Extinction of salamanders and other childless adults


 Another salamander lover arrived at Meadowcreek yesterday.  Since a local University ecology professor insisted, we have dedicated our new pond to salamanders.  Our Ozarks is home to some rare and endangered salamanders.

Ozark hellbender

The Ozark hellbender has the best name and is also the ugliest.  It grows to two feet long and only lives in the clear mountain streams of the Ozarks.  Some call it the “snot otter” or “devil dog.”  These rare amphibians breathe almost entirely through their skin, making them a living barometer of water quality because of their sensitivity to silt and pollution.

Hellbenders have survived for ten million years, but only 1200 Ozark hellbenders are left.  Researchers recently have found only large mature hellbenders.  Juveniles have virtually disappeared.  The system isn’t redundant these days. The old hellbenders are surviving, but they aren’t reproducing.  Reminds us of a city filled with childless couples or a state whose farmers are all over 60.

You might call these mature adults resilient, but the system is not resilient unless they are reproducing themselves.  The system will disappear when they finish their lifespans.

Some folks don’t like the looks of hellbenders and kill them on sight.  They aren’t lucky enough to have the poisonous skin of their fellow salamander, the Eastern newts. People have died who didn’t wash their hands after touching them. The Eastern newt is also thriving because of the plasticity of its life cycle.  These newts have egg, larvae, eft and adult phases.  The egg, larvae and adult live in the water, but the eft (or teenagers) live on land.

When drought occurs and water sources dry up the Eastern newt can go into the eft phase and search out new waters where it can turn into an adult and breed.  When water is abundant, larvae may skip the teenage eft phase and transition straight to adults.  Maybe humans need a similar mechanism to avoid the teenage years.  Though modern America seems to be lengthening it with more and more millenials staying single and living with their parents.

Nineteen salamanders are protected and monitored in Arkansas.  Many species are found in only single counties.   We’re doing our best to help endangered species survive at Meadowcreek.  Unfortunately, that means limiting some things that we really like to do, such as fishing.

Having a salamander pond means that you don’t have a fishing pond.  Fish will exterminate salamanders.  There is no balance of nature when it comes to fish and salamanders in a pond.  Fish, like most humans, don’t care whether salamanders are endangered.

Besides, we have a great fishing pond with plenty of mature, fighting pickerel and bass, so it’s no big hardship to set aside a pond for salamanders.  Who knows, we might be creating the habitat which will save an endangered species.

Embracing chaos and disruption to refine permaculture

Fires are raging in dozens of locations in nearly all Western states.  Governors rush tanker planes, helicopters and men to put out the fires.  And we nearly all agree its the right thing to do.  We must stop those wildfires.  We hate to see those forests go up in flames.  We like stability, protection of human property and human life, conservation of resources.

fire1Natural systems have a more resilient approach.  Natural systems are dependent on episodic destruction and regrowth of local plant and animal populations.  California’s yearly wildfires mostly occur in an ecosystem dominated by chaparral, evergreen oak shrubs.  Chaparral requires fire to release the chaparral seeds from their pods.  When fire is suppressed, tinder builds up in the unburnt area making the next fire easier to start and hotter burning.  Eventually a hot enough fire will destroy the seeds and nothing will cover the soil, leading to erosion, loss of soil, mudslides, and a barren landscape.The disruption of fire is a part of the natural system.  No fire, no regeneration and the chaparral community dies.

Natural systems do strive toward stability and protection of resources, but on a much longer scale.  When we impose our desire for stability and protection of resources on nature, we often make things worse.

American Indians and Australian aborigines used fire as a tool to clear the landscape so grasses could come in and game increase.  They knew the fast growing grass species were more productive and attracted more diversity than the slow growing, mature forest.  When Europeans came to America, they were greeted with vast open savannas which became forests when we stopped the fires.

On one of my first trips to Africa, I still believed that fire was an evil to be suppressed, but the local people gradually convinced me that it is a natural tool which can improve the landscape and make their systems more productive.  Later, back home in Arkansas, I learned that one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, is produced in rice paddies by the degradation of organic matter.  The standard practice of burning rice stubble decreases organic matter and thus decreases methane production.

Even when we come to accept fire as a useful tool, we tend to compartmentalize that fact.  We find it hard to embrace chaos and disruption.  Even though they are an integral part of all resilient systems.  The pervasiveness of our need for stability is illustrated in a discipline which seems superficially very similar to ecological resilience.

Permaculture is a design method that has attracted the devotion of many searching for an ecologically sound agriculture. The twelve principles of permaculture design have much in common with ecological resilience as we detail in a chapter of our book.  Permaculture is, as the name suggests, all about creating a permanent agriculture.  So despite the overwhelming concordance of permaculture and ecological resilience, they differ at the core.

Ecological resilience requires change. Periodic transformation is the quality of ecological resilience that most readily reflects this quality. Resilient systems creatively use times of disturbance. The omega phase inherent to every adaptive system is not destruction or an end, but a necessary part of reorganization to a more productive system. Omega is precursor to the alpha phase–reassembly, reorganization, creation of a new system with emergent qualities.

Change and adaptation are the heart of ecological resilience, which views all living systems as complex adaptive systems (CAS) composed of other complex adaptive systems. Each CAS is composed of multiple CAS which must be connected, redundant, flexible, modular, diverse and prone toward reassembly. Each CAS is continuously changing in response to feedback from other CAS.

An economy is composed of businesses which are composed of people which are all changing and adapting to each other. Society is composed of communities, composed of families, composed of individuals, composed of cells, composed of proteins and lipids, composed of molecules, composed of atoms, composed of quarks, etc. Since each CAS is composed of CAS adapting to each other, every living system is constantly in flux. For example, the resilient person has multiple ways of dealing with the external environment and adversity. Sitting in school, actively playing sports, solitary study, socializing with friends, interacting in formal meetings with peers or formal meetings with bosses, with children, with elderly, are all useful responses demonstrating the flexibility needed for resilience.

