Dirt, soil and chernozem

Soil is a precious commodity on the rocky slopes of Meadowcreek.  We know how precious it is and we labor to create and conserve as much soil as we can.  The Resilience Project has long been encouraging soil building as a means of adaptation and mitigation to climate change and other disruptions.  So it’s encouraging to see a new organization fighting the good fight.  Read and share a great article about one person’s realization of the importance of soil.

In my day job, I’m a money guy. I manage socially and environmentally screened investment portfolios for people who want to align their money with their values. I got involved with Slow Money because of a personal interest in organic agriculture, but also because I had clients who wanted to channel some of their assets into sustainable food systems. But soil? I didn’t know anything about soil.

That was about to change. Through my involvement with Slow Money, my appreciation for and understanding of soil has continually grown and deepened. I remember first learning from a Woody Tasch talk that there were upwards of a billion microorganisms in a teaspoon of fertile soil. I learned from farmers and others at Slow Money gatherings about the myriad benefits of healthy soils, from nutritious food to water quality. Meanwhile, wearing my climate activist hat, I met biologists who explained that one of the most powerful tools we have to mitigate climate change is to put the excess carbon in the atmosphere back in the soil through restorative grazing and agriculture.

Increasingly I found myself in the company of soil advocates who view restorative agriculture as a key component of any scenario in which humanity effectively addresses the climate crisis. Now a few of these folks have formed a Vermont-based non-profit organization called Soil4Climate to advance the soil carbon narrative within the larger climate movement. I’m honored to be one of the founding board members of the organization, and further pleased that Woody Tasch has joined our advisory board.


Soil4Climate at Vía Orgánica in Guadalupe, Mexico.

Soil4Climate is inspired by innovative farmers, ranchers and other land managers who are increasing soil carbon while providing environmental and health benefits. As it turns out, nature is our most powerful ally in the fight against global warming. The ability for soil to capture atmospheric carbon is awe evoking. When we work to enhance this natural process, we get nourishing food and biodiverse spaces while also helping to assure a livable future.

Soil4Climate evolved out of an understanding that the climate crisis has reached a point where even eliminating the use of fossil fuels would not prevent an oncoming calamity. Research from NOAA showed that climate change from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was largely irreversible for at least a thousand years, even if our campaign to end fossil use was 100% successful. The planet doesn’t care. It will continue to warm from the carbon we’ve already pumped into the air.


Jesse and Callie McDougall of Studio Hill Farm, and Sally Dodge from Vermont Lamb Company.

The one silver lining in all this, however, is soil. In conjunction with essential emissions reductions, soil restoration may provide the extra ingredient needed to avert the worst climate disruptions that are otherwise already locked into the system. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, it will take “a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period” to do so.

Where does this “large net removal” come from? For decades scientists have recognized that soil provides an important sink for atmospheric carbon. Esteemed Ohio State soil scientist Rattan Lal is considered by many to be the leading authority on the carbon drawdown potential of soils. In a paper from 2010, he estimated that the implementation of soil restoration practices may capture upwards of 3.8 gigatons of atmospheric carbon per year – fully a third of all global carbon emissions. However, a new paper by Richard Teague of Texas A&M, with Lal and others as co-authors, suggests the total drawdown in soil may be much higher when including the restorative potential of livestock managed for grass and soil health on prairie. Teague showed that Adaptive Multipaddock (AMP) grazing, a new type of grazing management that focuses on ecological goals, if employed on all available rangeland in North America, could, on its own, drawdown 730 million tons of carbon per year. When combined with “conservation cropping,” North American agricultural and grazing lands could pull down approximately one eighth of all global emissions. If the drawdown potential noted in Teague’s paper were realized on all cropping and grazing lands worldwide, the total yearly carbon capture would nearly offset the entire output from fossil fuel emissions.


Clearly, soil restoration through proper cropping and grazing practices is a valuable goal for us to work toward. We may never know with clarity what the yearly or total cumulative potentials for carbon capture in soil are, but we are certain that the quantities are large, and that movement forward in this direction is an essential course of action with multiple benefits. Combined with emissions reductions, soil restoration provides optimism for a livable future.


Soil4Climate at COP21 in Paris.

Soil4Climate supports all modes of engagement with citizens, scientists, policy makers, and practitioners to enhance soil carbon while meeting environmental and human needs. We are attempting to build a movement in the model of 350.org, while also supporting practical measures to help land managers employ regenerative practices. Our activities include writing white papers, organizing forums, encouraging policy, highlighting stories of success, encouraging sustainable investments, hosting online discussion groups, and even writing music and poetry. We stand with the emissions reductions communities that are doing essential work to phase out fossil fuels, and we employ an “all-of-the-above” strategy to engage stakeholders of any age or interest.

Please join us online in our Facebook and Google groups.

If you want more on soil building, read some our past essays on soil and Meadowcreek:

Skin, soil and the Meadowcreek spa experience

Millenial soil begins with biochar

How many cows do you have?

