the Chief Executive Officer (who were once called Director-Generals, Secretaries, and in local government, Town Clerks).

Stan Rodger, the State Services Minister at the time, or at least his speechwriters, put it this way:

“There is scope for improving efficiency in the public sector. This will increase our ability to reduce the government deficit, lower taxes, and provide income support and social services for those least able to help themselves. In the case of trading operations inefficiency can represent a tax on their customers. The essence of the problem is that the public sector needs to be adapted to meet the management needs of a modern economy. The present environment can be frustrating not only for those who have to deal with public sector organisations but also for those who have to work in them.”[3]

So the public service was painted as unresponsive, old-fashioned, out of touch with the ‘modern economy’ and wasteful.  There was undoubtedly scope for some better performance, even though he chose not to define what ‘efficiency’ meant.

Some challenged his view by pointing out that we could ‘efficiently’ destroy an ecosystem with a bulldozer rather than a shovel, so any concept of ‘efficiency’ had to be qualified to have any meaning.  You can be ‘efficient’ of cost by centralising all functions into one city – Wellington – better still, one building.  That may be true on the spreadsheet, and is certainly easier to control ‘human resources’ and count beans and measure their obedience, but it doesn’t make it more ‘efficient’ in a ‘quality of real world policy making sense’, nor ‘effective’ in terms of delivery and outcome.  It is highly likely to make the whole thing worse.  Well …. so it has.

Others pointed out that you can take accountability to the bean-counting point where most people employed either collect beans or count them, and that beyond a certain point of monitoring, the whole charade turned into a wasteful, rigid, non-thinking nonsense.  The early 20th century French had perfected this government bureaucracy, and here was New Zealand doing the same, while claiming it was all going to turn out as wonderfully effective administration.

Yet others pointed out that much accountability was more about covering your own butt by putting the brain in neutral and blaming the model and obedience to the assigned task rather than having any care or commitment to actual outcomes.  Heaven forbid you encourage judgment and the can-do attitude to local context and change over time when the situation demanded it.  Far from being more thoughtful, responsive, knowing, wise and engaging with the public in the face of a complex world, the public service has become less of all of those capacities. Sir Geoffrey was right to raise his concerns.

John Ralston Saul lambasted what he referred to as this ‘Dictatorship of Reason’ in his book Voltaire’s Bastards.  His examples of top heavy, hierarchically and status-orientated administrative minds stifling those with the ability to think and judge within any real localised context, are more than persuasive.  They are also darkly amusing, as long as you don’t dwell on the horror and death perpetrated by puffball Colonel Blimps.

The ‘management needs of the modern economy’ suggested by Stan Rodger now ring like a line from 1984.  You cannot help but smile in recognition, and reach for the Bullshit Bingo formdilbert-bingo[1]; similar to when someone mentions ‘trickle down’.  Stan’s cliché de jour – now so hackneyed that only those with robot-like Don Brash artificial intelligence do not smile – demonstrates a faith.  Treasury and the State Services Commission – and Stan was then Minister of State Services – believed truly that a corporate-style dictatorship staffed by people who know less and less about any specific field – whether education, health, or innovation – would create better outcomes by focusing on quantitative outputs, performance measures, obedience and rigid annual project plans.

I know this, because Treasury and State Services came and told us so.  In the most bizarre of meetings, straight out of Monty Python or Yes, Minister, we sat in a room while being told that those of us with practical and professional expertise in a field, in my case relating to the management, strategy, economics, environment and sociology of rural land use – were likely “captured by the sector.”  I wrote it down.  I had apparently transmogrified into an alternative reality, with a new set of alternative facts.  These people with their Vogon logic are still there.

We were told by those people dripping in a quasi-religious faith worship of monumental proportions, that we were not “objective” in our policy advice, because we had had dirt under our fingernails.  We might even care.  Values have got in the way.  On the other hand, a commerce degree that specialised in not questioning its own assumptions and completely ignored society or anything other than selfish utility measured in dollars …. was completely different.  Especially economics degree recipients who had never worked anywhere in the real world where they might be “captured”; give us raw potential with an honours degree, ripe for Treasury Truthspeak and the imparting of more economic ‘objectivity’ as prescribed by a model replete in untenable value-laden assumptions (which had – apparently – no corrupting values at all).  You may shake your head, but this happened.

Who needs knowledge, judgment and personal purpose of service if you are a robot to hierarchical order and you are defined by job descriptions and project plans. People became as substitutable as cogs and widgets.  You were not a person, you are a ‘human resource’, substitutable of course.

Following neo-liberal ‘logic’, poor public service performance must be so because their faith presumes that not only is the public sector staffed by individuals who have neither ethos nor purpose outside their selfish selves, but it is a service existing outside the magic influence of the Lord Market.

public_service ethos.jpg

Some of the Principles and Ethos that attracted many to the public sector … except those in Treasury of course.  They are selfish, utility-maximising, asocial, all-knowing and rational automatons in dark suits.