When a CAS becomes less redundant, less flexible, less modular, less diverse, less ready for reassembly, it becomes more vulnerable to destruction when outside drivers change. To assume that a system should remain stable, consistent and effectively stagnant is short-sighted and destructive. Ecological resilience depends on a system’s ability to both anticipate disturbance and to absorb it constructively.

Ecological resilience provides an empirical foundation for some aspects of Permaculture, refines other principles and shows some pronouncements are too broad and sweeping. The value of any practice such as permaculture is enhanced when it stays grounded in the natural patterns it seeks to emulate, manage, and improve. This is the task of anyone seeking to create an ecologically resilient system, to mimic the inevitable ebb and flow of nature.

Within the shifting qualities of nature we can build lasting and, relatively, permanent structures that can continue to serve populations long into the chaotic and unpredictable future of our planet.  As long as we don’t focus on short term stability at the expense of long-term resilience.

Religion and resilience

Most Wednesday mornings I get to see some of the most resilient systems in Arkansas.  I travel to Stuttgart to eat breakfast with a group of 60-90 year olds.  People who reach that age in good health have much in common.  They regularly exercise their bodies and their minds.  They eat and drink in moderation.  And they have faith that all will be well.  They have personal resilience.

photo-gutluk-temir-minaret-kunya-urgench-41066-xlTheir resilience has much in common with the resilience of ecosystems.  Ecologists contend a key to resilience is modular connectivity–systems which are independent but networked. All these folks are stubbornly independent, but they have a network of a few close friends and lots of other contacts.

Resilient ecosystems are conservatively innovative.  Resilient natural systems conserve what works, but have mechanisms to rapidly change when disturbance hits. Conservatism may seem to dominate in my Wednesday morning group, but they are very innovative when he comes to resilience.  They know more about what medicines will keep you active and alert than anyone else I know.

You can go through all the eight necessary qualities of ecosystem resilience we discuss in our book, and these folks rank high on all of them.

Meadowcreek and Stuttgart are the exact opposite geographically and economically.  As you drive from Meadowcreek, the hills and valleys slowly disappear, the road get straighter, the population gets smaller and the farms get bigger.  At Meadowcreek you can climb several hundred feet from the valley floor to the ridges.  The highest point in Stuttgart is the landfill.  The twists and turns of Arkansas Ozark roads are legendary.  Near Stuttgart, roads often stretch in a straight line 14 miles to the horizon.  A 10 acre field at Meadowcreek is huge. One hundred sixty acre fields are common in Stuttgart.

Yet the qualities of resilience in both places are the same.  The flat, rich Delta lands of Stuttgart put wholly different constraints on farming from the rugged, rocky Ozark lands of Meadowcreek.  Technological advances and national farm policy has made thousand acre farms the standard units of production in the Delta.  Small fields, stony soils and lack of commodity payments means the Ozark farmer must find intensive, value-added crops if she is to survive.

Despite the different systems of adaptation required of farming systems in the two areas, the personal resilience systems have remarkable similarities.  One similarity is in an area many shy away from: religion.  I’m going to ignore the wise advice to avoid religion and politics if you want to avoid a fight.  Most ecologists don’t have to worry about this because plants and animals are notoriously lacking in either.  Those interested in social ecological systems don’t have a choice.

Many of the folks attracted to Meadowcreek have had run-ins with organized religion. The rigidity traps created by most religions and denominations make this entirely understandable.  Many read about Buddhism and Taoism and think they have found religions more compatible with resilient ecological systems.  I’ve been fortunate to travel to hotbeds of all the major religions and found that they have all diverged from their sacred writings and basic precepts.  Modern Buddhist and Taoist worship and temples seem similar to the worship in Catholic and Orthodox churches to me.  Each has strange rituals, demands obedience and collects money.

What’s amazing is how i keep running into adherents of all the major religions who have very similar beliefs.

A professor of foreign languages in the Soviet days, now resiliently a translator, was my guide to Turkmenistan, a desert country in Central Asia populated almost entirely by Moslems.  In central Turkmenistan is a major crossroads on the Silk Road.  If you can’t get to Mecca, its nearly as good for a Moslem to visit the Urgench obelisk. In the middle of the desert, this obelisk rises from nowhere to be the tallest in Central Asia.  At Urgench and at fancy modern mosques, the Professor Doctor shared the Turkmen approach to religion.

Many Turkmen consume pork and alcohol and look at Iranians as not really Moslem.  As we looked across the border into Iran from the southern mountains of Turkmenistan, my translator told how she and her daughter visited Iran and were dismayed at how they were castigated for letting the backs of their bare hands be visible.  I asked her what the foundation of Islam was for her and she said: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Sounds like the Christian golden rule to me.  On my travels, I often insert aphorisms from the New Testament into my talks and trainings.  When I ask my audiences if they have a similar saying in their religion, they invariably do.  Its easy to see why the most successful missionaries are those who build on the basic beliefs of local people rather than try to convert them to an alien way of thinking.

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists often have run-ins with the devout of all religions.  Regardless of how much the Gospels might help my audiences in foreign countries, strident proselytizing for Christianity will get you nowhere.  The ecological resilience perspective, however, resonates with practical farmers, businessmen and agricultural teachers everywhere.

Community and climate change at Meadowcreek

Winter before last was the coldest we’ve ever seen at Meadowcreek.  This summer is shaping up to be the hottest, but it’s wet.  Two years ago we had the driest summer, right after getting 7 inches in one night in May.

