Building a resilient future in food and farming

Americans today are faced with a failing food system. Bare shelves in grocery stores are accompanied by vegetables plowed under, milk poured down drains, and animals euthanized and buried. The COVID-19 disruption has shown the lack of resilience of American agriculture and the processing and distribution of its production. This disruption is not the first and it will not be the last that our food system will experience. Climate change is the foremost long-term disruption we face. Managers of America’s farm, forest and grazing lands could play a crucial role in combating climate change.

The road to a more resilient agricultural system will be long and hard. Fortunately, far-sighted Members of Congress have joined the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many other organizations to begin the first steps on that road. Earlier this year, the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) was introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) to begin the process of transforming American agriculture into a system that can rebound and adapt no matter what disturbance arises, including climate change.

Goals and Action Plan to a More Resilient Food and Farming System

ARA establishes a set of aggressive but realistic goals for farmers to help mitigate climate change and increase agricultural resilience, starting with the overarching goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture by no later than 2040. Net zero means that all remaining ongoing carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane emissions are offset by removing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. The single generation 20-year timeframe to reach that goal is achievable but only if appropriate policies are put in place soon.

ARA’s substantive programmatic sections are divided into six additional titles, the key building blocks for creating a more resilient agriculture. Each of these titles is summarized below, concluding with the corresponding goals set by the legislation.

Soil Health

Healthy soils not susceptible to erosion are the foundation of agricultural resilience. Without them, a prosperous agriculture is impossible. A key to healthy soils is incorporation of more organic carbon into the soil. ARA encourages farmers to pull carbon out of the air and into their soils –removing greenhouse gases and increasing soil health. Soils containing more carbon capture and hold more water to help farmers deal with both drought and torrential rains.

Intensive row-crop agriculture has caused the loss of an average of 30 to 50 percent of carbon and organic matter in U.S. agricultural soils prior to such intense cultivation. Farmers have the tools to restore most of the carbon we have lost and, in the process, help reverse climate change. These tools include diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, conservation tillage, and other practices to build soil health.

A first step in restoring soil carbon is to keep soils under cover as much as possible. Bare soils erode and release carbon into the atmosphere. The bill sets the goal of increasing cover crop acres across the country to at least 25 percent of crop acres by 2030 and at least 50 percent 2040, with at least 50 percent of American cropland acres covered by crops, cover crops, or residue year-round by 2030 and rising to at least 75 percent by 2040.

ARA Goal: Restore at least half of lost soil carbon and maintain year-round cover on at least 75 percent of cropland acres by 2040.

Farmland Preservation and Viability

The conversion of grassland and forestland to cropland results in net greenhouse gas emissions. Conversions of native grasslands and forests to agricultural uses have resulted in large amounts of carbon lost from soils in the past, and losses on a smaller scale continue each year. As urbanization demands increase, agricultural land is also at risk of conversion to development. Converting agricultural land to development will have negative impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and our ability to store carbon in our soils. Long term, it could also pose a threat to our food security.

The bill sets the interim goal of reducing the rate of conversion of agricultural land to development and the rate of grassland conversion to cropping by at least 80 percent by 2030 and eliminating the conversion of agricultural land and grassland by 2040. ARA protects one of our most valuable natural resources and one of the best tools we have to sequester carbon and build resilience in food and farming: our soil.

ARA Goal: Eliminate conversion of agricultural land and grassland by 2040.

Pasture-Based Livestock

The best soils in the world were created by grass-eating animals herded by predators to intensively graze and incorporate their manure into the soil. ARA seeks to reestablish such soil-building systems with modern management-intensive grazing on all pasture lands in the U.S.

Unfortunately, most animals in the U.S. rarely see pasture. They live in large confinement facilities which generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Adaptive grazing methods improve soils while reducing methane production. The more we move toward carefully managed grazing-based systems and the re-integration of livestock with cropping systems, the better the climate mitigation results. Given the dominant role of confinement systems today, the transition will take time. But the methane produced by confinement facilities can still be reduced through the conversion of wet manure handling and storage systems to dry storage and composting, reducing methane emission and creating a source of organic carbon for our soils.

ARA Goal: Establish advanced grazing management on 100 percent of grazing land, reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to the feeding of ruminants by at least 50 percent, increase crop-livestock integration by at least 100 percent over 2017 levels, and convert at least two thirds of wet manure handling and storage to alternative management by 2040.

