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.

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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!
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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.

Big brains got us into trouble, can they get us out?

Indian artifacts are hidden all around Meadowcreek.  We’ve even found them after the spring rains near our favorite swimming holes.  Locations of cave paintings are not publicized, for obvious reasons.  When Meadowcreek was first established, one last native American lived in a cave on the property.

buffalo attackWhen European-Americans first arrived in the Ozarks, they met the Osage tribe.  The Osage empire covered portions of four states:  Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  According to a history of one Ozark county, “Due to their marriage customs, the Osage were tall, physically strong, and possessed unquestionable courage.  The smaller, weaker males often were denied marriage and the mightiest warriors got the girl plus all her sisters.  In this way they had a form of selective breeding, which undoubtedly accounts for most of the tribe being over six feet tall.”  Many Osage stayed after the white settlers came and intermarried with them.

The Osage had formed their empire by defeating other tribes who gained the territory by defeating still earlier tribes.

The most ancient people (known as paleo-Indians) camped and hunted along Ozark rivers, perhaps as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.  These early inhabitants were big-game hunters.  The mastodon and the giant ground sloth among many other huge animals roamed the area.  The earliest Americans killed off all these species and then had to rely on smaller game and gathering and foraging.  They crafted fluted points for hunting, needles for making clothing, hand-woven nets for fishing, and mortars for crunching seeds. Fish and vegetables became an important part of their diet.

A more sophisticated people who knew how to cultivate crops and create ceramics invaded and took control of the Ozarks around 1,000 B.C.  The Hopewell people invaded the Ozarks as they expanded from their original homeland in what is now Ohio.  They knew how to fire clay pots and tools, engaged in trade, and created large ceremonial earthworks. They cultivated corn and hunted deer and wild turkey.

Between 500 and 900 A.D. an even more technologically advanced people invaded and took over.  The Mississippians (also referred to as the Temple Mound Builders) brought the advances of Mesoamerican tribes including building cities and mounds, diversified agriculture and more durable tools and pottery.  These tribes grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and gourds. These were the Native Americans that De Soto and his men encountered in 1541, when they crossed the Mississippi River.

Between De Soto’s forays and the arrival of permanent settlers in the 1800s, the Osage came from the North to take control of the Ozarks.  The Osage mastered the horses which escaped from the Spanish conquerors and hunted buffalo.  Their mastery of the horse enabled them to run out the otherwise more technologically advanced Mississippian tribes.

The history of the Ozarks is not exactly peaceful transfer of power.  The Ozarks have been inhabited by successive waves of people, each with better weapons than those who preceded them.  The European-Americans were just the most recent group to take the land.

Such is the way of the world and has been since the dawn of time.  Man’s big brain developed mainly to cope with his fellow man.  Every tribe needed to be smarter than their competitors.  The smartest one, with the biggest brain, won.

The big brain helped them to be better at both cooperation and competition.  We have a huge capacity to be altruistic and help our own people.  We also have huge capacity to destroy other tribes who are less developed with smaller brains.  The Neaderthal had a bigger brain than modern man, but it was bigger in the occipital lobe (the back side of the brain) which is concerned with mainly with vision.   They had less prefrontal cortex which gives modern humans their big forehead.  Some folks still have a lot of Neaderthal genes, as you can see from sloping foreheads walking down the street.

The prefrontal cortex gives man the ability for abstract thought.  For some this means getting lost in thought and neglecting basic activities like sleeping, eating, hoeing the garden.  Occasionally at Meadowcreek we have to prod people out of abstract thought and remind them to get back to work.

The capacity for abstract thought has enabled man to dominate the world, but at the expense of the destruction of ecosystems and extinction of species.  Including the megafauna destroyed at Meadowcreek by native Americans.

Our big brains have enabled us to dominate and destroy the world, but not increased our resilience.

