Toads and frogs were more resilient than the dinosaurs, why are they acting so strange today?

Toads and other amphibians are great examples of resilience.  They were on the Earth before the dinosaurs and are still here.  Fall is a great time to see toads.  They are trying to find good places underground to spend the wintrer.

giant-frogThis year they are acting strange, though.  They are already burying themselves to hibernate when its 90 degrees during the day.  They love the nice loose soil of my garden beds.  Up north, where the soil freezes deeper, I never found them buried in the garden.  Here in Arkansas, I unearth several every Spring.  It’s easy for toads to get deep in the tilthy, fluffy soil in beds. So I get plenty of toads and have to be careful when I’m turning over the beds in the spring.

Unearthing them when its so hot is new this year  What is going on with the toads?  One thing for sure, they’ve got a reason.  They must know something about survival and resilience since they preceded and outlasted the dinosaurs and are invading some places.  Unfortunately, the reason may be daylight and the cool days we had in August stimulating hormones which fit the more usual climate.

In the US and other industrialized countries, climate changes or something is causing amphibians to decline precipitously, beginning in the 1950s.  But even in the US, they are doing OK where they don’t encounter the products of industrial life–such as at Meadowcreek.  Just come and listen to our spring peepers.

Amphibians’ current problems in industrialized countries are well documented.  Some say amphibians are among the most threatened creatures on the earth today. More than one third of species are considered to be threatened with extinction and over one hundred and twenty are believed to have become extinct since the 1980s.  It turns out a lot of the ballyhoo may have underestimated the resilience of toads and their relatives.  They are probably just even a little more resilient to the mass extinction currently being caused by man.

The concern for amphibians began in the mid-1990s when people in the United States and Canada began to notice frogs in their local ponds were sprouting extra legs or fewer legs.  Minnesota state government got hundreds of calls from 54 out of 87 counties.

Citizens and scientists alike feared that whatever was altering the frogs–pesticides perhaps–was also having an effect on humans. But researchers didn’t find any compelling link between frog deformities and humans diseases such as cancer. Turns out the frogs were getting their legs naturally.

A flatworm called Ribeiroia starts out life in snails. It grows and reproduces inside the snails, which it castrates so that they don’t waste time on making eggs or looking for a mate. In its castrated host, the parasite produces a new generation of flatworms that can escape the snail and swim in search of a vertebrate host. They typically infect fish or tadpoles. When they invade tadpoles, the parasites bury themselves in the tiny buds that will eventually grow into legs.

As the frogs develop their legs, the parasites wreak havoc. In some frogs they will stunt the growth of a leg, leaving it a stump. In other frogs, a developing leg forks in two. A single frog may even sprout a dozen legs. How do they do it?

In order for a limb bud to develop properly, its cells have to produce certain molecules. The molecules spread out across the limb bud, causing other cells to make other molecules, to grow faster, to die off, and to do all the other things required to make a limb.

One of the crucial molecules for building legs is a version of Vitamin A, known as retinoic acid. Before the swimming parasites find a tadpole, they are producing retinoic acid. Once they’re buried in the frog’s limb bud, their level of retinoic acid drops. Meanwhile, the level of retinoic acid in the limb bud shoots up 70 percent. All of these findings are consistent with the idea that the parasite is injecting limb-deforming drugs into their host.

The deformities of the frogs are part of a strategy that the parasite uses to advance its life cycle. The frog is just a way station for the parasites. They cannot mate or reproduce in frogs. Instead, they have to wait to get into a bird, where they take up residence in the gut and produce eggs that are shed by their host. And they can only make that trip if the frog they inhabit is caught by a bird. Frogs with deformities are more likely to get caught by birds and eaten.

Frogs that live in water contaminated with high levels of fertilizers were more likely to be infected with Ribeiroia. So the fertilizer run-off from farms can lead to deformed amphibians due to stimulation of Ribeiroia infection .  That’s why we never had such problems at Meadowcreek.  We don’t have fertilizer run-off into our ponds, just mostly spring run-off.

Those who predicted amphibians demise may be surprised.

Toad resilience is most apparent in Australia.  The cane toad arrived in Australia 75 years ago.  Initially they spread at the rate of 6 or so miles per year, traveling solely at night.  Now they have adapted and are spreading at up to 35 miles per year.

The toads activity levels, relative leg length, and stamina have all changed.  They remind me of how immigrants get taller and stronger when they come to the US than their ancestors were in the old country.

American toads and frog are easily distinguished, though the common names don’t fit all the species.   Frog common names refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic and have smooth, moist skins; the term “toad” generally refers to species that are terrestrial with dry, warty skins. But there are plenty of exceptions to these rules, if you want to really study frogs and toads.

American toads (Bufo americanus) and other frogs that are good diggers burrow deep into the soil, safely below the frost line.  Some frogs, such as the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and the spring peeper (Hyla crucifer), are not adept at digging and instead seek out deep cracks and crevices in logs or rocks, or just dig down as far as they can in the leaf litter. These hibernacula are not as well protected from frigid weather and may freeze, along with their inhabitants.The fact that this small amphibian can overwinter on the forest floor with little more than a layer of leaves or logs, is nothing short of a miracle.

Why don’t they freeze? Ice crystals do form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs prevents freezing. A partially frozen frog will stop breathing, and its heart will stop beating. It will appear quite dead. But when the hibernaculum warms up above freezing, the frog’s frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume activity.