On-Farm Renewable Energy

Another basic step to increasing resilience of our food system is to reduce the reliance of farms on non-renewable energy, while increasing energy efficiency and generating on-farm renewable energy. Farms can reduce costs by increasing efficiency and can create new income streams by using the sun and wind to generate energy. ARA proposes tripling the level of on-farm clean renewable energy production and installing and managing on-farm renewable energy infrastructure in a way that does not adversely impact farmland, natural resources, or food production.

ARA Goal: Implement energy audits on 100 percent of farms and triple on-farm renewable energy production by 2040.

Food Waste

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities and instabilities of our current food system. Reports about unharvested crops, dumping milk, and farmers having to euthanize their animals due to processing plant closures have made headlines across the country. Simultaneously, food banks have seen an increase in demand from struggling families.

Many farmers have surplus food available since they have lost their customers due to closures of farmers markets, schools, and restaurants, but the infrastructure is not currently set up to connect farmers and families in need of food. The waste of food in the COVID-19 crisis is heart-breaking when many are going hungry. However, food waste has long been ubiquitous in our food system.

Through ARA provisions such as  making composting a conservation practice eligible for support under federal working lands conservation programs, creating a new grant program to support large-scale food-waste-to-energy projects, and supporting schools to reduce food waste, ARA is setting the path forward on reducing food waste across our food supply chain.

ARA Goal: Reduce food waste by at least 75 percent by 2040.

Agricultural Research

None of the above goals can be reached without significant expansion of investment in research on climate change adaptation and mitigation, soil health, agroforestry, advanced grazing management and crop-livestock integration, on-farm and food system energy efficiency and renewable energy production, food waste reduction and related topics to accelerate progress toward net zero emissions by no later than 2040.

Our food and agricultural system affects public health, environmental protection, climate resilience, and the rural and national economy. However, federal funding for food and agriculture research has stagnated for decades, jeopardizing our future and hindering our ability to innovate in ways that improve farm viability, rural vitality, public health, and food security.

ARA Goal: Quadruple the total federal funding for food and agriculture research and extension by 2040.

What Comes Next?

ARA proposes specific tools and incentives to achieve all the above goals. More detail will be provided in additional blogs in this series over the next few weeks.

ARA is a first step toward transforming our food system to make it less susceptible to disturbance whether from a virus, climate change, or any unknown and unanticipated disruption.

A resilient U.S. food system is possible. We must take the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis and begin the journey to a safe and reliable food system for America. ARA sets a path forward for agriculture to survive and thrive and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Ecological resilience of food systems in response to the COVID-19 crisis

Resilience of food systems is being tested by the COVID-19 disruption. As with any severe disruption, collapse of some systems, innovation in others, and total reorganization of some will occur. Direct delivery of food, online farmers markets, community supported agriculture operations (CSAs), backyard food production, expansion of seed producers and plant nurseries, and decrease in restaurant share of the food dollar with increased home cooking are some trends that may be lasting. These trends can be seen as complex adaptive systems following the adaptive cycles of all open systems. The crisis provides an opportunity to examine a model of food system resilience (CLIMATED) and apply it more broadly.
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For the rest of this article, go to the journal where it was just published: https://www.foodsystemsjournal.org/index.php/fsj/article/view/806/791

How to become a demagogue

Why are demagogues disparaged so? One person’s demagogue is another person’s enlightened teller of truth to power. With global warming and the Great Extinction on our hands, maybe we could use a demagogue or two to stir the pot a little and see where populism might take us if applied to man’s abuse of the environment.

huey-pierce-long-and-family-330x190

Huey Long advocated free college and confiscating millionaires’ fortunes long before the current crop of Presidential candidates.

So far no one has figured out how to harness populism to ecological activism.  Populism always offers a better life for people and most environmentalists want to take away everything which makes us comfortable and happy.  So it easy for populist demagogues to rail against environmental strictures.

In hopes that one of you, my dear readers, will become or encourage the union of populism and environmentalism, I submit these tips for becoming a demagogue.

One best selling historian traces all American populist demagogues back to religion.  Specifically the Presbyterian and other Calvinists who sparked the American Revolution.  These preachers challenged the authority of the ruling mainstream religions of their day. This challenging of authority was transferred from church autocrats to British kings by their followers.  And America resulted.

