Thriving marriages, businesses and ecosystems need . . . maintenance

If you travel by yourself to enough remote places, sooner or later someone will be sure you are a spy.  Especially is you have a plausible cover story that gives you an excuse to probe and ask questions.  This is what real spies call a “legend.”  One former Soviet spy told me it’s good to have several legends.  I’ve always just stuck with one: I’m a consultant trying to help farmers improve their farms or cooperatives.

The consultancies are what pays for my trips to these exotic places, but what I spend most of my time doing is learning what resilient people do.  I justify this because I have to learn what the people are doing now in order to help them do it better.


What I usually learn from these farmers is that they know how to grow food successfully no matter how challenging their conditions. These farmers don’t fret much about tomorrow.  They may be poor, but they are pretty sure they will make it.  Just like the stork in the sky, they know what to do in each appointed season; just as the dove, the swift and the thrush know when to migrate and when to procreate. They know their role, they know what to do.

So why are so many people in our developed society so clueless? They often don’t know how to live.  Some contend they do know and say:  “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord (or the Prophet or the Buddha).” But all these writings have passed through thousands of scribes whose lying pens altered the scriptures. So those self-described wise ones will be put to shame. Trapped in the letter of the law, they will be dismayed. They have rejected the Spirit of the Law, though they can see it in all of Nature.

Others see that natural systems remember what Man has forgotten. This leads them to places such as Meadowcreek or Scattering Fork to learn how to create and keep going relationships naturally.

A lot of people who haven’t farmed for a living think farming is easy pickin’s.  And honorable and healthy to boot. Lots of smart suburban kids think they want to farm, come to Meadowcreek or similar places. There they sometimes find out they don’t really like to work in the dirt.

Another group of really nice non-farmers are the folks who retire from city jobs and think they will farm.  So they have a fun retirement supporting their farming habit from their pension.

But the group of non-farmers who cause problems the most problems are those who own or control land and force the real farmers to make them a profit. Some of these folks really mean well, but, boy, when they put the squeeze on, it can cause some problems.

Recently, I finished an assignment working with such folks..   Their farm is next to the best African wildlife preserve. There’s always so much to learn on a well-run farm. The farm I worked on produces high quality shade grown coffee. The local managers are brothers in a Catholic order. More than 400 people live on the 1000 acres of the farm.

One day I was trying to get phone reception in a likely spot amongst the coffee bushes while waiting to walk to the coffee processing plant with the main manager.  Two Oldeani coffee farm workers were riding a tractor to the field as they passed the farm manager and I. They were loaded up to do combat with a little worm which has invaded one corner of the coffee farm. Though they were off to do important work, the manager stopped them. The exhaust pipe had become disconnected from the muffler. In their haste to get to the field, they hadn’t fixed it. So the tractor was spewing exhaust and noise over them and they even through the scarves over their faces.

The manager calmly pointed out that they needed to make that minor fix before they went to the field. They argued for a bit that it wasn’t necessary, but the manager firmly sent them back to the machine shop.

The tractor they were driving was so old that the paint had worn off its hood and there was no way of knowing even what brand it was, much less how old it was. The youngest tractor I’ve seen on this farm has been there about 30 years. Somehow, this isolated group of uneducated village people have kept all the machines going to harvest 280 acres of high quality coffee every year.

They key to their longevity is maintenance. They know their mechanical systems and they know how to keep them functioning. Others of us aren’t mechanical. When my machines quit working, I take them to someone who knows how to fix them.  I’m only able to survive because my land is supported by a larger system of outside mechanics and factories and people who pay me for work off the farm. There is no way that my little place by itself is a resilient system. It does survive and thrive, but only because it is part of a larger system—which I cultivate to insure long-term resilience.

This coffee farm does rely on oil and some spare parts to keep its engines running. But it is pretty durn independent. Until the speculators cause a dip in the price of coffee.  But even that doesn’t affect them much, they produce nearly all their own food—great pumpkin soup and French toast and cheesy potatoes by the way.

The people of the farm follow a pattern which has endured for generations. The trouble is that they don’t own the land. It’s owned by a church based in the capitol city several hundred miles away. And that church wants more profit.  I think the farmers will surmount this challenge too.  And the city people trying to squeeze them for more profit will likely fall by the wayside.

In  the meantime, they will baby their old tractors, coaxing them to work together to keep the farm running, producing high quality coffee. Just as any good business manager coaxes his people to work together for a common purpose. Just as any spouse babies and coaxes his partner to create a lasting life together.


Maintenance is the M in our CLIMATED model of resilience to climate change and other disturbances. You see it in all living systems. When it fails, the system uses up its resources and ceases to exist.

It you want to learn more about maintenance (called redundancy in the ecological literature), download the maintenance chapter of our free book on resilience. It’s available at: