Finding unexpected resilience while exploring abandoned ruins

Millions of years unfold as we travel through the geologic strata of Southern Utah in July 2015. Uplift and erosion has exposed layers of red sandstone, shale, white sandstone and granite for all to be amazed by. Bones of dinosaurs and untold thousands of other extinct species peek out of these strata waiting to be discovered.

Humans have only impacted this landscape for a few thousand years.  Agriculture enabled the ancient peoples known as Anasazi to create towns and even build huge cities in the cliffs.  Yet they too disappeared, abandoning their homes and villages.around 1300.  In the 1800s, Mormons settled with more modern tools and created green and verdant oases throughout the region.Anasazi_Ruins_Mesa_Verde_National_Park_Colorado_03

We’ve come here because the Resilience Project of Meadowcreek was asked to present our latest research results to a gathering of University agriculture specialists in Durango, Colorado on July 8.  The presentation was well-received by attendees from 13 Western States, Samoa and Guam.  One participant said, “You have the makings for twelve Ph.D. dissertations there.”

The landscapes we’ve seen since that talk show we have even more than that to learn about resilience.  The Anasazi had a society which sustained itself in a very dry climate for hundreds of years.  During that time they not only established agricultural systems which enabled their numbers to expand, but perfected building techniques which enabled them to create amazing cliff dwellings throughout the region.  We saw one of the largest, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde on the first day after the conference.  We learned that the society abruptly disappeared from this region, never to return.  Why is a mystery to this day, we were told by the rangers guiding us through the ruins.  Our studies of resilience make the Anasazi less a mystery.

Contemplating the ruins of this lost civilization reminds us of ruins of other lost civilizations around the world.  If you have never explored how many civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying the very ecosystem which supports them, you should start with a short pamphlet by W. C. Lowdermilk.  He showed how hundreds, if not thousands of civilizations have followed this path.  They cut down trees and didn’t replant.  They overgrazed pasture land and exposed soils to erosion.  They tilled the land and let wind and rain carry the soil away.  They were powerful societies but they weren’t resilient.  They didn’t last.  All because they didn’t respect the natural processes which enabled them to become so powerful.  They focused so much on sustaining production for their growing populations that they forgot to attend to the resilience which underlies sustainability.

As we are exploring the Anasazi ruins throughout the region, we begin to notice something peculiar.  Every so often, we are driving through miles after miles of dry and parched desert until we finally top a ridge and see a green and prosperous valley.  This happens time and again and we always find that it was Mormon settlers who established these verdant outposts.  In the lands abandoned by Anasazi 500 years earlier, the Mormons have learned how to conserve the limited rainfall of the region and use it carefully to create agricultural systems which are so astounding as to be unbelievable. Next to their fertile, prolific plots with deep soils covered with lush growth, are desert landscapes where a few scrubby, thorny plants try to survive in rocky, sandy soil.

We look at all the check dams established by the Anasazi and know they also knew how to capture and conserve water and use it to create a highly productive agricultural system. In many ways, the landscape must have looked much like it does today.  Productive green patches carefully tended in the desert.  Will the Mormon farmers fare better than the Anasazi?

This area is the Colorado River watershed.  All the valleys channel water into the Colorado River.  Before the Mormons arrived in the 1800s, the Colorado River flowed into  the Pacific Ocean between Baja California and Sonora.

However, the farmers making the desert green in Utah and other users withdraw so much water from the watershed that the Colorado River has not consistently reached the sea since the 1960s.

Utah farmers seem to have created a productive, sustainable system.  Yet they have contributed to the destruction of a vibrant ecosystem where the mouth of the Colorado used to be. Is this a resilient system?  That’s what we’re here to explore.  We’ve seen such destruction in many other parts of the world, most spectacularly in the virtual obliteration of a sea larger than any of our American Great Lakes, the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. To produce cotton the rivers feeding the Aral Sea were depleted just as the Colorado River has been dried up.

Are the green oases in Utah as destructive as the cotton fields of Asia?  What a place to explore resilience is this part of Utah!

We love Mound Gardens at Meadowcreek

Everyone wants to have beautiful black fertile soil.  The first settlers in the Amazon jungle were amazed at mounds of rich soil surrounded by extremely poor soils.  They called them  terra preta de indio or black earth of the indians.  They are well known due to the discovery that biochar was largely responsible for their lasting fertility.

DSCN9787At Meadowcreek, we’re also growing vegetables in mounds using biochar. Our method also incorporates insights from Korean Natural Farming, indigenous Hawaiian horticultural methods, Square Foot gardening, double digging, Permaculture, and scads of research on healthy, productive soil.