Never mind the evidence that the performance of the public sector relative to the goals with which it was tasked suggested that it was good in practice, it just didn’t work in theory.  It must be bad, so it is.  Using this devastating logic, the proponents within Treasury made a relatively competent public sector worse, when if they had bothered to understand the complex role and purpose of the sector – as a vital cultural ‘asset’ (to use a word Treasury might understand) in a viable democracy – it could have been made better.  But if there is no such thing as a society, just a collection of individual ‘human resources’ acting dispassionately within the economic machinery some apparently call a life, then there is little hope of any recognition that there is such a thing as ‘vital culture’, let alone consideration of it.

Sir Geoffrey’s call for reform is highly valid, but any chance of reforms achieving a positive outcome is dependent upon refuting the ideas that underpin the reforms of 1988.  That means not listening to the neo-liberal ideas of Treasury.  That effectively means reducing Treasury to counting beans, which they appear relatively competent at doing.


Chris Perley


Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, and is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

[1] Jacobs, J. 2004. Dark Age Ahead. Random House, NY Chapter 4. Science Abandoned. p66

[2] By ‘rational’, Treasury prefers that there is little context involving shifting qualities or personal experience (staff with practical experience are ‘biased’, whereas those without real world context are apparently wise beyond compare) or, heaven forbid, morality beyond $-focused utilitarianism to sully the purity of the quantitative model.

[3] Accessed 5th June 2014

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Reimagining the Potential of Landscape I: Start with the Deeper Story

This is a paper in two parts, or perhaps three.  This first part looks to some of the mechanical assumptions within New Zealand’s colonial land management, and a glimpse at the potential by shifting that view.  There is so much potential within that shift for a better economy, and for a better place within which New Zealanders can belong and create.  The second part will be practical – examples of woodland synergies in gully systems and side faces.

I may include a third part on the loss of wisdom that comes from being a colony founded in the days when Modernity was all the rage – all ‘resources’, racial destiny, and land, animals (and inevitably humans) treated as machines, one consequences being that live vivisection is somehow a defensible act.  I have spoken about how we as European colonisers rejected most of the old traditions from whence we came; those traditions that connected us to land and where the wilful destruction and degradation of the commons by the powerful was never without serious challenge and disapproval. (They could not sustain their rationalised horror of live vivisection thank goodness.)

We in New Zealand embraced a dubious destiny and made a factory mirroring the monocultures within colonial minds.  Our country – however romanticised for its declining beauty – is a most ‘Modern’ mechanical Cartesian space where life and land is reduced in meaning to one thing or another, made more so because a colony is a Tabula Rasa – a blank slate – for the dominant voices of the exploration age, importing technocratic extremes uncontested by those dreamer romantics and the wiser indigenous philosophies of either European or Maori tribes.  

The extremes of partition, othering, allocation, monocultural specialisation of this or that where combinations are seen as sub-optimal and where ‘either’ and ‘or’ leave no space in minds for ‘and’.  So we have grass from fence to fence with all the woodland cut and the wetlands drained, because – in the mind of those who cannot see potential synergies – that is the way it must be for the sake of delusion of ‘efficiency’.  And so we lose what we can not imagine.  Oh how the Modern mind blinds itself; oh how these extremes of partitioned and segregated parts – all the murdering to dissect – are now not even seen as extreme, simply normal.  It is a very strange normal in which we live.

What we have done to our country wouldn’t – I would argue – have been permitted in a Europe that – as Bruno Latour famously wrote – has never been Modern, has never fully embraced the soullessness of reducing live and land to machine of cogs. It also would not have been permitted if our own Maori cosmology and philosophy had held sway over the minds of those who cared less for belonging to this new land and its communities than for the adventures of colonial opportunism.  The colonial mind is a distant mind.  It not only doesn’t seek to belong, it positively works against the very idea of one ‘object’ being part of the other.

It’s part of the reason why we should seriously question any romanticisation of colonisation.  In the past and in its current form perpetrated by those who think only of power and money ‘legally’ taking what belongs to others, it represents a dispossession not just of the ‘natives’ of a land, but also of the sense of belonging and moral perspective of the colonisers themselves.  Decolonising is not just an agenda for the dispossessed, but for those who did the dispossessing.  

How we look at land cannot be anything other than a personal journey, and I make no apology to my profession for that.  It is the professions that need to get off their delusions that they see the world through an objective lens.


This is a personal story.  I think all stories are that, including the ones we present in our ascendant academic annals of objectivity and rationality.  It is best to be up-front about TRUTH-300x225our stories of how we see the world – and why – and to expose in the light what lies deep beneath any position – examined or otherwise.