We put up wood for the winter. caulk our doors and windows, find our coats and long underwear.  Too bad we can’t just generate some antifreeze and stay outside all winter.


For more on how you can try to be as resilient as an amphibian, read our free on-line book by cllcking this phrase.

Climate change is what Earth does: be ready for it

One of biggest fossils we have found at Meadowcreek looks like a huge snake, but it’s the trunk of a tropical tree.  Meadowcreek once had a tropical climate.  Average temperature was probably around 90 F.

fossil fr Meadow CreekMore recently, Meadowcreek has been arctic tundra.  It had no trees and was snow covered most of the year.  Glaciers didn’t come as far South as Meadowcreek, but glacial ice more than a mile thick covered much of northern North America, northern Europe and Russia, and Siberia. The vast amount of water frozen in these glaciers lowered sea levels by as much as 300 feet.

That lower sea level enabled North America and Asia to be connected and the first humans to arrive at Meadowcreek. By the time these bands wandered into Meadow Creek Valley, grassland had started to take over from the tundra.   There were few plant foods man could digest, but plenty of grass for large Ice Age mammals.  A unique feature of Ice Age environments is that there were no marked seasonal changes – it was mostly cold and wet the year-round. Water from melting glaciers was too cold and turbulent to support fish or shellfish.

The first Arkansans, the Clovis people, hunted the mastodon, mammoth, horse, tapir, ground sloth, giant bison, giant beaver, giant tortoise, American lion, short-faced bear, and saber-toothed tiger. Over-hunting caused the mass extinction of these animals as the Ice Age ended. More than thirty species of large animals became extinct. By about 10,500 years ago, megafauna no longer roamed North America.

Clovis people lived in scattered groups consisting of perhaps two dozen or so members following their huge prey. There may have been only one hundred to one-hundred-fifty people in all of what is now Arkansas. They lived in portable structures, such as lean-tos or simple wood frame structures covered with bark, grass, or hides. They never developed agriculture.  All their possessions were light enough to be personally carried or towed by dogs.

After the megafauna were eliminated, the Ice Age ended, the climate gradually warmed, and deciduous forests appeared at Meadowcreek.  The Clovis folk developed better tools and became more settled, roaming only specific territories around their villages to hunt for deer, rabbit and squirrel.  Around 1000 BC they were run out by the more sophisticated Hopewell tribes who had ceramics and agriculture.

As the climate warmed even more, more advanced tribes invaded beginning about 500 AD.  These Mississippian tribes brought mound building and a variety of crops including corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and gourds from what is now Mexico.

About the time that the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the Little Ice Age began.  Average temperatures dropped as much as 4 degrees F.  Frequent cold winters and cool, wet summers led to crop failures and famines over much of northern and central Europe.  Probably the same occurred in Meadow Creek Valley.

By the time permanent European settlers arrived in the early 1800s, the Mississippian tribes had abandoned their mounds, cities and farmlands throughout Arkansas.  Osage Indians, buffalo hunters thanks to Spanish horses, had taken control of Meadow Creek.

Since then temperatures have very gradually been increasing in Arkansas.

If you take a short view of thousands of years, we are in a warm phase between Ice Ages.  If you take a longer view, we are in a cool phase between tropical periods.

No matter which perspective you take, Earth’s climate is inherently unstable.  There is no normal temperature or climate.  Conditions have and will continue to change.  Farmers, as shown by the Indians’ experience, will adapt and improve or disappear.

Inherent climate instability is the reality ignored in the climate change debate.  In their absolute certainty that man’s activities will warm the earth, advocates for climate change legislation ignore the powerful and mysterious forces which have made the Earth far warmer and far cooler than any of their models can predict.

Climate change deniers are making an even bigger mistake.  Our climate is changing and will always be changing.  That is the undeniable lesson from all we know of the Earth’s history.  Climate change deniers can’t benefit from the lessons to be learned from this history.  The deniers are also providing cover for those who wish to continue to pollute the earth with greenhouse gases–the worst being the Chinese–but that’s a story for another day.

One conclusion should be clear to those on both sides of the debate: those who thrive in the future will develop systems which are resilient in the face of all sorts of variable climates.

That’s what we are trying to do at Meadowcreek.


For ideas on how you, your farm and your community can become more resilient, see our free on-line book available at this link.

Tornadoes and consciousness as self-organizing emergence

Tornadoes don’t touch down in Meadow Creek Valley.  We’re narrow enough that tornadoes just skip over us.  Tornadoes have, a couple of times, passed over and dropped twisted roofing tin torn off barns miles away.

tornadoes-formingBefore I came to Meadowcreek, a little fear arose as I watched one tornado pass over a highway where my truck had been just seconds before and had others skip over and around my house.

Tornadoes, and their tropical cousins, hurricanes, cause so much damage and fear that societies have invested billions trying to understand and model them.  No one has succeeded.  That’s because tornadoes are an example of emergence.

We all are familiar with emergent phenomena, but the concept is seldom taught in schools.  I went through all the course work for two Ph.D.s and never encountered it.   I learned it walking down a street in Washington, D.C. pestering a systems researcher who’d used the term at a conference.  I’ll never forget that moment.

You may have had better schools and courses and learned it already.  I hope so.  If not: emergence is a self-organizing process which gives a system patterns and qualities not possessed by any of its parts.  Water and wind don’t possess the properties of tornadoes.  These properties emerge when conditions are right.

