Keyline and Fertile Futures


Written 10 Oct. 2006. Last Updated April 2014.


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This paper has been adapted from a biography of Dr Neville Yeomans.






This paper discusses Australian Dr Neville Yeomans life experiences that guided and informed his evolving of the Fraser House therapeutic community psychiatric unit in 1959 in North Ryde, Sydney, NSW and his later outreach. Dr Yeomans (1928-2000) was a psychiatrist, psychologist, sociologist, Biologist, Barrister. The precursors of Yeomans’ way of thinking, processing and acting are traced firstly to the pioneering work of Neville’s father Percival A. Yeomans (supported by his three sons), who was described by the world famous English agriculturalist Lady Balfour in the 1970’s as the person making the greatest contribution to sustainable agriculture in the past 200 years (Mulligan and Hill 2001, p. 194). The chapter details the influence on Nevilles father’s evolving of Keyline, a set of processes and practices for harvesting water, generating new vibrant topsoil and creating sustainable agriculture. It also traces the influences on Neville Yeomans and his father of their relating with Australian Aboriginal and Islander people. As well Neville’s East Asia influences are discussed.




Neville’s traumatic incidents discussed in Chapter One also had a profound, though different impact on his father P.A. Yeomans, (Mulligan and Hill 2001, p. 193). As mentioned in Chapter One, three-year-old Neville became lost in West Queensland desert country and was found by an Aboriginal tracker. At the time when Neville was lost Neville’s father was a mine assayer and a keen observer of landscapes and landforms. Neville’s father was deeply impressed by the Aboriginal tracker’s profound knowledge of the minutiae of his local land; in that harsh dry rocky climate with compacted soils, the tracker had such an intimacy with the landscape that he was not relying on following footprints. For example, he would notice minute traces left as evidence of the movements of a little boy that would not be made by other creatures or natural phenomena – such as the way soil grains were on a dead leaf contrary to the prevailing breeze.


The other thing was that upon finding little Neville, the tracker was so intimately connected to the local land and its form, he knew exactly where to go to find water. It was not that this tracker knew where a creek or a water hole was, as there was no surface water.


The tracker knew how to find water whenever he wanted it, and wherever he was in his homeland. He and his people ‘be long’ there (40,000 plus years). They were an integral part of the land. They were never apart from it. The tracker was ‘of the land’. He and his community saw the Earth as a loving Mother that provided well for them continually.[1] As soon as the tracker found Neville, he had to find the right kind of spot for a short easy dig. Because of Neville’s dehydration, the tracker needed water for Neville fast. He used his knowledge of his place and quickly had Neville sipping water. Mulligan and Hill report about the incident where Neville was lost:


According to Neville, it was probably this incident that gave his father his enduring interest in the movement of water through Australian landscapes, because he could see that an understanding of this would be a huge advantage for people living in the driest inhabited continent on Earth (2001, p. 193).




In the years after leaving mine assaying, P.A. Yeomans had moved on to having his own earth-moving company. P. A. had just purchased the Nevallan (from Neville and Allan) and Yobarnie (from Yeomans and Barnes) properties in Richmond, NSW with his brother-in-law Jim Barnes in 1943 - a year before the bushfire where Neville saw his Uncle Jim Barnes burn to death. North Richmond is on the Hawkesbury River a little over two hours inland from Sydney


P. A. emulated the Aboriginal tracker in becoming familiar with the landform of his two properties. P.A. wanted to store or use all of the water that landed on the properties. P.A. wanted to be able to water his two properties so they were so lush and green all year round, they would be virtually fireproof. When the families acquired the properties the soil was ‘low grade’. It was undulating hill country with plenty of ridges that were composed of low-fertility shale strewn with stones. The following photo taken at Nevallan, one of the Yeomans’ farms shows the original poor shale and rock ‘soil’ throughout the two properties when the properties were acquired.



Photo 1. The low fertility shale strewn with stones on P.A.’s farm - from Plate 30 in P.A.’s book ‘Challenge of Landscape’ – used with permission (Yeomans 1958b; Yeomans 1958a)


Photo 2 shows a spade full of fertile soil after two years of the processes evolved by P.A. and his sons. To clearly show the difference in the soil, a clump of the fertile soil has been placed beside earth on the base of a tree stump that became exposed when the tree fell over. This lighter low-grade soil had not been involved in the processes the Yeoman’s evolved.



Photo 2. Fertile soil after two years compared to the original soil - a copy of Plate 30 in P.A.’s book ‘Challenge of Landscape’ - Used with permission


Within three years, Yeomans and his sons had energized what conventional wisdom said was impossible; they had altered the natural system so that the natural emergent properties of the farm, as ‘living system’, created ten centimetres (4 inches) of lush dark fertile soil over most of the property (Yeomans and Murray Valley Development League 1974). What is important is that the local natural ecosystem did the work. P.A. enabled emergent aspects in nature to self-organize towards increased fertility. With the interventions that P.A. introduced, the property became lush and green twelve months of the year. It was virtually fireproofed!


The balance of this chapter will specify the processes the Yeomans evolved and applied on their farms and the Indigenous precursors they drew upon. It then briefly introduces the ways Neville evolved in adapting his family’s farming processes relating to the natural life world to evolving change in the social life world.


Keyline Emerges


Over thousands of years, if this continent’s Aborigines wanted to spear fish in the shallow creeks and rivers, they would copy the behaviour of the wading birds that wade slowly, and then react extremely fast with their long beaks. The Aboriginal hunter with his spear mimics these waders. Resonant with the continent’s Indigenous ways, P.A. and his sons engaged in bio-mimicry - letting the water, the landforms, the soil biota, and the balance of the local eco-system tell them what to do. Neville told me (July 1998) that P.A. would take Neville and Neville’s younger brother Allan out onto the farms as they were growing up, whenever it rained, so they all could learn to see directly how the rain soaked in at different times, how long before run-off would occur on different land forms, and what paths down the slopes the run-off moved on different land shapes. Like the continent’s Aborigines, they were learning to have all of their senses focused in the here-and-now, attending to all that was happening in nature. As action researchers, they became connoisseurs of their land and all life on it (Eisner 1991, p. 176).


The Yeomans were being informed by landform and able to make very fine discriminations.  Whatever action P.A. and his sons did, they always observed how nature responded. P. A. obtained contour line maps of his property with a useful scale to further aid his understanding of landform. According to Ken Yeomans (P.A.s third and youngest son) in an October 2003 phone discussion, the map scale was typically 1 in 25,000 with 5 metre contours. Neville said that his father constantly referred to the three primary landscape features - the main ridge (elevated from the horizontal), the primary ridge (lateral to the main ridge) and the primary valleys (lateral vertical cleavages). The farm was perceived by P.A. as a cleavered unity, a feature pervasive in nature. P. A. discovered where the best places were to store run-off water for maximum later distribution using the free energy of gravity feed. It was high in a special place in the primary valleys. Overflow from dams high in the primary valleys were linked by gravity-based over-flow channels to lower dams. Below is a succinct statement written by P.A. Yeomans about what he called ‘Keyline’. It is from P.A.’s speech at the UN Habitat ‘On Human Settlements’ Forum in Vancouver, Canada during 27th May to 11th June 1976. P.A.’s speech was entitled ‘The Australian Keyline Plan for the Enrichment of Human Settlements(1976, p. 5-6).


Keyline relates to a special feature of topography namely, the break of slope that occurs in any primary valley. Primary valleys are the highest series of valleys in every water catchment region and lie on either side of a main or water divide ridge. They are widely observed as the generally smooth or grassed over valleys of farming and grazing land but are often overlooked and disguised in the city. On either side of the primary valley is a primary ridge. Of the three basic shapes of land, namely, main ridge, primary valley and primary ridge, the primary valley shape occupies the smallest area of land and the primary ridge shape, the largest. In the rural situation irrigation is a matter of watering the large primary ridge shapes, even on land which appears flat.


All of the structures, processes and practices that P. A. Yeomans evolved he also called Keyline (Yeomans, P. A. 1971b; Yeomans, P. A. 1971a). Yeomans first outlined his ideas about water movement and how to detect Keypoints in a book entitled, ‘The Keyline Plan’ (1954). The books, ‘Challenge of Landscape’ (Yeomans 1958a), ‘Water for Every Farm’ (Yeomans, P. A. 1965), and ‘The City Forest : The Keyline Plan for the Human Environment Revolution’ (Yeomans, P. A. 1971a) followed. Three of P.A. Yeomans’ books, ‘The Challenge of Landscape’ (Yeomans 1958b), The Keyline Plan’ (Yeomans, P. A. 1955), and the ‘City Forest’ (Yeomans, P. A. 1971b), including all of their diagrams and photos, are now on-line on the Internet through the Soil and Health Organization. In 1993, Ken Yeomans, Neville’s younger brother published his book, ‘Water for Every Farm: Yeoman’s Keyline Plan’ (Yeomans and Yeomans 1993). This book clarified some aspects of Keyline.


Diagram 1 below shows the main ridge (the dotted line along the left), two primary ridges and two primary valleys. A Keyline and a Keypoint only occur in primary valleys and each primary valley has only one Keyline and Keypoint. One Keypoint is shown in the diagram. The other Keypoint is on the Keyline towards the top of the diagram (where it crosses the flow line shown as a dotted line). Note that the Keypoint is on the primary valley flow line on the contour above the first wider gap between the contours.