Many people have a big brain fetish.  We believe we are superior to other animals because we have a bigger brain.  So far in the history of the planet, there is little evidence that the big brain has resulted in resilience.  We have bested all the other species, but many small brained species rank much higher on resilience then man.

The prefrontal cortex has exploded in size as man has tried to help his own group become more comfortable and competed within his group for mates and outside his group for territory.  This fierce competition has resulted in a system of take-make-dispose.  We have long ignored the basic concept of ecology that all products of a resilient system must be part of a circular system.  All products must be food for some other organism which eventually become resources we can use once again.

Africa provides a case study.  For millennia, African societies did not have the organization and technology to kill off their largest wild species, nor the medicine to enable their populations to expand exponentially.  Importation of European technology has caused the total destruction of African ecosystems and species within the last fifty years.  We have provided everything they need to destroy the ecosystems they once were integrated with.   Western food and medicine increase the population and Chinese companies mine all the minerals.  I’ve seen valley after valley totally destroyed by Chinese miners in the last few years in Africa.

Our intelligent minds got us into this mess, but can they get us out?  Can we escape from the take-make-dispose system which has worked so well for dominating other tribes, societies and civilizations?  Germany’s experience says maybe yes.  Partly by focusing on a life cycle analysis of all products approved for sale in the country, Germany has created the most vibrant economy in Europe with high productivity and low pollution.  But Germany’s reliance on migrants for labor means the system can only last as long as other systems continue to fail and send them excess labor.

Could this perspective shift take hold of other creative minds to design a future that can sustain life and an economy built on ecological resilience? Our intelligent minds got us into our current situation; will they guide us out?  Only if we realize our innovations must be conservative innovations, locally self-organized and working to enhance local ecological systems.  Or will our civilizations go the way of the mound-builders vanquished by the more primitive Osage?

There is no need to invent a resilient world; that’s been done already. Its all around us, until we destroy it or learn from it.

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For more on creating a resilient world through resilient farms and communities, see our free online book available at this link.

Methane, climate change and rice for vegetarians

Friday night in small town Arkansas means high school football.  It’s a social event for the whole town.  Some go for the spectacle, never get excited about the game and leave early.  Last night, such a fellow near me asked when I was going to write about passing gas and then left the game just before it got really thrilling.  Little did he realize that we’d had a spirited discussion about such gas and resilience just this week at Meadowcreek.

rice paddy vietnam hikersThe intestinal gas mentioned by my dispiriting friend is mainly composed of methane, as is the natural gas we use to heat and cook.  Methane (CH4) is a fascinating, but simple molecule–just a carbon molecule surrounded on all four sides by hydrogen molecules.

Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States. In 2013, CH4 accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is much more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide (CO2). Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is 25 times greater than CO2.

Methane is produced by a strange class of organisms [Archaea (Listeni/ɑrˈkə/)] the size of bacteria, but with metabolic pathways more similar to us and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus.   Some of these strange bugs live in the guts of any animal with a stomach.  They are also cultivated to produce biogas for cooking and heat.

We were talking about methane at Meadowcreek because cows are one of the big producers of methane.  Meadowcreek attracts lots of vegetarians who come armed with research showing cows produce about 20% of the methane emitted in the US.

Cows belong to a group of plant eaters called ruminants (which also include sheep, goats, camels, llamas and deer) who all have several stomachs.  Bacteria and Archaea live in these chambers and feed on the plant matter, releasing the nutritious components that the cow needs to survive. A side effect of this process is that the microbes release methane as a waste product as they feed, and this methane is burped by the cow into the atmosphere. A single adult cow can burp out as mulch as 280 liters (or 74 gallons) of methane each day.  An estimated billion and a half cows live on Earth.  So, some say cows cause global warming.

Interestingly, kangaroos have a multi-chambered stomach but methane is not a problem because their stomach microbes don’t produce it. So kangaroo meat might satisfy the vegetarians, it it was really methane that raised their ire.