Your eyes, consciousness, walking are all examples of emergence.  None of the single cells of your body show the properties of any of these, but under the right conditions, they arise.

Surface tension of pools of water and ice crystals forming on a window pane show emergence on a much smaller scale.  Individual water molecules don’t have these qualities.  The new qualities only appear when water molecules come together under the right conditions to enable creation of a new system.

Science and engineering are great at building things from smaller units whose properties we can understand and control.  Skyscrapers, cars, airplanes all have qualities not present in their components.  The engineer plans and builds complex structures based on qualities he knows exist in the building blocks.

When most scientists and engineers encounter a phenomena, they try to explain it through the properties of its components.  If they can’t, they sometimes say it doesn’t exist.  Some scientists contend consciousness and the mind do not exist, for example.

Some non-scientists also have a hard time with emergent phenomena.  Anti-evolutionists sometimes say there must have been a creator for us to have eyes and all our other complex organs.  They can’t accept self-organizing emergence.  Or maybe they’ve just never heard of it.

Researchers will never succeed in understanding tornadoes by examining the qualities of the water molecules which make up a tornado.  Progress is only being made in predicting tornadoes when researchers focus on the self-organizing phase. When temperature, wind and rain reach certain tipping points, they organize a new system with new properties: the tornado.

Ecological systems are all self-organized at tipping points.  An ecological system emerges when conditions change and reach a tipping point.  Over-harvesting one species, such as cod, may cause a tipping point which creates a new system where seals dominate and the cod of New England never reach their previous abundance.

Eliminating wolves in an ecosystem causes deer to multiply and destroy vegetation causing erosion of streams.  Introduction of sagebrush led to an ecosystem dominated by sage and sage-grouse but with bare ground between sage plants and erosion leading to spectacular canyons.  Cheatgrass introduced into the same system leads to more extensive fires, reduction of sage and sage-grouse, less erosion, and room for a variety of other species.

In animals, the rise of social groups often leads to larger brains which enables the species to adapt to many new ecosystems.  In some cases the larger brains have led to the emergence of consciousness.

Some distinguish three forms of emergent structures. A first-order emergent structure occurs as a result of shape interactions (for example, hydrogen bonds in water molecules lead to surface tension).  A second-order emergent structure involves shape interactions played out sequentially over time (for example, changing atmospheric conditions as a snowflake falls to the ground build upon and alter its form).

third-order emergent structure is a consequence of shape, time, and heritable instructions. For example, an organism’s genetic code sets boundary conditions on the interaction of biological systems in space and time.  At least until different sets of genes self-organize into a new structure, such as wings, and flying is suddenly a reality.

Some even say a phenomenon we refer to as god might arise from the self-organization of a big brained species.  “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Certainly, the advanced social organization enabled by higher intelligence helps the less physically strong survive and thrive.  Neaderthals were stronger and had bigger brains, but who won out?

Ecological system researchers often show that living systems cannot be reduced to underlying laws of physics, chemistry, or even biology.  These rules, or laws, mainly describe regularities and consistent relationships at one scale. These patterns may be very illuminating and important, but the underlying causal agencies often cannot be specified because they depend on emergent phenomena that arise at a higher scale.

So, tornadoes, lightning, and other weather patterns are immune to prediction and control by the laws of physics and chemistry.  Emergent phenomena are like that.  They self-organize when the requisite constituent parts reach a tipping point.

Someday soon, someone will apply the lessons from tornadoes to social organization and consciousness.  Won’t that be fun?


There’s way too much about emergence to explore in one essay, but you can read more, if you like, in our free on-line book available at this link.

Eclipse of harvest, super and blood moon tonight: now that’s resilience!

Are you ready for a prime time eclipse of the full moon?  It’s happening tonight.  You are probably already making preparations for it.

moons_summaryIf you’re Chinese, you have already made your moon cake  for the autumn moon festival.  If you are Southern, you maybe have some MoonPies, or wood ready for a fire to make the last s’mores of the season.  I’m especially going to pay attention to the wild animals.  How will they respond?  Will the owls quit hooting?  Will the coyotes howl more or less?

This is my kind of spectator sport.  Not quite as action-filled as a good football game, but no traffic or crowds to fight.  And no referees to make bad calls.  Nothing can stop this spectacle.

Just find a spot with a clear view of the Eastern Sky and wait for the sun, Earth and moon to line up. This month’s alignment is pretty close to dead-on, so the moon will go through our shadow this evening and provide us with a total lunar eclipse. Most full moons occur with the moon a little too far north or south, due to the tilted lunar orbit, and the moon slides above or below our shadow and no eclipse.

But twice a year, about six months apart, we get the close alignment that provides chances for both lunar and solar eclipses. Right now, the eclipse seasons are in September and March, but they are about 20 days earlier each year, due to changes in the moon’s orbit.

This lunar eclipse is unique for it’s timing.  At Meadowcreek the eclipse will start about sunset with the more visible partial phases starting just after 9 p.m. According to my sources, it will be totally eclipsed by 10:11 p.m., and not start emerging until 11:23, for more than an hour of total eclipse.

Because it is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, tonight’s is the Harvest Moon, and because it arrives at it’s closest point to the earth tonight it will be the biggest full moon of 2015–a so-called super moon.

If Earth’s twilight zone is mostly clear as the weatherman predicts, some sunlight will be bent through it, stripped of the blue light that makes our sky blue, and it will paint the moon a nice “blood” red.

So, we could well have a Harvest Moon, a super moon, a blood moon and an eclipse all in one.

Yet, while millions are making an effort to view the eclipse, some American Indians are adhering to tradition by staying indoors.  Some Navajos in Monument Valley in northeast Arizona tell us they stay inside where they don’t eat, drink or sleep for the duration of the eclipse.

When a total lunar eclipse turns the moon red, some Aboriginal Australian communities say its the spirit of a dead man rising from his grave.

According to Jewish Rabbinic tradition (Talmud – Mas. Sukkah 29a), a lunar eclipse is a bad omen for Israel.  From the Talmud, Sukkah 29a: 23-24: “it is a bad omen for Israel since they are inured to blows. This may be compared to a school teacher who comes to school with a strap in his hand. Who becomes apprehensive? He who is accustomed to be daily punished.”

The Talmud goes on to say: a red moon at lunar eclipse means a sword is coming for the whole world.  A black moon at the eclipse means arrows of famine are coming to the world.  Since tonight’s eclipse will be in the East, the “calamity will tarry in its coming.”  So the Talmud says things will be bad, but the bad won’t come for awhile.

It’s intriguing to think about implications for our human lives of these events.  But I think they are just a nice diversion–like a big football game.  I’m much more interested in the impact of supernovas, meteors or solar flares, but I doubt any will specifically seek out Israel or Meadowcreek to disturb.  It might be fun if they did, but usually the stars and planets relate to us as we relate to the meadow below the Resilience House.

We are building garden mounds down there.  When we do so, we really disrupt the earthworms and totally destroy the existing vegetation.  For them, we are making a total transformation of their system, much like the earth traveling around the sun and rotating on its axis makes day and night, winter and summer for us.

But for us, making a garden mound isn’t a big event.  We prepare some biochar a day or two before and it takes a few hours of digging and winnowing and mixing to finish it and then we move on to other parts of our system.  To the microorganisms at the mound site, their whole system has been transformed.  They have new spaces and substrates to colonize, new neighbors to make symbioses with, new nutrients to ingest.

All resilient systems are locally self-organized.  The planets and stars have a really resilient system.  As far as we can tell, nothing much affects it.  Local to a planet is its sun, its moons and other planets.  They are organized in a solar system which interacts with other solar systems to form galaxies, which interact with other galaxies in very predictable ways.

Our system is not quite so predictable.  At our scale we have all sorts of disturbances to withstand due to the weather and climate the celestial bodies have created for us.  Not to mention the marketing, input supply and political challenges.

As we work to organize ourselves locally to increase our resilience, it’s so nice to reflect on a system which is so stable and resilient.  The moon, stars and planets are so predictable.  Definitely something you can rely on.  Easy to see why early civilizations worshipped them.

Maybe they are a little too boring and predictable to worship nowadays.  We need a little more excitement, a little more drama.  We need a challenge.  Some folks find that challenge in making money or building a big house.  That’s what they worship.

Until they find such pursuits are hollow and empty.  Much more satisfying is creating resilient systems.  Coping with the disturbances in our lives is what humans have always done.  We need to do it.  It’s what we are supposed to do.  We’re here to figure out how to be more resilient. And share it with others.

Or, to put it differently, come to know more of God’s truth and share what we learn with others.

Tonight we’ll take a break just after sunset, turn to the East, and watch something totally predictable, totally stable, totally resilient.

Poor, planet, pope, and poppycock

When Jesus walked the earth, only about 200 million other people were doing the same.  The entire Earth held fewer people than the US does today.  But even this small population had already turned vast areas of the Middle East and Central Asia into desert.

9780753464595.IN02Today, Jesus’ reputed messenger, the pope, is walking the earth with more than 7 billion other people.  There is no newspaper delivery or TV at Meadowcreek, but we have heard that the world is fascinated with the pope’s visit to the US.  His message, we’re told, is to save the poor and the planet.  He doesn’t mention overpopulation.  He values human life from conception to as long as we can prolong it.  He doesn’t mention any other species–not one of the thousands humans are driving into extinction.

Every resilient species tries to overpopulate its world.  The white pine lays down masses of needles which create acid conditions that most other plants can’t stand.  Then it drops multitudes of pine cones.  If every seed in every pine cone survived, the entire planet would be covered with pines in no time.   One pair of rabbits could easily produce millions of offspring in a few years.  A single frog can lay 20,000 eggs.  If each was cared for and turned into a tadpole and then another frog, how long would it take to cover the plant with frogs?

Every resilient species produces as many offspring as it can.  Most species care for and protect their young ferociously.  Try to get between a mama bear and its cub.  All normal humans like little babies and respond to a baby’s cry.  Any who don’t are viewed as inhuman.  Growing up the oldest of eight, I took care of lots of babies.  I still want to help whenever I hear a baby’s cry.

So the pope’s message tugs at the heart strings of most everyone.  Of course, we should cherish our children.  Of course we should help the poor and disabled.  We are like every other species, we want to protect our own and help them flourish.

The coyotes at Meadowcreek are also glad to see lots of little bunnies.  Rabbits need to produce lots of offspring because disease and coyotes will get most of them.  Many human tribes are still producing lots of offspring because the same forces of disease and predators have shaped our attitudes and behavior.