The flow line is marked on Diagram 1 below as the dotted line through the Keypoint. This wider space between contours indicates less steepness on the slope. The dotted line along the primary ridges in the diagram below is the water divide line which, other things being equal divides the flow of water into one or other of the primary valleys on each side of the primary ridge. The dotted line along the main ridge is also a water divide line.


Allan (Dec 2005) pointed out that the diagram below shows that the contours above the Keyline are closer together at the valley flow line above the Keypoint and get wider apart as these contours go around the ridges on both sides of the valley. The reverse is the case below the Keypoint. The contours are wider apart on the flow line below the Keypoint and come closer together towards the ridges on both sides of the valley. The point where the contours are closest is the boundary between valley and ridge.


keyline from ken 


Diagram 1. The Three Keyline Features – Photo from P.A.’s UN Habitat Speech (1976, p. 9)


Above the Keypoint is typically an armchair-shaped land form that directs the water run-off so that most of it ends up arriving in an area that may be as small as a square metre (the Keypoint) – sometimes the very start of the typical creek as creek. P.A. found that the optimal locations for dams were at the Keypoint on the Keyline in the respective Primary Valleys on his properties.


P.A.’s ‘On Human Settlements’ Forum speech contains another description of Keyline:


It will be observed that in the primary valleys the first slope falling from the ridge above is short and steep – usually the steepest slope in the immediate environs[2] – while the second slope is flatter, much longer and extends to the watercourse below. The point at which the change occurs between these two slopes is named the Keypoint; the Keyline extends on the same level on either side of this Keypoint and partly encloses a concave shape on the land. Only primary valleys have Keylines (see contour diagram above) (Yeomans, P. A. 1971b; Yeomans, P. A. 1971a; 1976, p. 7-8).


Ken Yeomans in a December 2005 email referred to the above quote:


I question the technical accuracy of saying it ‘partially’ encloses a concave shape on the land. Actually the Keyline occupies all of the concave shape of the contour line curve.


The change of direction of the contour from concave through the valley to the convex curve of the ridge defines the end of the Keyline on either side of each primary valley.


Diagram 1 above shows Ken Yeomans point mentioned above - that the Keyline extends either side of the Keypoint for a particular distance along the contour line running through the Keypoint. P.A then goes on in his On Human Settlements Forum Speech to give a key point summary (1976, p. 9):


The Keyline is significant because:


1.    It is the first place in any valley where rain run-off water, concentrated from the higher slopes, can form a stream.

2.    It is also the first place where run-off water disappears when the rain stops unless the water is contained.

3.    It is the highest possible storage site in any valley of the land.

4.    It is often the highest point at which good construction material for earth dams is available (higher up the earth may be less decomposed and less suitable for dam building).

5.    It is the essential starting point for a water control system in any landscape that produces run-off; and

6.    It is the line of change when the three shapes of the land merge and readily disclose the geometry of land contours and the behaviour of surface flowing waters.


The Keyline is thus of major significance to any concept that aims to enrich the environment by controlling and using all available water. Note point six above - the Keypoint in nature is saturated with information carrying capacity. On this typically square metre of land is the junction of all three land forms. Information distributed through each landform is present at the Keypoint. The Keypoint, for those with eyes to see, is the place that reveals the interaction of water with land. There is a confluence at the Keypoint of the water runoff from the main ridge above the primary valley and adjacent primary ridges down the curved slope at the head of the primary valley.


Lincoln and Guba made a similar point about distribution of information within a system (quoted in Chapter Four):


Information is distributed throughout the system rather than concentrated at specific points. At each point information about the whole is contained in the part. Not only can the entire reality be found in the part, but also the part can be found in the whole. What is detected in any part must also characterize the whole. Everything is interconnected (1985, p. 59).


The Yeomans’ genius was that they spotted the information distributed throughout the three landform systems and saw how the distributed information inter-connects and interacts at the Keypoint. Keypoints are saturated with information that is distributed in the system. Sensing and observing the Keypoint may reveal insights as to how the whole complex dynamic system works.


Resonant with the above, as discussed in Chapter Three, Neuman also makes the same observation that at each point in a living system, information about the whole is contained in the part (1997, p. 433). Not only can the entire reality be found in the part, but also the part can be found in the whole. What is detected in any part must also characterize the whole. Everything is interconnected, inter-dependent, inter-related and inter-woven. Also resonant with Yeomans and Neuman, Joseph Jaworski (1998, p. 80) writes of a conversation with theoretical physicist Dr. David Bohm:


We were talking about a radical, disorientating new view of reality which we couldn’t ignore. We were talking about the awareness of the essential inter-relatedness of all phenomena – physiological, social, and cultural. We were talking about a systems view of life and a systems view of the universe. Nothing could be understood in isolation, everything had to be seen as a part of the unified whole.