Those academic annals are filled with stories too, with deep-set personalities, their ways of seeing the world. The best examine those beliefs, because truth is I think good, though I can provide absolutely no objective proof to that effect.  Lots of rationale, yes.  Proof, no.  That is what we ought to strive for I think – in my completely subjective opinion – an understanding, a ken, a knowing.

I am increasingly of the opinion that we don’t get that within any belief in the mechanics of uniformity and reduction of the complexity of life to some simple mathematical algorithm. We throw out the baby, and rationalise those things that will ensure our evolutionary end, because we have placed hard technique Where-we_re-coming-from - what lies beneathabove the wisdom of intimacy and connection.

Those ways of seeing are always a part of everything we speak and write, including the ‘professions’, perhaps especially the professions!  I was taught at university to view agricultural land in one way, but it grated like a discordant note against my own lived-in experience, intimacy and love of land.  The rationality I was taught was no more objective than the rationalising of a prior belief by an implicit appeal to the authority of an idea – partitioned Cartesian Modernity in particular.  Most people simply ignore those hidden depths, and presume they are seeing the world clearly.  They then function through an unexamined life, seeing this way because that is how we were taught.

Building the Lens Through which we see the World

My story is about digging down into the roots of how we see our land.

I was lucky in a sense.  The first learning is the experience of childhood, where you build connection and belonging.  You do not like your favourite patch of bush and the very best Tadpoles in a jartadpole pond destroyed (rationally) in pursuit of something called progress.  What do those people know about the feeling you get when you come out covered in duckweed with an Agee jar filled with tadpoles, or when you lie still in a podocarp-hardwood forest?  Isn’t that feeling part of the search for truth as well?

I started the professional life with the study of the broad sciences and first principles underlying forest systems, essentially an ecological systems view, the geography of these places, their history, their multiple functionality and meanings.   I was taught that there was no ‘right’ way to manage a forest, no right goal; that depended on the context, and on people.  What were their goals and constraints, what were their frameworks and their particular conditions.  Go seek context before you act.  It included being taught those agronomic and technical mechanics of assessing the relevant parameters of a site, its establishment, forest health, growth and harvest; but the deeper frameworks enabling strategic thinking within a context were always strong.

My experience of further studies in agriculture was in stark contrast.  I had studied for my forestry honours the complexity and connections of arboreal shelter systems within farmscapes.  At Lincoln College those shelterbelts – so essential for the risk reduction and shelterBelts Canterburyfunction of the mixed farms of inland Canterbury – were pointed at by an agronomy professor while chanting an empty and highly ignorant cliché, “a waste of good land.”  I felt as though he looked at me with a withering eye.  It was downhill from there.

There was only one prime focus and that was agricultural production – usually through more inputs – without any sense of the rhythms of land, or the environment, or the doomed strategy of commodity production to “feed the world.”  There was no thought of qualitative and broad strategy, just measured and narrow technocracy.  The point that in order to function well both science and technology needs art and a moral view, was missing.

There was no base of thought in the ways that an ecosystem dances across time and place.  No history.  No multiple functionality of land.  No social connection.  No environmental connection.  A mechanical, narrow, short term, reductionist and highly technocratic approach to one of the most complex of things in the world – land and the communities embedded in them.  Reduce land to quantifiably regular, people to measured costs, and disregard anything hinting at a complex systems view of life; the contingent and conditional.  And never mind art.

Forget the dance of land, the music of land.  Emphasise the march, and the soulless maddening drone of a single note.  It was physics envy; a search for the Newtonian laws of agronomy, the ‘rational’ pursuit of a mad end.  It is not only some economists who suffer from physics envy.  It is not only Time lapse danceeconomists that would benefit from seeing the world as a constantly dynamic, adaptive and complex ecosystem rather than some Modern Cartesian dream of the machine.  I’ve been trying to climb off the damn thing ever since.  But the machines are everywhere, welcoming you to the cubical and the assigned marching order of what some call a life.

The irony was that while the agronomic minds were convinced of their rational pursuit of positive ends, they were advocating things that had negative consequences for people, the land and the farm enterprise that I thought were obvious.  They destroyed the opportunities they could not see.  In the field, I shut my notebook often at some nonsense and looked around, while most people blithely scribbled on.

Woodlands on Farms

I was particularly interested in how most agricultural academics looked at woodlands within farms, and taught how they should be seen.  In simple terms, any woodland, whether forests or reverting shrubland, was apparently bad because it was not part of the ‘effective’ farm area.  A reverting gorse gully is ‘a waste’, not some indicator of a potential alternative to some poor grass, erosion and stock aversion.  Wetlands were in a similar boat.  Forests at least could be ‘crops’, but only if you factored in the ‘opportunity cost’ of having the areas taken out of pasture.  Pasture and agricultural crop was the baseline reference point from which all other alternatives were assessed.  That is so different and so much more myopic that a base that looks at the economic, environmental and social functions of a landscape as the reference point.