Even in the most densely populated regions, people want to have children and lots of them.  In one of the most densely populated countries, Uganda, village chiefs bragged to me about their twenty-plus children with more expected from their three to five wives.

The problem is that we have conquered many diseases and all predators.  In the world where Jesus walked, having lots of children was required so that at least some would survive.  Most people in the world still want lots of children and grandchildren and nearly all survive and reproduce.

But the pope is concerned about the planet, especially climate change, he tells us.  Concern for the environment has joined caring for little babies, the poor and the hungry as one of the warm fuzzies we hope our children learn early in life.

The pope’s message is great for Sunday School.  Little children need to hear it.  Some will repeat the sonorous platitudes over and over.  That’s fine and creates a thick blanket of good will.

When we wake up from the sermon, we realize it contains two opposing messages: help everyone have lots of children and consume lots of resources and somehow also save the planet.

We’d like him to tell us how to do both.  And how peace is maintained when people fight over limited resources.  But he gathers up his richly brocaded robes and his gold incense pots and goes back to Rome.


For more on how to create a resilient world, see our free on-line book at this link.


Mourning Doves exploding in the fall: adaptability and resilience

Meadowcreek has several springs and one is a real gusher.  It’s a steady abundant source of fresh, pure water.  This week we brought some friendly engineers to survey from the spring to our most Southern meadows.  They determined we can use the main spring for water for all our pastures and fields.

mourning_dove1That’s really good news as we seek to be more resilient to droughts, but it was not the only interesting result from their visit.  While driving through our fields, the largest flock of doves I’ve ever seen at Meadowcreek exploded into flight.

When taking off or landing, dove’s wings make a sharp whistling or whinnying sound.   If the group is large enough, it’s an explosion of doves taking off.  They are fast, agile fliers making sudden ascents, descents, and dodges.  The most well known and beloved quality is the soft, drawn-out call that sounds like a lament–hence the name mourning dove.  Some confuse the dove’s coo with the owl’s hoot, but listen closely and you’ll hear the softer, more mournful sound of the dove.  The writers of pioneer days speak of the bird affectionately–as a game bird that relieved the hardships of pioneer life.  It reminded them of the turtle dove of Europe.

Just like the turtle dove, mourning doves do mate for life.  Usually you’ll see them in pairs (as in the Twelve Days of Christmas), unless they have eggs to care for.  Then the parents take turns incubating eggs. The female sits all day.  At dusk, they trade off and the male sits on the nest all night.  All this monogamous activity is probably where the expression, “lovey-dovey” came from.

The dove is one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds. It is also the leading gamebird.  Some say more than 20 million birds (up to 70 million in some years) are shot annually in the U.S.   Its ability to sustain its population under such pressure stems from its prolific breeding.  In warm areas like Arkansas, one pair may raise up to six broods a year.

They are plump-bodied and long-tailed, with short legs, a small bill, and a head that looks particularly small in comparison to the body. The long, pointed tail is especially conspicuous.

In color, mourning doves often match their surroundings. They can be a delicate brown to tan to light grey, but always with black spots on the wings and black-bordered white tips on the tail feathers. Males and females are similar in appearance. They are hard to spot until you hear their call or they explode into flight. Mourning doves eat almost exclusively seeds.  At Meadowcreek we see them a lot more in the fall when seed is abundant.

As you might expect from such a widespread, prolific species, mourning doves live in many different habitat types–except they don’t like deep woods. They nest in all kinds of spots.  Often you’ll find nests on a horizontal branch of an evergreen tree–a pine or cedar–affording a firm foundation for the flimsy nest. They also build their nests on other birds’ nests left over from the previous year.  The bird also nests on the ground, in a clump of grass, on the stump of a tree, or even on a wooden ledge attached to an inhabited building.  Some observers contend they prefer the vicinity of buildings.  We most often see them near our buildings.

In parts of the country where the mourning dove spends the winter, one of the early signs of spring is when the winter flocks begin to break up and the doves separate into mated pairs. Just as the mockingbird in southern states bursts suddenly into song and separates winter from spring, so the male mourning dove, who has been silent through the winter, at the first hint of spring begins to coo to attract a mate.

European settlement of North America has been good for the doves.  Their numbers increase whenever more ground is put into cultivation.  When woods take over, their numbers decrease.  When more land was put into cultivation in the Midwest and forests replaced farms in the east, dove populations increased in the Midwest and decreased in the East.

Doves like farmers and farmers like doves–illustrating the complementary diversity of all resilient systems..  Like coyotes and other highly adaptable animals, doves respond well to the changes man makes in the environment.   Doves have all the characteristics of resilient species.  They should do well, no matter how the climate changes.

When we bring water from the spring to all our pastures, they may do even better.


For more on resilience and the eight qualities of resilient systems, including complementary diversity, see our free online book available at this link.

Wild turkeys and city people: taming reduces resilience

Wild turkeys are taking over again at Meadowcreek.  Last weekend Meadowcreek said goodbye to Nimbus, a delightful Great Pyrenees, who had kept the deer out of the garden and the turkeys at bay all summer.

wild turkeyNow they are all back.  A turkey flock was meandering down Meadow Creek Road when I was heading for my post-work swim yesterday.  It was the first flock I’d seen since Nimbus.  Most moved off the road quickly, but one yearling stood looking at me and then sauntered down the road ahead of me.