Jaworski writes of Bohm saying that it’s an abstraction to talk of nonliving matter:


Different people are not separate, they are all enfolded into the whole, and they are all a manifestation of the whole. It is only through an abstraction that they look separate. Everything is included in everything else.


Yourself is actually the whole of mankind. That’s the idea of implicate order – that everything is enfolded in everything.


While Jaworski and Bohm were talking about a ‘radical, disorientating new view of reality’, this view has been the natural view of Australian Aborigines since antiquity, and it was this view that the Yeoman’s used to perceive inter-related things that Western farmers had never seen before. Barabasi (2003) in his book ‘Linked - How Everything is Linked to Everything and What it Means’ also explores the same theme.


Consistent with the foregoing, for the Yeomans, the farm was a living system made up of interconnected, inter-related, inter-dependent and interwoven living systems and associated inorganics. I have been referring to this as ‘connexity’; Neville or the other Yeomans did not use this term, although it connotes their understanding of system linkages well.


Where the context around a Keypoint made it possible P.A. placed a dam wall some way below the Keypoint so that the dam could fill to that Keypoint when it was full. He designed his farms Nevallan and Yobarnie to fit nature. All of the dams were placed so as to simultaneously get water run-off, pass overflow to a dam below by gravity, and by gravity-based irrigation, pass on the water to the soil when desired. Neville (August 1998) and Allan (May 2002) both confirmed that they were with their father at the moment when they recognized what he called the Keypoint and the Keyline in landform – the central concepts in Keyline (Yeomans 1955a, p. 118).


Allan Yeomans in a phone conversation (December 2005) noted that the Keypoint and Keyline in successive primary valleys along a main ridge have an ascending (or descending) elevation as occurs in Diagram 1 above. Allan spoke of regular patterns in nature; as an example, the Yeomans’ experience was that often the height of the bottom of a dam wall below a Keypoint in a primary valley being above the height of the top of the dam wall in the adjacent primary valley (refer Diagram 1 above). This has implications for linking the two dams by over-flow channel along a contour.


yobarnie 16 oct 2001 038


Photo 3. A Photo I took in July 2001 showing the dam’s overflow channel


The above photo shows the gentle slope on the overflow channel of the dam shown in photo 4 below. There was no sign of erosion on this channel even though this dam and the other Keyline structures on the property had had no maintenance by the current landowner for over twenty years. A noteworthy aspect of the farm is that before PA Yeomans commenced his work there in the 1950s, the soil was regarded by agricultural experts who visited the farm as being low-grade shale strewn with small rocks (as can be seen on both sides of the Keyline channel). Some of the area where Keyline processes were implemented is shown in the background ridge in the photo and the processes have produced staggering increases in biomass – what conventional wisdom says takes 800 years to produce. One researcher who had travelled the world extensively, commented that after 3 years of Keyline process the new earth generated was on a par with what he had seen in the fertile Nile Delta.


P.A. wrote:


Once the eye becomes trained to see these simple land shapes, and the mind has selected and classified one or two, there is a fascination in the continuous broadening of one’s understanding and appreciation of the landscape (1958, p. 56).


The Social Ecologist, Stuart Hill and I visited Nevallan for the first time in 2001 and I took Photo 4 below showing the place where P.A. and Neville first spotted the Keypoint and Keyline. The very spot where they realised the significance of the Keypoint is where the closest water is in the closest dam in photo 3 below; the primary ridges are on the left and right of the primary valley.


Like all Keypoints, the one in the photo is on the drainage line. Photo 4 shows one of the primary ridges on the left near the top of the primary valley. The Chapter One Photo 3 was taken looking up towards where the photo below was taken. Stuart Hill, in Chapter Eight of his book on Australia’s Ecological Pioneers, outlines some aspects of the process P. A. and his sons used (Mulligan and Hill 2001, p. 193):


What Yeomans senior discovered through such patient observation was that there is a line across the slope of a hillside where the water table is closest to the surface. The ground along this line looks wettest and is reflective when it rains heavily. 


It is the line along which it makes most sense to locate the highest irrigation dams within the landscape, because this is where the run-off water from above can most effectively be collected and subsequently used at the most appropriate time to irrigate the more gently sloping land below. Yeomans called this line the Keyline.




Photo 4. Photo I took during July 2001- looking down towards the Keypoint at the top of the dam.



Keyline Ploughing


A key aspect of Keyline was how the Yeomans changed the natural self-organizing surface flow of water and the flow of water underground through the soil via Keyline ploughing. Keyline ploughing in the valley involves ploughing parallel to the Keyline both above and below the Keyline. There is a different pattern of ploughing on the ridges, discussed below.


