Perennials for a resilient agriculture

Most agricultural systems abuse the land and force farmers to use more and more pesticides and fertilizer. Resilient agricultural systems mimic rather than contradict ecological principles.  Wes Jackson, who founded The Land Institute about the same time Meadowcreek was founded, has spent 40 years advancing research in and public understanding of ecological agriculture.  Read and share his ideas on creating more resilient farming, recently published by In These Times.

DSC_3975Q: For almost four decades, you have been a leading proponent of transforming the dominant agricultural system based on annual monoculture to one based on ecological principles. What inspired your belief in the need for this fundamental change?

Wes Jackson: In 1977, soon after The Land Institute was founded, I read a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report about effective use of federal funds for soil and water conservation. Looking at some of the numbers, I noticed that soil erosion was then as bad as it was when the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was formed in the 1930s. How could that be? The SCS had built thousands of miles of terraces and grass waterways. The organization had a great esprit de corps—with a team ranging from stenographers to PhDs, all dedicated to the common task of soil and water conservation. It was a nationwide effort. In Kansas alone, each of our 105 counties has a conservation district.

Shortly after reading the report, I took my students on a field trip to the Konza, a never-plowed native prairie in northeastern Kansas. There was no apparent soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels, no fossil fuel dependency or chemical contamination, no dependency on commercial fertilizer.

Those two experiences in short order—the GAO study and the field trip—set me on a journey to understand more completely the history of Earth abuse through agriculture. I had read a few seminal works, but decided to dig in a bit more and came to appreciate that soil erosion is a persistent, millennia-old problem.

Q: What accounted for this dramatic difference between native and farmed prairie?

WJ: Nature’s prairie is about the opposite of the vast acreage of such annual monocultures as corn, sorghum, sunflowers and soybeans, which usually feature soil erosion along with, in industrial times, the use of fossil fuels for traction and commercial chemicals. Nature’s prairie features perennials grown in mixtures. There is no plowing (and, therefore, little to no soil erosion), no planting every year, no fossil fuels necessary for growth, no chemical fertilizers, no insecticides, no herbicides—all of which are deemed necessary for grain monocultures.

Q: You have spoken of agriculture as the “10,000-year-old problem.” What do you mean by this?

WJ: As the ice retreated some 10,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean, agriculture began—first with wheat, an annual. Later, rice, another annual, was domesticated in the Orient, and still later, corn, an annual, in Mexico. These three grains are the world’s top three crops. Today, some 70 percent of our calories come from these and other grains grown on about 70 percent of our acreage, both domestically and globally. Reflecting on nature’s perennial polyculture of the American prairie, I wondered whether we could, through breeding, develop an agriculture based on perennial grains and, through the application of ecological knowledge, grow them in mixtures. Could such an arrangement grant us the efficiencies inherent within the natural integrities of a prairie ecosystem? In other words, could those processes, so prevalent in nature’s ecosystems, be brought to the farm? If so, we might be able to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture rather than relentlessly pecking away at problems in agriculture associated with annuals.

In 1978, I wrote an essay for the Friends of the Earth publication Not Man Apart on the history of Earth abuse due to agriculture. I suggested building an agricultural system based on the way the prairie works, though acknowledging that it might take fifty to a hundred years. To achieve this, I advocated a twofold effort: (1) crossing current high-yielding grain crops with their wild perennial relatives and (2) domesticating promising wild herbaceous perennial species.

Q: And this approach lies at core of The Land Institute’s mission?

WJ: Yes. In the early years, many viewed such a proposal as impossible. Now, nearly four decades later, with results in our fields and published papers, we are beginning to see the fruits of our persistence. We have attracted additional intellectual and financial support, and there is increased reason to be optimistic now, with the growing belief that soil erosion, fossil fuel dependency and chemical contamination can end in the foreseeable future. We move with confidence, knowing not only that natural ecosystems generally have greater net primary production than the human-managed systems that replace them, but also that they sequester carbon. Ecosystems are our elders, our best teachers, having evolved over millions of years. The ancient dualism between agriculture and nature can come to an end.

Our work is getting attention, enough so that I think at times it now has a life of its own. Financial support has now made possible an annual budget of about $5.4 million. Through an additional funding source (The Malone Family Land Preservation Foundation), we support fourteen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at colleges and universities around the country. Some are domesticating wild perennials, some are crossing wild perennials with annual grains, some are doing ecological studies including soil biology, and still others are involved in a global inventory of promising wild candidates to domesticate and produce grain.

Three of our staff scientists have answered an old question: Why did our ancestors not develop perennial grains? The answer lies in what geneticists call “genetic load” or “mutation load,” which is not as much of a problem for annuals since they self-fertilize and can quickly purge their lethal mutants and fix a trait desirable to humans, such as resistance to seed shatter. Perennials, on the other hand, are primarily out-crossers, and because they tend not to accept their own pollen, their mutation load accumulates. We now know how to purge that genetic load thanks to current knowledge of molecular genetics and our modern computational power.

I would rather not use computer language as a metaphor for biological processes, but if we allow the word “hardware” to stand for any annual or perennial grain, then the perennial represents new “hardware” for agriculture. With new hardware comes new software potential. Where does it come from? Well, largely out of that broad discipline of ecology and evolutionary biology. When ecology is stuck with annual hardware, its utility is limited because of the presence of annual disturbances. But now the gap between ecologists and agriculturalists can be more completely closed. Agriculturalists, driven by the need to feed the world’s citizens, have had the burden of being prescriptive for ten millennia. Ecologists, by contrast, over the last 150 years or so, have had the luxury of being descriptive. Their job has been, like basic science generally, to understand how the world is or works—in this case, to study ecosystems.