Shiva, rebirth and resilience




Love and the letter of the law

The moon is full, the night is clear and moon shadows are everywhere.  The moon’s brightness is so strong that only a few stars are visible.  And it does this magic so regularly.  The moon has always gone through all its phases in 29.53 days.  Many ancient counting devices called tally sticks have 29 notches.  The Lebombo tally stick  with 29 distinct notches was left in a cave in South Africa about 35,000 years ago.  No wonder the word month is derived from moon.

Ziggurat-urThe regularity of the moon and sun and other natural phenomena are called laws of nature, but we really need a better term.  Laws of nature are facts, while laws of men are not facts at all.  Laws of men were established because the laws of nature no longer worked to control man’s behavior.

The oldest law code was written about 2100 BC during the reign of King Ur-Nammu who ruled the city state of Ur in present day Iraq.  Ur-Nammu is also famous for building the gigantic Ziggurat–a temple dedicated to a moon god.  Three hundred years later, another ruler of Ur, Hammurabi, carved his Hammurabic Code of 282 laws into a black nine foot column so all his people would know the rules of the kingdom.  Abraham, father of all Arabs and Jews, was born in Ur.  About 300 years after Hammurabi, Abraham’s descendant, Moses, came down with a set of laws somewhat similar to Hammurabi’s but dedicated to one god.  The Hittites, Egyptians and Chinese all soon followed with their own written laws.

All these codes of written laws were turned on their head by a movement which claimed that “the letter of the law kills, but the spirit of the law give life.”   This new movement claimed that love is the foundation of all natural law.  Loving your neighbor as yourself and loving the one God were declared as the foundation of all law.

In the two thousand years since, most have strayed from trying to know the spirit of the law and instead have become practical and down to earth and, consequently, gazillions of laws have been established.  Lawyers have multiplied like bunnies and made modern America the most litigious society on earth.

A small remnant of lawyers continues to try to make human law consistent with the laws of nature.  To these jurists law should be natural, meaning: consistent with the  instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring.

Written laws, then, are just attempts to put into words the laws found in nature.  They will always be lacking, never totally true, and slavishly following them will always lead to problems.  Man-made laws are made to be broken.  Only by breaking and perfecting them can we bring them closer to natural law.

The trouble is that most folks nowadays don’t have any concept of the “spirit of the law.”  As man loses touch with nature, he ceases to know natural law.  The cities where most people live are designed to exclude nature.  Nature is an enemy to be fought.  Those whose world is the city will invariably become separated from natural cycles and natural communities.

All natural cycles and communities are built on cooperation and complementarity.  You may have difficulty seeing how love is manifest in nature.  After all, nature is alleged to be “red in tooth and claw” based on survival of the fittest.  Recently, ecologists have come to realize that the selfish, individual selection central to classic Darwinism is misleading.  The fittest individuals are not single individuals.  They are individuals which are part of communities which help each other.  Each species is part of a community of all sorts of species which are complementary to each other and help each other.  It is the community which is selected, the individual is just the mechanism by which the community is selected.

So think about cooperation and complementary species if “love” seems too wishy-washy and sentimental.

But, please, when abandoning the notion of individual selection and the capitalism which logically sprang from it, don’t trade it in for another set of rules such as socialism  or organic agriculture.   All these rules are imperfect and made to be broken.  Instead focus on the consistencies in natural cycles and communities.  Look at which communities survive and thrive, not which ones meet your external criteria.

Organic agriculture, for example, is appealing in so many ways.  If you define qualities of systems which survive and thrive (e.g., are resilient) in line with most ecologists and define organic farming by IFOAM Basic Standards, you’ll probably contend:  “for most criteria, organic farming displays encouraging and promising features and mirrors the characteristics of farm resilience.”

Yet organic farming has become dominated by farms which focus on stability using the command-and-control approaches of classic resource management.  This class of organic farms has become just a set of industrial farms which follow slightly different rules but the same philosophy as their conventional brethren.  They follow the letter of the law and not the historic spirit of organic farming.

Similarly, so many societies have been founded on the principles of socialism and grew weak and declined.  You may argue that unfettered capitalism has always resulted in the obliteration of species and pollution of the earth.  And you’d be right.  But why not try to understand natural cycles and natural communities rather than put your faith in yet another man-made philosophy which you know will be proven wrong?

Any if you don’t know that any man-made philosophy or law has flaws and will fail you, then you are stuck in a polarized and polarizing position.  You will inevitably come into conflict with other totally convinced people at opposite poles.  You will help create the wicked problems which bedevil our world.

Born again is natural

Rebirth is a characteristic of all resilient natural systems.  Woods have fires, become prairies and then woods again. Prairie potholes become barren in drought and then teem with life when the rains return.  Yet non-Christians and some mainstream Christians denigrate the concept of being born again.  They sound like Nicodemus, a Pharisee ruler of the Jews: “How can a man be born when he is old?”

snowdrops-twoPsychologists have started trying to come up with a response to this question.   Psychologists finally noticed that children who grow up with alcoholic, unemployed or mentally ill parents often do not exhibit destructive behaviors such as chronic unemployment, substance abuse, and out-of-wedlock births. They can be just as happy and successful as children from happy and successful parents.

Psychologists adopted the term resilience from ecology and defined it as a “positive adaptation” after a stressful or adverse situation.  Resilient people bounce back.