This pattern in the valleys stops an eroding rush of surface water down to the valley floor, slows the flow, spreads the soaking, and allows for a massive increase in the moisture levels in the soil without water-logging. Consequently, water is ‘stored’ as it slowly filters through the soil, as well as being kept in all the interlinked dams. Recognizing the above properties of landform and their implications for water flow was a key reason why Lady Balfour held PA Yeomans in such high esteem. It involved a very particular kind of close relating to nature in its myriad complexities to perceive the things that the Yeomans family perceived and to recognise the implications and the possibilities that flow from this perceiving and reflecting.


PA Yeomans developed a chisel plough for Keyline ploughing that was called the Bunyip Slipper Imp with Shakaerator (that is it shakes and aerates). This shaking action reduces soil compaction. P. A. Yeomans won the Prince Phillip Agricultural Design Award in 1974 for his design of this plough. PA’s son Allan who had an engineering background worked closely with his father on plough design and production. The plough is shown in photo 5.


The plough has the effect of placing a loose cap on a chisel groove so there is air and space for water run-off to run along in the grooves underground. This cap on the top of the groove minimises evaporation by sun and wind (Foster 2003). These changes to the soil and water interaction are vital in the driest inhabited country in the World. P. A. did not use ploughing that inverted the soil as he found that it damaged soil ecology. In Diagram 2 below, the red lines depict rainwater run-off (in an ‘S’ shaped curve) as it happens without the chisel ploughing. Once the run-off hits the chisel ploughing it is turned around and runs out along the ridges on both sides of the valley. Note that the chisel ploughing is parallel to the Keyline above and below the Keyline. Note also that because of the shape of the land both above and below the Keyline, the ploughing both above and below soon goes of contour in a downhill direction as can be seen at the places marked A and B on the diagram.


On the ridges, chisel ploughing is carried out parallel to a selected contour line as depicted in Diagram 3 below. This ploughing pattern on the ridges also turns the rain or irrigation water flowing on the ridges from running off the sides of the ridge in an ‘S’ shaped curve to the valley floor. The chisel cuts have the water again turned so that it runs at a much shallower slope along the side of the ridge. This again slows the speed of run-off and allows the water to be stored as it passes through the soil. Water seeping through the soil all the way to creeks and rivers through Keyline channels tends to emerge as crystal clear spring water out of the banks of creeks and rivers either on the Keyline property or in neighbouring properties.


Keyline ploughing is not the same as contour ploughing. When Keyline pattern ploughing goes ‘off contour’ as all contour cultivation does, it does so with a unique and important effect; this chisel ploughing results in shifting the direction of flow of surface water so it flows down hill more slowly along the sides of the primary ridges on each side of the primary valley. Keyline pattern plowing intercepts the flow of surface water causing it to drift sideways in the furrows away from the steep sides of primary ridges toward the flatter middle area (adjacent to the water divide line) of primary ridges. When runoff water finally reaches the primary valleys, the Keyline pattern ploughing causes the water to spread wide and shallow, especially when it reaches any grassy valley floor. Erosion ceases to be a problem and any existing erosion gutters can start to heal. Soil conservation banks and artificial grassed waterways intended to safely dispose of farm water become obsolete.  


When engaged in Keyline ploughing in the primary valley each pass of the cultivation equipment working parallel down from the Keyline stops in the steepest area which is the actual side of the valley. A U turn is done, turning in the down slope direction and cultivation resumes travelling back adjacent to the ripping just done till the steepest area on the other side of the valley is reached, at which point another U turn is done. Cultivation proceeds down through the valley in this way. The pattern starts near to contour (depending on the guide line chosen; as it may be a channel sloping in either direction). The grade or angle progressively increases till the operator deems the “off contour” effect sufficient or excessive and at this point starts working down from a lower near contour guide line.


Soon it will be obvious to the operator driving the tractor and doing the cultivation that the cultivation is on an ascending grade towards the valley’s flow line (the centre line), and once past the centre line this becomes a descending grade, which is progressively more off contour when travelling from the centre of the valley around and down towards the sides of the valley. To express this another way, when travelling towards the centre line (technically called a flow line) of the valley, the path being travelled is gaining height.


This is why the water flows back the other way in the cultivation furrows. When the tractor reaches the centre line of the valley and the operator makes the turn to head out of the valley towards the ridge on the other side, the grade or slope he will follow is a descending one, and more so as the pattern develops. Runoff water will follow the rip marks away from the centre of the valley to lower areas on the side of the valley. Hence the ploughing pattern has a water spreading effect in the valley floor.


Photo 5 Bunyip Slipper Imp with Shakaerator





Diagram 2. Rain and irrigation water being turned out along both ridges – adapted diagram from P. A. Yeomans’ book ‘Water for Every Farm’ (1965, p. 60) – used with permission






Diagram 3. Keyline Ploughing Process for Ridges - from P. A. Yeomans’ book ‘Water for Every Farm’ (Yeomans, P. A. 1965, p. 60) – used with permission.


