Rosemary Morrow

Rosemary Morrow, a Good Way to Live

Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, in a family of four children among other big families, was a time of great freedom for Rowe, who remembers that ‘we were away from early morning till late and no-one needed to know where we were….there was safety in numbers and we looked after each other’. The children’s playground was the Australian bush behind their home garden, and the Swan River. Until the family left Perth for Sydney when Rowe was about 11 she was always either ‘outside or in a book’.

As she grew to adulthood Rowe’s time was spent ‘informally learning around the edges of the earth’, a mix of the practical (having run away from home to cattle stations in the Kimberleys and Northern Territory which she loved), and later the academic when she went back to school and then to Sydney University with a Commonwealth scholarship to study agricultural science.

A stint of working for the Department of Primary Industries in south-east Queensland was frustrating. What exactly was their policy? Was she there to keep small farming viable and productive, or to shift the farmers out? She loved the small mixed farms and farmers with a few hundred acres living traditional lives; the diversity of fruit trees and crops, dogs, the pet lamb, the vegie garden and sheds, all destined to disappear through being swallowed up by large companies, city suburbs or coastal development. Much later, after studying the pattern of small farms in France and Viet Nam, Rowe came to understand that every country needs a hinterland patterned with mixed small farms around its cities, for their food, and their pride in their produce and culture. And this pattern is more urgent now.

Time was spent on scholarships at the Sorbonne in Paris studying rural sociology, and at Reading UK studying development. From here Rowe was invited by Michael Young of the Open University to work in Africa.

When she went to work in Lesotho her inability to use her agriculture training from Sydney University was a huge shock; she had never grown seedlings or vegetables nor had any answers for dealing with erosion and hunger. ‘I was agriculturally useless and lost in a country where malnutrition was dominant. Instead, I worked in non-formal education which I loved, on a project which taught herd boys how to read and write through games printed on their traditional scarves. In the evenings they brought a candle to a rondavel where we gathered for school. When the boys later went to the mines in South Africa they could read their payslips and contracts.’ This literacy project was picked up and offered by a South African newspaper until it was banned.

In Lesotho Rowe was politicised by apartheid and chose to live in the Basotho part of town away from the expatriate quarter of development agencies where people lived in big houses with high fences and dogs. She joined in the marches against apartheid and in the singing and dancing at nights. She was now making links between food and water security, poverty and development.

Nearly a decade after leaving Australia she returned to study horticulture at TAFE learning ideas about landscape design as well as how to grow seedlings and plant trees. Appalled by the destruction of the Australian bush which she loved passionately Rowe picked up environmental studies. ‘But it was permaculture which linked it all together for me. It was the integrating applied science which fitted like a glove. I love the design aspects based on the fit of the land. Especially the restoration aspects appealed to me because of some deep and apparently inborn repugnance for destruction of ecosystems.’

In permaculture humans create consciously designed landscapes which mimic nature in that they have the stability and resilience (sustainability) of natural ecosystems in regard to their productivity of food and energy, their diversity of plants and animals, and the absence of waste products. On the other hand modern agriculture, seeking short term results, destroys diversity and the natural cycle of regeneration, produces waste, and leads eventually to degradation of the land for further productivity; it is unsustainable.

When Rowe was introduced to permaculture through a course in Sydney there wasn’t a lot that was new, because agriculture, horticulture and environmental studies had supplied much natural science for her. However the interconnection of all the disciplines and the interactive approach enchanted her, while she found the introduction of ethics intriguing. ‘None of my other studies had ever mentioned the word.’

Having become a Quaker in 1978 Rowe realised that there was a correspondence between Quakerism and permaculture. They had in common: care for people, simplicity, community, ethical use of money and right livelihood. They both render infinite positive outcomes when practiced.

Initially she wasn’t sure permaculture would work. She bought a small house not far from Sydney and built her first garden – by design. And it worked. Later she moved to a couple of acres on the edge of Katoomba and there satisfied herself that permaculture does indeed work. During this time she was offered work in Viet Nam and Cambodia to teach their first permaculture design courses, and, when in Australia, taught locally. She sees her future always as ‘a leaf that just goes with the wind’, blown to wherever the land is abused, the people are very poor, and the demand is for the knowledge and uses of permaculture.

At the time of this interview in 2009 she was planning to be in Malawi, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia after returning from East Timor where she had taught permaculture to the teachers of the East Timor Coffee Academy. ‘They were hungry for information.’

Rowe’s motivation to work on permaculture comes from her deep grief over the degradation of the earth from unwise practices and her concern for people struggling with hunger and poverty in difficult, often post-conflict, situations, as also for the loss of species and the waste of human potential. Her Quaker belief in seeing ‘that of God in everyone’ takes a step further with her statement that ‘if you don’t live as if there is that of God...., if people are dispensable or simply an object, then the repercussions are often very terrible. I am not unhappy but I carry a vast and terrible grief for the destruction of this beautiful opportunity we had to make paradise here, and for the inability of humans to find their niche, to see the future and change behaviours and attitudes.’

She does not believe that humanity can stop the irrevocable climate change which, when past its tipping point, will simply spiral down, but envisages the possibility that there will be pockets of people who survive because they have developed the necessary social, spiritual and physical skills, people like the Whanganui Quaker Settlers, with whom she lived for a time while teaching permaculture to Quakers. Rowe sees what she teaches as risk management for a very uncertain future and also a good way to live.