This is a great moment in history, this merging of these two disciplines made possible with the new hardware. In my view, it represents the most essential merger in recorded history. Of course, this required “standing on the shoulders” of countless others over the millennia.

Q: How do genetically modified organisms (GMOs) fit into this new paradigm?

WJ: GMO work is best characterized not as a recent innovation, but as an extension of human cleverness, tracing back to the reductionist period of Bacon and Descartes in the early seventeenth century. In recent times, it has become part of the “smart resource management” approach to the world. It is more or less irrelevant to our work since perennialism, by contrast, is a way of life, not the result of a single gene. The GMO era, in that respect, has been a kind of distraction. What if we had devoted a comparable amount of time and money to achieving an adequate food supply by looking to nature as a standard or measure? Right now, agriculture is the number one threat to wild biodiversity, and land use is number two as a source of greenhouse gases.

GMOs do not represent a paradigm shift. Nor does our work in the greenhouse and field where, with every selection cycle, we are simply changing gene frequencies as has been the case for ten millennia. In such a manner, our populations are being genetically modified.

AW: In China, India and other developing countries, farms are generally small in scale. How applicable is the polycultural/perennial approach to small-scale cultivation?

WJ: Perennial grain polycultures can bring benefits at any scale. I imagine a time, independent of farm size, where perennial mixtures produce perennial grains. They will be, as now, primarily grass seeds, legume seeds, maybe sunflower seeds, and a few others. But they will be grown together at whatever scale, providing chemical diversification for the land. Diversity lowers the risk of a field-wide epidemic leading to a crash because overcoming the resilience that such diversity affords requires a tremendous enzyme system on the part of either insect or pathogen species. Beyond that, there are the integrated efficiencies, such as biological nitrogen fixation, tight nutrient cycling, and so forth. Polycultures are not new. They have been used in annual grain systems on scales large and small for millennia.

Q: You have often referred to the entrenched interests that stand in the way of progress toward a more ecologically harmonious and less abusive form of agriculture. What are these interests, and how can we reverse the damage they are causing?

WJ: I am not very good at devising strategies to end the power of destructive interests. I do think we have to start with a basic understanding of the history of life on Earth. All organisms are carbon-based; the best evidence holds that life started about 3.4 billion years ago. So, from the beginning, organisms have gone after energy-rich carbon. Plants fix atmospheric carbon, and animals eat. So far as we know, no species has ever practiced restraint in the pursuit of energy-rich carbon. Squirrels and ants store food for the winter, and we store grain and other foods for short periods. We use energy-rich carbon to power our societies. So powerful is this ancient imperative that even small efforts to put a cap on fossil carbon are met with fierce resistance by both sellers and users.

Now and then, we get exercised about the social justice problem—some more so than others. But as serious as that problem is, there is a larger problem: we are all dependent on economic growth. A cap on carbon seems essential if we are to stop the abusive practices associated with relentless economic growth. It seems easier to oppose social justice than to acknowledge limits, and here, once again, we encounter the 3.4-billion-year-old imperative. I suspect that fully living within our finite ecosphere into the foreseeable future is or will be the most formidable challenge our species ever has or will ever face. Social justice is certainly important, but it is not enough.

Q: People today are geographically and psychologically detached from their food sources. How great of an obstacle is this to mobilizing for change?

WJ: The disconnect is serious. I grew up on a farm in the Kansas River Valley, near Topeka. We grew most of our own food, some twenty-seven crops in all in the 1930s. We butchered our own animals—cows, hogs, chickens, turkeys. We cleaned up our plates. Nearly all farmers know that soil erosion represents the destruction of much of the foundation of food production. But then comes the highly dense carbon era. Labor was replaced by capital combined with highly dense carbon. In industrial societies, that era of shared values and common work is mostly gone. The lack of a sufficiently large constituency of people who feel the connection to the creatures and soil that sustain us makes change hard. The industrial mind has its way, which makes it hard to head off the confinement of animals in warehouses.

Aldo Leopold, the great ecologist and author of A Sand County Almanac, once said that there are two spiritual dangers from not owning (or, he could have said, living on) a farm. One is the belief that heat comes from the stove, and the other is the belief that food comes from a grocery store. Away from these real sources, one can find it easy to dismiss the idea of limits. Awareness of ecological fundamentals is critical for everyone, not just farmers. Much less than a century ago, the agrarian world was familiar to, and valued by, all. Once we developed institutions and practices that were almost totally dependent upon the imperative of fossil carbon, people became disassociated from the land and the creaturely world that sustain us. We need more people on the land. I am not talking about mere nostalgia now, but a practical necessity.

Q: The Great Transition uses scenarios to structure thinking about a plausible, desirable future. What is the best-case scenario for fifty years hence?

WJ: Long before 2070, the agricultural paradigm on which we are at work here at The Land Institute and increasingly elsewhere—now on five continents—will have enough of a life of its own to sustain itself. Some might say it does so now. By then, widespread perennial grain polyculture will have demonstrated that soil erosion will one day be a major problem of the past. Fossil fuel dependence will have shrunk to near zero, as will dependence on harmful chemicals. The native prairies and forests will have increasingly become the standard against which we judge our agricultural practices. Agriculture based on nature’s principles is about more than food security. My late friend Chuck Washburn, a metallurgist, once said to me, “If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, it’s not going to happen.”