This movement, known as the Great Awakening was followed by a populist and religious revolt in the 1830s and 1840s known as the Second Great Awakening.  This led to the Civil War.

More recently demagogues have not needed religion to excite their followers.  But the hell and brimstone preachers established the mold for all demagogues to come. Demagogues appeal to emotion, denigrate their enemies with lies and insults and promise an impossible world which their followers will enjoy.

Huey Long is often called the quintessential demagogue.  Today Trump is cited as the essence of demagogue.  Others contend his opponents are adept at the tools of demagoguery.

But we always label as demagogues those with whom we disagree.  Today the opponents of Trump use all the tricks of demagoguery. If they were only more successful, we would label them demagogues.

Maybe all major  social and political revolutions require demagogues. If so, what can we learn from today’s and yesterday’s demagogues to help catalyze needed change.  Especially the changes needed to stop the greatest threat we have ever faced, the destruction and befouling of our planet.

So what does a demagogue have that most environmentalists don’t? They are skilled in oratory, flattery and invective; evasive in discussing many issues; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices.  They are masters of the masses.

Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. Demagogue roughly translates as “leader of the mob.” They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, it is possible for the people to give that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.

Demagogues usually advocate immediate, forceful action to address a crisis while accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness or disloyalty.

James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 identified four fundamental characteristics of demagogues:

  • They fashion themselves as a member of the common people, opposed to the elites.
  • Their politics depends on a visceral connection with the people, which greatly exceeds ordinary political popularity.
  • They manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition.
  • They threaten or outright break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.

We could employ just about all those tools of demagogues to address the destruction of our planet.  The only problem is that demagogues usually appeal to the poor and ignorant and promise them the moon.  Those who realize the peril our planet is in are not usually poor and ignorant and promising them material wealth won’t help the planet.

So maybe uniting demagoguery and environmentalism won’t save the planet, but we had better find something that does.  And if demagoguery will help, it’s worth a last desperate try.

New report helps Southerners fight climate change

In the midst of a record-breaking cold snap in the South, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is releasing today a comprehensive position paper detailing policies for agriculture to adapt and mitigate climate change.  This study integrates the most recent climate research to develop comprehensive agricultural policy recommendations. However, it won’t keep shivering Southerners from echoing the tweet from a Florida golf course last winter that “perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old global warming.”

2018 soil cools in climate change

Climate change does not always mean global warming, but it does mean challenges to all farmers in the US.  The report details the likely climate changes which will take place and how farmers can adapt to these changes.  The report also details how climate change is intensified by hog and cattle factory farms and traditional row crop practices.

The report notes climate change is taking an anomalous path in parts of the Southeast.  In some areas, centered around Alabama, Mississippi and southern Arkansas, temperatures have cooled by an average of 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958, while global average temperatures have risen 1 degree.  This cooling has mainly occurred in the winter months.

The cause of this “global warming hole” appears to be relatively warmer air in the Arctic pushing the still cold Arctic air deeper into the US.  So cold air, which once only reached Ohio, is now getting down to Alabama.  The 2018 article propounding this theory is at this link.

Most importantly to non-farmers, the report reveals how farms can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce release of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.  The South has immense potential for locking such greenhouse gases in soil and perennial biomass where they can increase resilience of Southern farms. Most soils in the South have vast capacity for increasing their storage of organic carbon.  The long growing season and high rainfall in the South provide perfect conditions for storing carbon in perennials and cover crops.

Some counties in the South have totally abandoned row crops and turned all their land into carbon-fixing pastures and forests.  Two such counties, Neshoba County in Mississippi, and Winn Parish in Louisiana, have turned from cotton to management intensive grazing and trees.  These counties, which rank in the top counties on resilience nation-wide, did not set out to be climate change pioneers.  They developed farming systems based on perennials because these systems fit their agroecological conditions. They left row crops to the farmers in flatter ground such as the Mississippi Delta.

Farmers in the most resilient Southern counties realize the benefits of manure from animals along with perennial biomass.  They are managing their land to mimic the movement of the herds of buffalo which helped create the carbon rich soils of the plains.

Research cited by the NSAC paper indicates that everyone, even vegetarians, should applaud management intensive grazing since it is one of the top means of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  Even those who don’t eat meat should support agricultural systems where animals graze perennial species in ways that mimic nature’s adaptive cycles.