Psychology is wedded to the external environment as cause of behavior.  Accordingly, psychological researchers have been devoted to discovering environmental factors that explain people’s adaptation to adverse conditions, such as maltreatment, catastrophic life events, or poverty.  When no such external causes were found, empirical work shifted to understand the underlying protective processes.

Many have discovered that “spirituality is a component of resilience.” People with regular spiritual practices (yoga, meditation, prayer, nature walks, and so on) are more resilient than those without.

Resilient people are increasingly seen as folks who have the capacity to reorganize their lives after trauma.  They recreate their lives after tragedy or misfortune.

Ecologists have long recognized this ability of resilient systems.  Disturbances are a part of the adaptive cycle of all living systems: growth (r), maturation (K), disassembly (Ω) and reassembly (α) leading back to the growth phase.

Unluckily for our species, we are so adept at prolonging the K phase that we often destroy the capacity for reassembly.  Adults don’t want to disturb the stability of their lives, so they don’t have children.  We like sitting looking at screens and grow out of shape, weak and unable to cope with disturbance.  Cities maintain themselves by extracting wealth from the surrounding rural area–eventually creating hundreds of dead cities in man-made deserts.

What will break us out of our seemingly uncontrollable need to stay in the K phase?   Some business folks have been convinced by the Austrian school and the creative destruction of Schumpeter.  They realize that resilience means embracing disturbance and using it to create new systems.

Most of us keep trying to maintain our somewhat satisfying pleasures in our K phase and never induce the Ω required to get to α.  We fail to realize that devotion to the pleasures of the K phase just insures a more cataclysmic destruction.  In the midst of that destruction, we’ll cry out in anguish, wondering where we went wrong.

The adaptive cycles are indifferent to our anguish, to fairness, to our limited sense of right and wrong.  They just are.  Or, if asked what you should call them, they might say “I am.”

So you can learn more about r, K, Ω, α and the qualities which lead to resilience and transformation.  Or you can just let them buffet you around as they wish.  Ω will come.  The only question is whether you use it or it abuses you.

The ecological approach to rebirth and being born again is not quite what you’ll find in the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita or even the Tao Te Ching.  But you will find it whenever you study Nature.

Spring without Winter?

Spring has lasted longer this year than I can ever remember.  It warmed up in February and has stayed nice and comfortable ever since.  All too often we just jump from winter into summer, with hardly any time for Spring.  It’s tempting to wish for this weather to continue forever.

635940149667803087959444186_6359344127228967891155060939_nature-grass-flowers-spring-2780Quito, Ecuador, and Lalibela, Ethiopia, have this kind of weather all year round.  Working there was simply delightful.  The weather is just heaven.  If you’re close to the equator and at the right altitude, you can have spring-like weather all year.  With perfect weather, you’d think the locals would be happy and productive and engaged.   They aren’t.  Places with perfect weather all year round have less productive and engaged citizens.  They are among the poorest countries in the world.

Minnesota has eight months of winter and three months of blackflies, yet many residents are happy, productive and engaged and wouldn’t live anywhere else.   All of Northern Europe is chilly and cloudy and generally miserable most of the year, yet it’s citizens have historically been more productive and engaged than any in the world.

Changing and challenging weather lays a foundation for the ability to adapt and innovate in response to any disturbance.  Systems which have been exposed to periodic disturbance develop an adaptive capacity to absorb periodic change.  This is not the case with systems which experience extreme events infrequently.

Adaptation to disturbance and change causes systems to increase their response diversity leading to even higher abilities to withstand and adapt to change.

Temperate forests can survive and thrive in extreme and extremely variable weather.  Tropical forests have high levels of diversity, but not of response diversity.  Cold temperatures wipe out tropical forests as they have multiple times in our planet’s history.  Temperate forests respond and adapt to changes to cold or hot climates.  Change to a colder climate may cause a temperate forest to seemingly disappear, but often the seeds of trees remain dormant and the temperate forest rebounds when the climate moderates.

The temperate forest has worked out a multitude of responses and mechanisms of adaptation which enable it to survive and thrive in conditions where the tropical forest disappears.

The same is true in human organizations.  Organizations that survive and thrive are quick to read and act on signals of change. They have worked out how to experiment rapidly, frequently, and economically—not only with products and services but also with business models, processes, and strategies. They have built up skills in managing complex multistakeholder systems in an increasingly interconnected world.

The tropical forest depends on an essentially stable environment to survive.  Many large, established organizations have built their operations around scale and efficiency—sources of advantage that rely on an essentially stable environment.

Nokia once dominated the smartphone market with scale and efficiency.  It was the market share leader with a strong cost position. But Nokia was attacked by an entirely different kind of competitor: Apple’s adaptive system of suppliers, telecom partnerships, and numerous independent application developers, created to support the iPhone. Google’s Android operating system, too, capitalized on a broad array of hardware partners and application developers. The ability to bring together the assets and capabilities of so many agents allowed these smartphone entrants to leapfrog the experience curve and become new market leaders in record time. As Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO, wrote in a memo to his staff, “Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem.”

