Needing something to believe in

“Don’t separate children from their parents.”  Such a simple truth. Anyone can believe in it. And anyone who doesn’t is obviously hard-hearted. This is the dominant political narrative in the US in summer 2018. People are marching and protesting. The First Lady is going to the border. And the President makes it federal policy.

Earlier this summer, suicide was the emotional topic all the news was occupied with. Two famous and rich Americans had chosen to end their lives. One had noted that he didn’t believe in much of anything. “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river.”

RiftValley masai

Some people seem desperate to find something to believe in.  Others are determined not to believe in anything. Or just keep moving to avoid the emptiness they have created in their souls.

We need something to believe in, something larger than ourselves, something wholly, inherently true that will motivate us. What we all need is beyond simple emotional slogans. We need a universal truth to believe in.  Some call that God, others call it Nature, others say God is Nature.

If people need this so much, why do they run away from religion? There are plenty of good reasons.  “The letter of the law kills” is one good reason priests and rabbis have chased many away.  If religion is a set of laws you must obey, it will chase people away.

But while the “letter of the law kills, the spirit of the law gives life.”  Those who established the laws meant well in many cases, but when they lost the Spirit, they lost the ability to help people realize the freedom and peace and life that is available to all of us.

My hope is that you go beyond emotional slogans and find the everlasting truth which is so much more satisfying than man made slogans–which always fail us.

Find some of this truth and you’ll have peace and joy.  You won’t need simplistic slogans and you’ll fill that empty space in your soul.



Resilience requires a family: the Peppers and organic cotton in the High Plains

LaRhea Pepper has been marketing organic cotton for 30 years. And by marketing, I don’t mean just selling, I mean the whole gamut. She pays attention to all aspects of the product, in addition to promotion, distribution and price. I first met her in 1992 when she was just getting started. She was living on a fifth generation cotton farm south of Lubbock, Texas, and had recently convinced her husband’s brothers to move to the area. She’d convinced the three Pepper brothers than she could sell organic cotton if they would produce it.

carl pepper

They’d grown up on an 800 acre farm which had plenty of water (4000 gallons a minute). Their father passed away too early in 1988. Farming conventional cotton, “we could see zero by 1991,” Carl Pepper says. The oldest brother has studied accounting, ran the numbers and told Carl he could borrow $250,000 for $15,000 profit given conventional cotton’s costs and return. He and his wife said, “That’s nuts” and started looking for options.

Meanwhile, brother Terry had married LaRhea and begun farming in her home county on the High Plains of Texas. Borden County has about 600 people, two cafés right now and a bunch of farms. No banks, no grocery stores, no feed stores. Her grandparents wanted to retire and turn over their land to Terry and LaRhea. Terry and LaRhea took the opportunity and began raising cotton and kids. After the kids were in school, LaRhea and Terry decided to move toward organic cotton now that LaRhea had time to market it. They grew their first organic cotton in 1991, took it to a mill to be made into denim. LaRhea had sold the fabric by the time the mill had spun it into yarn, woven it, finished and delivered it.

About that same time (1991), LaRhea’s uncle decided to retire. He had 800 acres and a farmhouse and offered it to Carl and his wife. His accountant brother said on this land, they could borrow $60,000 for a return of $40,000 and liked those odds better. “The Good Lord provided us a place to go,” Carl says.

Things didn’t look quite so propitious when they were moving in during a January 1992 snowstorm. Carl’s wife refused to let him unload her boxes and informed him she was leaving shortly thereafter. In due time she relented and they were blessed with a dollar per pound for a quarter section of organic cotton. They were chopping in high cotton to use the old Southern phrase meaning living high on the hog.

Carl says his older brother Kelly warned him to set some of the profits aside because “this country can get tough. By the end of the 90s, Carl had used up his surplus funds and realized his brother was right. By then, they had created a strong presence in the organic market by organizing the Texas Organic Cotton Producers Cooperative with Kelly as President. The Co-op has 20 organic growers and 20,000 acres of organic production. Carl has 3600 organic cotton acres and grows another 400 acres for his sister in law, LaRhea.

Most of the growers are in Borden county on the southeast edge of the Ogallala aquifer. The aquifer and the flat land above it, end at the Caprock formation with a drop off of 1000 feet to the rolling lains of central Texas. Cropland turns into cattle grazing land at the Caprock.

If you want to learn about resilient farming in a pretty forbidding country, go visit Carl Pepper.