Agriculture ultimately has the discipline of ecology and evolutionary biology behind it. Materials-based sectors have no such discipline. So I envision a future wherein food being produced by a resilient system that mimics nature’s economy serves as a model for society in general.

The transformed agricultural system we have in mind in our work would be information- rather than energy-intensive. A study of natural ecological systems should enhance our ability to imagine expanded possibilities for a future in which people, land, and communities interact as one to create shared prosperity, rather than compete in ways that undermine the well-being of the whole.

To ask agriculture to point the way forward for cultural and economic transformation seems like such a tall order that it receives little attention. But as we solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture, our imaginations are sure to soar, for adequate solutions will be mimicking nature’s ancient economies. Agriculture may be the best place to begin, given that land use is the number two source of greenhouse gases, behind power plants and ahead of all transportation. The biggest component of agriculture is grain production. So if we draw attention to saving our soils and use the advancement of knowledge out of ecology and evolutionary biology, perhaps we can begin to get a grip on what we must know and do to shift toward a truly ecological paradigm. By 2070, I believe such a shift can be regarded as the way to go. Any industrial agriculture still with us will simply be on the wrong side of history.

I keep coming back to the 3.4-billion-year-old imperative. Before the fossil carbon era, we ran directly on sunlight with biological information for collection and dispersal. I think there is a general law: highly dense energy destroys information, both cultural and biological. Use of fossil carbon has allowed us to wage a war against the food landscape, the rainforest, and biodiversity wherever we can. The consequence of that biota loss has been a dangerous simplification, a loss of information, both cultural and biological. We call for public policy. But, as I see it, public policy is more of a derivative than a cause. Whether we can accelerate positive change fast enough to respond effectively as we head toward a population of 9 billion remains an open question.

Q: What are your aspirations for The Land Institute in this scenario?

WJ: Gary Snyder’s poem “For the Children” at the end of Turtle Island talks about how the hills of statistics go up, up, up, even as we all go down. He concludes, “In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pastures, we can meet there in peace if we make it. To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children: stay together, learn the flowers, go light.” So, what are my aspirations? The Land Institute is contributing to those hills of statistics in that we are using tractors, farm equipment, combines, labs, and much more. It seems that we are going in the wrong direction along with everyone else. Our material- and energy-consuming research requirements have forced me to wonder, will the new varieties and new species we bring into existence be dependent on the technological array that brought them to the farm? My answer is “no.” Their creatureliness will still be there and available for the most primitive farmers of our agricultural history. The industrial world can’t so confidently say that about its renewable technologies: wind machines, solar collectors, and the like.

This all underscores the necessity to find analogs in nature to help our descendants on their journey to a more creaturely life, as the extractive economy fades into the past. Should that journey on the material side to create more efficiency and renewables be slow, we will at least have a better chance of keeping ourselves fed on the other side of the hills of statistics. Is that a “large enough aspiration”? Well, it is a start. A shift in collective consciousness must include the end of population growth (even contraction) if we are to take seriously the necessity of ecospheric healing.

All of this will require different ways of thinking about science. Artists will come front and center in the minds of scientists, not for nicety, but for the practical necessity of helping us all expand our imagination as we expand our collective consciousness.

If we can grant priority to the ecosphere as our creator and our protector, we will also want to look downward in the hierarchy of the sciences to ecosystems, to organisms, organs, tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms. We will want a new synthesis, a new understanding of our place in the world. Doing so, we will want to ponder the twelve laws of integrative levels (first articulated by James Feibleman in 1954). Reading and studying these laws will serve as “finger exercises” to assist the mind as finger exercises limber up the fingers of the pianist. In my view, the current field of environmental studies falls short of truly integrated, inclusive thinking. Perhaps ecosphere thinking can be more fulfilling. At any rate, we need a fundamental reconstruction in our thoughts.

Q: Who do you see as your key allies—present and future—in driving this transformation, e.g., environmental organizations, anti-poverty advocates, civil society at large, an awakened citizenry?

WJ: In one sense, there is no “them” or “us.” We are all in this together. In another sense, some have and will join the struggle, others not. Once a person has joined the struggle, so to speak, then let that person follow his or her passion. This makes us colleagues. None of us will know how our paths will converge on this journey. I don’t expect every agricultural researcher to want to work on herbaceous perennial seed-producing polycultures. We have always taken a long time horizon in our work. If here-and-now agriculturalists want to work on improving the software for the annual hardware, go ahead. Such research is needed.

The point is, we do need a shared vision built on ecology, which is nature’s economy, if we are to replace the industrial mind whose primary features are consumerism, accumulation, and extraction. The ecosphere has, to date, been more beautiful than useful. To expand the ratio to increasingly favor the beauty side will require healing.


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, 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




Gatekeepers and party crashers

We have a new gate between the goat pasture and the hay field.  The neighbor’s longhorn bull wandered into the pasture to the beds we will be turrning into a greenhouse soon.  Those long horns would have wreaked havoc on the plastic if it had been up.

