Yin, yang and resilient farms in sagebrush country

I visited a bunch of Taoist temples and sacred mountains in China a couple of months after 9-11.  My friends wondered how I could fly internationally so soon after the attacks.  I told them the Chinese had a simple way of dealing with Islamic terrorism.  They just did’t let people from the Middle East fly on their planes.  It might be politically incorrect, but it worked.  Chinese airlines vastly increased market share after the 9-11 attacks.

I visited the Taoist sites to learn more about the origins of yin, yang and the Tao Te Ching.  I didn’t learn much about them in China because the temples there have followed the same route as most religions.  They’ve become dedicated to ritual and money.  But I didn’t lose my interest in yin and yang because of the commercialization of Taoism, just as I’ve never lost my faith due to the rigid theology of some Christians.

Understanding yin and yang have helped me understand ecosystems, especially resilient agricultural and food systems. They are examples of apparently opposite or contradictory forces which are actually complementary.  Democrat and Republican, capitalist and socialist, American and communist, Obama-phile and Tea Party  are just a few examples of how many of us generate polar opposites and require people to take sides.

Polarization always impedes movement toward resilience.  Resilient systems are innovative, but also conservative. They are prolific in reproduction, but control population size.  They are diverse, but eliminate alien diversity. They are locally organized, but reach out to bring in resources.  They feature tight bonds to a few individuals but loose bonds to a multitude.

Resilient agricultural systems work with natural processes, but know they can be improved.  They accumulate productive assets, but aren’t greedy and don’t hoard.  They value stability, but know you have to upset the apple cart now and then.

Any successful farmer or other food system manager almost intuitively  employs each of the seemingly opposite forces.  He or she doesn’t label them as I have, but has a tacit knowledge which they seldom put into words.

For  more than 30 years now I’ve been searching out resilient farmers and food system managers around the world. Yesterday I was in Colorado near the Utah/Arizona/New Mexico border.  We’d been traveling through dry landscapes where sagebrush bushes and bare red earth predominated.  Then suddenly we were in lush farm fields of alfalfa and corn. The Indian reservation land which couldn’t support a single cow became a lush and productive farm.

It’s politically incorrect to attribute anything but pure nature-loving motives to the peaceful American Indian.  Political discourse has been polarized.  My best friend when I ran Save the Children’s  agriculture programs was a Toono O’odham. Outsiders sometimes call them Papago.  Their ancestral homeland was the border of Mexico and Arizona.  Their irrigated ag systems which increased diversity were eliminated on Park Service land.  We joked about how one of my ancestors was Kit Carson, a famous Indian-killer.  You could do that back in the 80s.  Probably not today.

We stopped at a store on the Navajo reservation and found a white man running it, as usual.  All the customers were Dine or Navajo. I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to talk about that, just as you aren’t supposed to notice that almost all the convenience stores in urban ghettos are run by Koreans and all the customers black.  Only certain types of diversity are politically correct.

The sagebrush ecosystem is resilient.  It’s lasted for eons.  The lush alfalfa fields depend on irrigation from groundwater, markets for hay and the skills and equipment of the farmer.  It’s only resilient if the farmer embraces the dualities of resilience.  The sagebrush system doesn’t need a manager.  The sage bushes produce chemicals which kill off grasses and other plants in their vicinity.  This insures the sagebrush survives and other plants don’t.  So the soil is bare between sagebush plants, the soil erodes creating spectacular landscapes and the Colorado River runs red.

The resilience trap of the sagebrush system is a fact of life on the Navajo Reservation.  Next door the farmers have created a system which has lasted since the Mormons arrived and continues to increase in productivity every year.  They have to make sure they don’t abuse the aquifer and develop surface water catchment.  If they continue to do so, they will have productive systems far into the future while the sagebrush continues to dominate the reservation next door.


For more on the eight dualities of resilience, read our free online book at this link.