Finally he realized he’d lost his flock and uttered the little yelp young turkeys and hens use to attract attention.  If you haven’t been around wild turkeys, you might not realize the number of sounds turkeys make.  Sometimes people wonder why we like turkeys so much at Meadowcreek, until they hear the sounds they make.  Then, when they see them they are really hooked.

In early spring, male turkeys gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Most gobbling occurs from about forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise Males also emit a low-pitched “drumming” sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken.  In addition they produce a sound known as the “spit” which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack.

After the mating season is over, a huge library of vocalizations emerges: “clucks”, “putts”, “purrs”, “cutts”, “whines”, “cackles”, and “kee-kees”. You’d swear they are having a conversation when these noises start erupting from a flock.

The first sound very young birds make is a high-pitched whistle; peep, peep, peep, peep. As summer advances the voices of the poults change and this “lost whistle” becomes a lower, coarser kee, kee, kee. It usually has three unevenly spaced notes in about a second.

As fall approaches, the kee-kee turns into the yelp which sounds like a low chirp-chirp-chirp.  All turkeys use this standard “Here I am, where are you?” sound.

Another one we hear a lot is the cutt.  The cutt is one turkey saying “Here I am, where are you?” but telling the other bird “If we are going to get together you have to come to me.” It is a loud insistent call, and the notes are strung together in bursts of two’s and three’s, with about a second between bursts. It sounds like TUT…TUT…TUT, TUT. TUT …TUT…TUT, TUT…TUT, TUT, TUT.

Purr is a soft rolling call turkeys do when they are content, usually heard from feeding birds.  Putt is a single note that is very aggressive or many notes that are very aggressive, meaning to the rest of the flock that there is danger around.

Live in the turkey woods long enough and you’ll become familiar with a bunch more turkey sounds.  Why do they have so many?  Maybe because they have been around humans so long.

All turkeys came from an area bounded by the present Mexican states of Jalisco, Guerrero, and Veracruz.  Six subspecies are present there.  Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated them 2000 years ago, using their meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing their feathers for decorative purposes, robes and blankets.  When this culture moved into North America and took over Arkansas, they brought their turkeys, corn, beans, gourds and squash with them.  When the Spanish first explored Arkansas, the Indians had huge flocks of turkeys in their villages.

Turkey bones have been found in Indian burial mounds all through the South.  Turkey relics have been found in Arizona dating as far back as 25 A.D. The Anasazi cliff ruins at Mesa Verde and other locations in Utah and Colorado all had rooms for rearing turkeys.

So turkeys aren’t from Turkey, though their name is.  When the Spanish first encountered turkeys among the Aztecs, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl which is a species they associated with the country of Turkey.  The name of the North American bird thus became “turkey fowl”, which was then shortened to just turkey.

The wild turkey is said by some to be able to run as fast as a horse over short distances and fly over a mile.  I’ve never seen them run that fast or fly that long at Meadowcreek, but they can definitely run faster than I can pedal my mountain bike.

The wild turkey is tall and slender with long legs, nothing like the domestic turkey which can’t fly and is fat with short legs.  I think the wild turkey would be a little annoyed to be around his fat city cousin.  Of course his fat cousin wouldn’t last long at Meadowcreek.  The coyotes would get him.

We’ve bred the ecological resilience out of most of our domesticated crops and animals.  With turkeys, we’ve made an intelligent, wily, beautiful animal into a big hunk of stupid white meat.  Good for sandwiches, but not much else.

Much like city people.  Not much resilience is left when you are too domesticated.  City folk need a little bit of the wild in them to last long at Meadowcreek.  They may enjoy it for a few days, but most are just not suited for the wild life.

The turkeys kept by Arkansas’ Indians interbred with wild turkeys.  They could still survive in the wild.  The turkeys we see at Meadowcreek may be descended from them.  I guess they were more resilient than their owners.

Popes and riots, purpose and community

Living in a place like Meadowcreek, you can hear visitors coming several miles before they arrive.  We welcome visitors.  I doubt we’ll ever get too  many.  We’re just too far off the beaten path and too hard to find.

I grew up even more isolated on a dirt road that featured foot deep ruts during the mud season. With eight of us kids, we didn’t really need visitors.

crowdBoth growing up and now at Meadowcreek, self-sufficiency is a goal.  We rely on ourselves.  We aren’t interested in the celebrities many flock to see.  Our rock stars are the expert stone mason, the master herbalist, the fellow who makes furniture by hand.  Our favorite stars are the ones that twinkle at night.

We don’t have much truck with famous people like the Pope or the Chinese President who millions of Americans are flocking to see right now.  We are much more likely to question than idolize such authorities.  There’s not much they can say that will help our farm be more resilient or sustainable.

The Chinese President arriving on the West Coast was far overshadowed by the Pope arriving on the East Coast.  I had to be on the road yesterday and turned on the radio.  Every channel was about the Pope.  Even the oldies station had up-dates on the Pope.  I turned it off.

Why are people so enthralled with celebrities?  Maybe because they don’t see the wonder in their own life.  Maybe they are stuck in the city or the suburbs far from the wonders of nature which enthrall us.  Maybe their city lives are so drab they need the excitement of seeing a celebrity.

Or maybe they need community.  Maybe they just want to be a part of the adoring throng.  Some people like to lose themselves in a crowd.  They love football games in big stadiums where they can cheer and boo along with the crowd.  Maybe all of us are susceptible.