Gate_Keeper,_SrivaikundamWe needed a gate to dissuade roaming cows.  We settled on the quick, easy and cheap Ozark gate design.  All it requires is two hickory or oak staves and a few yards of barbed wire.  We already had those lying around.  So we have a passable gate and the longhorn hasn’t been in that pasture since.

Some vegan, animal rightist women and Hindus object to our constraining the freedom of cows.  The sacred cows get to walk wherever they like in the streets of Mumbai.

We are pretty much the same at Meadowcreek.  We really don’t like gates and gatekeepers.  And we  mostly ignore them.

Once we visited  Mackinac Island during a power outage.  Our hotel rate dropped to rock botttom because everyone else cancelled their reservations.  We were the only ones in the dark hotel, or at least the only people.  Bats invaded the structure almost immediately.  One blonde in our party was not happy when one got stuck in her hair.

Gas generators allowed the most fancy hotels to stay open.  We decided to walk to the most famous of all the Grand Hotel.  Anyone can enter the enormous lobby, but only the lobby.  Placards to dissuade the poor and unwashed were posted at all the hallways leading off to banquet rooms, massages, and other activities necessary for rich vacationers.

Such a sign stopped most in our party, but two of us didn’t see any signs and just walked around the hotel like we belonged there.  We weren’t challenged because we adopted the haughty demeanor of the rich.

At Meadowcreek there are visitors who don’t obey the signs.  We get poachers now and then.  Signs alone just don’t work.

Only people deter other people from poaching.  So we drive up and down our roads on Saturday mornings early.  That’s when we have the most problems.  Lazy riflemen from the city cruise down, see a deer in the field, shoot it from their car window, drag it across the field to their car.  Leave it bleeding a while on the road so their trunk isn’t so messed up, but not so long that anyone comes by to catch them.

I guess you could call us gatekeepers.  Kurt Lewin coined the term gatekeeping in his book, Forces Behind Food Habits and Methods of Change. The woman in most households is the person deciding what food is placed on the dinner table. The theory of channels and gatekeepers was elaborated in Lewin’s Field Theory of Social Science in 1951. The influence of gatekeepers and their decisions was further developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in what they called agenda setting theory in the 1970s..

gatkeeping theoryDavid Manning White, of the University of Iowa, first showed the power of media gatekeeping.  In 1949, Manning asked newspaper editor Mr. Gates to keep all copy that came into his office from three wire services in one week.  Gates agreed to provide an explanation for why rejected stories were not used.

Our access to world events is tightly constricted.  Of the thousands of stories a newscast could run, only those which fit the editor gatekeeper’s worldview get on.

Gatekeeping can be a lucrative business.  Those burly guys standing  between you and the entrance to that swanky club can pocket all kinds of favors from the desperate.

The university types who keep you from getting the grade or degree you want also wield lots of power.  In the worst cases, “Those who can’t do teach.  And those who can’t teach teach teachers.”

People who have never and will never accomplish anything constructive in life can make a living as gatekeepers.  How do you deal with them?

If you can’t go through them, go around, go over or just change the rules of the game.  It doesn’t pay to just bull your way through.  Skilled gatekeepers love that sort of confrontation and are much better at blocking you than you are at being a jerk.

So we are polite and hospitable until we can’t take it any more.  Then we quietly and gracefully excuse ourselves and head up to Bee Bluff to bellow our frustrations.

The life of many gatekeepers is sad.  All they know how to do is make others’ lives miserable.  As the Fabulous Thunderbirds told us, they build a fence around the only coconut tree to keep the other monkeys out.  The other monkeys can pay the gatekeeper or starve.

it’s too bad gatekeepers can’t find something productive to do with their lives.

Gates are a reality as are gatekeepers.  So we try to smile and joke and play nice.  Don’t always succeed.  Sometimes you just have to brazenly crash the party.  A good lesson for you on this Halloween.

Buzz Holling and the origin of ecological resilience

The full moon is bright and beautiful right now.  Yesterday as we sat in our meeting on the fifth floor at Ole Miss, the sun broke through the clouds.  The meeting was disrupted.  Everyone was so glad to see the sun back after several days in hiding.  We Southerners have a love/hate affair with the sun.  Especially after a months long drought.

One in the meeting said he even felt guilty for feeling glad that the sun had come out.  No chance of that for us. We can’t let guilt or anything else slow us down.  So we pulled him back into the discussion of vulnerability and resilience.  We had a lively and engaging meeting.  Got me wired for sure.  I’m so sorry if your meetings aren’t like that.

Somehow we even got around to discussing the scientific paper which first established the concept of ecological resilience.  Buzz Holling discovered the concept while working for the Canadian Department of Forestry.  He was born to Canadian parents in the United States, but his parents took him to Northern Ontario to grow up.  He grew to love nature there.  After going to school in British Columbia, he headed back to Northern Ontario to study problems in managing forests and predator prey relationships.

predator prey relaionshipsHolling was an early convert to nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory and complex adaptive systems.   He was led to this epiphany during his early research on relationships between predator and prey.

Predator prey interactions lead to population cycles, with the predator population cycle temporally tracking the prey population cycle. The explanation of this phenomenon is straightforward: as prey populations increase, the increased availability of resources allows a rise in predator populations a little later in time. But the increase of predators leads to an increase of prey consumption and, consequently, a decrease in prey populations. Then, the lack of prey resources leads to a decline of predator populations. As predator populations decline, prey populations increase initiating the cycle once again.

The predator prey model was first diagrammed by Volterra in 1927. There are two species, a predator species with a population, N2, which only feeds on a single prey species with population, N1. The model incorporates demographic chaotic behavior which, nevertheless, does not stamp out the basic cyclic pattern.

Volterra’s model mathematically predicts these cycles. It exemplifies the former explanatory ideal of ecology: a quantitative model which not only accurately predicts ecosystem behavior but does so through observable interactions of species.

Some would call this traditional view of predator  and prey as a balance of nature. The predator balances the prey and the prey balances the predator and all are fluctuating around an equilibrium which is never reached.

Holling was among the first to look at predator prey data and realize that the “balance of nature” concept was inhibiting understanding of ecological systems.  Ample empirical data now suggests that the balance of nature assumption is almost never correct: natural ecosystems are nearly always far from equilibrium.  

Many folks outside ecology still believe in a balance of nature and climax communities.  It’s easy to understand why.  We like stability.  We don’t like disruption and chaos.  We want any change to be incremental.  Little changes we can handle.

Holling pulled this all together when he was 43 years old in a paper about stability and resilience.  Both stability and resilience are required in natural systems, but they are far from the same thing.  Resilience involves innovation and adaptation of a system.

A stable system resists change in order to maintain the status quo.  A resilient system may dissolve into components when faced with a major challenge or disruption, but it can rebuild itself and always rebuilds itself in a way that is more adapted than before.  Like a forest after a forest fire or Japan and Germany after being destroyed in World War II.

Holling made the bold assertion (at least bold in ecology in those days) that the world is not deterministic.  He arrived at that conclusion after his research group had studied the spruce budworm for 28 years.  The spruce budworm devastates forests in Canada.  It absolutely destroys the beautiful balsam fir.  There have been six outbreaks since the early 1700s.  Between these outbreaks the spruce budworm is an exceedingly rare species.

When outbreaks occur, there is major destruction of balsam fir in all the mature forests, leaving only the less susceptible spruce, the nonsusceptible white birch and a dense regeneration of both fir and spruce.  More immature stands suffer less damage and more fir survive.  Between outbreaks, the young balsam grows together with spruce and birch to form dense stands in which the spruce and birch suffer from crowding.  Eventually a stand of mature and overmature trees develops with fir as a predominant feature.

This mature forest, plus a sequence of unusually dry years, are the triggers for a spruce budworm outbreak.  Between outbreaks, the fir dominates the spruce and birch, but during an outbreak, the spruce and birch rise to dominance as the fir is decimated.  The budworm maintains the spruce and birch in the system.  But for the budworm, the fir would overpower everything else.

You could view the budworm as a predator and the fir as prey.  But it’s not so simple.  The budworm outbreak only occurs after the rare event of several years of drought. The long delay between outbreaks enables the fir to grow back to provide the fodder for the budworm conflagration.

All these species are most clearly and succinctly explained as complex adaptive systems (CAS).  CAS compete and cooperate, wax and wane.  If one develops an innovation, a gene, which enables it to attack more fiercely, then the other must respond and adapt if it is to survive.

This is the foundation of ecological resilience.  You should really read the paper.  Everyone I give it to is really fascinated by it.  You will be too.


Holling, C. S., 1973. “Resilience and stability of ecological systems”. in: Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Vol 4 :1-23.  Available on-line at:

The only good pine is a dead pine and other lumber narratives

William Faulkner’s grave had only a few empty whiskey bottles on it when we visited yesterday.  We crawled on our knees in the pouring rain to pay our respects. OK, we weren’t really on our knees and it was only misting, but still we did pay our respects to the author of the Bear.

IMG_0125“He had listened to it for years: the long legend of corncribs rifled, of shotes and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the woods and devoured, of traps and deadfalls overthrown and dogs mangled and slain, and shotgun and even rifle charges delivered at point-blank range and with no more effect than so many peas blown through a tube by a boy—a corridor of wreckage and destruction beginning back before he was born, through which sped, not fast but rather with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive, the shaggy tremendous shape.”

After pondering the streams of consciousness and water flowing off us, we headed to the Oxford Square.  We saw hardly any frat boys and only a few sorority girls, but we did have delicious Cubans and dark beer at Proud Larry’s.  Last time we were here we saw a bunch of spiffy Greeks having a wedding dressed in coat and tie and bright dresses.  We sat in the shade watching them cavort and sweat in the burning sun.  They looked to the manor born.  We looked askance.

The day was cool, rainy and sunless, far different from that Delta Wedding.  But it reminded me of Eudora Welty, another inspiring Mississippi writer, I once bought a stack of her novels at a bookstore on the square in Oxford..

The Resilience Project has returned to Oxford, MS.  We parked at the old Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network offices in a former motel turned artist colony and walked up the street to the cemetery.  The MSAN folks, we were told, have moved to pricey digs in the suburbs.  Disappointing.  We thought they were true blue.

The head of MSAN was the only one to camp when NSAC went to Jekyll Island last January.  Now he had abandoned the perfect artist colony.  So disappointing.  But he has his reasons.  Maybe we will find him tomorrow and find out.

If he doesn’t have a good reason, we will have to quit nominating him for high offices.  Maybe that’s what he wants.  Maybe he wants to stay here in Mississippi, he doesn’t see any other ambitions as being higher.  Hope so.

Mississippi is OK, but I don’t like to be away from Arkansas for too long.  Mississippi has too many pine trees.  I know its not like the Pacific Northwest, where pine and their tannic needle shedding gymnosperms dominate and destroy most other life.  You can have rainy Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, I like the sun of Arkansas with its oaks and hickories and walnuts and sycamores.

I do have some huge pines in at the Delta outpost that I would never cut down, but smaller ones get the axe to make room for oaks.  So I can’t say I’m sad that the county bulldozers killed a couple of huge pines at Meadowcreek

The dozers  pushed dirt a little too high up on a couple of huge white pines.  One is already dead and the other, also hit by lightning, is dying.

But there are a good many uses for pine lumber.  So we won’t mourn their passing.  We celebrate breaking out the chain saw to get some great pine boards.

Sawing a log into boards is just the first step, though.  You can’t use it green or freshly cut.  It has to be dried out or it will warp.  I learned this about 30 years ago when I bought a bunch of green oak boards.  My idea was to create a wooden plank fence like a real horse farm.  I nailed them to the posts and got some fun curves.  Craziest fence you have ever seen.

We’re really looking forward to curing this pine lumber because pine cures quickly without a kiln.

The length of time it takes to cure pine depends on the humidity and termperature.  Dry hot air is what cures any wood.  Though not too dry or too hot.  A dry summer will cure pine more quickly than a humid one, but generally one inch pine boards (for flooring or paneling) take three to four weeks to cure between May and September at Meadowcreek.  Really thick beams will take longer.  This summer would have been a great year to air cure any wood.  But you only know that in retrospect.

To air cure any wood, start by building a platform.  This is easy to do with a few cinder blocks and some old scrap pallets.  Set out four to six cinder blocks in a rectangle and lay the pallets for a floor.  The only other material you’ll need is some visqueen to use as a rooftop cover if rain is threatening.

Lay out the first layer of lumber so it points down the length of the rectangle, with roughly 1 inch of space between each board. Lay spacers across the top of the of the first layer of lumber. The best spacers are pieces of already-cured scrap lumber cut to match the width of the drying platform, but rows of bricks can be used as well. Set the spacer rows roughly 1 foot apart.

Stack another layer of lumber on top of the spacers, spacing it roughly 1 inch apart, just as in the first layer. Now plenty of air will circulate around the pine. Continue stacking alternating layers of spacers and lumber until you have all the lumber set up to cure.  To be safe from rain, put the visqueen on top and let it hang down a foot or so off the sides.  Be sure the visqueen is not touching the top boards so they can get air.

Check the stack occasionally. Stains or mildew signal drying too slowly.
Excessive checking means drying too fast.

A moisture meter (about $100 at woodworking suppliers) is the most
reliable means of determining moisture content. Check the wood every
few weeks.

The best time to cure pine in Arkansas is late summer or early fall  because its usually drier and less humid but still hot then.  But really any time will work as long as you have a some visqueen or other material to shelter it.

So the next house built at Meadowcreek will be pine scented.  We should be able to make all the walls pine.

How can someone who doesn’t like pine trees still like the way they smell?  For that matter do cleaners smell like pine?  Maybe pine is like freshly mown grass or the smell of the earth affter a rain.  Just a scent we all adore.

Oxford really doesn’t have that many pines.  I guess I can manage to put up with it for a few more hours.

Mountain top removal, coal mining in tiger reserves, how can resilient systems be pro-growth?

I’ve enjoyed a few great conversations with Wendell Berry over the years.  One was at a club in Austin where we ate dinner and enjoyed a quiet country band.  Others have been in Kentucky beginning in the early 80s and including one last year when we also visited the Berry Center in his beloved Henry County.  He has visited Meadowcreek, though not since he began his quixotic campaign against mountain top removal.

miningchart_lgAnything close to mountain top removal is a crime in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and should be everywhere.  But it goes on no matter what we think.  There are always plenty of people who can figure out how to pay off or trick politicians so they can destroy the environment.

Mountaintop removal coal mining is responsible for the burial of almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams, the leveling of over 500 Appalachian mountaintops, and the ecological devastation of over 800 square miles of one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet.

But in most states where mountaintop removal coal is used to generate electricity, the actual mining is not taking place. The connection between flipping on a light switch and the blasting of one of the world’s oldest mountains is not one many consumers make.  The top 2 consumers of mountaintop removal coal (Georgia and North Carolina) are seeing strong efforts  to stop use of mountaintop removal coal. Bills have even been introduced to ban the use mountaintop removal coal in those states.

But West Virginia and Kentucky, where most of the mountains are being leveled, are controlled by  the coal barons.  One, West Virginia’s only billionaire, Jim Justice (not the same as Justice Jim who was a powerful segregationist in Arkansas and committed suicide in 2010)  seems to have the inside track to being the next Governor of West Virginia.

Jim Justice and his ilk say: Let the complete leveling of West Virginia begin.  West Virginia will soon be as flat as Kansas.  Such a flat area so close to DC will be a fine place for shopping malls, apartment buildings, and factories.  There is already a morning train service with three stops in West Virginia (Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg) which after an hour and a half ride gets you to DC about the time your Senator arrives in his office.

Wendell’s Kentucky and Justice’s West Virginia will never pass an anti-mountain top removal law because such laws are framed as anti-jobs and Eastern liberal carpet-bagging.  Just as Arkansas will never pass a law limiting the power of Tyson to destroy small meat packers, no matter what other states do.

I hate to be a pessimist and I do know anything is possible.  A small committed group of believers can perform miracles.  But I also know you don’t win by taking these guys head on.  You have to be a little subtle, sneaky, and fight fire with fire.  Unless all you want to do is raise money from foundations who like your cause.  Then you take the fight to Washington and try to get Obama to stop it.  He won’t.

Mountain top removal makes Chinese environmental destruction look like child’s play.  In China, many mountains are as sacred as can be in an officially atheistic country.  But when you have nunneries and monasteries and holy caves dotting the sides of the mountains, its hard for the big equipment of industrial China to come in and take over.

Maybe we need some monasteries and holy sites on top of each mountain in West Virginia and Kentucky.  Maybe that would stop the fools.

The irony of my fervent hatred of mountain top removal and pity for those who do it is that resilience research is pro-growth.  In some circles I run in, saying you are pro-growth is like admitting that the Devil is your friend and advisor.  Those ill-informed, but passionate environmental advocates don’t distinguish between biological growth and industrial growth.

I ran across a great illustration the other day of how sweet talking “journalists” totally miss the boat, despite their good intentions.  Following is a short paraphrase of part of his book and how it relates to understanding the relationship of growth and progress, environment and ecological resilience.

In January 2011 India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was upset. He had been asking his environment minister to meet a number of businessmen whose projects had been held up on environmental grounds—Ajit Gulabchand whose Lavasa project had been stopped mid-track on belated environmental objections; Naveen Jindal who wanted a coal mine project cleared in what had been declared a no-go area for mining; and others like them. Jairam Ramesh, the minister concerned, had duly met all of them, but found he could not bring himself to clear things like mining in the middle of a tiger reserve. Why does the PM send only businessmen to me, and never anyone who speaks for the environment, Ramesh had wondered to himself.

Singh called Ramesh aside after a cabinet meeting, to give him a talking to. An economy could move forward only on the basis of the animal spirits of its businessmen, he said. Productive forces had to be allowed freedom, or economic growth would suffer. Ramesh defended his record: he was clearing more than 95 per cent of the industrial projects that came to his ministry, and clearing them within the stipulated time. He was stopping only those that involved serious environmental issues or violations. But the prime minister had his own problems: the press and the Opposition had been criticizing his government for what they called policy paralysis. One way to deal with the criticism was to approve projects that were stuck for want of clearances, and he wanted to get things moving.

Some months later, when the environment ministry continued to stand in the way of projects involving influential businessmen, Singh called Ramesh and gave him a full-scale dressing-down. He couldn’t get ‘men from Mars’ to run things the way Ramesh wanted them, he said. The country was ‘in a stage of primitive capital accumulation’, and compromises had to be made. He went on to say that he was at the fag end of his life and did not want to see economic growth suffer or the India story come to an end. ‘We can’t have European standards,’ he declared as he asked Ramesh to be realistic. Finally, he warned that if there were very tight environmental rules, the environment ministry would end up creating a ‘new kind of licence–permit raj’.

What most political leaders in India, China, West Virginia and Kentucky fail to realize is that countries which do best on such measures as the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) are the rich ones, while the poor countries do poorly.

The index looks at two broad concepts. ‘Environmental health’ measures the protection of human health from environment-caused harm; and ‘ecosystem vitality’ measures ecosystem protection and resource management. Since rich countries have better air quality, better and cleaner water supply, and superior resource management, they score better on the EPI. India in 2014 ranked 155th out of 177 countries. China was 118th, and the United States was 33rd while Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden were in the top ten.

The most powerful Indian politicians, beginning with Indira Gandhi have long believed, that ‘the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty.’

Manmohan Singh  was willing to ‘exploit man and earth’ in the interest of capital accumulation through the use of non-‘European’ environmental standards. Ramesh was assigned to another ministry after a cabinet reshuffle, and the extent of the forest areas that had been declared ‘no go’ for mining was sharply reduced.

The succeeding Modi government reduced the area even further, to thirty-five coal blocks out of 793, with what was now called the ‘inviolate’ area less than 8 per cent of the original 12,006 sq km assessed in 2010.

Standing in opposition to this approach, environmentalists have stressed that it is industrial development that pollutes air and water, motor transport that emits carbon gases, causing global warming, and excessive application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that ruin the soil and also cause health problems. Far from the poor being ‘polluters’, they are the ones doing the least environmental damage; it is those who ‘exploit man and earth’ who have laid much greater claims on the earth’s resources.

When the Modi government swept to power in the summer of 2014, its priorities were clear: get stalled projects moving so that investment could be revived and the economy nudged to pick up speed. The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, showed very quickly that he was no Jairam Ramesh clone. The rules were modified to reduce the scope for public hearings (required before projects got cleared); more powers were given to states to clear projects; and a committee of former bureaucrats, armed with loose terms of reference, recommended rewriting the country’s environment protection laws. The signs were that environmental clearance requirements for projects would be diluted, decentralized and rendered less effective.

A coal mining project in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur area, which Ramesh had rejected because it was located in a tiger reserve, now got the green signal after it went through some modification.

So our vaunted politicians, elected by the collective wisdom of the people, love mountain top removal for coal, love mining tiger reserves for coal.  They love it because they love the money the greedy industrialists give them.  It’s fun to fly in private planes.  Only rich people have such planes, so you have to be buddies with the rich folk if you want the planes and the golfing and the Super Bowl tickets and if you hope to avoid them letting their PR machines loose against you.