Environmental prophet

Starvation of the weakest is the ultimate driver maintaining the balance in ecosystems. With the help of our intelligence, driven by the love for our children, we humans managed to throw off Nature’s yoke. To keep us and our kids safe and our stomachs full, we came up with sharp rocks and sticks; spears; bows and arrows and guns; farming; complex societies.Rainwater-collection-2012-by-Prasanta-Biswas-India-660x396

Our social structures solve short-term problems but create more lasting ones that in the course of time destroy our societies. Sometimes, the lasting problems are directly linked to local ecosystem meltdowns. The third Ur dynasty in Mesopotamia reacted to decreasing precipitation by constructing irrigation networks. It managed to increase the crop yields until soil contamination collapsed the yields and pretty much the entire society. Our modern lifestyle is threatened by climate change. It threatens our very existence if the changes in world’s oceans follow recent trends.

The dread of environmental disasters sits deep in us. We feel that it is right to protect our environment. Clean water and clean air feel right, polluted water and air wrong. These feelings are elusive but, nevertheless, firm components of our moral DNA. Shouldn’t we then be using moral arguments when promoting actions to mitigate climate change or eutrophication of surface waters?

Yes. But how detailed and results oriented we want to be in our ethical guidance? Is it enough to tell us to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth? Should we give dietary advice using moral arguments?

Recently, the archbishop of Finland said that environmental scientists are the prophets of today. An interesting idea. The original prophets transmitted warnings from God to turn the sinners away from their evil ways. Scientists read messages from a complex and mystical nature and transmit warnings to fellow humans. Indeed, the theory behind climate change, its empirical verification and future scenarios have been products of scientists and scientist only. No individual can infer anything related to climate from the weather or other every day observations.

We environmental scientists are prophets – but let us not turn into priests. A priest works at the operational level of Right and Wrong. And the moral codes we adopt change extremely slowly. Consider an anxious, Weltschmertz-burdened, intelligent and startled 14-year old – a representative teen. Suppose we teach her that to stop global warming the Right thing to do is to follow diet A. Likewise, we try to program many other choices influencing the environment to the teen’s moral code: the right and wrong eating and not eating, clothes, traveling choices, cosmetics, etc.

So what? Aren’t we doing the right thing? Well, I think the young people adopt the ethical choices much easier than the elder ones. And once they learn to make the right choices, they don’t change easily.

Here’s the problem: We’re not done with modeling and linking the human actions and environmental outcomes. And we will not be, as long as the activities are carried out by science and scientists, because the middle name of science is Not-Done. Science is a method of gathering understanding by simultaneously building upon old knowledge and ruthlessly dismantling it. A scientist is not shocked if it starts to look like diet Z outperforms diet A or that substituting plastic with bio-based materials may increase the carbon footprint. But the teen might be, if she followed the detailed advice, because it was supposed to be the Right thing to do.

On one hand, we have the ecosystem and the channels through which we affect it. On the other, we have ethics teaching us about right and wrong. Do as you would be done by. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Don’t bully anyone. Help people in need. This kind of eternal rules of right and wrong keep us on track as a human race; taught to you and me by our moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and priests of all religions.

But I think we shouldn’t say that eating pike instead of Norwegian salmon is the Right thing to do. If we fix the choices today, we block the utilization of improved understanding. And by using moral arguments, we will fix the choices. That’s why it is ok to be a prophet but not a priest.

But individuals must be able to do something to prevent the looming disasters! We can’t just wait until the countless groups of introvert researchers come up with coherent advice.

But what do we do?


This article is based on a blog first published by

Finding peace and joy: a 16 hour plane ride

Yesterday’s flight to Africa was overbooked. Everyone seems to want to go there. A Delta representative offered me various enticements to give up my seat, and it was tempting.  An overcrowded 16 hour plane ride is something to avoid. Especially when a three year old is sitting behind you and loves to kick your seat.

East african village

Yet in the midst of enduring this misery,  I found what I often do on long trips to other cultures.  Peace and joy. Why does this happen so often?

Sometimes I think it’s due to the movie selection they have on long flights nowadays.  You have hundreds of films to watch.  Because I spend most of my time deprived of popular culture in swamp-east Arkansas, I usually start with the recent releases. Then I try out the foreign films.

On this trip I got to see the critically acclaimed Lady Bird about a girl growing up in Sacramento, the block buster superhero hit Black Panther and a subtitled Japanese film about a weatherman who began preaching to his audience about global warming.

The movies help, but by themselves they would never bring the peace and joy I experience on these flights. Nothing really astounding about them, but they do set the stage for the arrival of peace and joy.

Getting outside the US also contributes.  Who wouldn’t move at least a little toward peace by escaping the interminable cacophony of US politicians and pundits? Sometimes a literal wave of relaxation passes over me when I pass over the US border. Leaving the excessive aggression and competition is healthy now and then.