Individual thought processes and behavior patterns do change when a person is in a large group.  Sometimes the changes are benign.  A quiet, reserved person yells and cheers at a ball game.  Active, irrepressible people become quiet and meek around the Pope or the President.

Sometimes the changes are destructive.  A crowd gathers after a shooting and becomes a riot.  Peaceful people are looting stores and destroying vehicles.  Or the cheering crowd at the football game becomes destructive after the game by turning over cars and breaking shop windows.

Simply by being part of the crowd, individuals can lose all sense of self and all sense of responsibility. Yet, at the same time, they gain a sense of nearly invincible power due to their numbers.

Riots, football games and adoring crowds for popes all are manifestations of the same phenomenon.  Part of us wants to forget all our mundane, daily concerns and be swept along by the passion of the group.  People want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

People need purpose and community in their lives.  Losing yourself in a crowd is a quick fix.  You get a momentary purpose and community.  Then you leave the crowd and go back to your life without purpose and community.

The trouble is that lasting purpose and community requires commitment.  We are wary of commitment.  We want our freedom, we don’t want to be tied down.  We are taught: “to your own self be true.”  Many wander the country or the world, looking for themselves.  Then, some show up at Meadowcreek, hoping to sink in roots at last.

When you have shared purpose and community, commitment is not an onus but a joy.  If you share our purpose of understanding and creating resilient, sustainable systems and if you like our community, then you might even make a commitment to Meadowcreek.

Maybe instead of going to the football game on Saturday, just come up to Meadowcreek.  Watch the wild turkeys walk down the road.  Hear the deer snort in the woods and the owls hoot at night.  Sit on the patio and watch the constellations slowly move across the sky.  Discuss hydropower and solar kilns and building soil organic matter. Work with us in the gardens, fixing up the houses or splitting wood for winter heat.

See if you find purpose and commitment here.  If not, you can always go back to the football game, the pope, or some rock star.

Autumnal equinox, moon pies, and the dark hormone

A beautiful, crisp, quarter-plus moon at Meadowcreek last night. Owls calling each other. Lovely moon shadows.

The moon is waxing, edging toward full. We have only about a week to go until the total lunar eclipse of the full harvest moon.  But  don’t focus on the eclipse just yet, we have a much more momentous celestial event occurring tonight: the equinox.  At 10:09 p.m., CDT, the center of the sun will cross Earth’s equator, marking the autumnal equinox, and the start of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

On the equinox, night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world. This is the reason it’s called an “equinox”, derived from Latin, meaning “equal night”.   The equinox triggers lots of hormonal changes in plants, animals and people in our neck of the woods.  Nature is telling us: get ready for winter.

Unlike many cultures, we don’t celebrate the equinox at Meadowcreek, but maybe we should.  This year, with the pending eclipse, it might be nice to have a Chinese Moon Festival–always celebrated around the time of the September equinox.  It celebrates the abundance of the summer’s harvest.  One of the main foods is the mooncake filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit.  Since we are in the American South, we could substitute a MoonPie instead.  Actually we already have Thanksgiving to celebrate the harvest, so I guess a Moon Festival might be overkill.  Maybe instead we could just make the last s’mores of the season since they have all the MoonPie ingredients.

black-bear-hibernation-metabolism-surprises_32353_990x742As far as I know, plants don’t have such festivals, but they do mark the change in seasons.  In high latitudes like Meadowcreek’s, trees need to know when the winter is coming.  The equinox gives them the signal.  When the night is longer than the day, get ready for the winter–go into dormancy so you can survive the low light and cold temperatures of winter.

When trees see the night is longer, their cells begin to switch from production of chlorophyll for growth, to production of sugars and amino acids, which are stores of food and act as antifreeze for the plant.  Since the green chlorophyll is responsible for the green color of the leaves, its reduction makes the yellow and orange pigments visible and we get some great fall colors.

Plants which live closer to the equator don’t have to worry about the winter, but most still respond to changes in daylength.  The poinsettia is native to Mexico and knows no freezing weather in its native land.  It flowers when the days are short and few other plants are flowering to compete with it.  So, its a great plant for Christmas, right next to the winter solstice when days are shortest.  The same is true for Christmas cactus; shorter days trigger flowering so we get beautiful flowers on the shortest days of the year.

The study of this fascinating plant phenomenon is  called photoperiodism, if you want to look up more details.  The substances which regulate response to daylight change are called hormones in both plants and animals.

In mammals, including humans, various hormones rise and fall according to the amount of daylight.  Chief among them is melatonin which is produced and regulated by the pineal gland.   The pineal gland responds to the amount of sunlight streaming through your eyes.  When the days are long, it produces less melatonin.  Melatonin increases at night.  When days get shorter, melatonin production increases.

High levels of melatonin stimulates the growth of winter coats in animals.  In reindeer and other animal species in the North, the light and dark signals that start at the equinox jumpstart the reproductive cycle.   This enables the young to arrive just when food is plentiful in the spring.

The change in ratio of night and day also stimulates melatonin in bears, leading to all sorts of physiological changes culminating in hibernation.  Melatonin concentrations during hibernation are 7.5 times greater than those during the summer in anesthetized male bears.

Melatonin, also called the dark hormone, is especially high in people afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.  They just don’t want to do anything in the winter.  Maybe their bodies are just telling them to hibernate.