NSAC’s paper also points out that increasing resilience has implications far beyond climate change.  Climate change is just one of many disturbances buffeting farmers. Others include tariffs, input costs, market fluctuations, labor supply, and policies which support monocultures grown on immense acreages.

The good news is that resilience to all disturbances can be enhanced by the practices and policies advocated in the NSAC paper.  The best agroecological research indicates that increasing diversity, soil health, perennials, animals on pasture, composting wastes and organizing local processing and marketing helps the climate and helps farmers’ bottom lines.

Download your copy of the policy paper at this link: NSAC Climate Change Policy Position_paper .

For discussions of resilience beyond climate change, see the Resilience Project’s reports at this link.

To find out how your county ranks on resilience, try out the tools at this link.

Southeast cools as rest of country gets hotter

Last summer for a few days it was cooler in Arkansas than in Missouri or Michigan. Climate change is not always bad. Tornadoes also seem to be less prevalent here lately. Missouri and other Northern states are getting hit more and central and southeast Arkansas less.  So maybe there is good reason that climate deniers are more prevalent in Southern states as several studies have indicated.

south cools in climate changeAs the map shows, many areas of the South have been having cooler winters over the last few years.  As the rest of the nation warms up, we are cooling down.

The unusually cold weather has produced a mix of outcomes for farmers, wildlife and human residents. South Carolina peach farmers welcome a certain number of cold winter days for their trees to produce a full crop. But they’ve been walloped when a freeze arrives late, as have Florida’s citrus growers and Georgia’s Vidalia onion farmers.

Across the region, the cold helps knock pests, but it can stress native flora and fauna. Some 35 manatees died of cold stress syndrome in January 2018, according to a preliminary report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The cold also numbed the state’s invasive iguanas, some of which started falling out of trees in January, prompting Floridians to rush to their rescue.

According to the Third National Climate Assessment, part of the Southeastern United States  experienced much cooler than normal temperatures in the years between 1991 and 2012.  The phenomenon is so contrary to the rest of the country and the world that it has been labelled a “global warming hole.”

Why the hole exists is an open question.  National Geographic published an article summarizing the major theories, if you are interested.

The most recent (2018) theory is that relatively warmer air in the Arctic is pushing the still cold Arctic air deeper into the US.  So cold air which once only reached Ohio, is now getting down to Alabama.  You can read the article propounding this theory at this link.

This study was based their on examining NOAA data from 1,407 temperature stations and 1,722 rain stations across the United States, from 1901 until 2015. They then identified stations that were persistently cooler than average from 1960 to 2015.

They found that daily temperatures in the hole have cooled by an average of 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958, whereas global average temperatures have risen 1 degree over the same time period.

The most recent data is shown on the following map which shows that Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama are the states with the largest decreases in temperatures from 1895 to 2018.

2018 soil cools in climate change

The 2019 article producing this latest data also has a feature which lets you enter any US county and find out how much the temperature has increased or decreased since 2018.

The bottom line is the climate change will not occur in any regular, predictable fashion.  Mother Nature is striking back at us in strange and unexpected ways.  Some of these might even be nice.  If you like thunderstorms, then you’ll get few more thrills from as the climate changes.

And the South may continue to get cooler.  Or not.

 

Eight almost-commandments of resilience

The only dogma of Nature is survival.  Whoever survives the latest challenge or disruption gets to enjoy life until the next challenge.

hot dogma

Nature demands adherence to no commandments.  You are free to go off on all sorts of silly, frivolous and destructive paths. And you will.  Nature loves and accepts such messes. . Nature’s only response is to wipe you off the planet when you mess up enough.

Some of us have survived decades of messes and have had the opportunity to observe many people and communities messing up and surviving, Our conclusions from these observations amount to  almost-commandments.  These are more than suggestions, but not immutable laws since such do not exist in Nature.

We’ve distilled the best of the best of those almost-commandments into a set of antecedents of resilience for you and your community.