What I learned appalled me.  Lots of numbers justifying the either-or view that putting say 15 percent of your land in trees meant you would lose 15 percent of production, and an even higher percentage of your profit.  That’s complete nonsense!  Apparently, if you plant trees – or establish a wetland – you lose because it isn’t pasture, and so you have to include an opportunity cost as a charge on top of that alternative, that isn’t even there in the real world.  They failed to see the costs because so many were hidden as indirect costs when they are in fact very directly associated with any particular site.

So never mind that the the two cattle beast you lose every year in the bog – because stock losses

Gully system Northern HB.png

Wetland, Northern Hawke’s Bay, where stock once went to die

are in the ‘overheads’ column undirected to that site, so doesn’t count in the Gross Margin analysis you use that includes the $500 one off cost of a fence! You see the on-off cost, but not the perpetual savings made.  Never mind that the areas put in trees by farm foresters are not the average of any farm – they are those areas where low production, high cost, land use problems and environmental sensitivity all combine, and where woodlands and trees provide shelter and other benefits.  A win-win, not a win-lose.

We can design a landscape of synergies by building a self-organised, low-input, low risk, and profitable agro-ecological system.  But first, you have to be able to see the picture smacking you in the head.

Report after report by the professionals within agriculture used an assumption of uniformity and complete disregard for landscape patterns that simply isn’t true.  You don’t get an either-or loss by putting woodlands in farm systems unless you are a complete idiot.  I knew it wasn’t true.  I had grown up with a father discussing the consequences to land and stock from over-enthusiastic land clearances, as well as the importance of stock health and therefore the environment within which they ate and sheltered from the storms and the sun.  I had been exposed to a few old and venerated farm foresters who had come back from the war and made a song out of some very hard land indeed …. with trees.

Yet all these agricultural farm-forestry reports going back into the 1970s coming out of the Department of Agriculture and the agricultural colleges that I collected all said the same thing – it can only be done at a cost.  The opportunity cost approach to trees and wetlands within landscapes.  All they saw was loss of opportunity and reduction in scale efficiencies of the ‘factory’.

Where was the reference point to healthy landscape function, to healthy land, to good land management?  I saw a similar unseeing delusion when researching and presenting on drought within farmscapes.  Many agricultural advisors simply saw drought as a function of lack of rain, resulting in less grass, so destock.  I did not start with that premise.  I wanted to get across that there are things other than destocking that we can do.  We can make the land healthier, more whole!  So we started by asking the farmers, “What is a drought?” because if your farmscape *function* is such that no rainfall soaks in and holds, no roots reach far below 100mm, no run-off is checked by wetlands from whence it can be redistributed, and the evapotranspiration is running at 4mm/day, then you can have a drought a day after a 25mm rainfall.

Stop trying to simplify the land to some asinine machine of measured grass growth and stock and perhaps you’d be able to imagine something organic and alive.

It was through looking through such reports that I realised that their presumed ‘objectivity’ and professional ‘rationality’ was entirely premised on a false view of land.  I know this may come across as an obsession of mine; but perhaps that is because it is so pervasive in our country.  I see it in policy making, in the rationalisation of approaches that are the opposite of strategic in many primary sectors.

Symptomatic is a focus on uniformity and quanta, treating land as a sausage machine where the presumed ‘efficiency’ of the scale of one thing trumps the potential synergies of many things; or where production is everything no matter the future, or the consequences both inside and outside a particular farmscape.

We see in the ‘industrial’ structure of the New Zealand dairy sector.  We see it in the renaming of these various primary sectors through which rivers flow, birds fly and children play as primary ‘industries’.  The land framed as industrial factory.  We see it in the quite incredible lack of concern within the ‘industrial’ minds of the ‘professionals’ when the precious elements upon which the capacities and function of the land depend – nutrients, organic matter and soil – are washed down the ‘drain’ most others see as functioning streams.  They may even – in their myopia – attempt to *justify* the need to pollute in pursuit of the gross production god, mining their future and present profit as they go.

We see it in the belief in predictability and controllability rather than managing for the built-in resilience to the inevitable surprises and shocks; for the qualitative capacities and integrity of land.  There is no need to ride the storm if there are no storms considered – let us assume there will be no surprises.  We measure the wrong things, assume too much, and disregard what really counts because of we cannot count it.

Gully forest Plantings GisborneThis approach to analysis represents a disconnect between economic, social and environmental futures by either choice or by resigned acceptance of a false philosophical view as truth; one that sees only a land of averages, without variation, or pattern, or connection.   Talk about the loss of opportunity because of the unexamined assumptions of narrow technocrats.  Talk about the inevitable reduction in resilience and the actual increase in uncertainty by building a system that presumes regularity.