We love the great thunderstorms we get at Meadowcreek.  You don’t have a lot of warning as you do in flat land.  You can’t see the storm coming.  It just pops over the ridge and its here.  Keeps you on your toes.

Extreme weather events, many say, are increasingly caused by man made climate change.  Climate change resilience is what everyone from the White House on down is trying to achieve.  Resilience is one of our main interests at Meadowcreek.  So some think we are focused on climate change at Meadowcreek.


Not exactly. The resilience we are trying to understand is a more general resilience.  We are interested in how systems, especially farms and food systems, respond to all sorts of disturbances, not just weather extremes.  Unexpected weather is a huge disturbance for farmers, but market changes, labor changes, input prices are all huge disruptions.

A farmer breaks his leg and the resilience of his farm gets tested.  A farmer’s baby gets cancer and he has to spend weeks at the hospital.  What happens to the farm?  We did a case study on just such a situation in Tupelo, Mississippi.  Neighbors pitched in and the farm seemed to run about as well as always.  The parents could be with their baby until she was healed.

Ecological resilience researchers call that redundancy.  We call it having good friends and family. Whatever you call it, it means having someone to take over, someone who has your back.  Ecological systems aren’t resilient unless they can replace missing components.  When the last wolf is shot, the caribou population explodes and the mountains erode from vegetation loss.  The wolf and the caribou are part of the same system, neither species can be healthy without the other.

The independent farmer is an enduring myth of American life.  No farmer survives as a lone wolf.  All resilient farmers have extensive networks.  They create community wherever they are.

We are creating community at Meadowcreek, starting almost from scratch.  Two years ago, we had a sudden outflow of residents.  Long time members of the Meadowcreek community had opportunities in other areas.  We were left with five empty residential houses and two empty dorms.  Gradually we have been finding great people to come to Meadowcreek and create a new community which includes families up and down the valley outside Meadowcreek’s 1600 acres.

The first residents were pioneers and being a pioneer is tough, especially when the winter is the coldest ever and you arrive in the middle of it.  It’s also psychologically tough for some people because Meadowcreek is isolated and some folks are used to cities and lots of social interaction.  We feel lucky to have a great brew pub less than an hour away, but its not like having one on the next block.

So new members of the Meadowcreek community are always welcome.  If we fill up all the houses, we have great ideas for new resilient building design and plenty of room to build more.

The only way you will find out if you are cut out to live in a pristine mountain valley away from TV and cell phones is to try it.  Come on up for a weekend, a week or a summer.  We look forward to seeing you.

By the way, a great book on agriculture and climate change is Resilient Agriculture, written by our friend Laura Lengnick. Our own book, available free here, builds on her work and give specific tips on how to build resilience on your farm and in your community.

The double-edged sword of diversity

We live in a very unique microclimate at Meadowcreek.  It’s always cooler than any place around us because our narrow valley runs north and south.  Dusk and dawn last a long time because the sun has to get over the Eastern ridge in the morning and disappears early over the Western ridge in the evening.  Meadowcreek valley is also unique due to our many springs.  These keep the valley moist all year.  Being cool and moist, we often get fog in the morning which fills up the valley while above the valley are clear skies.  Or sometimes the reverse.

eat and be eatenThese conditions have created mushroom heaven at Meadowcreek.  We have so many unique species, the mycologists have an annual meeting here.

Mushrooms and their relatives, the fungi, have a long and glorious history on the planet.  They have much to tell us about both the importance and the perils of diversity.

You know about the asteroid that destroyed the majority of life on the planet, wiping out the dinosaurs and much of the plant life of the time. In the wake of the impact, light from the sun hardly penetrated the layers of ash and debris held in the atmosphere. The only life forms most capable of handling such a unique challenge were mushrooms and other fungi . Before the atmosphere cleared and the dust settled, the fungi continued to decompose dead plants, clearing the way for seed ferns that survived in the soils below. What would have become of the surface of the planet without the fungi covering the surface, perpetuating the decay of plant matter?

So fungi saved the planet after the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.  But fungi need plants to survive.  Though the mushrooms can survive without direct sun, they need a continual source of plants to turn into sugars  they need. The work of mushrooms then creates soil components which allows more plants to thrive.

This shows the complementary diversity of all resilient systems.  Each component eats and is eaten in turn.  Food we eat and food we become. Selfish or non-complementary systems die, and usually die young, because they don’t realize that giving builds up the system which can then provide the inputs it needs. Whenever a selfish species arises, its lifecycle eventually decays because it destroys the system supporting it.  The earth is now experiencing a mega-extinction event because we have one selfish species, man.

Man, in his industrial hubris, has created the concept and reality of waste.  There is no waste in resilient systems.  In resilient systems, everything is consumed and transformed into alternate materials for alternate uses. It is this recycling process that manages to construct huge redwood trees with solar energy and soil minerals as the only external output. How does a forest manage to build such great structures with seemingly so little input, particularly when we consider the vast inputs required for modern agriculture?

The redwoods and all forests require a vast army of fungi, bacteria and other soil organisms to recycle nutrients so they are available to the trees.  The soil organisms are just trying to survive and reproduce, not supply nutrients to the trees.  But they are so complementary to the trees that their output (degraded plant matter) is the crucial input (nutrients) for the trees.

It’s those sort of complementary systems that keep you and your systems thriving and prospering even in the wake of a metaphorical asteroid. Stable ecosystems such as a tract of mature oak hickory forest are often see as sustainable, lasting or self-managing. These forests are in fact in the K phase, having converted and stored nutrients into trees, and have low and decreasing diversity. A contiguous tract of mature forest has much less diversity than a patchy landscape composed of dense woods and meadows, shrubby areas and young trees. These patchy landscapes provide habitat for animals and plants at every stage of forest succession from new growth after a forest fire to long standing trees that harbor particular species. Traditional forest management tends to produce more homogeneous growth than those forests disturbed naturally and increases the likelihood of unexpected catastrophic change.

