We’ve had a beautiful full moon the last few nights. No sense in arguing exactly what day it was “full.” As far as I’m concerned, its been full every day for the last several days. It’s bright as day at 5 am when I walk out to get the newspaper. It’s nice to walk in and out of the moonshadow.
Every day the moon is higher in the sky at 5 am and every day a little bit more is sliced off the side nearest the western horizon. We accept and enjoy the way the moon changes. Why don’t we embrace such transformations in our own lives?
We’re heading into autumn in Arkansas. The dry weather has hastened the loss of leaves from our trees. The creek maples have already lost all their leaves. The views at Meadowcreek have started to open up. It’s less like maneuvering through a lush tunnel when you travel Meadow Creek road.
Deciduous trees embrace change. Right now, they are all transforming themselves for the coming winter. The shorter days have told them to start decreasing supplies to the leaves and start storing it in the roots. In a month or so they’ll shut down chlorophyll production and colors will start to appear on the remaining leaves. Then the leaves will fall and our huge trees will just lie dormant for a few months. That’s a transformation most of us humans couldn’t abide.
At Meadowcreek, we’re the exact opposite of dormant in the fall. We’re chopping wood and putting up preserves. Soon we’ll be canning salsa from our fall tomatoes. The cooler fall weather stimulates us to do more outside. When the frost comes and beats back the chiggers, ticks and snakes, we spend even more time working outside.
Why are we doing all this work, when all around us Nature is slowing down to rest for the winter? Because we want things to be the same in winter as summer. We want tomatoes in winter even when we can’t pick them off the vine. We want the house to be warm as toast even when there’s snow outside.
Humans like stability. No matter how many times we hear, “the only constant in life is change,” we don’t accept it. We want things to be stable. We want our kids to stay young and we want to stay young. We want lives that are balanced and run on an even keel.
This need for stability leads us to see stability in nature when it doesn’t exist. We like to think of the “balance of nature” when ecologists have abandoned this notion. We like the mature forest and believe in “climax communities,” though ecologists have also abandoned this notion.
Ecologists now realize that ecosystems are made up of multiple competing species which eat and are eaten by each other. Nature is never in balance, it is continually fluctuating. As prey numbers fluctuate according to forage growth, predator numbers fluctuate.
Ecologists recognize multiple equilibria instead of just one climax community. A savanna with plenty of open grassland will have more diversity and more production than a mature forest. Native peoples realized this and maintained grassland with fire to increase herds of grazing animals.
We like to accomplish things on a regular schedule. The people of India used to say, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” They preferred to adjust to the environment and not try to force the environment to adjust to them. The dedication to order, stability, and control did enable the English to conquer a good bit of the world. But which culture is more resilient? Based on the numbers of people from India running motels, research labs and even large companies in the US, maybe the British model is not so resilient.
We value hard work. But timing needs to be right. Last week, I only had one day I could help dig beds. So we dug them even though the ground was dry from lack of rain. We couldn’t dig as deeply as we wanted to, so the bed won’t be as productive. I strained my back pounding the shovel into rock hard clay. We should have waited on the beds and done something else instead. To everything there is a season.
Being in sync with the rhythms of nature is required for resilience. We weren’t too in in sync with the rhythms of nature when we decided to dig that bed last week. We knew it, but we did it anyway and I’m still paying for it with a sore back.
Native species don’t have any problem adapting to natural rhythms. If they do anything else, they don’t survive. The fungal structure we call a mushroom is the very transitory fruiting body of an organism which can live for centuries and occupy acres of soil. The mushroom only appears when the organism (as mycelia underground or in decaying logs) has colonized all the available territory.
Then it waits until a rain comes and conditions are perfect for sporulation. Only then does it produce the fruiting body of the sexual phase. These then produce the innovative offspring which can colonize new territories.
All resilient systems follow this path. Most of life is spent in the growth and maturation phases. But when needed, the alpha phase is begun to create the transformation and innovation which leads to more fit, adapted and productive systems.
The resilient system is content to wait and wait until conditions are right and then it explodes with vigor and growth and transforms itself.
One of Nature’s most spectacular transformations is butterfly metamorphosis. Around 280 million years ago, some insects began to hatch from their eggs not as minuscule adults, but as wormlike critters with plump bodies and many tiny legs. These voracious worms are built solely to eat, grow and accumulate the resources needed to form a chrysalis or cocoon. Inside the cocoon, these larvae release enzymes which dissolve nearly all of its tissues. However, some organized groups of cells survive. These clusters of cells, called imaginal discs, first form when an insect embryo develops in its egg. The imaginal discs remain dormant until the larva has been destroyed, then they rapidly proliferate and grow into adult legs, wings and eyes, using dissolved larval cells as fuel and building blocks.
Similarly all resilient systems carry the equivalents of imaginal discs (such as seeds or new inventions or new social organization) which enable the system to transform as it uses the resources generated in previous stages.
Unfortunately our desire for stability and order inhibits our resilience. A leader stays too long in office and his state or country declines. A businessman or farmer refuses to relinquish control of his business to the fresh energy and ideas of the next generation and the enterprise declines. An industry refuses to accept a new technology and is run out of business.
Resilient systems embrace periodic transformation. Natural systems because they have to, man-made systems because they need to.
Pay attention to your local system and the forces impinging on it. Is it time for intense work or time to accumulate reserves or just time to rest and be alert for opportunities?