  1. Be connected but independent.  You are a community of species and a part of a community of people and other species. We all need genuine relationships with other people and animals and plants, but we must also be independent, able to survive without any one of those relationships. Be independent but part of a community of our own and other species.
  2. Be self-organized. Don’t depend on others to organize your life. Be creative and create your own order, one which arises from the community which is you and which your are a part of. You are composed of multiple needs, impulses, and desires as are the people, animals and plants around you.  Organize them all to create a system which works for you and creates a locally self-organized community.
  3. Be curious and innovative, but conservatively. Traditional behavior and structures exist because they contributed to resilience in the past.  A particular behavior or structure which worked in the past may not necessarily support resilience in the future.  But a community which does not preserve the basic foundations of its resilience will never survive. The most innovative usually do not survive.  The conservatively innovative are resilient.
  4. Be focused on maintenance and redundancy.  Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves. Some are so focused on efficiency, they forget that efficiencyBe efficient in your work, including creating back-ups for your community.
  5. Be thrifty and accumulate useful tools.  Resilient communities build richer and deeper soils, a variety of skills, water catchment systems, and any other tool which passes the conservative innovation test.
  6. Be ready for transformation. Always be ready to be born again.  You and your community must be open to renewal and must lay a foundation which encourages that transformation when it is needed.
  7. Be integrated in your ecosystem. Enjoy the natural world where your community lives. Treat your ecosystem as you would your neighbor and yourself. That is, follow the other almost-commandments with the natural systems around you.
  8. Be diverse and promote diversity, as long as it is complementary. We are built to give and receive.  But we are not built to only give or only receive.  We must do both.  Anyone who only gives or only receives destroys their community.

The above spell out the acronym CLIMATED, fortuitous since climate change and weather extremes are among the most treacherous challenges to any community.

These eight almost-commandments have proven themselves time and again.  They are include all the qualities included in numerous frameworks of resilient systems including those of Rockefeller Foundation. Stockholm Resilience Center, international development experts (Frankenberger et al.), Australian resilience pioneers (Walker and Salt), agricultural development experts (Cabell and Oelofse) and many others.

For more information on how you and your community can become more resilient, download the chapters of our free book here.

Indigenous Day!!!!!

There are no indigenous people to the US.  The first people to come from Asia wiped out the huge indigenous animals which then roamed the continent. Yet some unhappy people don’t want anyone to celebrate the immigrant known as Columbus.  They want an “Indigenous Peoples Day.”  They want us to celebrate the people who wiped out these beautiful animals.  I say celebrate Columbus Day by getting out and exploring the little Nature we have left.  It’s  the best time of the year to be in the Delta.  No mosquitoes, cool temperatures, low humidity.

megafauna-of-north-america

City councils of many US cities don’t have enough to do.  These politicians do have time to grease the squeaky wheel, though.  And the vast Know-Nothing-but-indignant-about-everything crowd is squeaking, “indigenous, indigenous!!!”

St. Paul, Albuquerque and a growing slew of other ignorant city councils have declared today Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.  I do like indigenous people, they strewed around a lot of arrowheads for me to find.  I found a prehistoric knife sharpener on this trip to Meadowcreek.

I’m not sure which indigenous peoples I should celebrate today, though. The first humans to leave any calling cards on the North American continent migrated from Asia.  They are called paleoindians or Clovis people, hunted the mastodon, mammoth, horse, tapir, ground sloth, giant bison, giant beaver, giant tortoise, American lion, short-faced bear, and saber-toothed tiger. Over-hunting caused the mass extinction of these animals as the Ice Age ended. More than thirty species of large animals became extinct. By about 10,500 years ago, megafauna no longer roamed North America.

So, if these city councils were less ignoSerpent_Mounds_sketchrant, I’m sure they would not want to glorify the paleoindians because they wiped out some species that we all would like to see.  Kinda like the Africans of today are wiping out the rhinos and all the other big species that the Chinese want for some revolting practice.

The paleoindians were in turn wiped out by the more advanced Hopewell people.  The Hopewell people knew how to garden a little (so they could stay healthier than the Clovis people when game got scarce due to over-hunting) and they made captivating mound art.  On my way to visit the Worstell Building in Athens, Ohio, I stopped at the Serpent Mound.  Any modern artist would be extremely cocky if he had produced this 1330 foot long earth sculpture.  It’s impossible to describe it, but look at this drawing of it and you get a feel for it.  If you’re ever on the road between Cincinnati and Athens, Ohio, you gotta stop and see it.

serpent_mound__ancient_aliens_in_america__201081Nearby have been found some giant skeletons in burial mounds.  These are similar to skeletons found from the eastern Mediterranean, mainland Europe, and the British Isles. These folks appear to have shared an identical material culture, a religion of constructing burial mounds for the dead and solar temples to track the movement of the sun.