Another factor is anticipating the work I’ll be doing.  I come to Africa to help small farmers join together to improve their quality of life. Knowing how much they appreciate my coming and how eagerly they absorb new ideas must be part of the peace and joy these long plane rides bring.  The work I do is with people who have few material goods but whose families have survived for hundreds of years on the same plots of ground. They know how to work hard and be satisfied with little worldly income.

They are active and motivated. Some walk five or more miles just to participate in our workshops. They work hard every day just to survive. Their motivation would astound many of today’s Americans. Many of those Americans can hardly be motivated to do more than click a few websites or TV channels. So anticipating the enthusiasm of those small farm families is part of the reason I experience peace and joy at 30,000 feet in a crowded airplane.

But good movies, leaving the US and helping hard-working poor people don’t explain my peace and joy. I even comes over me sometimes in the US without good movies when I’m not helping the poor in the third world.

RiftValley masai

I’d like to have this peace and joy all the time, but I don’t.  Then again, I’m happy I get it at all. Some only get it through drugs.  And they come to think it only comes from drugs. They don’t know that all the drugs do is stimulate nerves to release neurotransmitters which are already present and ready to be released in all our bodies. They could learn how their bodies’ nerves will release those neurotransmitters without drugs.

My heart breaks sometimes thinking of the US drug users who can only find a facsimile of true peace and joy. Especially troubling are those who find so little peace and joy that they commit suicide. So many have such powerful potential and so many material blessings, but choose to end their lives in desperation.  If only I could show them how to obtain peace and joy naturally.Highlands-areas-in-East-African-countries

Peace and joy are so much a part of nature and our nature.  Hope, peace, joy, love, kindness are all naturally generated within us.  We just have to find out how to stimulate them.  Those who artificially stimulate them with drugs just get the result and not the cause. The cause is productive work with other believers in nature.  Do enough of that and you will be so thoroughly suffused with a new spirit that nothing can set you back.

Sneaky Christians

Summer has snuck up on us here in Arkansas.  The Sun is coming up earlier and earlier here at 34.46 N. Latitude. When I leave to go to town at 5:30 am, its already getting light and when I come back home at 7 am, the Sun is already above the trees.  The Sun being above the trees means something when you live in the flatter parts of the American South, especially in summer.  The Sun is a powerful presence here most of the year, but in summer you almost have to cringe in anticipation of it getting higher than the trees. It’s that hot down here. After all we are at the same latitude as Kirkuk, Iraq.

kirkurk citadel

Kirkuk Citadel

But the strength and power of the Sun is nothing compared to the South’s preachers.  They each are sure they are right.  And most are sure that all other preachers are wrong and need to be rectified. They are very strong in teaching that man should not be foolish and follow the ways of the world. They often ignore the admonition that “if any of you think you are wise, you should become fools so that you may become wise.”[1] They forget how much they do not know. They are rewarded for seeming to know everything.  Who wants a preacher who is unsure of himself? Most of us want a preacher who is sure he knows the truth and isn’t hesitant to tell you the way you should think, act and believe.

Preachers are a lot like politicians.  The elect are a lot like the elected. That is, those who are certain of being of the elect usually have strong opinions and are sure they are right. The same goes for the elected. Seldom are people wise enough to vote for someone who is not totally sure he is right in every little detail.

The corollary axiom that preachers and politicians also often miss is that you should let people believe what they believe and know that the resilient will come to know the truth.[2] And the rest will pass away. This can take a while, but it will happen. After all, resilience at its heart is knowing how to act so that you and yours will survive and thrive. The resilient will survive.  The truth will out. I hope these ideas are becoming self-evident to you.

In other words, people who live by the Spirit should be sneaky. Or maybe the right word is humble. Some word between sneaky and humble expresses the spirit of Romans 14, I think. The point is that people grow in their faith, but people who are living in the Spirit will be very strong in their beliefs, even though their faith has not matured. So those who follow the Way should not contradict others who also profess to follow the Way.  As long as they show the fruits of the Spirit (especially peace and joy), let them believe what they believe for the time being.  Knowing that they will come to the truth eventually, or they will just pass away.


[1] 1 Corinthians 3:18.

[2] Romans 14:1-22.

Eden is the Oldeani coffee farm

If you like coffee, you should try to spend a few days on a coffee farm.  You’ll love coffee even more. And if you stay at the coffee farm I stayed at, you’ll be next door to the world’s best wildlife reserve–the Ngorongoro Crater.  You’ll even see the lip of the crater from most anywhere on the farm.  You might even see some of the elephants who wander onto the coffee farm at night.

coffee farm

Coffee farms can be idyllic settings because coffee requires what most of us call an ideal climate. If you’re on a coffee farm, it will never get too cold or too hot.  It will be between 60 and 75 degrees year- round.  You’ll have plenty of sun and plenty of rain, but not too much.  You’ll be up in the mountains—at least 5000 feet above sea level.  And you won’t have a lot of insect pests. You’ll also have deep rich soil.