In contrast, contour ploughing parallel to contours other than the Keyline contour soon has water running towards the valley’s flow line further up the valley than would naturally occur rather than away from it towards the ridges (from a phone conversation with Allan Yeomans Dec, 2005). Keyline ploughing is very different to contour ploughing as described by PA Yeomans in his book ‘The Challenge of Landscape’ (1958a, Ch 6, 1958b, Chap 6).


Contour cultivation, theoretically, is cultivation that leaves a pattern of all furrows on the true contour. However, every run of the tractor and plough would need to follow a true contour line marked on the land with a levelling instrument or the land must be of perfectly even slope. Contour cultivation, as practised, is neither of these. It is simply cultivation in the spaces between contour lines that have been levelled-in and marked on the land by permanent or semi-permanent furrows or banks. It leaves a pattern of furrows half parallelling up from the lower contour and half parallelling down from the marked contour above. This pattern is illustrated on our map-diagram (below), which is a contour map of an actual land form, typical of country with a medium but not hard rock base. It is granite type country.


The pattern of practical contour cultivation is illustrated by the broken lines each representing many actual furrows on the land. Arrow heads on the lines illustrate the downhill direction of the furrows. Furrows without arrows may be accepted as contour lines.


It is seen from Diagram 4 that half the lines with arrows (the top right hand set in the top diagram) fall downhill in the general direction of the flow path and of the valley, thereby tending to cause earlier concentration of run-off and faster flow to the valley. An approximately equal number slope downhill in the opposite direction and away from the valley, opposing the flow lines, which at any point are at right angles to contour lines, causing the run-off to spread as intended with the Keyline pattern cultivation. Contour cultivation is therefore much better than straight-line or round-the-paddock work.


Ken Yeomans in a March 2007 conversation described the fundamental difference in Keyline ploughing (refer Yeomans (2003):


Keyline cultivation, however, produces a pattern of furrows in which all, or a very large majority redirect the natural flow pattern of water over land surfaces.


The result is when runoff water reaches the flow line of a valley it forms a wider, shallower and slower flowing stream than would otherwise occur. Only Keyline pattern cultivation has this unique and important effect.


Diagram 4 from PA Yeomans (1958a, Chap 6, 1958b, Chap 6) used with permission


Photo 6. Plate 3 from K & PA Yeomans book (1993) (used with permission).



Keyline pattern cultivation holds water on a primary ridge. The source water can be from heavy rain or from the flooding stream from a Keyline irrigation channel.  In either case the water is restrained from running off the ridge and given time to soak into the soil.

Diagram 5. Figure 12. From K & PA Yeomans book (1993) (used with permission).


This plan emphasises the boundary between and the pattern formed by primary valley cultivation and primary ridge cultivation. After the cultivation is done the boundary becomes indistinguishable.


Creating Deep Soil Fast


There is fractal like repetition in nature (Mandelbrot 1983) and in the Yeomans’ designs. Neville said that one of his father’s design principles was ‘work with the free energy in the system’ (Dec 1993, July 1998). This was evident in the Yeomans use of design layout that maximized the capacity to use gravity. Another example of thriving free energy is creating the context for the massive increase in detritivores (worms and other organisms that break down detritus - decaying organic matter) for generating new soil.


P.A and Neville did not rest with the notion prevailing in most quarters, that it can take up to 800 years to make ten centimetres of soil by rock erosion and other breaking-down processes. They asked how they could create ten centimetres or more of new topsoil in a few years. They reasoned that vibrant living soil could be created by constituting an underground context/environment bringing together detritivores with ideal combinations of air, moisture, seasonal warmth and a steady supply of organic detritus (dead organic matter).


They knew that cropping a certain height off grasses and plants just before flowering/seeding either by grazing or cutting created a shock to the plant and a comparable size of dieback in root systems. The energy that the plant had geared up for flowering and seeding is diverted into rapid growth for survival. The roots that die create the organic material for decomposing. What’s more, the dead organic root matter is already spread underground through the soil where it is needed. The space previously taken up by the roots become air chambers. The cut vegetation material was also recycled into the soil and for a time acts as mulch holding in any moisture present. The plant responds with vigorous new growth that is strategically irrigated. Keyline chisel ploughing and flood-flow irrigation would increase soil moisture content and reduce compaction.