Organizations are learning to be adaptive like the temperate forest and not depend on stability, scale and efficiency.  The resilient system is seldom the most efficient, the biggest, or the most stable.  In fact, efficiency, size and stability can all undermine resilience when conditions change.

As much as I’d like Spring to hang on forever, I don’t really want it to.  I like adapting to Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.  Bring on change.  We glory in it.


What makes you happy

The predawn sky is not very clear this morning, so maybe its time to explore murky topics such as the relationship of happiness, greed, individualism, and selfishness to resilience.

1920x1080__pack_of_wolves-1207000Classic evolution theory can’t explain altruism and tries to explain it away.  Altruism lowers an individual’s chances of passing its own genetic material on to the next generation, yet persists in organisms from slime molds to wolves to humans.  Classic evolution theorists (such as Richard Dawkins and his Selfish Gene) contend that selection occurs at the level of the individual.  Selfishness, individualism and greed are therefore enshrined as necessary and sufficient for explaining human behavior.  Classic economic theory follows the same assumptions.  People know what they want and will try to amass as much of it as they can.

One economist who criticizes classic economics, Amartya Sen, illustrates the failure of such thinking with the question: “What should you do if you see a person trying to cut his fingers off with a pair of dull scissors?”

The response of most people: stop him from cutting off his fingers, call the police for help, etc.

“Offer him sharper scissors,” was Professor Sen’s answer. Classic economics assumes that people know what they want and that the economic system should help them get what they want.

Counter to classic theory, behavioral economics makes three related claims. First, people do not know what makes them happy. Second, fewer options are sometimes better than more options. Third, more may not make you happier.

The origin of behavioral economics was catalyzed by guests at a party one of it’s founders hosted.  Richard Thaler served cashews as an appetizer. His guests were voraciously eating the nuts; so much so that Thaler worried their appetites would be satisfied before dinner. He removed the remaining cashews. The result? His guests thanked him.

What do cashews have to do with economics? Classical economics argues that people should always be happier with the option to eat cashews. Thus, Thaler’s guests should have been unhappy when he reduced their choices.

Perhaps, Thaler realized, standard economics is wrong in assuming people are rational maximizers. If this is true, perhaps the person in Harvard square attempting to self mutilate with blunt scissors would be happier with fingers than without.

We don’t always do what is best for ourselves.  Often we do what was good for our ancestors.  Up until fairly recently, humans were often hungry and extremely physically active. Our ancestors would have benefited from a day on the couch eating high-caloric foods. Compared to us, they had very high activity levels, lower caloric intake, and fewer possessions.

While our world has changed incredibly rapidly, our genes and brains have not. Thus, our tastes still reflect the world of our ancestors. So we think more money will make us happier, because more resources would have led our ancestors to greater success. Similarly, we are built to be energetically thrifty because because our ancestors were on a tight caloric budget.  In short, we love to eat and sleep because eating and sleeping were good for our ancestors.

We tend to love money because resources were good for our ancestors, and many of us hate useless exercise because it was bad for our ancestors.

Classic economics and evolution are also increasingly being shown to be wrong about social behavior.  It’s now clear that it’s not the strong who survive, it’s the strongest group which survives.  Individualism, selfishness and resulting isolation is the result of classic economics and evolution theory.  We want and need to be around people and help people because it leads to us to survive and thrive–that is, it increases our resilience.

In the last few years the concept of the selfish gene has been replaced by the idea that natural selection occurs at multiple levels: acting not only on genes and individuals, but also on entire groups. Groups with high prosociality — a suite of cooperative behaviors that includes altruism — often outcompete those that have little social cohesion, so natural selection applies to group behaviors just as it does to individual adaptations1. The process of group-level selection has made humans a profoundly social species, the bees of the primate order.

Morality and religion, according to this view, are biologically and culturally evolved adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals.  Religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone.

Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies.   They may be literally correct.

We need to be in communities which limit our options and provide opportunities for us to help the community.  Happiness comes not from selfishness and greed but from helping your family and your community succeed.  Then, when you realize your community also includes some woods and fields and animals, you can know joy.




Can cities be resilient?

You can’t live at Meadowcreek if you are totally in love with city life.  One resident is “perfectly happy to stay in the valley all the time and come out only to go to church on Sundays.”  You have to love country life, solitude and Nature to live at Meadowcreek.  Yet most at Meadowcreek realize that being connected to cities provides benefits to Meadowcreek.

photo-manipulation-of-03_green-city-035_city_in_futureWe market food, mushrooms, herbs and crafts to people in the cities.  We cater events in the city. But when people talk about cities being resilient, it’s hard not to smile.  Part of the smile is because we are glad they are interested in resilience.  Part of the small is almost a laugh that they understand so little of resilience.

Resilience is a property of systems.  A subsystem cannot be resilient by itself, it’s ability to survive and thrive is totally dependent on the larger system it is a part of.  Though cities can seem powerful and independent, they are very dependent on all the inputs they suck in.  From an ecological resilience perspective, no city can be resilient because of this dependency.  A resilient system, though well connected, must be independent.  No city will ever be independent.  Cities always depend on the surrounding ecosystem to supply what they need.

Cities have a horrendous history with their surrounding ecosystems. How many times do cities have to destroy everything around them for us to learn this lesson?  The abandoned cities covered by sand in once lush ecosystems from Africa to the Middle East attest to the destructive lack of resilience of cities.  Resilient city is almost as much an oxymoron as military intelligence, deafening silence, serious joke, sweet sorrow and business ethics.

Realizing the destructive power of cities, we must work with those who love cities to improve their impact on their ecosystems.  Some contend the entire planet will be urbanized by the end of this century.  So city people either learn to contribute to resilience of their ecosystems or they never learn and destroy most of the planet.  Maybe.  And that might not be the worst thing.  A mass extinction would include nearly all humans.  If we can survive that apocalypse at Meadowcreek and a few other isolated spots, maybe we could create a new society which would be based on the natural laws of resilience and not on man-made laws (of which sustainability is one).

Most of us don’t want to chance that apocalypse, so we are happy to work with those trying to develop more resilient cities.  Rockefeller Foundation [1] has developed a City Resilience Framework which posits seven qualities of resilient systems: reflective, robust, redundant, flexible, resourceful, inclusive and integrated.  These qualities are consistent with those of other frameworks for predicting and encouraging resilience, but notably lacking in two areas.

This framework addresses the dependence of cities of their surrounding ecosystem first with the quality of being integrated (where exchange of information between systems enables them to function collectively and respond rapidly through shorter feedback loops).  Instead of using modularity or independence to moderate connectedness or integration, they use the term robust.  Systems are robust if they actively avoid over-reliance on a single physical infrastructure, cascading failure and design thresholds that might lead to catastrophic collapse if exceeded are actively avoided.

Rockefeller is most explicit about the need for physical physical infrastructure.  They cite the importance of well-conceived, constructed and managed physical physical infrastructure, which enable a system to withstand the impacts of disturbance without significant damage or loss of function.

Though Rockefeller fails to explicitly mention the quality of diversity in their 2014 index, in 2015, their website included diversity as a characteristics of all resilient systems.

The Rockefeller framework needs improvement in three main areas: local self-organization, transformation and ecological integration.

They only imply the importance of local self-organization in the quality they call  inclusiveness.  Top-down initiatives can fail if the timing is wrong, if the needs are misinterpreted, or if there is no buy-in from the stakeholders.  All resilience of higher scale systems depends on the resilient of its subsystems.  Rockefeller does not seem ready yet to devolve control to the local level.


Innovation is a necessary quality of resilient systems in nearly all resilience frameworks.  Carpenter et al. discuss it under their term opennessl  Cabell and Oelofse discuss innovation under building human capital and reflected and shared learning; Stockholm Resilience Center under encourage learning; Frankenberger et al. under responsiveness/flexibility and learning and innovation.  Rockefeller  promotes innovation under three qualities: flexible, resourceful and reflective;

Innovation within a system is transformative on a smaller scale.  Most frameworks don’t make the leap to recognizing that sometimes the innovation required may be so extensive as to transform the entire system.    This limited embrace of transformation is illustrated by Rockefeller’s emphasis on reflective systems which notes that resilient systems have mechanisms to continuously evolve, but does not go so far as to say they are periodically totally transformed.

We hope that the Rockefeller framework and other work of the foundation will help cities to become promoters instead of destroyers of resilience.

However, the major flaw in the framework reveals the same blindness which has doomed cities too numerous to count.  Integration with the surrounding ecological systems is not addressed in the framework.  Cities must recognize they are not islands, they are joined at the hip with the surrounding ecosystem.

Any approach to resilience of cities must overcome a tendency to focus on the city instead of on the ecosystem of which it is a part.  Until cities begin to see themselves as just one part of a larger system–all of whose components must be resilient–cities cannot contribute to resilience.

When cities give as many useful inputs back to the systems from which they take outputs, there is the possibility of resilience.

Until then, we have to admit that the most sensible approach is to just hunker down at Meadowcreek and try to ride out the apocalypse.

[1] https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/report/city-resilience-framework/


Your feet look funny

This morning Scorpio dominates the pre-dawn Southern sky as it does when the moon is down.  It’s easy to see the pre-Roman Scorpio with claws extended.  Such a strange and interesting shape the scorpion has.  Then again, the shape of human beings is even more interesting and strange, when you think about it.

african-animal-tracks-5216323Take our feet.  What are the toes for?  What purpose do they serve?  Feet just look like long flat boards attached to the bottom of legs. Horse hooves make a lot more sense.  Anatomists say that the hoof is the expansion and specialization of the middle of five digits at the end of each leg.  Goats and sheep have both the third and fourth digits turned into hard keratinous hooves.  Rhinoceroses have all three middle digits expanded into hoof-like toes.  The feet of these animals make a lot more sense than ours.

Walking on two legs also causes all sorts of other problems not seen in animals which walk on four legs: fractured hips, bunions, hernias, flat feet, fallen arches, torn menisci, shin splints, herniated disks, fractured vertebrae, scoliosis among others.  Makes you want to do some of the yoga poses which get you on all fours.

When you look inside our bodies, things get even stranger.  Why do babies have bigger heads than the diameter of the mother’s pelvic space.  Looking at the human skeleton, there is plenty of room for childbirth right between the ribs and the pelvis.  The place where obstetricians perform cesarean sections. Why aren’t we designed that way?

Four legged animals with relatively small baby heads, don’t have near the problems with birth that humans have.  Our insistence on walking on two legs has resulted in a reorientation of the pelvis which decreases the space for a huge head to go through.

Other anatomical details also cause problems.  Why does the optic nerve go through the retina creating a blind spot?  It doesn’t make sense to have eyes with a blind spot.  In other animals the optic nerve is behind the retina and they have no blind spot.

The development of the human embryo is even more fascinating.  Why does the embryo have a tail for much of its development?  Why does it have gill-like structures which eventually change into lungs?

Some who believe in evolution, especially evolutionary psychologists, believe in the tautology: “Whatever exists is adapted to exist”.  Then they search for evolutionary reasons why something exists.  The truth is much more complicated.

Sure we are similar to other animals in so many ways.  One embryological gene, called Pax6, illustrates this.  The role of this gene is to decree where an eye is going to be, in all species that have eyes. Astonishingly, researchers took Pax6 from a mouse, and stuck it in a fruit fly whose own Pax6 was broken. Lo and behold, the fly’s error was corrected and it grew eyes. Fly eyes, not mouse eyes.

But our species has a unique way of using basic building blocks to create civilizations and inventions.  We humans are so unique in many ways that we are tempted to think we are entitled to use and abuse Nature as we like.  We start to see Nature as the enemy which we must conquer.  When civilizations, inventions and even families get divorced from nature, problems come rolling in.

One example of that lies in our immune systems.  Until recently our immune systems coped with a very dirty world.  Our immune system was responsible for defeating all the invading organisms in that world.  In the modern world, we kill 99.9% of germs in the household and children’s immune systems don’t have much to do.  So, some contend, they start creating various allergies, celiac disease,  hay fever, and maybe even multiple sclerosis and autism.

The solution is to raise our kids in nature–on farms and in the woods.  That’s what we try to do at Meadowcreek: get as many children into the woods as we can.  And introduce them to all the diversity of Nature.  Nothing is more fascinating.

How many cows do you have?

The first Maasai warrior I ever encountered was on a market day in Mtito Andei, Kenya.  He was not really interested in chit chat.  He was there to buy and sell cattle.  He also had a fierce glare and a brusque manner.  He reminded me a little of a bull elephant I encountered later on that trip and cattle farmers you encounter everywhere in rural America.

1588Most cattle farmers aren’t exactly beloved in our Meadow Creek Valley.  Many of the ridges around Meadowcreek are being bulldozed, planted in fescue, and overstocked with cattle.  The rain washes the cattle waste down the hillsides and into the creeks and rivers.  Most of the year we don’t notice, but when water levels get low, we start to get algae growing in the swimming hole upstream of the main Spring.  That spring and all of other seeps down the valley keep the rest of the swimming holes clean, but we sure hate to see even one polluted.

I grew up raising cattle.  I remember calculating how rich I was going to be when all my cattle had cattle.  We didn’t exactly calculate anyone’s worth based on how many cattle he owned (like the Maasai do), but it was a factor.  If someone didn’t have any cattle, he just was not someone you’d want to associate much with.  Cattle was what you talked about when you got together with friends.

Cattle accompanied our ancestors when they left Africa and then spread across Europe after the Ice Ages ended.  Those ancestors selected animals for delicious meat and were in turn genetically changed to be able to process milk as adults.  The semi-wild auroch was gradually transformed into the various breeds we have today: Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys for milk; Angus and Hereford for meat.

Most contend the Angus is the best quality meat, but they’ve never tasted Galloway beef.   On the family farm in Missouri, Galloway/Angus crosses produce even better meat for direct market customers.

I left the cattle production to my brother and sisters long ago.  Somehow I came to love spring wildflowers and noticed that our woods had noticeably fewer wildflowers than the woods across the fence where no cattle grazed.  It wouldn’t be hard to keep the cattle out of the woods in the spring, but I’d be outvoted.

Our family farm is one of the pioneers in one ecologically sound practice involving cattle: bale grazing.  We used to call it terrafarming (from the science fiction idea of terraforming Mars to create farmland) but that esoteric term never caught on.  However, as “bale grazing,” the idea has caught fire.

In terrafarming or bale grazing the farmer places large round bales in paddocks for winter grazing.  The cattle are let into the paddock when they finish the hay in a previous paddock.  They tromp left over hay into the soil along with their manure.  Once the hay in a paddock is finished, that paddock is closed to cattle to reduce compaction.  This process increases organic matter, soil quality and the productivity of the paddock the next year.  A farmer can place bales on any part of the farm where he wants to improve the soil.  Some farmers put out enough bales for the entire winter and use electric fence to contain the cattle.

The process mimics the natural process which led to some of the richest farmland in the world.  Wolves and other predators kept wild cattle and deer concentrated in herds which moved only when they had consumed all the grass in one area.  This meant manure and uneaten organic matter was incorporated into the soil.  Over untold generations, the wolves and wild grass eaters created the deep rich soils of the Illinois-Iowa (mollisols) and Ukraine (chernozem).