If you’re on the best coffee farms, it will be cool even when the sun is out because the best coffee grows in the shade. You’ll have towering native trees throughout the farm.

If you are a sun lover, you’ll love living on the best coffee farms even more. The best coffee is sun dried to about 10% moisture content.  That means coffee requires a pretty long dry season so the beans can be left on screens out in the sun.

A lot happens to the beans before they are dried.  First, the beans aren’t beans when they are picked.  They’re called cherries. From a distance they look a lot like cherries—bright red and round.  Each cherry contains two beans surrounded by lots of pulp which has to be removed.

Most coffee is picked by hand.  A good picker averages about 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker’s daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day’s harvest is then transported to the processing plant.

Within 24 hours, the cherries must begin processing which consists of pulping, washing and drying.  The first step is removing the pulp from the coffee cherry. The freshly harvested cherries are passed through a pulping machine which pushes the wet beans through screens to help pull off the pulp.

Then the beans are separated by weight as they pass through water channels. The lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier ripe beans sink to the bottom. After separation, the beans are transported to water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on a combination of factors — such as the condition of the beans, the climate and the altitude — they will remain in these tanks for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours to remove the slick layer of mush (called mucilage or parenchyma) that is still attached to the inner bean. While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes will cause this layer to dissolve.

When fermentation is complete, the beans feel rough to the touch.  The beans are rinsed again.  At this point the cherry has been reduced to just the hull surrounding the bean.  Now it’s ready for drying.

The wet beans are spread out on vast fields of elevated screens. Workers rake the beans now and then to get even drying.  When the cherries are down to 10%.  All that’s left is the bean covered by the parchment or silver layer.

Once the beans are dried, the parchment layer is removed from the beans. Occasionally, beans may be polished in a machine designed to remove that last little bit of silver skin. Beans are then graded and sorted, usually by hand.  Then they are bagged, in 60 kg bags in Tanzania, and they are ready to be shipped.

At some point, the beans go through the final stage of processing: roasting.  But that’s not often done on the farm.  Roasting coffee beans is fun and you can do it at home.

Roasting is where coffee’s flavor is fulfilled. The best roasting heats the beans in rotating drums.  Tumbling in the drums keeps the beans from burning.

The beans first turn a yellowish color and smell a little like popcorn. After about 8 minutes, the beans “pop” and double in size. The beans have then reached about 400 F (204 C) and begin to brown as the oils within them start to emerge. This oil is called coffee essence or caffeol. The chemical reaction of the heat and coffee essence is called pyrolysis, and is what produces the flavor and aroma of coffee. A second “pop” occurs about three to five minutes later and signals that the bean is fully roasted.

Roasted coffee beans don’t keep very well.  When stored in air, their flavor starts to deteriorate immediately.

At the farm I stayed at, the whole process is done on the farm. I got to enjoy the farm’s great coffee every morning including a thermos full when I went down the road to see the elephants, lions and rhinos.

Tanzanian coffee and Tanzanian wildlife—can’t get much better than that.

Fungi provide internet for plants

90% of  plants communicate with aother plants and help them through strands of fungal mycelia.  Read more:

It’s an information superhighway that speeds up interactions between a large, diverse population of individuals. It allows individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other out. But it also allows them to commit new forms of crime.


No, we’re not talking about the internet, we’re talking about fungi. While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants. That tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush several metres away, thanks to mycelia.

The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change. They aren’t just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network. This “wood wide web”, it turns out, even has its own version of cybercrime.

Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi. The 19th-century German biologist Albert Bernard Frank coined the word “mycorrhiza” to describe these partnerships, in which the fungus colonises the roots of the plant.

In mycorrhizal associations, plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates. In exchange, the fungi help the plants suck up water, and provide nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, via their mycelia. Since the 1960s, it has been clear that mycorrhizae help individual plants to grow.

Fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems. That’s because, when a fungus colonises the roots of a plant, it triggers the production of defense-related chemicals. These make later immune system responses quicker and more efficient, a phenomenon called “priming”. Simply plugging in to mycelial networks makes plants more resistant to disease.

But that’s not all. We now know that mycorrhizae also connect plants that may be widely separated. Fungus expert Paul Stamets called them “Earth’s natural internet” in a 2008 TED talk. He first had the idea in the 1970s when he was studying fungi using an electron microscope. Stamets noticed similarities between mycelia and ARPANET, the US Department of Defense’s early version of the internet.

Film fans might be reminded of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar. On the forest moon where the movie takes place, all the organisms are connected. They can communicate and collectively manage resources, thanks to “some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of trees“. Back in the real world, it seems there is some truth to this.

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