This combination supplied the conditions for a massive increase in detritivores (Yeomans, P. A. 1971b; Yeomans, P. A. 1971a; Yeomans and Murray Valley Development League 1974; Yeomans 1976). Ten centimetres of new topsoil was created in three years – something that was previously thought to take around 800 years! Earthworms emerged in abundance, the size of which (over 60 cm or 24 inches) had never been seen before in the region. The Riverland Journal carried an article stating that H. Schenk, head of the Farm Bureau of America described Nevallan earthworms as being among the best he had seen. His words were, ‘Boy this must be the best soil ever was’ (Yeomans 1956; Yeomans, P. A. 1971b; Yeomans, P. A. 1971a). Neville told me (December 1993) he heard one well-travelled visitor saying that the only other place he had seen comparable worms was in the fertile fields of the Nile delta in Egypt.




Photo 7. Chisel ‘terracing’ effect and the water harvesting achieved – Photo from P.A. Yeoman’s book ‘City Forest Plate 1 – used with permission



In P. A. Yeomans’ ‘City Forest’ Book (1971b; 1971a) he acknowledges the seminal supporting role Neville played in the forming of his ideas:


‘….as psychiatrist and sociologist, for keeping me up to date on the social and community implications’.


He had Neville write the Forward (Appendix 4) to this last book (The City Forest) about adapting his ideas to the design and layout of a city.

Thirty years after P.A.'s death, the system he established on the farm still works by itself with little maintenance required. As can be seen from the photo below that I took in July 2001 when I walked the farm with Stuart Hill, the farm still looks like sweeping gardens or a golf course. The surrounding farms were covered with dry brown grass.



Photo 8.  The farm during July 2001 looking back to the Keypoint at the left of the dam


Neville had evolved Fraser House back in 1959 when P. A. had Keyline well under way. Neville worked closely with his father throughout Neville’s years at Fraser House and Fraser House outreach in the years 1968 through 1971 when the City Forest Book was published. In the Forward to the City Forest Neville sums up Keyline’s soil approach in these terms:


‘The soil which gives us life must be developed in its own living processes so that it grows richer year by year rather than poorer.’


In the 1970’s, Neville wrote a weekly column in the Now Newspaper (a Sydney suburban paper) called ‘Yeomans Omens’ (Various Newspaper Journalists 1959-1974). In this column he wrote that between 20,000 and 50,000 acres of Keyline forest could totally absorb and purify the liquid effluent of Sydney. From this City Forest clean water would re-enter the rivers and dams or the sea. A natural by-product would be copious new fertile soil.




Photo 9. The Header to Neville’s Newspaper column in the Now Newspaper


On 24 April 1974 P.A. Yeomans sent off to the South Australian Government a design for the proposed City of Monarto in South Australia. Monarto was to be a large metropolis to be built within the Japanese ‘Multi-Function Polis’ model[3] for a population of 200,000. PA Yeomans based his design upon the Keyline ideas in his book, ‘The City Forest’. A copy of these plans is in the NSW Mitchell Library (Yeomans and Murray Valley Development League 1974). In keeping with connexity, Yeomans’ proposal linked into all the aspects of the local context into his the design including reckoning land-scale factors, as well as geological structure and other features including: shape, form, climate, natural plant cover, various soil types, capacities for development and use for the city, climate factors - prevailing wind, pattern of temperature, annual rainfall, amount and incidence of runoff, including all water that flows from outside and across the cityscape, waste water, and water runoff from roads, roofs, and sealed surfaces. Yeomans’ proposal incorporated the use of city effluent for irrigation of forests to be planted in the proposed city, and the purification of the surplus water by passing it through the forest soil and biosystem.


The Monarto plan mentions that:


‘Many species of trees that grow in medium rainfall areas respond to the greatly increased water and fertilizing factors of the effluents by producing several times their normal timber and with improved cell and fibre structure.


For instance, trees for fence posts are available three years after planting.


By that time rainforest soil will have been created more than 150cm (5 feet) deep (my italics) (Yeomans and Murray Valley Development League 1974).


Many other people and groups sent in design proposals. There was a large amount of conjecture about and resistance to the concept of Multi-Function Polis and the city of Monarto was never built.



Designing Farms


A fundamental aspect of Keyline is that it involves design, and not just any design; rather, a design guided by nature in the local place and context, such that the resultant design superbly fits the local natural system. The Yeomans let nature tell them what to do. They always attended to nature and respected the design in nature, and designed and redesigned their interventions in a way that melded in with nature’s design, ‘design principles’ and emergent properties (Capra 1997, p.28). The Yeomans used ‘dynamic living systems’ as a strategic frame in their thinking, design work and action. They also used bio-mimicry (mimicking nature) in their designs (Suzuki and Dressel 2002, p. 66, 110). They engaged with all of the inherent aspects of the farm as a holarchical living system (Holonic Manufacturing Systems 2000). They were ever aware that the ‘wholes’ in the living systems of the farms were made up of parts, and these parts were themselves wholes made up of parts. The Yeomans were very connected to this web of linkages.