According to the folks who investigated the site on a high point in Highland County, Ohio, these graves were made of large limestone slabs, two and a half to three feet in length and a foot wide. These were set on edge about a foot apart. Similar slabs covered the graves. A single one somewhat larger was at the head and another at the foot. The top of the grave was two feet below the present surface.

Some think these were the Nephilim mentioned in the Bible.  That seems pretty far-fetched to me, but if the Nephilim are the “indigenous peoples” the city councils are honoring, then I’d be all for it.

Maybe, though, the city councils mean to honor the tribe which wiped out the Hopewell.  I could see the politically correct honoring this culture (called the Mississippian).  This tribe invaded from Mexico, kinda similar to today, with an extremely resilient agricultural system. They grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and gourds.  They kept turkeys and dogs for food and feather coats.

Or maybe the city councils meant the tribes from the Plains who learned how to ride the horses they stole from the Spanish and used their new skills to conquer the more civilized folks who had previously invaded from Mexico.

I guess I just know too much about “indigenous peoples” (who are all related to ancient Asians and not really indigenous at all) for my own good.  It just makes it really hard to figure out why the city councils are honoring these blood-thirsty sun worshippers over some blood-thirsty Christians.  They were both pretty horrible to modern, politically correct sensibilities.

It must be some kind of self-hatred since most of these city council folk are white people.  Either that or they just  don’t like Italians like Christopher Columbus.

A hideout for Christians

Some places I go, its not too safe to be Christian.  And then there is Lalibela, Ethiopia.  In some parts of Ethiopia, Muslims are gradually taking control, not in Lalibela.  Last year I was in the ancient city of Harar.  You might have heard of the walled city there which has entrances for hyenas to come in at night.  The hyena clean up scraps.  A few guys make money from tourists by holding meat in their mouths which hyenas come and take. 

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, August 2019

My translator then was with a native of Harar who talked of Christian statues being replaced by Moslem statues in recent years.  Harar was one of the many Ethiopian cities which became Jewish after one of their Queens (called the Queen of Sheba in our Bible) visited Solomon.  Many believe the Song of Songs was written by a heart-broken King Solomon after The Queen of Sheba left him[1].

The Queen had heard about the wisdom and accomplishments of Solomon and came to see for herself.  She was so impressed she brought the truths of the great “I am” back with her to Ethiopia.  People all across Ethiopia were also impressed with this truth and converted to Judaism.

A son the Queen had with Solomon, Menelik, is said brought the Ark of the Covenant to another ancient Ethiopian city, Axum, where it is still preserved.  The Keeper of the Ark until recently brought out the Ark for Christian holidays, but no longer does due to political disturbances.

The Jewish religion grew and prospered along with Ethiopia for centuries.  Then a child was born in Bethlehem.  The Ethiopian Jews heard of Jesus’ teachings (remember the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip in Acts 8?), were transformed by this reformation of Judaism and became Christian.

Christianity grew and prospered along with Ethiopia.  Meanwhile in Europe, the Western center of Christianity, Rome, fell to the invading Goths.  Then Jerusalem fell to the invading Muslims in 1187.

An Ethiopian King at the time, Lalibela, ordered the construction of a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia.  The result was 11 interconnected churches carved into the mountain by hand.  Best known is the Church of St. George, shaped as a Greek Orthodox Church.  The town which has grown up around the churches is now known as Lalibela.

Today Lalibela is still a town with no churches other than Orthodox Ethiopian Christian.  When I visited last month, I stayed in a mountain-side hotel with a view of the plateau where King Lalibela lived.  It’s just an open plain today on top of a mountain connected by a slender ridge to the modern town of Lalibela.

The hotel clerk came in early so I could have coffee watching the sun rise on their roof top terrace.  He stayed to chat a bit.  I heard a sound which I assumed was a mosque issuing the call to prayer.  I asked him about the singing and he was confused and surprised.  “In Lalibela, there are only Christian churches. Does that really sound muslim to you?”  As I listened closer, I realized it was unlike the singing issuing from minarets.  Later the church bells started ringing, affirming that I was in a country which had been Christian a thousand years before America ever had a Christian church.