Once complete, these mounds require little maintenance and produce bountifully year after year.  All you have to do is clear some mulch away and plant some seed.

This easy and productive farming is possible only if you built the mound properly.   Yesterday we built a new mound at Meadowcreek below the Resilience House. Here’s how we did it.

To build a mound you must start preparing several days before you actually put a shovel in the soil.The first key is biochar.  A few days ago we made biochar next to our most fertile garden.  The soils of this garden are healthy because they are teeming with a host of indigenous microorganisms uniquely adapted to our particular location and climate.  When the biochar has cooled, we inoculate it with soil from our fertile garden.

Biochar is a perfect home for these indigenous microorganims to live and work.  You need enough inoculated biochar to compose about 5% of the volume of the mound.

When your inoculated biochar is ready, the next thing you need is the right soil conditions at the site of the new mound.  Soil which is too wet or too dry won’t work.  Yesterday was a perfect day for mound building.  The soil had been too dry to build mounds until it rained most of Wednesday.  The soil soaked up all this rain with little run off.  So Thursday we were pretty sure the soil would be perfect.

We headed out at 7 am to beat the heat of August in Arkansas.  Meadowcreek Valley was filled with mist.  We could barely see the cliffs and spires on the west ridge across the valley.

When we sunk the first shovel into the soil, we knew soil conditions were right. The complete shovel blade disappeared into the ground with just a little pressure.   The soil where we are building mounds is clay with virtually no topsoil.  It’s been a pasture as long as anyone knows.  When it gets dry, this clay is too hard to even get a shovel to penetrate.

Since we are building in pasture, we have to clear away the tall grasses and legumes where we are going to dig.  These are set aside to use as mulch later.

DoubleDigWe are building this mound next to one we built earlier this summer.  Each mound has an irrigation trench around it.  We loosen a big chunk of sod with the shovel and turn it upside down in the trench.  We break up this hunk of sod by hand getting lots of hand and wrist exercise.  This sort of exercise, as Chinese traditional medicine has shown for 2500 years, is effective in alleviating all sorts of wrist and finger pain and of for general health.

The roots and stems from the sod are also placed aside for mulch.  By stripping the soil from the sod by hand, the result is material which is fluffy and not compacted.

We continue the length of the mound–about 10 feet–shoveling out hunks fo sod and stripping the sod of soil by hand.  When we get to the end of the edge of the mound, we go back along the ditch we have just dug and clean out the trench.

Then we start again turning over hunks of sod about two shovel blades deep and wide into the new trench where the roots and stems are separated from the soil.  Enjoy all the creatures, especially grubs and worms that you turn up.  Yesterday we found the largest earthworm I have ever seen.  It should really love the new mound and help us create great soil.  Sometimes you also find Indian arrowheads in this process, so keep an eye out.

This process continues until we have a 12 foot by 12 foot plot of fluffy soil newly liberated from the pasture grasses and herbs.

Now we are ready too bring in the inoculated biochar.  We spread this over the new plot and then pull in soil from the edges and mix the pasture soil with the biochar, taking care to not step on the fluffy, soft mixture.

Another layer of inoculated biochar goes on top of the emerging mound and more pasture soil is incorporated from the edges.  Once the pasture soil and biochar are thoroughly mixed, we begin tossiing shovel fulls of soil from the edges into the center.  This continues until you have a rough pyramid.

DSCN9805Now it’s time to plant, but the mound is not really complete until you have used the vegetation you set aside to cover the mound between the new plants.  If you are planting seed, you’ll wait until the seed have emerged before putting on the mulch around the new plants.  If you are transplanting, you should mulch immediately.

An addition we like to add to the mound is a teepee composed of small diameter saplings tied together about four feet from the top of the mound.  This provides a trellis for vining plants.  When covered with vines, the teepee creates a microclimate on the mound which traps moisture on hot summer days.

When irrigation is needed, you just fill the trenches on each side of the mound ad let the mound pull the water into itself.  We have a series of mounds whose irrigation trenches are all conected.  This allow us to send water to all the mounds at once from a nearby pond.

The irrigation ditches on each side of the mound will collect vegetation and soil during the summer and winter.  Clean them out in the spring and toss up on the mound to replenish fertility along with more compost and mulch.

I hope you got something out of this is a short sketch of mound gardening.  To really learn how to do it, you need to come to Meadowcreek and build a mound.  Head on up and we’ll teach you..It’s great exercise, much better than going to the gym.