Vegetarians are not likely to eat kangaroo, but many do like rice.  Rice cultivation is also a potent producer of methane–as much as 29% of methane produced by humans.  Farmers flood rice fields during the growing season.  Microbes feed on any organic matter underwater and release methane as a waste product.

Rice harvest is underway here in Arkansas, so the fields are dry and no methane is being produced.  But all summer long, the rice vegetarians love is producing as much methane as the cows they detest.

My friend at the football game wasn’t focused on global warming, just on flatulence.  So, he would be more interested to know that methane is odorless.  The odor in flatulence is caused by hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S).  While hydrogen sulfide gas is harmful in large doses, one study suggests that “a whiff here and there has the power to reduce risks of cancer, strokes, heart attacks, arthritis, and dementia by preserving mitochondria.”

Oh the many benefits of such an earthy phenonmenon.  Sniffing flatulence has health benefits and methane from animal wastes is a valuable source of fuel.

After the flatulence-oriented, flat-lined fan left, the game got really exciting and our team won with a last second field goal.  Excited kids flooded the field to congratulate their heroes, while the losers huddled on the field in prayer.  I walked off to my truck thinking about the fascinating world of methane and other natural gases.

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For more on the study of the benefits of hydrogen sulfide, see this link from University of Exeter.

Can you be tough enough or smart enough? No, but resilient systems don’t have to be.

We finished the most recent stone project at Meadowcreek yesterday.  We have stone walls and fireplaces which are still in great shape after 30 years.  So any new project has to at least match that level of quality.  We want them to be strong and tough.  They aren’t resilient, but they are tough.  Many people think being strong and tough is the same as being resilient.  It isn’t.

SageGrouse_BothSexes_02Our new stone work sits in the forest.  The stone columns can withstand much more punishment than any tree in the forest.  Try chopping down a stone column with an axe.  But if a bad storm were to blow everything down, the forest would bounce back, but the stone work wouldn’t.

In ecological resilience, the system reproduces itself.  In animals this means having offspring which survive and thrive.  The tough ones aren’t always the most resilient.

In apes, sage-grouse and many other species, the alpha male rules the roost.  He’s the tough guy who defends his harem and tries to make sure that only his offspring survive.  Generally, the tough alpha male does reproduce more.  In many species, though, less tough beta males may be more successful.  An alpha males may spend all his time and energy trying to guard a large harem, while the beta male has no such responsibilities and can sneakily mate with females when the alpha male is busy being tough. Tough guys can finish last if not-so-tough guys have better strategies.

You may look at such studies and say, maybe the smart one is the more resilient.  The ability to adapt and innovate in the face of change is certainly a quality of resilient systems.

However, adaptability and innovation are constrained and conservative in resilient systems.   You can be too smart for your own good.  Unless an innovation fits well with the existing system it will not increase resilience.  Farmers who are always the first to adopt a new technology are not the most resilient.  Resilient farmers watch the early experimenters and adopt only when the innovation has proven adapted to their situation.

Many people have a big brain fetish.  We believe we are superior to other animals because we have a bigger brain.  So far in the history of the planet, there is little evidence that the big brain has resulted in resilience.  We have bested all the other species, but we show little evidence of being more resilient than small brained species.

Part of our problem is that we like to maintain systems we like.  Ecological research has shown how such an approach can decrease resilience.

Early in the study of resilience, C. S. Hollings made a key distinction between our everyday concept of resilience, what he called engineering resilience, and ecological resilience.

Engineering resilience means bouncing back, returning to its original condition.  Resilient materials and systems are those which withstand stress, recover from disturbance, and return to the original form, exactly as it was before.  In computer programming, mechanical engineering or robotics this is imperative as the original form is what makes the system work to the standards necessary for performance.

