You Don't Have to Be Perfect

Australian Kate Rowe is one of my favorite singer-songwriters.  One of her songs has been stuck on replay in my brain for days, and I finally realised it was because I needed to write about it.  It’s called “The First Run Through” and it starts:

They say life is not a dress rehearsal
It makes my blood run cold.
Cause when was the dress rehearsal
And why wasn’t I told?
This cannot be the final show
It’s too messy to be true.
Surely this must be the first run through

The verse that keeps going through my head, though, is this one:

There is no cure for foolishness
There is no cure for new
Everybody stumbles in the first run through
Moments of sheer beauty happen
When you let them in
You don’t have to be perfect,
You just have to begin.

Kate’s song captures the essence of life, love, farming and just about any truly creative endeavour I can think of, including all the textile arts.  It’s about having the courage to try, and the willingness to risk that stumble, for the sake of those amazing moments of beauty.  It IS messy, and trying to control the process is not only futile, it’s counter-productive. 

Long grass in the newly-planted Wild Orchid Copse (this is where the shy little greenhood orchid grows)
Long grass in the newly-planted Wild Orchid Copse (this is where the shy little greenhood orchid grows)

Now one of the things I have had to learn, painfully, about myself is that I purely HATE being wrong.  Knowing where that comes from in my childhood doesn’t stop that “blood runs cold” feeling when I’m about to have to admit—even just to myself, that I screwed up.  So, I tend to be heavily in favour of guarantees, or failing those, formulas, or at the very worst, routine.  Sadly, none of these things will be true or helpful in trying to “manage” landscape and livestock in a genuinely sustainable way. 

So one of my many journeys in this amazing process is to learn to accept that more often than not, I WILL be wrong—a necessary by-product of working within and with a complex system.  Bother.

My latest conundrum is integrating “rotational” or “planned” grazing into my overall strategy of providing nutritional choice and maintaining a low stress level for the animals (and ultimately for me!).  After working carefully through what I thought was a reasonable formula, I suddenly realised that I had NO IDEA how to do this.  I didn’t even understand the principles behind the practice that is widely used.  Everybody I talked to had a different take, and none of them were particularly satisfying.

Sheep going into Eagle Tree paddock, with rank cocksfoot grass in the background

Sheep going into Eagle Tree paddock, with rank cocksfoot grass in the background

Finally, I went back to the source—wildlife ecologist and landscape guru Allan Savory, who designed a system to help practitioners do what he calls “Holistic Management”.   His book has been sitting on my shelf, mostly unread, for 8 years.   And blast if the first thing he wanted me to do was to frame a “holistic goal”, arguing that you can’t manage something unless you know what really matters to you.  I couldn’t argue, so I did that exercise, and a telling one it was, too.

Reading on, I started to get Savory’s grazing principles, which are fairly simple to state, and devilishly hard to implement well.  The point in the landscape where farmers can intervene (for better or worse) with ecosystem function is the characteristic of the soil surface.  Bare soil creates all sorts of inefficiencies in water, mineral and energy cycling, but so does soil that is covered with intact dead plant material or very dense grass cover (as opposed to deep leaf litter which is good in every way).  I have lots and lots of dense grass cover.

Janie shows just how long that grass really is

Janie shows just how long that grass really is

Savory argues that the only way to get the soil surface into the right condition is to use livestock—both to eat the vegetation, but as importantly, to stomp it down.  His model for this is the way huge herds of wild herbivores will bunch together when threatened by predators, creating what he calls “herd effect” on the soil with their hooves.  Without herd effect, Savory is convinced that the soil surface condition will never be optimal for cycling water, nutrients and energy.

While I can accept his logic, I have long resisted the herd-effect practice, because it seems to oppose one of my cherished principles, which is to maintain as low a level of stress as I can for my livestock.  Chasing them around in circles with dogs just doesn’t work for me.

Happily, Fred Provenza and his French colleagues--professional herders and agricultural scientists--have come up with a fascinating alternative approach that respects all of the principles that we know (at least at this stage) are critical, without compromising any.  The professional herders move their flocks of milk sheep and goats through rough mountain rangelands, taking them on carefully constructed “grazing circuits” every day during summer.

You’ll hear a lot more from me about this as I learn more, but suffice it to say that they are getting herd effect by gently moving the animals as a group through a sequence of “meals” in the landscape that suit their needs and nutritional desires.  So there is no chasing around in circles, only a respectful relationship and understanding between the herder, his working dogs, the sheep and the landscape.

Chicory, a favourite herb for sheep (flowered plants) on ungrazed side of the fence

Chicory, a favourite herb for sheep (flowered plants) on ungrazed side of the fence

After 12 hours grazing--no chicory visible just on the other side of the fence
After 12 hours grazing--no chicory visible just on the other side of the fence

I can be with this.  I don’t yet know exactly how to do it, but…

“You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to begin.”

p.s. Kate Rowe kindly gave me permission to quote from "The First Run Through".  Give yourself a treat and check out her website--it's even better with the music!  Kate's website

p.p.s Allan Savory's book Holistic Management is available from Island Press  and the shepherding book will be available soon from Acres USA

First day of school: the pet lambs and Sabrina heading into The Forest--the revegetation area that adjoins the little paddock they've lived in till now. They have about 30 2-year old ewes keeping them company. I don't know if the kids'll be home for the bottles this evening or if they'll follow the older sheep to the far end of the forest. Sniff.
First day of school: the pet lambs and Sabrina heading into The Forest--the revegetation area that adjoins the little paddock they've lived in till now. They have about 30 2-year old ewes keeping them company. I don't know if the kids'll be home for the bottles this evening or if they'll follow the older sheep to the far end of the forest. Sniff.