Many see the high diversity of resilient systems and conclude that increasing diversity will increase resilience. In fact, the opposite is often true over the long term.

In today’s modern societies diversity is about inclusion. In ecosystems, resilience requires exclusion as well.  More diversity is not always good. Increasing diversity by adding new species to an existing ecosystem can destroy multiple species and thus reduce diversity. Species which don’t complement existing life can destroy systems where they are introduced.

When the rabbit was introduced in Australia it certainly increased diversity of species—momentarily. Then, because there were no natural predators for rabbits, they began to expand exponentially. Rabbits are very good at finding the seedlings of shrubs when they are very small and grazing them out to the extent where the native shrubs are completely unable to regenerate. Rabbits also threaten some of the native burrowing animals, such as the bilby and the burrowing bettong, by moving into their existing burrows and competing for food. Rabbits are responsible for serious erosion problems, as they eat native plants, leaving the topsoil exposed and vulnerable to sheet, gully, and wind erosion.

When the Asian chestnut blight fungus virtually eliminated American chestnut from over 180 million acres of eastern United States forests in the first half of the 20th century, it was a disaster for many animals that were highly adapted to live in forests dominated by this tree species. For example, ten moth species that could live only on chestnut trees became extinct.

Aquatic plants such as South American water hyacinth now in Texas and Louisiana and marine algae such as Australian Caulerpa in the Mediterranean Sea have decreased diversity in vast areas by replacing formerly dominant native plants.

Other examples of increased diversity leading to decreased diversity:

1. Man migrated to North America and wiped out megafauna, after he had done the same in Eurasia.

2. The predatory brown tree snake, introduced in cargo from the Admiralty Islands, has eliminated ten of the eleven native bird species from the forests of Guam.

3. The Nile perch, a voracious predator introduced to Lake Victoria as a food fish, has already extinguished over one hundred species of native cichlid fish there.

4. The sea lamprey reached the Great Lakes through a series of canals and, in combination with overfishing, led to the extinction of three endemic fishes.

5. The first sailors to land on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in the 16th century introduced goats, which quickly extinguished over half the endemic plant species.

Of all 1,880 imperiled species in the United States, 49% are endangered because of introduced species alone or because of their impact combined with other forces.

This downside of diversity occurs in human social systems. The largest study ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings. In business and government, promoting diversity for the sake of diversity can backfire, breaking down the communication channels and the organization’s ability to build trust or a sense of close bonding within members or associates.  Societies and communities lacking racial diversity are often far more productive and cohesive.

Diversity is a double-edged sword.  More diverse systems are more resilient.  But watch out when introducing diversity into a system.  Noncomplementary diversity will destroy resilience of the system.

For more on diversity in resilient systems and links to all the research cited above, see the diversity chapter of our book on resilience here.  

Personal resilience: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness

It’s hard  to take a day of rest at Meadowcreek.  It’s so peaceful just being here, so every day is restful.  But there is so much we want to do here, that it’s sometimes hard to just do nothing. Then it’s time to go to Blue Hole or Bee Bluff and just be amazed at the sights and not want to leave until it gets dark and maybe not even then.

Since it’s Sunday lets jump into the spiritual and psychological aspects of resilience.  You are your most important asset.  All your other assets are filtered and affected by you.  So your personal resilience is crucial to the resilience of your farm, your family, your community.

The best way to increase your personal resilience is to hang around people with a positive attitude toward life who like to fix things and solve problems.  Then you’ll become one of them and be able to pass along the attitudes of resilience.

Want  to build up your personal resilience and grit?  Try the following nine attitudes.

1. Make connections. Resilient people have a few really close friends for whom they would do anything and a lot a folks they keep contact with and see now and then.  Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in church and other civic groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.

2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.

3. Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”

Grit is the aspect of personal resilience which refers to the perseverance and passion for long term goals. People with high levels of grit work persistently towards challenges and maintain effort and interest over years despite negative feedback, adversity, plateaus in progress, or failure. High grit people view accomplishments as a marathon rather than an immediate goal.

5. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away. Act on adverse situations as much as you can.

6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.

7. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

8. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. Positive emotions and resilience are highly related. Maintaining positive emotions while facing adversity promotes flexibility in thinking and problem solving. Positive emotions serve an important function in their ability to help an individual recover from stressful experiences and encounters.

9. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Emmy Werner was one of the first psychologists to use the term resilience. She studied a cohort of children from Kauai, Hawaii. Kauai was quite poor and many of the children in the study grew up with alcoholic or mentally ill parents. Many of the parents were also out of work. Werner noted that of the children who grew up in these very bad situations, two-thirds exhibited destructive behaviors in their later teen years, such as chronic unemployment and drug abuse. However one-third of these youngsters did not exhibit destructive behaviors. Werner called the latter group ‘resilient’. In contrast to their peers, These resilient children were bright, outgoing, had positive self concepts; had close bonds with an emotionally stable parent; and received support from their peers.

I hope this summary of social psychological research on resilience is helpful.  I also hope you don’t like it so much that you consider studying psychology as major in college.  I did that–almost getting a Ph.D. in psychology and teaching at two universities.  And I gladly left it all behind when I realized that most psychology is opinion and changes with the times.

Seek out resilient people and you’ll find they dismiss most psychology as mumbo-jumbo.  Don’t get locked into the world of words and talk.  Resilient people get up, go outside and solve problems: fix their bike, water the garden, cut down some weeds, pet the dog.  That’s what I’m going to do right now.

For more on personal resilience, see our chapter on increasing assets here.

