Rowe Morrow, New South Wales Regional Meeting
When the winds brought the sands
Broken Hill was a young town seeing itself on the brink of a great future as a mining town and weighty regional centre. Silver, lead and zinc had been discovered and Broken Hill Proprietary was well established and, building its now notable hill of mullock.
People came from many countries. The town was active and optimistic.
Farmers had taken up land. They brought their horses and tethered them around the town on the land set aside as a Common. So did the Afghan camel men. They tied their camels when they brought goods or bought them to deliver to outback areas. Some farmers grazed their sheep on the Common. It was the Age of the Rabbit. Rabbits invaded, made burrows and ate every emerging piece of green as they thrived and multiplied.
The mining companies and individual miners all cut the mulga trees and other locally adapted species for mine props. The residents walked out and chopped the vegetation for fire for warmth in winter and cooking.
It did not take long. Within a few years the entire Common was dust. It extended kilometres from the town. And the loosened sand and dust started to move. It was blown in with the harsh desert winds. It carried a huge load.
And growing up in that town was a small boy who would prove to be its saviour.
Bertie Morris and his dad shovelled the sand that came with the cutting winds, from the path to their front door. Then he helped his dad build a fence to hold back the sand. The sand continued to mount up. All residents in their streets were at their gates, were drawn into the battle against the desertification.
One older resident told me that when the winds came carrying dust and sand his mother would wet sheets, cover her children and sit them on stools in the coolest most protected part of their backyard so they could breathe and stay cool until the wind subsided.
Quaker botanists, observation and conviction
Bertie Morris loved growing plants as a child and he also loved to wander in the dry lands around Broken Hill with its unique and lovely vegetation. He grew up and became an engineer. In South Australia he met and married Margaret Sayce, a Quaker, who lived on a farm and nursery. They returned to Broken Hill where Bertie was employed by BHP. Bertie became a Quaker. They maintained contact with the Sayce family and the famous Quaker botanical family, the Ashby’s.
Bertie and Margaret became convinced that the original vegetation would come back if protected from the animals and from further cutting. Bertie started in his backyard, grew plants and watched what happened when regeneration was protected.
His conviction was fixed and immovable. The desertification was reversible. He started talking to the people of Broken Hill. He said the animals must go and that the cutting must stop and that the whole area must be fenced with a rabbit proof fence.
Opposition and lack of support
Many people, and some with vested interests, opposed him. He was ridiculed. People protested that their needs for fuel were met by the Common which they couldn’t see fenced off. No one believed that something as simple as fencing and leaving to “nature” could hold back the winds and sands and dust. Other said it was “natural”. Bertie and Margaret remained fixed in their conviction. They requested that the project be given a chance, starting started in a small section to the north-west where the winds came from. This was fenced off. Some people cut the fence, but were soon outnumbered by supporters.
In a dry climate of less than 300 mm rainfall per year it takes time to prove and establish the original vegetation will return. Bertie and Margaret needed to convince the city fathers that the investment of money for what would be more than 80 miles of fencing, would be worthwhile.
Finally support and work begins
However it was the Zinc Mining Company that believed them and paid for the project. Later the NSW government was asked for funds to extend the work. It was successful. It was in 1936 that Albert Morris established the Regeneration Area. It was successful. Once the rains came, regeneration of local native plants came up in each fenced area that ultimately stretched for miles around the town.
Today this is known as “The Regen” by the local people, many of whom do not know its history – simply that the town cannot expand because The Regen keeps it safe from desertification.
Bertie and Margaret also obtained seed from similar climatic areas in South Australia and Western Australia and planted a forest of these trees which exists to this day. However many of these trees don’t propagate themselves. The garden-forest of Broken Hill today has its gates named at the Bertie Morris gates and there is a plaque. A memorial fountain is in the main street.
Fifty year celebration of first known bush regeneration
So in 2017, as part of its celebration of the 80th anniversary of the completion of the first regeneration area, The Australian Association of Bush Regenerators (AABR) invited all bush regenerators to come to Broken Hill and celebrate with the locals. Jasmine Payget and I, as Quakers and bush regenerators, joined the contingent from the Blue Mountains. Other regenerators came from South Australia, mid north Queensland and Victoria. In all, including locals, we were about 80 people. We volunteered to work on four sites – two creeks to remove invasive weed species, and other projects including a plant survey and soil crust transplanting.
The local Broken Hill newspaper, The Daily Barrier Trust, wrote up our visit and their history. Every day there was a feature story. One headline was Albert Morris, Saviour of a city. The town welcomed us with a cocktail party on the first evening. There was also a celebratory dinner. It was at this dinner that Albert Morris was heralded for his vision and determination and the inaugural Albert Morris Ecology Award was presented.
Why assisted regeneration was so innovative and important
So, why is this story important? The Morrises believed and declared that left alone the natural vegetation would restore itself. Until then people had grown and planted trees with consequent huge losses. During the depression years in the USA dustbowl created from tree removal, similar work was going on. It seems likely that this was convergent evolution with visionaries in both nations arriving at the same solution. Perhaps some people corresponded with others over the sea but there is no evidence of this. The Australian work was earlier.
The importance of the work of Albert and Margaret Morris cannot be underestimated. Among the ideas they generated were:
- Cities need “green belts”
- Local vegetation is most suited in regeneration
- Nature will regenerate areas if given some assistance from humans. This regeneration, called Assisted Regeneration, is now in bush regeneration textbooks and taught in TAFEs and Universities.
Their experiments were later implicit in the work of the Bradley Sisters who began what we know as “Bush Regeneration”, an approach that is now used widely.
Assisted regeneration in Broken Hill called for:
- Removal of animals, which were the problem
- Carefully placed fences
- Allowing natural regeneration of local plants well adapted to the hot, dry conditions
- Growing local species
- Maintaining the sanctity of the area
This may have been the first larger scale restoration project in the world. Bertie and Margaret Morris started before the 1937 work at Curtis Prairie in the USA. Bertie was a visionary who saw the problem and the solution. He also worked very successfully with the Zinc Corporation.
As he died in 1939, Bertie Morris did not live to see the greening of Broken Hill in the regeneration areas. Margaret survived him and worked on, dedicated to the restoration until she moved to Sydney to live with her sister where she attended the Devonshire St Meeting House until her death.
The week in Broken Hill was a celebration of a ”concern” carried on often against popular opinion and deniers. However Bertie and Margaret Morris remained clear in their purposes and conviction although lacking solid evidence that it would work.
As a bush regenerator and permaculturist working in arid and degraded and degrading areas in Ethiopia, northern Iraq and Afghanistan I am convinced that, if tried, the Morris’s methods of assisted regeneration would be enormously successful in all these countries. It is immensely superior to planting trees and the work input and failure that goes with this.
If the Morris’ work continues to be taken up with the restoration that it promises, especially under the threats of global warming, then it may be that Bertie and Margaret Morris are Australia’s greatest visionary Quakers in a long line of botanists who started with Backhouse and Walker’s arrival and study of Australian plants.