Ecological resilience incorporates engineering resilience, but goes one step further.  Ecological resilience suggests that a system often recovers from disturbance by adapting and changing from the original form. Sometimes this adaptation develops into something better, more efficient or more capable of responding effectively to the next disturbance. Sometimes adaptation can develop into systems that are worse off than they were before, stripped of resources, and too disorganized to develop into a robust ecosystem.

Often the heightened disorganization occurs in the wake of disturbance is the result of a system that went too long without disturbance, holding onto too many resources, trapping them from the continual adaptive cycle at work in all natural systems. Whether it is an old growth forest grown too dense and at risk of massive catastrophic forest fire or a flood plain left dry too long, ecosystems need to be disturbed to unlock resources and promote new growth through the adaptive cycle.

Man, applying his perhaps too big brain, is always trying to interrupt the adaptive cycle, e.g., by suppressing fires in forests.  We want to sustain certain systems.  Resilient systems don’t necessarily perpetuate existing systems.  Resilient systems often undergo needed transformations.

A recently published 30 year study of sage-grouse habitats illustrates this.  Hunters like grouse and press government to increase the habitat that grouse are adapted to.  These habitats are dominated by sage.  Sage is a species which produces chemicals which are poisonous to other plants.  It comes to dominate a landscape by making its environment toxic to almost anything but sage.  Fewer plants means less ground cover and more erosion.  So sage contributes to the degradation of its environment.

If it were just appearing today, it would be classified as a noxious weed.

But since its been around so long, animals like grouse have adapted to it. Maintaining the sage system to insure habitat for grouse seems ecologically sound to some–especially government researchers responding to the hunter interest group.  But the increased fires in areas dominated by sage has revealed a lack of resilience of the sage system.

All sage dominated areas (including big sagebrush, black and low sagebrush) have low resilience to fire and recover slowly. Non-native annual grasses often grow back in these areas, which in turn increase fire size and frequency, decreasing suitable habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The areas dominated by sage may be developing a new, more resilient system.  We can try to maintain the sage-grouse habitat or just let the ecosystem evolve as it copes with disturbance.

We create stonework which lasts at Meadowcreek.  Our human view of lasting a long time is short-sighted from the perspective of the ecosystem.   Resilient systems are focused on eons, not having stonework last 30 years.  Resilient systems can last forever.  Not by being as tough as stone, but by being as adaptable as water.

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

–Tao Te Ching

Owls, pellets and resilience

An owl spent the night in one of our barns this week.  I leave one barn open year round in hopes of attracting owls.  None have yet taken up residence but at least one spends the night now and then.   The one I’ve seen in that barn is the great horned owl.

OwlThe great horned is the largest Arkansas owl. It’s bulkier than a red-tailed hawk, with an even greater wingspread,  Having one swoop by you to get out of the barn is electrifying.  That’s happened to me several times and never fails to spike my adrenaline.

If you’re like most people through history you regard owls with fascination and awe–probably because they hunt at night when people can’t see and have a call many consider eerie.  In some cultures, the call fills people with foreboding and apprehension: a death is imminent or some evil is at hand.  In early Indian folklore, Owls represent wisdom and helpfulness, and have powers of prophecy. This theme recurs in Aesop’s fables and in Greek myths and beliefs. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely and profane places.  Nowadays, for most people, the owl has returned to its position as a symbol of wisdom.

Unless you have an owl barn like we do, you’re much more likely to hear a great horned owl than see one. They have a deep, soft, foghorn-like call of three to eight hoots: “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo hoo.”

The most vocal Arkansas owl is the barred owl, most often found in bottomland forests. Its typical call is a series of eight or nine notes in two groups: “Who cooks for you … who cooks for you all.” Barred owls nest in spring and early summer in tree cavities and abandoned hawk and crow nests, feeding on small mammals, reptiles and birds. It has a large puffy head without ear tufts of the great horned, dark eyes, lengthwise streaks on the breast and crosswise streaks on the throat.