For want of a nail: maintenance saves African wells and Meadowcreek gutters

Yesterday we fixed a downspout and cleaned gutters on the main dormitory at Meadowcreek.  Maintenance is easy to put off for too long.  Great ideas are wonderful to get things started, but maintenance is what keeps a system going.

boreholeMeadowcreek is too nice to leave for long, but once or twice a year I enjoy helping rural development projects in some of the poorest countries in the world.  I miss the Ozarks too much to stay away very long so I’m always glad to find those who make long term commitments to places that really need help.

One of those committed folks showed me how maintenance is the missing link in pulling communities from poverty.  He is a Vietnamese project manager who works on the doorstep of the Sahara desert in Senegal. Water is crucial to life and keeping the Sahara from encroaching.  When women and children are carrying water for miles every day, a charity makes its members feel good by digging a deep well and leaving the fine asset of a water pump to vastly improve the quality of the villagers’ lives.

However, in poor rural areas  of Africa donor agencies and NGOs have spent  hundreds of millions of dollars digging wells that become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down.  As a result, at least 50,000 water supply points are not functioning across rural Africa.  Only one third of water points built by NGOs in Senegal’s Kaolack region are working and 58% of water points in northern Ghana are in disrepair.

My friend in Senegal found the missing piece of the puzzle.  He found young men with mechanical aptitude and trained them in maintenance of the pump. And he created systems to support their efforts.  Villagers paid to use water from the new pump and the money went to by spare parts and pay the maintenance man.

Now all through Africa, this lesson in resilience is being applied.  Where NGOs train local people in well and pump maintenance and the local community pays modest water fees which go for spare parts and to the well maintenance person, water supply systems are much more likely  to be maintained.

In Lubango, Angola, a small town water utility maintains handpumps in surrounding villages for a fee. The company has maintained handpumps in the rural and peri-urban areas surrounding the town since 1990. Each family pays US$0.40 per month to the pump caretaker, half of which was for the caretaker’s salary and the rest to the company. The estimated annual revenue per handpump was $240 versus annual costs of $150 for salary, spare parts, unforeseen repairs, and future investment.  A number of other system designs have also worked.  The commonality is rewarding local maintenance with income from water usage.

At Meadowcreek, we’ve found maintaining productive assets is not natural.  Many people who come to Meadowcreek love to work outside and learn how to grow food organically.  They naturally love to get in the soil and dig and plant.  One of the things they do not love and always forget is to put up tools.  After the work is finished and you are enjoying swimming in the cool Blue Hole, the last thing you want to do is go back to the field and pick up the tools you left there.  You have to or they rust and decay.  After a few times everyone remembers, it becomes second nature and we are all happy.  It’s sometimes a tough early lesson at Meadowcreek or any farm or community.

When maintenance and care of all productive assets does become second nature, the community is on the road to resilience and sustainability.  Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in families which told this nursery rhyme on maintenance:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Maintenance illustrates the butterfly effect of chaos theory.  A small change in one tiny part of the system can have huge effects on the entire system.  For more examples of maintaining and increasing productive assets to create resilience click here to see the chapter in our book.

Cleaning gutters, fixing drain pipes, and picking up tools isn’t the most glamorous of jobs at Meadowcreek, but we gladly do it because we know maintenance is crucial to the resilience of any farm, any community.

Mushrooms and Meadowcreek, July 2015

Summer has been delightfully wet at Meadowcreek this year.  Delightful because wet means mushrooms.  Meadowcreek is a favorite destination for mycologists–those who love the fungi we love to eat.  Every year we find new species at Meadowcreek.  This year’s favorite so far is the indigo milky mushroom.  When I sawDSCN9772 the first one, I thought it was some bright blue wrapping  paper, but its was Lactarius indigo.  Barely touching the gills, i released a blue dye which stained my hands.  What a find!  We can’t wait for the regional mycological society to make their annual visit to Meadowcreek and see what the experts will discover.

The rainy weather doesn’t stop us from enjoying Meadowcreek’s Blue Hole for swimming.  Yesterday the spring fed water was so perfect after a hot day.  The water is so clear you can see at least 10 foot down.  The foot long bass swimming below us might like to be a little better hidden, but we enjoy watching them swim DSCN9771around us.

When the rain started, the Blue Hole erupted with spikes rising off the pool where the raindrops hit.  We wanted to capture the images in a painting or a picture for you, but instead we just enjoyed it.  You’ll have to come out and see it yourself some time.

That’s our other task on these rainy days, fixing up our houses for guests.  In addition to our twenty person dorm, we have four houses we are fixing up for future guests.  Sometimes we are selfish and want to keep Meadowcreek for ourselves, but we really need to share it with people who want to escape the city for a weekend or a week of communion with nature.

We’re also getting the Resilience House spic and span for new interns and research assistants.  If you’ve always wanted to live in a passive solar house in a pristine mountain valley and learn about ecological resilience, you might want to apply.  We still have room for a couple more people this fall and winter.

Eve of destruction, eve of new beginnings

We do have a few survivalists in the Ozarks.  Many resilient Ozark residents are thriving by catering to the survivalists.  At Meadowcreek, we know resilience is more than survival.  It also implies transformation.  Resilient systems survive through transformation.

shiva god of destruction and creationConservative innovation is a near cousin to transformation.  Innovation in a system is actually transformation of a subsystem.  What is an innovation for the farm (e.g., establishing a new cover crop) is a transformation for the subsystem (e.g., the farm’s soil). Innovation can also create a disturbance which transforms it’s overall system.

Resilient systems thrive on disturbance by using it for creative destruction. In resilient systems, dissolution of the old is a precursor to a more powerful system.Technological innovations often are such powerful innovations that they can transform our lives.. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy, the smart phone has largely replaced the land line phone, calculator, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video player and recorder, audio recorder, photo album, watch, and even flashlight.

Creation of new industries results in destruction of old industries. Creative destruction is a concept used in a variety of areas including economics, corporate governance, product development, technology and marketing.

Creative destruction allows an innovation to induce a release and dissolution phase for some subsystems. When moderated by the other aspects of resilience the larger system becomes more adapted. The dark side of creative destruction occurs when the conservative forces pushing the systems toward survival and reproduction are subverted.

Unpredictable self-organization, the foundation of all innovation, in human societies is often divorced from the conservatism which insures that innovations contribute to the survival and reproduction of the society. Societies in the mature or K phase often have so many assets that they support innovations which undermine their foundations. Government bureaucracies and many other monopolies unaccountable to the consumer, are notorious sources of innovations which reduce resilience but are maintained.

Such innovations don’t survive long in any ecosystems whose assets are continually under attack by competing adaptive systems. But if the system has accumulated assets which enable it to sustain itself in the short run, it can destroy creative destruction, the foundations for long term resilience.  NASA gradually is losing its capabilities for space exploration as we buy rockets cheaply from Russia, just as the US has lost the television and small car markets to outside innovators as manufacturers became importers.

Ecological resilience research transforms our concept of system identity and cycles. In contrast to past visions of climax communities, we now know ecosystems do not tend toward single, stable identities, but rather have the potential to exhibit multiple identities, and can rapidly shift between them. Further, all ecosystems move through cycles of change. No ecosystem is static; for instance, ecological communities do not tend toward a stable distribution of species, but are always changing. Management of ecosystems requires transformative shifts in identities.

Agricultural systems must be managed to embrace change, transformation and reformation if they are to be resilient. Throughout history when agricultural systems were forced to conform to the standards and expectations of the past, chaos and shortage ensued. As early cultures became reliant on irrigation and over-used it despite droughts, shortages and salinization, systems inevitably collapsed. Our own system is overdue for the kinds of innovations not seen since the introduction of the tractor and heavy equipment. Innovations are required that are diverse and unique to each bioregion, sensitive to the ecosystem they affect.

One of the most publicized systems in need of transformation is the extensive use of water from the Colorado River and the Central Valley to irrigate the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and California. Unless we embrace the change to mitigate water consumption and plant crops suited to the environment, we are inevitably headed for a system collapse which will affect millions of acres of farmland as well as millions of households who also rely on the waters of these rivers.

Ecologists who use the complex adaptive systems approach understand management is itself part of the system. One doesn’t just study ecosystems, but social-ecological systems, which includes the actions of the managers of the ecosystems, the users, the advocacy groups that seek preservation, and anyone who has some interest in the ecosystem.

Management, then, must also foster all qualities necessary to resilience including diversity, modularity, connectivity and redundancy. In addition, it must foster innovation and novelty, experiment, innovate, and encourage endogenous self-organization and novelty. One example is a current project from Colorado. In the Crystal River basin in the early 1900s, and again in the 1950s, miners pried coal from these mountains, easing 100-ton loads down the switchbacks. Now the mineshafts are closed, but the tangle of roads, along with 100 acres of waste-rock piles, remain major erosion problems. On this site a unique merger is occurring between the Forest Service, local cattlemen and environmental groups. After using a three-year “cow stomp” to integrate biochar, compost and rotational grazing in the barren soils, new grasses, and decreased erosion are evident.

Management’s job is to flip systems to more resilient states. Management of rangeland and savanna systems illustrates how management determines ecosystem state. Consider a system with two states: one with a balance between grass and shrubs with periodic fires and one with little or no grass, dominated by shrubs. A flip can be induced by overgrazing or fire suppression or by controlling grazing and prescribed burns. Increased grazing and fire suppression can reduce the resilience of the desirable system (the one with plentiful grass and few shrubs) to a drought.

By embracing disturbance, managers increase resilience of desirable systems. The system is exposed to discrete, low-level events that cause disruptions without pushing the system beyond a critical threshold. Such frequent, small-scale disturbances can increase system resilience and adaptability in the long term by promoting natural selection and novel configurations during the phase of renewal. Disturbance regimes, defined as the repeated exposure to certain shocks over time, push the processes of evolution and adaptation in ecosystems and build ecosystems’ capacity to recover from future disturbance.

As long as the disturbance does not push the ecosystem too close to or beyond a critical threshold, the system can recover and may even be stronger upon reorganization. Disturbance initiates the release of resources that have become sequestered or bound up so that other components can take advantage of them while forming novel configurations.  Disturbance loosens rigidity. However, for exposure to disturbance to achieve the desired effect of building resilience, and not the consequence of pushing the system beyond a threshold, the system must be robust, with a strong foundation of ecosystem services and governance.

Disturbance contributes to agroecosystems’ resilience in two ways. First, it facilitates diversity. Disturbance regimes affect the landscape irregularly, creating a mosaic of plant and animal communities in various stages of succession. Second, it sets into motion the phase of renewal and reorganization. Resources are then redistributed and reorganized into novel configurations that are more adapted to the changing conditions.

Resilient societies have instituted regular and orderly disturbance by changing those who are in power. At least every eight years the U.S. President is replaced. This embrace of disruption is hardly the norm in the world’s societies. Robert Mugabe’s continuous rule in Zimbabwe since 1980 has eliminated productive businesses and farms and stimulated perhaps “the most rapid disintegration yet of a modern nation-state.”  I’ve visited Zimbabwe multiple times during Mugabe’s reign and witnessed further deterioration each visit.

There is a remarkably high correlation between length of time in office of a country’s leader and stagnation or decline in living standards in a country. No matter how benevolent a dictator, he is limited by his own experience and networks. In ecological resilience this is an example of a rigidity or poverty trap: the governance of a system insures that the system does not move into more adapted state.   The system does not change and may appear resilient in the short run, but any long term resilience of the system is undermined.