Electric fence and the farmer have replaced the wolves and cattle have replaced the wild grass-eaters, but the process is the same.  And intensified, so good soil is created much more quickly.

The only difference comes when the farmer tries to keep too many animals.  Stocking too many animals on too little land causes overgrazing.  Overgrazing results in soil erosion and eventually degradation of the land so no grazing is possible.  When drought hits, degradation is intensified.  Natural systems deal with this through the weakening of the herd with less food available and wolves and predators picking off the weak.

Ecologically sound farmers reduce their herds in times of drought to match the grazing capacity of their land.  Unfortunately, many Arkansas farmers are like the Maasai and like to keep their numbers up.  So they overgraze and buy hay in the drought and don’t sell as many as they should.

Nature cares not about the individual.  For the system to be resilient, some cows have to be sacrificed.  Cattle farmers seldom want to sell as many as they need to.  So we have too many cows on too little land, degrading the land and polluting our streams.

Some in Meadow Creek valley would like to just get rid of cattle totally.  Most of us like beef too much.

Organic strawberries–cooperative or not?

The thunderstorms have moved through and the Milky Way is dominating the pre-dawn sky.  Clear skies  mean we can finally get back in the garden.  We have a full day of working the soil ahead of us.  It’s still cool enough in Arkansas for such work to be pure fun, especially when the sun is out.  Looks like several days of sunshine ahead–great for strawberry ripening.

FreeGreatPicture.com-3172-high-definition-material-strawberryThe garden’s a cooperative effort.  Everyone helps plant and weed and harvest.  And everyone shares in the produce.  But all the inputs come from private companies. The strawberry plants arrived from a private company, not a cooperative.  All the tools and other inputs were provided by private companies, not cooperatives.  Private companies produce nearly all the inputs and market nearly all the outputs of American agriculture. Cooperatives, mostly buying inputs in bulk for their members but including some processing and marketing, were powerful in much of American agriculture for many decades after the 1930s and experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and early 90s.  Both these epochs resulted in cooperatives being transformed into private businesses in fact or de facto.

In some circles, a new era of cooperatives appears to be upon us.  The new cooperatives and farmer/worker-owned businesses are, as in the past, a response to the inequities created by large, greedy corporations intent on squeezing profit from the land and from productive farmers.

The question is how many of the new cooperative organizers will heed the hard lessons of the two previous heydays of cooperatives.  Seeking answers, the Resilience Project took a couple of cooperative advocates to learn from the history of cooperatives in California.

Overlooking the Pacific coast near Swanton, we met Jim Cochran who began organizing cooperatives in the 1970s.  Jim came to the coast as an undergraduate studying 19th century intellectual history at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s.

He lived up the hill from the Chadwick Garden and admired the organic food and flowers grown on that steep hillside where organic agriculture took root in America.  After he graduated, Cochran took a job as an assistant to organizers of farm worker-owned production co-ops on the coast and in the Pajaro Valley.  He then worked to help various Central California cooperatives with  marketing and financial planning.

His experiences convinced him that the average farm worker is not proficient at marketing and finances.  When people  who don’t understand a system try to manage a system, they are asking for failure.  Jim watched several worker owned cooperatives fail and put workers out of work.

He decided a better route was to let people experienced in marketing and finance run those aspects of the business and support unions to provide benefits for farm workers.

In 1983, he came back to the coast to found Swanton Berry Farm, famous as the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). Swanton Berry Farm offers their workers low income housing on site, health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, a pension, and other benefits including an employee stock ownership program. In 2006 Cochran received the Honoring Advocates for Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture (Justie) Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

Cochran began his commercial farming career growing strawberries using conventional methods, but switched to organic farming methods after he was nearly poisoned by pesticides.  In 1987, his farm became the first CCOF-certified organic strawberry farm in the State of California.  He subsequently developed a wide range of new methods, which include crop rotations, such as rotation with broccoli to replace soil fumigation, mustard and alfalfa as trap crops, and the use of natural predators.  His mostly intuitively developed methods were later verified scientifically in a series of studies by University of California, Davis plant pathologist Krishna Subbarao and his collaborators.

Cochran originally found it difficult to get funding for his experiments from the California Strawberry Commission, stating that “The industry blockaded our efforts to get money to research alternatives, and spent a lot of money in Washington making sure our proposals didn’t get funded.”  Despite this opposition from mainstream growers, Cochran’s methods made large-scale commercial organic strawberry industry possible in California.

in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded him the Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for developing organic methods of growing strawberries that did not rely on the soil fumigant methyl bromide.

Travelers along the coast visit the Swanton farm stand on Highway One, where they pick strawberries by the sea, and savor the fabulous jams, truffles, strawberry pies, scones and other treats concocted in the kitchen. When no one is minding the store, customers pay on the honor system, a lesson in trust that Cochran encourages. A photo exhibit documenting the agricultural history of Santa Cruz County and of the United Farm Workers is displayed above long comfortable tables where customers sip coffee supplied by the Community Agroecology Network.

Jim created a socially just and ecologically sound farming system only after he abandoned the idea of cooperative management.  He now forcefully says he believes in a top-down, not a bottom-up approach to management.  He contends he could never have created a farm providing so many benefits to workers and the environment if he had organized his farm as a cooperative.

He firmly believes that not everyone has both the ability and desire to manage a farm successfully.  Unless good managers are in charge, the farm will fail.  Most farm workers just don’t have the skills to manage all aspects of a farm.  He also contends that many of those who advocate for sustainable and organic systems aren’t nearly as smart as the farmers who succeed in developing resilient farms.

Jim’s experience echoes my own and that of dozens of folks who have managed cooperatives.  I made a 200 farmer cooperative in Appalachia a success only because I insisted on overruling farmers who wanted to make management decisions.  Some farmers will always want to increase their return at the expense of the viability of the cooperative.

Another problem in cooperative management is free riders.  I’ve experienced this all around the world.  Some cooperative members try to access all the benefits of the cooperative without contributing much of anything.  When workers perceive they can reap the same rewards with less work than others contribute, the temptation can be over-powering.

The bottom line is that cooperatives must hire good management, set guidelines and let them do their jobs.  And those enamored by cooperative theory should recognize that a well-managed private company (such as Jim Cochran’s) can provide better benefits for its workers than cooperatives.  Cooperatives  do not cure greed.  Greedy cooperative members can undermine an organization as easily as greedy management can exploit workers.

The greed of some owners of private companies remains one of the key problems in American business.  Overcoming that greed will not result from cooperatives with unskilled management.  Those who seek to transform our economy to make it more resilient will learn the lessons of the past, either by studying history or by making the same mistakes once again.

Iris, the rainbow goddess, loves thunderstorms

Thunderstorm are lighting up the sky at the Delta outpost.  This makes five straight days of thunderstorms here.  Luckily we got all the beds weeded before the rains hit.

The strawberries and the the rosemary are suffering, but the iris are loving it.  The strawberry leaves are green and beautiful, but the fruit is rotten due to the incessant rain.  Strawberries like lots of rain until they begin to set fruit.  Then no rain at all until you pick them.  Only those who spray fungicides will have a good crop of strawberries in the Delta this year.  We don’t do that, so looks like we’ll be baking fewer strawberry cakes this winter.

At least the strawberries are green.  Our rosemary is all turning brown from being too wet.  Rosemary is easy to grow, but likes well-drained soils. It even loves a little drought. Those we don’t have this year. We’re propagating rosemary at the Delta outpost to plant at Meadowcreek.  Rosemary allegedly repels deer and improves memory.  We could use both of those at Meadowcreek.

When people smell rosemary, small fat-soluble molecules enter the body through the lining of the nose or lungs and can cross the blood-brain barrier. When people are exposed to different intensities of rosemary aroma, they perform better and faster on tests of brain performance.  In blood samples, levels of the most common chemical in rosemary oil (1,8-cineole or eucalyptol) was highly correlated with test performance.   Eucalyptol may not be causing the cognitive effects.  It may just indicate that harder to detect chemicals from rosemary, such as rosmarinic acid and ursolic acid are working on your brain.

The cause of the repellent effect of rosemary on deer has not been explored, but we’re eager to try it.  Propagation will have to wait until our Delta rosemary recovers from the wet weather.

One heritage plant thrives in repeated thunderstorms: iris.  My grandmother asked me to take over her farm and garden when she decided to move to town.  I lived with her several months to learn about all her plants.  She loved daffodil and iris and Christmas cactus.  Somehow I’ve kept her plants alive through moves from Missouri to Texas to Kentucky to Arkansas.

Bliss Irises The Garden 1921This time of year, the iris is my favorite.  It’s a purple and yellow bearded iris that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  It flowers later than my yellow and white irises.  That means it’s out when we’re picking strawberries.  But even when its so wet the strawberries rot, the iris look great.

At Meadowcreek, we have a lovely wild dwarf iris which seems to be sprouting everywhere this time of year.  Wild irises are found all around the world.  Iris is the name for a genus which includes about 300 species.  The name comes from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, who carried messages between earth and sky.  One of the earliest known artworks of an iris is a fresco in King Minos’ palace on the Greek Island of Crete. The palace dates from 2100 BC.  The most famous use of the iris is as a symbol of French kings.  The iris flower was adapted on royal flags as the Fleur de Lys.  It disappeared from the French flag with their Revolution, but is still on the flag of the Province of Quebec in Canada.

We love having a diversity of plants.  If the weather isn’t great for one, it will be for some of the others.  Much like in farming, where a diversity of crops leads to more resilience.  Over-reliance on one crop sooner or later will result in a total crop failure.  Diversifying with both animals and crops increases resilience even more.  Sure it can be more efficient to specialize in just one type of production.  But, in the long run, you pay for it.

Since we’re not farming commercially anymore, we can really appreciate the diversity just for its own sake.  And to remember my grandmother and the long line of plant-lovers who have created and perpetuated Iris and rosemary and strawberries.  And its something anyone can do, even if all you have is a sunny windowsill.