You shake your head at the obviousness of it all.  It is like being told that the dog is harmless while it has its jaws around your arm.  That is when I went searching.  I discounted the bullshit figures to three significant figures.  I wanted to know why they had this so wrong; why couldn’t they see?  What are they thinking that results in the rationalisation of nonsense?  What is their life and education story that justifies the answer they want to hear?  Do they even bother to question the norms?  Did they actually bother and go out and ask a farm forester?

I went searching for the refutation.  I had received a wake up call – the professionals are not necessarily the wise.  I even studied philosophy with a focus on environmental philosophy, ethics, and the history and philosophy of science as part of the quest, not for land use alone, but because there were all these other faiths trying in all innocence to rip the heart out of the world through what they presumed were rational means and the best of intentions.

Thankfully, there are thinkers amongst all professions. They are the ones that are not afraid to stray from the mantra of “this is what we do.”  There were excellent agronomists researching farmscape patterns in Invermay, outside Dunedin.  Gordon Cossens had production variation figures between paddocks.  He insisted that the range of production was 100 percent plus/minus the mean, and said the same range of variation occurs within paddocks.  And farm foresters nodded their heads when I raised it.  You ask them why they plant trees and where, and it is in those particular areas that are a drain on the functioning of the *whole* farm; those areas that create problems.  They do not deal in averages.  They deal in particulars of place, and how those areas relate to a wider view of the farm.

Matching the Patterns

The secret to understanding why farm foresters do well from trees lies in the patterns as well as the combinations and alignment of those patterns.  This is the alternative to the Farmland near Wharton Fell overlooking Lammerside Castle, near Kirkby Stephen, in the Eden Valleyuniform industrial model of land.  Production and feed utilisation varies with site.  Costs do not spread evenly over the landscape; 80:20 principles hold often where most costs of this or that relate to a smaller proportion of the land.  Eighty percent of woody weed control may occur on 20 percent of areas – usually gullies where the stock do like to go.  We were neither taught to look for those patterns, nor to work within them, and so we worked against them.

Consider the patterns and irregularities of the following especially across the space of a farmscape, but also across time (think of the sine wave frequency of pure notes, and then think about combining them in harmony):

  • Gross pasture production;
  • Stock utilisation and preference;
  • Total cost including those costs conveniently termed ‘overheads’ rather than directed to particular sites (like labour, weed control, r&m, stock losses) where 80:20 patterns hold;
  • Returns on investment where any given investment may multiply the gain, or you lose it all for nothing other than a by losing soil, OM and nutrients to make both a polluted stream, a lower ‘natural capital’ value if you measured it, and a lower bank balance;
  • Potential for other farm benefits (shelter, fodder, retention of fertility, drought resilience, evapotranspiration reduction, stock health, soil holding, water regulation, ecosystem services, diversity of economic option, etc.);
  • Suitability for other land covers – woodland, wetland, herbaceous leys; and
  • Environmental sensitivity.

They all vary as patterns in the landscape; pure notes ……..

…….. and they all tend to align with the Sound wavelengthpotential to strike a chord or create a harmony; low production areas combine with high cost, low returns on investment, better suitability for woodland or wetland compared to pasture, and high environmental sensitivity.  These areas combining negatives represent both financial and functional black holes when kept in pasture.

In contrast, there are also alignments of high production and low cost in pasture – areas that make most of the money on any farm, give high return to investment, and are cheap to maintain without environmental risk.  Patterns and synergies; functions and dysfunctions; the potential to combine land health, water health, soil health, bank balance health, social health.

Economics and environmental benefits can align; do align. We just have to stop thinking in averages and maximums, and stop listening to the minds that promulgate such views. The narrow industrial machine view that seeks to make uniform and maximise the efficiency of one thing is death to a deeper knowing of land, and to the chance of creating a farmscape that provides the best of all worlds.

You would be far better to go and have a discussion with a farm forester instead.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, remains an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability, and is currently the Green Party Candidate for Tukituki.

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Elation and the Wharves of Home

What is it to belong? This came back to me last night in a conversation about the world and its future. We are taught to distance ourselves, as if that is some virtue. I no longer believe that any more. I no longer think that understanding, or making the right choice, the moral choice, the wise choice, comes from distance. First, we have to *be*. Be in ourselves. Be native to a place. Be long. I’ll listen to those that be.

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Part of my healing was to get to the end of that wharf. I’d come almost six hours, with a night a little to the north of middle.

I’d started with a feeling of elation that is hard to explain.  I’ll try.  It was the start of a roadtrip where every sense was honed – all that you touch, all that you see. North out of Napier, the sea at Tangoio by the Urupa rock was the most amazing milky aquamarine. The air was alive, warm, every breath an intake of spirit.  The wind in the northwest.  The lyrics of Pink Floyd brilliance on the stereo.