Governance of systems may maintain a system in a poverty trap not only through the perpetuation of one particular leader. In fact, more pernicious influences on resilience are rigid cultural mindsets and other controllers of governance structures (such as well-heeled lobbyists).

Randy Hardin, as shown in our case study from Central Arkansas, is a prime example of transformation and resilience. His farm was highly diversified and fed into a larger business that housed a pumpkin patch, corn maze, restaurant and educational opportunities for children all over the property including replicas of American Indian and colonial homes on site. Business was going great, he employed a tremendous staff generating wealth in the local economy and his business model was built on providing enjoyment and education to all ages. As luck would have it, a highway was constructed right through the center of his property, effectively cutting off the vegetable fields that fed into his restaurant and creating too much liability to have children around with the new highway looming nearby. Rather than packing up and taking a job in the city, he transformed his model choosing to reopen a new store in a nearby town that specialized in locally grown food and culinary products as well as a successful BBQ and ready-made meals for the ageing populace around him. Resilience resulted from his willingness to transform the model to something new, choosing not to maintain the old business in the face of game changing disturbance.

The collapse survivalists see coming may never happen, but unexpected disturbances will happen to all our farms, communities and nations.  Until we embrace disturbance and use it to create transformation, dissolution of systems should be expected.

Conservatives are evil. Yet all ecologists are conservative. What?

My grandfather was one of the first Conservation Agents in Missouri, yet he and my grandmother were die-hard Democrats, doing their best to lead and implement Great Society programs to help the poor and the elderly. Where they farmed, in Harrison County, Missouri, people didn’t talk about sustainability or resilience, but they knew that good farmers followed ecologically sound conservation practices. Everyone, they said, knew who the good farmers were and those were the ones who would last and succeed.  Today we’d call them the resilient farmers.

The opposite of my grandparents is the die-hard Republican farmer of today who plants vast acreages of monocrops, tears out fence rows wherever he can, relies on spray planes and anhydrous ammonia, often sets up concentrated animal feedlots, and seldom lives on the land he farms. He manipulates the political system and his land to extract maximal profit while living far from the spray planes spewing toxic chemicals on his land.

We encounter more than a few of these farmers in the flat and rich farmland of the Mississippi Delta adjacent to our Ozarks.  This morning driving through the Arkansas portion of the Delta to Meadowcreek, I had to roll up my  windows at 6 am as a spray plane hit me with God-knows-what chemical meant for the soybean crop beside the road.  Luckily, I was on my way to Meadowcreek where there are no spray planes.

If you believe the typical American conservative is evil, you won’t get much disagreement at Meadowcreek.  The people who come and live at Meadowcreek are almost universally liberal–as the American political discourse typically defines liberal and conservative. Bernie Sanders seems to be the universal choice for the 2016 Presidential election.

But we are also terribly conservative, we just want to conserve systems which existed long before modern American political conservatism arose.  We like innovation, but it must fit into the local ecological systems and increase the soil, water and other productive assets.

Resilient farmers like innovations such as management intensive grazing.  Why?  Because they use natural ecological processes to improve productivity and sustainability of farms.  The best soils in the world (in Ukraine and the American Midwest) were built by management intensive grazing. Wolves and other predators were the managers.

Wolf packs kept grazing animals concentrated in an area until all the food was gone and, serendipitously, manure well-incorporated in the soil.  When a given area was depleted, the herd was forced to move on to another area and kept in a herd by the wolves patrolling the edges and picking off stragglers. The result was the grass was fully utilized and the land was heavily fertilized by manure which was incorporated by the cow’s hooves into the soil before the herd moved on.

Today’s management intensive graziers use electric fence to mimic the predators of past millennia.  The management intensive grazier uses every innovation he can find or invent.  Cody Hopkins, a friend who lives near Meadowcreek, uses these techniques for not only cattle, but hogs and chickens, He’s created several technical innovations.  One gets water to his chickens as their pens are moved across the field.  Another is a better method for harvest.

The resilient farmer is always looking to improve his systems and make them more innovative.  In being open to new ideas, he is far from conservative, but he is extremely conservative in making sure any innovations interact successfully with the complex adaptive systems which determine whether it survives and prospers.

A farmer is limited in time, money, workers, and land. By sticking to tried and true traditions, the farmer has a pretty reliable estimate as to what he can produce given those constraints. Introducing a new technology or a new way of doing things on the farm puts the farmer’s limited and precious resources at risk.

All species have adopted innate survival mechanisms for the sake of efficiency. Our “innate” behaviors, such as eating, chewing, breathing, and crying when distressed, are unconscious systems that allow us to move through life with a much higher chance of survival. If we had to learn how to do these things, or think about them every time we did them, the daily task of survival would become a whole lot harder. Certain basic parts of any system are very conservatively maintained.

Resilience suffers when aspects of the system which must respond to the outside systems are conservatively maintained when those systems change.  Rigidity traps can lure farmers, entrepreneurs, and even whole organizations into using up all of their potential resources when going about “business as usual.” Even systems that are stuck in a rigidity trap are able to get out, but it takes some extra effort. Although individuals within a system may be able to change a properly functioning system, when a system becomes stuck in a rigidity trap, individuals alone are too weak to completely fix it. It will take strong, innovative leaders to rally individual strength together and break the rigidity trap.

Since smaller systems are more malleable than large, steady systems, it is easier to leave the rigidity trap on your own farm than to overhaul all the rigidity traps of our current agricultural system. However, every farm that escapes the rigidity trap moves the general population forward. Every early adopter of a new way of thinking about agriculture contributes to winning over the early majority, the late majority, and even the laggards.