Lalibela itself is barely connected to the world.  Maybe that’s why Christianity has remained so strong here. Most pilgrims from the West fly into an airport down in the valley and ride a bus up the rocky road to the top of the mountain.  Pilgrims from Ethiopia take the land route.  Some travel by foot for a month to reach Lalibela during the Christmas holidays.  A hundred thousand Christians pack the town around Christ’s birthday, but the churches were pretty empty the Thursday I was there.

It would have been even more empty except for another Christian holiday, Ashenda.  Ashenda requires the Ethiopian devout to sacrifice a lamb and feed their relatives and the poor.  My host, the head of a 50,000 member Cooperative Union, set me free to visit Lalibela during this holiday because of this obligation.  When I called him from Lalibela, I could hear the lambs bleating in the background.  All along our route to Lalibela we were stopped by girls dressed with aloe stalks made into skirts who danced into the middle of the road every kilometer or so.  They were singing, clapping and laughing as they jumped out of the way of our Land Cruiser.

My driver was so happy to come to Lalibela again. He had come during Christmas, but never at a time when he could really appreciate all the churches.

In addition to the bands of girls stopping traffic, there were pilgrims dressed in white singing as they journeyed to Lalibela.  Young men’s activity during the holiday mainly involves snapping whips.  In the center of Lalibela, a group of young men dressed in green polka-dots where snapping their whips at all the onlookers as they danced.  A group of white clad girls with aloe skirts was dancing nearby, but never too close to the whip-snapping guys.

A few European tourists were there.  One was a scantily clad blonde (who got hoots and calls of “hey baby”) but most were conservatively dressed. Some in the white shawl worn by all Ethiopians visiting the churches. I didn’t see a single woman in pants except that blonde during my entire visit.  All Ethiopian women wear dresses, except a few Westernized ones in the biggest cities. 

Our four-hour drive back to Ras Gayint Cooperative Union was the same scenic mountain road interrupted by dancing girl bands and whip-snapping boys. What a way to prepare for my assignment helping the Union better market their white pea (navy) beans!

A group of twenty senior managers turned out on Saturday, Sunday and the next week to examine their situation and how to achieve their goals.  We had fun, accomplished a lot, and made me wish it was a little bit easier to get from Almyra, Arkansas to the ancient cities of the highlands of Ethiopia.


[1] https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/andagreeney/files/the_queen_of_sheba_possibly_adored_in_the_song_of_songs.pdf

White male patriarch

Aggressive, obnoxious people are not my favorite dinner companions. I try to avoid them whenever possible. On the rare occasions when I walk in large American cities, I keep an eye out for threatening people. When I am disgruntled, I can understand why people avoid me. I do my best to avoid mean people on the internet too. But recently I failed.

I had just finished a really productive session with several Malagasy men and women. We worked late and identified several strategies around problems that had been plaguing their organization. Back at my mountainside guest house, I had some great Malagasy rice and shrimp and the national Three Horses beer and turned on my computer.

Somehow a social media post appeared which was unassailably logical. It was written by a white American female who contended you should be careful about being nice to white people because they were probably racist and you shouldn’t take the chance on being nice to a racist.

Given her assumption that most white people are racist, her conclusions are very logical. I just questioned whether it wouldn’t be better to just be gentle and peaceful if others are gentle and peaceful. Too late I realized that people who believe such things are living in an echo chamber where everyone echoes the same drivel because questioning it means you are labeled racist and shunned.

She and a bunch of her friends proceeded to make sure I knew how stupid and uninformed I was. I went to sleep. Madagascar is eight hours ahead of middle America, so while I slept they had lots of time to elaborate on why you shouldn’t be nice to white people. When I woke up the next morning, I found that all day these privileged Americans had continued to bash my comments about being nice. I provided them a soft punching bag. I was the scape goat in the Biblical sense. One woman very angrily accused me of being full of anger and being a white male patriarch and probably disliked by all the Africans I’d ever worked with.

Tired of being a punching bag and scapegoat, I deleted all the messages I’d posted about how it’s good to be gentle, nice and peaceful when others are gentle and peaceful and nice and blocked some folks. I thought about pearls and swine.

Then I walked down the street, past beggars, bare-footed porters, home-made push carts, and ragged laughing children to the alley beside the ramshackle market and up rickety stairs past bags of rice seed to begin another productive day of helping a few Malagasy learn market analysis, social motivation and business planning so they can help their villages have a little more income and better lives.