I believe so strongly in synchronicity.  And there I drove north, free, and – by the aquamarine and the rock where I once picked up stones from the beach on a day to remember – Eclipse played on …

All that you touch All…

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The Wisdom of Intimacy

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Originally posted on Chris Perley's Blog:
Edward Abbey – he of Desert Solitaire, one of the classics questioning the values of our modern world – wrote a short and scathing essay of a laboratory scientist intent on studying dog…

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Ruataniwha Dam will Transform the Region

Regional Councillor Debbie Hewitt is quite right that should the Ruataniwha Dam go ahead it will be “absolutely transformational” (quoted in Hawke’s Bay Today April 2017).  You need only look to Mid-West rural America, whose communities were also sold the same slogans and promises of nirvana for local business and community. Now they are disillusioned with it all, and vote for a hoped-for saviour in Donald Trump.

Midwest farm house decay

Somewhere in the Midwest of the United States

The consequences of large commodity programmes without consideration of ownership, community and environment can all be seen by looking at places like the Mid-West. The small towns wither, and the hamlets cease to be. The trend to outside corporate ownership certainly ‘transforms’. They take out profits and expenditure, and the local communities lose all the significant economic multipliers from having local ownership and high wages spending locally through many hands.

The health of a local economy is very much dependent on how much money circulates and distributes. When all you hear is a sucking sound as it is extracted to somewhere else, especially if the social and environmental costs remain, then you know you are being colonised.

It can be worse than merely having land aggregated and owned elsewhere. The Ruataniwha Dam will create commodities. Processing commodities depends on scale to cut costs, so expect more centralised processing out of the district. Yet more money lost to local circulation.


Site of the Ruataniwha Dam

The economic analysis of simple input:output models presumes that the money generated from the farm will cycle through the local community the same, whatever the structure of ownership and processing. It won’t. Colonisation, commodity supply chains, and big corporate models make us poorer, not richer – with the exceptions we all know.

Then there is the nature of employment. Agribusiness corporates focus on cutting costs rather than creating a premium price, and so they focus both on scaling up and substituting capital for labour. Less labour is employed, and increasingly sourced from cheaper migrants who send much of their money home, further compounding the loss of local money circulation.


Combine in field with rows of corn and soya bean plants, aerial view

That is the combined trend of ever-larger agribusiness; less begets less, begets less. Studies from the 1940s demonstrate that most important for the economy of a region is a strong mix of locally owned and creative enterprises – in direct contrast to the model of a few outside owned extractive corporates.

Local ownership is not just better economically because of money staying and circulating through the layers of a community. There are further benefits in civic pride, hope, creating yet more enterprise, and to the care of their place, including their environment. It helps build belonging, in contrast to some reduction of life to a meaningless resource unit.

You won’t hear about any of this from neoliberal economists, because they don’t think about or even believe in community. They think people and the environment are simply resources, all the better to put in a spreadsheet with a cost attached. Then it’s easy to exploit, because why care about a figure in a spreadsheet.

xerces_andrew polyculture.jpg

Andrew Holder (Xerces Society)

There is a much better way to do things than this extractive approach to commerce, community and place. We can focus on creativity, value and diversity. We can see the quality of our community and environmental as keys to that high value and diversity approach; trust, hope and community engagement are strongly linked to creative and dynamic economies and communities. We can recognise that local ownership and local secondary processing really matter. We should never endorse what is effectively a cheap resource (people included) colonial model. We’ve been there. We don’t want to go down that path again.

It is good economics to care about your community and your environment. It isn’t about trade-offs.

We will see none of this thinking within the bloodless computer models and spreadsheets of those who advocate for the dam because they conveniently assume that none of it matters. They do not know the history of the world, nor contemporary examples.

They do not even look to the real world models that have been staring them in the face for the last 40 years. Middle America is one model. You could as easily look to colonial models of South America. These models are real. They aren’t in a computer. They have real people in them, with real history. They have real rivers running through them and real children swimming. They have real land degradation, and ownership appropriation. And they have real people voting for Trump or some other personality cult, because they have lost all hope as they watch all that they produce and work for flow out of their counties to someone who lives far away. With names like Trump.

Should it go ahead, the Ruataniwha Dam will transform Central Hawkes Bay. But whoever wants this sort of soulless ‘transformation’ for the benefit of a few, it isn’t the rest of us.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley has a management, policy and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities at Otago University, remains an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability, and is the Green Party Candidate for Tukituki.

This article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today May 4th, 2017

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Who is Chris Perley?

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Hitchhiker’s Guide to Homo sapiens

Historical Footnote: Homo sapiens

Once, on the ex-planet Earth, there was a species Homo sapiens – who were ironically not very sapiens (wise) at all.  They became extinct after about 80,000 years in existence, which is pretty dumb.  Homo erectus by comparison lasted two million years (perhaps Homo sapiens eradicated them?).  Homo sapiens thought Homo erectus ‘primitive’.  Irony was not their strong suit.

evolution-go-back.jpgThe real demise for H. sapiens happened after some idiot savants thought the whole of existence could be conceptualised as an atomised machine around 1600 years after the birth of a man who actually tried to point out some truths in direct contradiction to ordering life by hierarchy and machine (which was then completely turned on its head by something called “the Church” …. see “Religious Cults – Earth”).  Irony again.  Irony is important for an understanding of H. sapiens.

The mechanical deterministic idea resulted in the worship of the narrowness of quantified technocracy, consequently narrowing thought, and creating hierarchies of knowing.  That new hierarchy treated white lab coats and dark suits as symbols of wisdom – sort of a new cleric and ermine robe thing.  It treated romance with disdain, and placing reflection, thought, community, as well as the emotion of experiencing nature, live music and poetry far below a new form of ‘life’ involving the occupation of hours obediently sitting in a cubical, looking through a light pulsing screen at numbers in columns and rows.Thoreau a fool's life

This mesmerising hypnotic state replaced all wider meaning, and people went home to watch reality TV, corporate advertising with lots of bright colours and yelling (nine-ninety-nine!!!! was a favourite), all in search of accumulating what they were conditioned to believe are ‘treasures’ and happiness, of a measurable kind.  Unmeasured happiness didn’t count (haha, little pun there … hahum … yes, well).

r-d-laing-quotes adjusment to an insane world.pngMadness was, of necessity, redefined.  Those who noticed too much under the new order, were ‘mad’.  Those who didn’t notice anything at all besides dollars that didn’t exist in any real sense, were ‘sane’.

Need I mention irony again?

This new order created the justification for new measures of superiority, and the right of might to use new technocratic power to colonise and eradicate others and the planet (aka “resources”), with even ethics reduced to calculation.  What the Wider Sentient Universe (WSU) knows to be vices became virtues.

The last stage was the worship of a new god, ‘Our Lord Market’.  The madness of reducing beauty and meaning of life within and beyond the material plane to those things that obediently stayed still long enough to be measured, was insane enough.  Not to be outdone, H. sapiens took a further quantum leap into absurdity by reducing all those selected quanta into an imaginary thing that didn’t even exist other than in the mind, called ‘dollars’.  More imaginary dollars meant more ‘worth’.

UntitledBy contrast, what was meant by, for instance ….. experiencing the soft fall of snowflakes on your cheek, holding and squeezing the warm hands of someone dear with which to share, wreathed in a smile, listening to the sound of a descending rainbow with a warbler accompaniment, beside an outdoor crackling log fire …. was …. precisely …. zero.

The consequence of this delusion involved giving prestige and policy making power to those personalities with the least reverence for life and others.  Warblers, snowflakes and rainbows kept moving, were annoyingly inconsistent, refused to behave in predictable ways, and were obviously ‘subjective’ – and therefore ‘bad’ because meaning shifted with observer.  Because such beauty could not be placed in a spreadsheet, it ceased to exist within the apparently superior technocratic H. sapiens (ha) mind.  I think that is called the irony of objectivity … it isn’t an object that a wise sapiens can demonstrate objectivity toward if said object doesn’t behave to sapiens subjective metaphysic.  Because their subjectivity of theory-laden observation involved metaphysics, and you can’t put metaphysics in a spreadsheet, it was only right for them to not even think about their subjectivity, because – according to their highest levels of technocratic thought – it cannot possibly exist.    This is a convoluted and roundabout way of saying, well, boo hoo to beauty then.

Failing to notice - Laing.jpgAnd so the consequences rolled one to another to another.  The consequence of that delusion of misplaced concreteness by only noticing numbers that stay still and behave was the inevitable destruction of planetary functions – which are not numbers but contingent verbs – necessary for human life (let alone meaning).  The consequences also weren’t too crash hot for anyone who happened to live with the apparently deluded belief that they lived in a community, and thought it remotely reasonable to look at rainbows in the arms of a lover lying beside a log fire.

 The consequence of wrecking planet and community was a form of wilful – and not very sapiens at all – mass suicide.  This is a trait common throughout the WSU in those communities who worship personality cults, especially when they wear a uniform involving either pure white or professional black.

Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Lord Whitehead, R D Laing, Prot from the planet K-Pax, children and other thinkers tried to point out the madness of it all.  But only the flower people were listening.  They went to live on the land and await the inevitable.

And so ended the story of the very short-lived species, Homo not so sapiens.

Hands in the air.jpg

Some of the more sapiens Homo sapiens asking for help

Chris Perley


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What is Progress and How do we get There?

I have Tom Wessels’ The Myth of Progress on a shelf.  Tom has produced some wonderful books on historically continuous change across our wider Wessels The myth of Progress.jpglandscapes.  He sees patterns in that place where people and landscapes meet.  He takes to task what we mean by Progress, and the need to change our thinking.  There are principles we need to think about; the impossibility of continued material growth; the dangers of increased energy consumption; the life-giving potential of self-organised systems (our bodies are one, a forest ecosystem another).  Tom argues that the over-simplification of our life through eyes that focus only on numbers and scale ‘efficiencies’, are pushing us away from life toward a dystopian machine that will inevitably eat itself.

