Childless adult salamanders

salamander 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.

The Ozark hellbender has the best name and is also the ugliest.  It grows to two feet hellbenderlong 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 filled with only 60-ish farmers.

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.