Ten Thousand Acres: A Love Story

Christopher Bantick
The Weekend Australian
March 25, 2006

SOMETIMES a book appears that changes the heart. Patrice Newell's Ten Thousand Acres is such a one. On first appearances, the evocative photographs by Simon Griffiths and Travis Peake may lead the casual browser to allocate the book coffee-table status. To do so would be doing it a disservice: Ten Thousand Acres expounds a gentle if insistent argument for environmental change.

For the past two decades, Newell has devoted herself to managing Elmswood, near Gundy in NSW's upper Hunter. The property, which has been the subject of two earlier nonfiction books, The Olive Grove and The River, is a certified biodynamic farm that produces beef, olive oil and honey. It is also the focus of this love story.

As with many relationships that develop into intimacy, Newell confesses that her first touch of soil, wind and leaf of Elmswood was "wondering, awed and tentative". Since then she has simply and completely fallen in love with this acreage, and is now "deep rooted" and convinced. She has also become an advocate for change in Australian farming practices and hers is a clear and compelling voice amid a long line of similar lovers of the soil.

Back in 1853, Josiah Mitchell, who settled in Victoria from Whitehaven in Cumberland, was noting that colonial farmers could not depend on "traditional history handed down through generations".

Newell presents a similar argument. In her nursing of Elmswood back to biodiversity and seasonal health, Newell propounds the entirely plausible argument that new thinking of how land is managed and more critically understood is essential for the future of Australian agriculture and for the land.

Of the land, she writes: "We are its children. And every portion of our farm and every tiny piece of it is part of the whole. To be a good farmer, you must keep the land alive." As much as she is unambiguous in her measured assessment of the ills of many broad-acre farming practices, Newell never adopts a strident or hectoring tone.

With due recognition of Australia's ancient topographical and geographical past, and the indigenous empathy with its rhythms, she notes that "learning this land needs time".

Her love song for Elmswood brings to mind Ronald Blyth's Akenfield and Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie. In those books, villages smaller than the 4000ha of Elmswood were explored in extensive detail.

Newell's exploration is as embracing, yet her macro-vision of the land's needs form only part of her ruminations. The book is also a cache of memories and hopes, and in this it becomes deeply personal. Pressed flowers, grasses, botanical descriptions and family snaps distinguish particular memories and moments of discovery. They become talismans, almost charms of years winnowed out in soil, hives and furrow.

While she also exposes the harsh realities of farming, not least her disarmingly frank observation that "over the years we've had plagues of mice verging on the biblical", the strongest message is that loving the land, listening to it and responding to its micro changes will be returned in fruitfulness and favour.

Newell's patience and repudiation of damaging mass production techniques is revealed simply when she observes that her biodynamic wheat "still holds the sunshine" and that turning the Elmswood soil is like "slicing a chocolate cake". As James McAuley noted in the poem In the Huon Valley: "Something is gathered in/Worth the lifting and stacking." Newell has given readers a welcome autumn harvest.