There are some credible reports of human hibernation. The British Medical Journal reported a 19th century  phenomenon in far Northwest Russia.  At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, baked and stored in sufficient quantities the previous autumn.  When the bread has been washed down with water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take turns to watch and keep the fire alight. After winter is over the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and sets to work at summer tasks.

Travelers in this region of Russia reported whole villages appeared to sleep all winter.  The practice was called lotska in Russian.  Unfortunately, no tests of melatonin levels were made of these Russian villagers and the practice has disappeared.

Melatonin has been shown to have antioxidant qualities.  It repairs damage while you sleep.  So we try to get plenty of sleep at Meadowcreek.  Some of us at Meadowcreek are even tempted by lotska in the winter, but we don’t give in.  Instead we go out on bright winter days, let the sunlight hit our pineal glands, and enjoy winter.

Now is the time to get outside in the daylight and not let lotska or SAD take a foothold.  So any Equinox party we have should certainly be in the daytime.  MoonPies for lunch, anyone?  Happy equinox!

Photoperiod and melatonin are means organisms use to fit into the natural adaptive cycle of rapid growth, maturation, release and reorganization. For more on the adaptive cycle, see the introduction to our free online book at this link.

For more on melatonin and hibernation in bears see this link.

For more on the pineal gland and melatonin, see this link.

Thirsty hippos vs poor Africans: altruism and empathy

In Kenya, extremely poor villages live near wild animal reserves. I helped Kathekani and surrounding villages plan a cooperative poultry production enterprise to supply meat to the resorts at the biggest reserve, the Tsavo National Park.

mzima-springs-hipposOn the weekends the cooperative president took me to visit the reserve to look at the elephants, zebras, giraffes and try to find a rhino.  We spent all of one day driving around the rhino reserve and encountered a dozen or so rangers, but none of the endangered black rhino.  I finallly called it quits so we could get out of the reserve before dark.

Another day we visited Mzima Springs which has a resident population of hippos.  After I enjoyed watching the hippos, the president told me of his belief that the water from the spring was being wasted on the animals and should be diverted to help his villages irrigate their crops.

Later in the trip he convinced me his family was in dire need of food and got me to give him money.  When I got back to Nairobi, I found out he is one of the richest men in his village.

Meadowcreek is a nonprofit organization and benefits from the same altruism which led me to help this cooperative and give money to a rich man.  Many researchers contend that we all have an innate need to help others.  They cite scads of supporting studies.

I’m not so sure that all societies instill altruism equally.  I visited Malawi in Central Africa to do an assessment for a rural development project.  There I found that all the hospitals were mostly staffed by nurses from Europe.   They trained dozens of Malawians as nurses every year.  The Malawians mostly left the country to take jobs in Europe and the US.

I still enjoy traveling to underdeveloped countries to help them improve themselves, but I think we might have taken altruism a little too far in the US and Europe.

In 1858, a German philosopher noted the need for a new term: empathy. An empathetic person is someone who can share another person’s feelings. If you tell an empathetic person that your heart is broken, she might touch her own heart and gaze at you sadly through moist eyes.

I wonder why it took so long for the term to be invented.  Maybe because people have to have a lot of free time and be raised in a basically all-Christian society for empathy to arise.

Some of us do help others in need out of genuine concern for the well-being of the other person.  If we feel the other’s pain or need, we will help the other, regardless of what we can gain from it.  This directly contradicts the standard model of evolution, but seems to work for a variety of charities.

When I left my small town for college I did have a little too much of this empathy/altruism.   I learned that some people will just take and take and take.  As long as you are willing to give.  So I try not to run myself ragged trying to help everyone I see anymore.

I think the nine parts Moses: one part Jesus approach works best. You may have heard of it.  It combines turn the other cheek and eye for an eye.  Say you are working to improve some situation. Everyone has something they can give, even those you are trying to help.  If they are willing to give to help a joint effort, I gladly give.  I even give willingly  now and then when they don’t give.  But if they consistently refuse to give, I do too.  If if they change heart, I start giving again immediately.    These simple rules have been shown time and time again to result in the highest levels productivity in cooperative and competitive situations.

I try not to let my overdeveloped empathy/altruism get out of control.  I wish everyone was altruistic, but I know some aren’t.  Some folks are great at making you feel sorry for them or their cause.  But they are in it for themselves.  They take advantage of your altruism for their own selfish goals.

The same occurs with some minority groups.  They take advantage of the altruism of the larger society by making us feel sorry or even guilty for them and their cause. Yet they aren’t interested in giving, but only taking.  Time to apply the nine parts Moses approach.

Doing that with other people is tough enough.  What’s really tough is applying it to natural ecosystems.  Hippos are seldom going to be altruistic toward humans. Should we be empathetic/altruistic toward them?  What about when their needs conflict with the needs and desires of people?

I wanted to tell the cooperative president that the Mzima spring water shouldn’t be diverted to crop fields while the hippos died of thirst.  I didn’t.  It’s pretty tough to be accused of putting animals above people.

But from a resilience perspective, humans can’t survive without a healthy ecosystem.  We need other species to increase our own resilience.  Do we really need the hippo, the rhino, the giraffe, the zebra?  Or should they all be sacrificed so people can have more productive fields or more and more children.

It’s a tough question when you are trying to help some really poor people in Africa survive in a parched land and the animal reserve has plenty of fresh water.  But I vote for the wild.