He writes of the wood in which he played as a child, the place that gave the neighbourhood joy and belonging – like many of our own childhood experiences with woods and rivers and mountains I imagine.  The Tukituki, Te Mata Peak, Waimarama and Ocean Beach, Ball’s Clearing.


From Te Mata Peak to the Southwest, Hawke’s Bay

And then the bulldozers came to Tom’s wood – to bring ‘progress’.

I thought of Tom Wessels because I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. He brings out the same theme time and time again. Beautiful streetscapes and seascapes made ugly by developers and planners who think a certain way.
the-myth-of-progressBryson spurns the measures of wealth.  GDP tells us very little about quality of life, our opportunities, our hopes, our dreams, the capacities within our landscapes and communities we lose at future peril.  He points instead to the quality of things that those peering into spreadsheets will never see, and so will destroy without realising their own wilful ignorance. Those who cannot connect blindly destroy the things that make us belong.  Usually because they cannot measure them.
Bryson looking back on Britain: “It was in every way poorer than now.  Yet there were flowerbeds on roundabouts, libraries and post office in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it.  It was a country so comfortable and enlightened that hospitals maintained cricket pitches for their staff and mental patients lived in Victorian Palaces.  If we could afford it then, why not now?  Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets the poorer it thinks itself.” p87-88

There will be those who think this is a call to go back in some time warp.  It isn’t.  It is about re-embracing life-giving capacities.  As Tom Wessels is so good at demonstrating in this and his starling-murmuration-chloeother books, everything changes on the surface.  Stasis is a myth.  Building and trees fall and regenerate; in life, everything grows and dies and is replaced.  This is the inherent creativity of not just ecological but social life.  But what lies beneath is what is really important; the capacities that keep this dynamic wheel called life revolving.  If we do not re-embrace as the basis of governance those capacities that give life, then it isn’t governance, it is a clearance sale.

If you only measure the wheel, but have no concept of those Clearance Sale.pngqualitative capacities that drive it, then you will treat people and the land as resources to grind.  And when you have ground them down, with them will go those social and environmental capacities upon which we depend: love, foresight, creativity, hope, trust, community-centred morality, belonging; the landscape’s capacity to mitigate flood and drought, climatic extreme, the capacities of growth and renewal.

One of the most horrifying moments when working with spreadsheet analysis that discount the future is when you realise the absolute ‘rationality’ of pillaging life as fast as you can – the insane rationality of the spreadsheet worshipper where more-money-today is the aim.  It is logical to minimise the costs and maximise the returns – to go for scale, to cut the forest, clear the seas of fish, take the water, lose the soil, drain the wetland, pollute the stream – grab, take, extract, pillage, now.  The uncivilised colonial and corporate agenda.

It gives you serious pause when you come to that realisation.  Some technocrats realise it when they are young, some never do, some don’t care, some work for large corporations who absolutely do not care because they do not Black People Starving to Death Due to Breeding Choices.jpgbelong to a place.

But if you do care and belong to a people and a place, you cannot accept the rationalisation of that form of insanity.  You go searching for moral meaning.  Morality matters.  You end up finding humanity and systems thinking as the rudder for decisions, not simplified numbers.  You lose respect for what some refer to as the ‘thinking’ of large organisations filled with disconnecting machines and polished shoes, who blame the victims for what the shoes have done.

What Wessels and Bryson highlight are that the current values of government and large business have to change to something a whole lot wiser.

I think we need to reverse the rise of those who measure their own deluded concepts of ‘efficiency’ (usually some version of rigid box-ticking obedient ‘accountable’ hierarchy where bigger is better) and who cherish disconnection so they can live within a theory far from pulsing life (they call it ‘objectivity’, which makes me want to laugh out loud).  We need to go back to the people; those who feel and belong and see beyond the spreadsheets to those qualities that give life meaning.  Ask yourself who is more the ‘expert’ of any particular place out of those two types; who is more likely to be wise; who more strategic; who more visionary?

But beyond the choice of people to whom we listen, we require a shift in *purpose* to something life-affirming and cultural – to something that cherishes the capacities and potential of our land and communities.  That requires a rejection of the short term maximisation of money flows irrespective of what is destroyed to achieve that end.

What we ought to do is treat people and land as the ends to sustain, and money as a means to that end rather than in any way an end in itself.

We have done the opposite over recent decades; we have put the counting of money on a pedestal and the consequent ground down people and land at its feet.  And so we have accelerated the cutting down of Tom Wessel’s woods, and Bryson’s village ideal.

For all the measured dollars, this isn’t progress.  It destroys the bedrock in order to build ugly castles of soon to be decaying and wind-blown straw.

Chris Perley


We abuse the land 2 Leopold.jpg

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