After the Yeomans had introduced some changes to the soil environment the massive changes were self-organizing. The soil, organic matter, water and detritivores, as naturally occurring integrated systems, had emergent qualities; that is, aspects started emerging, or coming into being, which had not being present at lower levels of organization.


In December 2005, Allan Yeomans told me that the special properties and significance of Keypoints and Keylines, as well as the associated design principles such as Keyline cultivation, and placement of roads, fences and irrigation channels were slowly realised over a number of years. Keyline insights and design principles guide placement of paddocks, rows of trees as windbreaks and shade for stock, fences, gates, and roads. Landform and flood irrigation flow are also taken into account in designing where paddock boundaries are placed. The photo below shows the strategic design of tree plantings as windbreaks and shade for livestock.



keyline trees


Photo 10. Aerial photo of the Trees on Nevallan - Photo from Priority One – Together We can Beat Global Warming (Yeomans, A. 2005, p. 137) – Used with permission


Jan 2014 Yeomans Project – Art Gallery of NSW


Before P. A. and his sons’ work, Australian (and other) farms had rarely been designed. They tended to evolve in a haphazard or ‘traditional’ way – ‘this is the way we always do it’. Farmers would impose their will on nature (‘dominion over’ in the Jewish and Christian tradition). If something was ‘in the way’, farmers would ‘bulldoze’ it out of the way.


In designing and using Keyline, things are placed relative to other system parts and place for maximizing working well with nature, functionality, emergence, inter-related fit, and use of free energy in the system (for example, using gravity, and the transformative energy of the detritivores that break down organic matter). Neville spoke to me (Dec 1993) of his father constantly fine-tuning things till they would fit. Neville described this as ‘the survival of the fitting’. This is discussed more fully in other places (Yeomans 1954; Yeomans, Percival. A. 1955; Yeomans 1958b; Yeomans 1958a; Holmes 1960; Yeomans, P. A. 1965; Yeomans, P. A. 1971b; Yeomans, P. A. 1971a; Yeomans 1976; Yeomans and Yeomans 1993; Hill 2000; Holmgren 2001; Yeomans 2001; The Development Of Narrow Tyned Plows 2002).


Neville’s father made repeated use of ‘do the opposite’ type lateral thinking. For example, P.A. experimented with putting a pipe through dam walls – something conventional wisdom said was never done because of ‘inevitable’ wash out along the outside of the pipe. Neville’s father solved this problem by putting baffles along the outside of the pipe. Water running along the outside would carry with it small gravel and soil particles that would be trapped by the baffles and fill in any gaps and compact the soil around the outside of the pipe and therefore strengthen the seal around it. Because dams were placed high in the land topography, all the Yeomans had to do was turn on the valve on the outside base of each dam wall on their properties and they had gravity fed flowing water. No pumps and associated power were required.

Diagram 6. Pipe through dam wall with the dam filled to the Keypoint marked by the square


Given that Australia is the driest inhabited continent and the wide spread concern about the extensive and prolonged drought in Australia, and concerns about water storage, allocation and use, and the capture and use of storm water and grey water in urban areas, as well as the social relocation of farmers to open up new farming areas the Australia’s far North, it is timely to revisit PA Yeoman’s work especially within a context of Dr Neville Yeomans application of his father’s ideas in re-constituting society.


Ideas are evolving for applying the Keyline wisdom above in increasing the fertility and volume of soil on Pacific Islands as a world model towards fertile futures.


Another perspective on the Yeomans - for thousands of years people have recognised primary valleys. They all rise to a main ridge flanked by primary ridges. Something about the Yeomans enabled them to see the significance of the Keypoint and Keyline. No one else in human history, as far as can be found, has ever seen that significance before. This raises the question:


what was it that enabled the Yeomans to spot the significance


PA Yeomans wrote in his book, The Challenge of Landscape: The Development and Practice of Keyline. (1958):


Once the eye becomes trained to see these simple land shapes, and the mind has selected and classified one or two, there is a fascination in the continuous broadening of one’s understanding and appreciation of the landscape (1958, p. 56).


Even this does not get it. One buys a VW Beetle and one suddenly notices other VW Beetles all over the place.


What enabled the Yeomans to spot the significance of the Keypoint and Keyline in the first place? This perhaps is the deep significance of the Yeomans family’s life work.


This thread is explored through Laceweb pages.


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An Australian Pioneer - The Life Work of Dr. Neville Yeomans



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[1] Neville embraces this idea of the Earth as ‘provider Mother’ in his poem ‘INMA’ where he wrote ‘The Earth loves us’. In contrast the First Fleet people in 1788 saw the land as harsh and lethal.

[2] Refer Diagram 1 – where the contours that are the closest together depict the steepest area

[3] Pacific City : Lessons from the MFP. Internet Source, Sighted May, 2007.