Back in the 1980s when fellow permaculture enthusiasts were beginning to try their hand at design consultancy, I would mention some of the substantial impediments with the analogy of imagining how architects would work if there was nobody skilled in all the different building trades. They would have to be owner builders. And so it was with permaculture design, for which there were no tradies to even guide the prospective permaculture designer on available techniques, let alone give an estimate of the cost to implement different aspects of their designs. Building relationships with existing and prospective contractors was all part of the process of pioneering permaculture design. In the case of earthmoving and fencing, existing rural contractors became default reference points. In many regions there were no contractors for rural scale water harvesting, soil preparation or tree planting.
Most of my consultancy in the 80s and 90s was for DIY new landholders but in the late 1980s Darren Doherty put together a team under his then business banner Australia Felix (now Regrarians) that included farm mapping, design, tree nursery production and tree planting, servicing clients with larger projects (and budgets). Like me, Darren had settled on working with Castlemaine based family earthmoving business Jennings for most of his projects. I first met Dave Griffiths in the early 1990s as part of that team, but after very fast-moving development, and perhaps overreach, Australia Felix split into different but complementary enterprises. Dave focused on ground preparation and tree planting with his business Geometree, which included a few of my own clients who wanted an expert on the job.
More recently, Dan Palmer worked with both Jennings and Griffiths on several of his consultancy projects including Mayberry in Woodend and John Carruthers’ Limestone Road Farm at the junction of Midland Highway and Limestone Rd, Guilford. During an Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design course visit to Mayberry in 2017, the students were able to meet Dave who was responsible for the ground prep and most of tree planting at Mayberry.
Dan and I acknowledged Dave as one of the people who had pioneered low-cost, keyline and permaculture-designed broadacre tree planting in our bioregion. He mostly did this directly for landholders as a sole operator, much of it outside of publicly funded Landcare activity over the last 30 years. Apart from the development of ground preparation techniques, Dave pioneered late, even midsummer planning of tree stock, supported by one or two deep waterings, a process totally contrary to the older and still common technique of planting trees in autumn.
Perhaps as a result of being a cranky individualist ecological pioneer, it didn’t seem that Dave ever had an apprentice to pass on his great knowledge of soils, landscape and trees but over the years I’m sure lots of clients and friends would have learnt so much from Dave and his plantings. These plantings are some of the best examples of tree planting in harmony with the landscape for future generation to learn from. Check out this video by Peter Watts featuring the Living Design Process by Dan Palmer and John Carruthers, earthworks by Graeme Jennings and ground prep and tree planting by Dave Griffiths. And if you are local to Dave Griffiths’ stomping ground, check out the growth at the corner of Limestone Rd on your right as you travel down the Midland Highway south from Guilford.
After writing the text above, I dropped in on the Muckleford Landcare Group annual general meeting which gave me another important part of the Dave Griffiths story. The meeting was held in the shade of a giant red gum tree at the Muckleford Train station. I sat on the grass along with fellow Central Victorian permaculture teachers Beck Lowe and Ian Lillington behind the circle of members as they completed the formalities of the AGM that included leaving Dave’s name on the position of vice president in recognition that was no one who could fill his shoes. The stories that followed showed a man very focused on nurturing the land and people of his very local community, more than my picture of the lone tree planting contractor driving his tractor to paid jobs right across Central Victoria. The opportunity to contribute a few handfuls of dirt to planting a pristine specimen Red Box was followed with shared food and drink. It was gratifying to have confirmation that among the diversity of local eucalypt species Dave and I both saw Red Box as particularly special.
Through Dave’s mentorship over many decades, new landholders in that community received advice on house, driveway and dam siting, water harvesting and, of course, tree species, ground preparation and establishment techniques. Integrated in all the pragmatic advice he passed on was his love of the land, its flora and fauna and history.
I got the impression that from doing contract jobs further afield during the week, Dave was both expert advisor and helping hand, with all the necessary equipment for the whole community. I can only imagine how Dave managed the complex dance between the monetary and non-monetary reward for his contributions in the local community but the expressions of grief and gratitude I witnessed showed that it was something that worked for everyone.
The Landcare event confirmed my impression of a widely read and strongly opinionated unique individual who had personally put over a million trees in the ground. Perhaps the most carbon positive person, in our part of the planet at least. But he was also locally respected for his contribution in connecting new settlers to Country and community; all of it with no labels, qualification or authority, beyond “vice president” of a modest local group.
The processes by which permaculture concepts and practices have spread locally, nationally and internationally is a constant theme in questions I field. In my answers and writings I have acknowledged the role of courses, most notably the Permaculture Design Course in its myriad forms, consultancy, local groups, demonstration sites, books, magazines and other media, but I have always pointed to how permaculture has also worked as a positive agent of influence through diverse frameworks and networks. Beyond those kindred networks, there are also individual thinker-practitioners who have sorted the “grain from the chaff” to see what works for them without ever adopting any label or brand. Unfortunately, it is rare for such individuals to have great influence or even recognition for their very important contribution to grounded ideas in everyday practice. Dave Griffiths was one of those rare individuals who has left a positive and abundant legacy in our local landscapes and communities.