The screech owl is a favorite of many due to its quavering song that Thoreau described as “the dark and tearful side of music … the mutual consolations of suicide lovers … calling Oh-o-o-o-o that I had never been bor-or-or-or-orn!”

About the size of a plump bobwhite, the screech owl is common year-round in Arkansas, residing in open woodlands near creeks, marshes and fields. In Arkansas, destructive plant-eating insects comprise more than 80 percent of a diet that also includes crayfish, minnows, wasp larvae, spiders, frogs, birds and rodents. Screech owls vary in color from reddish to more brown to gray.

The barn owl doesn’t have much of a call (just a rasping note and a clicking sound) , but farmers like the way they rid buildings of mice.  They stockpile large numbers of small rodents, anticipating the hatching of six to 10 white eggs in the Spring. Each nestling eats two to five mice daily during the eight weeks after hatching.

With its white, heart-shaped face, dark eyes and light-colored body, the barn owl is unlikely to be mistaken for other Arkansas owls. It resides year-round in the state but is not nearly as abundant as barred, great horned and screech owls.

I didn’t see the owl in our barn this week, but I found unmistakable evidence of it: a feather and an owl pellet.

Owl pellets are fascinating.  Owls don’t have teeth so they swallow their prey whole. Their stomachs digest all of the prey they can and compact the rest into a pellet.  The pellets has bones, beaks, feathers, hair and claws from whatever they have caught.  Great horned owls feed on skunks, rabbits, birds, rodents and even bats and domestic cats.   After a meal they find a quiet place to rest and digest their meal.  Then they regurgitate the pellet.  I check the barn most mornings in the winter to see if any new owl pellets have arrived.

One winter the barn accumulated a collection of more than 20.  We used them for a nature study program with kids.  You can carefully unpack a pellet and find out what the owl has eaten.  Sometimes you can find the entire skeleton of owl pelleta small animal.  This gets most elementary students really excited.  As a result owl pellets are for sale for science classes.  We’re glad we can collect for free in our barn.

Owl pellets are also used in research.  Their content reflects the types of animals which are most abundant.  One cave in Utah has been the home of owls for 13,000 years.  The content of owl pellets on the floor of the cave tells us how animal life has changed in the region.

Researchers have been able to correlate changes in climate with changes in animal species.  When the climate was hot and dry, animals were smaller and reptiles  more prevalent.  When the climate was wetter, larger mammals predominated. Species adapted to cool climates were the main component of owl pellets around the ice ages.

High levels of diversity of the ecosystem means that different group of species are ready to expand and dominate when climate changes.  This enables the entire system to maintain productivity in the face of almost any disturbance.  The system is resiilent, even though the relative abundance of each species changes.

Since the 1800s when European agriculture arrived in Utah, really dramatic changes in owl pellets have occurred.  A foreign species, cheatgrass, has invaded and displaced native bunchgrass and desert shrub habitats, while increasing fire frequency.   This invasion has caused an observed shift in the composition and structure of the small mammal community, moving it toward small, grass-affiliated species, while larger shrub-affiliated species have declined.

Cheatgrass thrives on disturbance, and much of this region is now affected by this exotic annual grass. Many human activities have facilitated its spread, including livestock grazing, establishment of mining camps and railroads, and an increase in fires.

When cheatgrass was introduced, it increased the diversity of the region.  But now it is decreasing diversity by crowding out other plant species and the animals they feed.  The resilient owl, however, adapts to whatever prey species are present.  Through all the climate changes over the millennia, owls endure.

So owls are great for research and getting kids interested in nature.  But the best thing about them is just seeing them.  A huge mass with big wide eyes swooping down at night is sure to get your attention.

Come to Meadowcreek and you will hear some owls and, if you’re lucky, see some.

 On the seventh day, only the owl and the panther were still awake. Because they did not succumb to sleep, they were given the power to see in the dark.”
– from a Cherokee creation story

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For more on diversity and its impact on resilience see Chapter 6 in our free online book available at this link.