The emergence of a thought shift in farmers markets in Oxford, Mississippi, illustrates the relationship between conservation and innovation, and the perils of both conservatism without innovation and lack of conservatism in innovation. Oxford is a college town, and like many college towns, it has a thriving food scene. The city also prides itself as a cultural hub of the South, and as such it draws food connoisseurs and top chefs. The result is an expensive, sophisticated culture where food is a luxury to be invested in. However, Oxford has another face, one less visible to the outside world. It harbors immense poverty. The local middle school has a 50 percent poverty rate.

Two separate farmer’s markets have appeared in Oxford. The first of the two was Mid-Town Farmer’s Market. The Mid-Town Farmer’s Market has more or less held the same group of farmers for the better part of its existence. It generally does not accept new vendors, and it sticks to a very traditional model. For instance, it has turned down vendors who hoped to sell shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model rather than directly selling produce. In 2011, when the City of Oxford accepted a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the money was supposed to transform Mid-Town’s vending system into one that could accept EBT and WIC. Allegedly, Mid-Town turned down the money and the changes. However, the grant still needed to go toward a farmer’s market, and so Oxford City Market was born. For all the ways that Mid-Town has remained loyal to its original model and vendors, Oxford City Market (OCM) tries new approaches. OCM is a city-run farmer’s market, which means that its main organizer is a city employee. The market aspires to generate enough revenue to pay for its own organizer, but it’s still a young enterprise.

A main goal of OCM is inclusion. OCM accepts as many farmers as it can make space for, even ones that sell the same goods. It also used additional grant money to create an alternative way of paying farmers. Instead of customers paying farmers directly, customers buy wooden tokens worth varying amounts of money at the main desk, and then spend the tokens at each booth. This allows all farmers to accept payment from customers using WIC and EBT, even though not every farmer has the capacity to process EBT and WIC cards at their stand. OCM also reaches out in multiple venues with multiple languages to attract new customers. The whole philosophy that OCM takes—that farmer’s markets should actively work toward inclusion—inspires a new, innovative approach to selling fresh food. There are some benefits and pitfalls to each approach.

Mid-Town is consistent and self-sufficient. The famers allowed to sell there are not allowed to sell competing goods, which helps their own profits. However, the market does not serve most farmers in the area, and customers only have one price option for each good since farmers can’t compete with each other. OCM, on the other hand, is trying to serve as many farmers and customers as possible. Farmers in this market can compete with each other by selling the same good, but not all farmers are in favor of that. Due to both its youth and its quest for inclusivity, OCM is a lot less stable than Mid-Town. It does not yet have its own land to use each week and it also isn’t financially self-sustaining yet.

The two markets illustrate what we mean by innovation and conservation. OCM embraces all of the latest innovations in farmer’s market-style vending. It tries to incorporate many farmers with unique products, it reaches out to customers that traditionally weren’t wealthy enough to spend their money at the farmer’s market, and it’s designed a method of payment where all farmers can accept payment from EBT- and WIC-using customers. However, it struggles to find stability, and some of its experiments have failed.

Mid-Town, on the other hand, takes an ultraconservative approach. It is extremely stable, but it is also resistant to change. It relies on a small group of farmers and a small, though wealthy, base of customers. Should any one of these things change (as they are bound to), the whole market will suffer. OCM is certainly taking a lot of risks, but it would also appear that Mid-Town Market has fallen into a rigidity trap. Its system is extremely financially predictable, which has enabled Mid-Town Market to become its own independent entity with a consistent location.

However, this conservatism may be preventing the market from considering new approaches. Rigidity prevents it from expanding its base of vendors or customers. As the dynamics of Oxford inevitably shift, Mid-Town may struggle to adapt to its new environment. How can we tell the difference between efficiency and a “rigidity trap”? Where do conservation and innovation meet? We define successful conservative innovation as a trait that doesn’t hamper any of the other components of socio-ecological resilience—connectivity, local organization, asset building, backups, complementary diversity, ecological integration, and periodic transformation. Making sure both conservation and innovation are allowing for the other seven components to flourish, however, is a task in and of itself. It requires feedback.

Feedback is when one part of a system talks to another part of the system. It allows farmers, entrepreneurs, farmer’s market managers, etcetera, to see how well their business or system is working. Ecological and social systems alike use feedback to test which of its innovations are the best for the system.

Feedback is most accurate when multiple pieces of the system are involved in the communication process. Innovation is almost always a learning process, explored by trial and error. With any new innovation, there are bound to be errors. Feedback mechanisms are an efficient way to explore those errors and correct them.

Critically, feedback is characteristic of a non-linear, complex system. As shown by the complex adaptive systems model, socio-ecological systems are anything but simple. Non-linear systems occur when information from different steps in the process are looped back to earlier parts. Though they may reduce efficiency in the short term, when information channels double back they increase the long-term likelihood of the innovation to be beneficial on a wide scale. Feedback is a cooperative social process.

The spread of ideas—old and new—is a social phenomenon. The social and cultural context in which an idea takes place heavily shapes whether the idea is adopted. In our case study with Josh Hardin, many of the ideas he’s attempting in Arkansas come from his connections on the West Coast. We saw this illustrated again in another case study we conducted with Sequatchie Cove Farm just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bill Keener, Sequatchie Cove’s founder, is widely credited as one of the pioneers of Chattanooga’s thriving local food movement. However, when he began farming, he became acquainted with cutting edge sustainable farming thinkers like Joel Salatin. He implemented ideas that the leaders of the movement had already done and brought them to Chattanooga. What might not be news to Joel Salatin may well be news to a small city in Tennessee. In ecology, innovation spreads physically, through genetics and reproduction. However, people don’t necessarily have to wait generations to adapt. It’s a question of being connected in the right ways.

You can learn more in the conservative innovation chapter in our book.