They are experts at molding mass opinion.  We don’t even realize they are doing it.  We just click on the “news” stories which pop up on Facebook and before we know it we are convinced, or scared, and another threat is removed.

The global hegemony of ecological destroyion is increasing daily and exponentially.

But just being against them will never win.  Creative destruction tells us that the only want to supplant an existing system is to create a new, more innovative, more resilient system.  Ecological resilience research shows us how to create a new economy vastly superior to the extractive, industrialist economy.

Spreading knowledge of ecological resilience is the only way to counter this plague.  Nothing else is working.  Ecological resilience research shows clearly that growth is natural and good, as long as it is ecologically sound.  We don’t have to be Luddites.  We don’t have to be anti-growth.  We do have to use ecological resilience research to convince the uninformed politicians to stand up to the greedy bastards who are hastening the destruction of our countries.  They will be able to stand up because there is a new system to which they can pledge allegiance.


The 2014 EPI was formally released in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on January 25, 2014. These are the result of collaboration between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The Interactive Website for the 2014 EPI is at

Swell swales and swelling pride

Third straight night of clouds here in the Delta, but they aren’t really thick.  The moon must be getting close to full because enough moonlight made it really light outside after we got back from the city in the dark.

Wind is from the North-east meaning rain will probably continue and cold is coming.  One thing the Delta outpost has going over Meadowcreek is you can see the fronts coming and you can feel the wind direction in any open area.  Down in Meadowcreek’s protected valley you don’t get much wind and you can’t see the storm systems until they are almost on you.

Hugelkultured-Swale-Concept-CSC-Design-for-best-picture-e1342026964449-640x313 (1)Looks like the Delta will get more rain out of the current system than the Ozarks.  That’s good for Meadowcreek’s leaf lovers because fall rains tear the colors off the trees.  We don’t have such a mess of fine fall trees in the Delta, but we have other pleasures.

First geese of the year flew over the Delta outpost just after the rain began. Amazing what  a couple of inches of rain will do. Geese don’t ever really invade till the temps drop a lot more.  Still in 70s when they passed over.  I was out making biochar for the first time in months.  It had just been too dry to risk it.

Tomatoes are still going great guns with the high temps.  Anyone with fall tomatoes should have tons this year.  Nothing better than cooking up some tomato sauce.  Tomatoes, onions, and garlic bubbling on the stove filling the house with a delightful aroma and making it hot enough in the kitchen we can leave the door open to the cool outside air.

V’s of geese and tomato sauce.  A lot to look forward to soon.  Nice to contemplate, but we like to focus on what’s here and now and enjoy that to the fullest.  Right now the activity at Meadowcreek is getting the greenhouses ready for winter production and, watching for oyster mushrooms to flush after the rain.  A little more rain and we can dig some more beds.

We’re building a new hoop house on some beds we dug and biocharred this summer.  (If you missed the story on biochar, you have to click this link and learn all about it.)  Also building some berms and swales to cut erosion, build soil and catch water.

Swales, the way we build them at Meadowcreek, are the shallow flat-bottomed depressions behind water-harvesting berms, built on the contour of a landscape. The bottom of the depression follows a very modest slope, usually between 200 feet of berm for one foot drop in elevation to 400:1.  Swales are nearly flat on the bottom because they’re designed to slow water down to a standstill, eliminate erosion, infiltrate the surrounding area with water, and recharge the groundwater table. When water moves along the flat bottom of a swale, it fills it up almost like a bathtub — that is, all parts of the bath tub fill at the same rate. The water in a swale is therefore nearly passive; it doesn’t flow the way it would on a slope.

To install a swale, we have to find a contour line. A contour is a horizontal line with a constant elevation.  To better understand contour, imagine walking on a hill. If you are walking up the hill you will be putting most of your weight on your toes, if you are walking down a hill you will be putting most of your weight on your heels and if you are walking along the contour of the hill, you will be placing an even amount of weight on your heels and your toes. It is this contour line that we need to find when designing and building swales.

A variety of survey tools such as transits, laser levels, water levels or A-frame levels are used to find contour lines.  I like the old fashioned transits, like my father used, but laser levels are so much easier and faster and less difficult to master.

Transits were the tool of choice in a cautionary story on how pride goes before a fall. This is one of my favorite stories of surveying contour lines for swales and involves this city girl fresh our of college and a high priced urban consulting firm.  She thought she knew everything.  She had already burned her bridges at Meadowcreek when she became an intern at a sister project to Meadowcreek.  She’d been there only a couple of weeks when she and a few others volunteered to help an experienced surveyor lay out countour lines and learn how to survey in the process.

Instead of learning how to survey, she took over the job from the sweet surveyor/teacher and proceeded to botch the job and alienate everyone who had volunteered to help survey as the learned to survey.

Some people have such a need to show that they are boss that they destroy all possibility of learning.  To learn you have to be able and willing to admit you don’t know something.  That’s hard for some to admit.  Especially politicians, but sometimes even young millennials graduated from high priced schools with fancy degrees.

The swales whose surveying she disrupted have yet to be built,  her behavior and attitude cast a pall over the whole project.  Amazing how one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Water is not quite so sinister a force.  But like a sinister force, it always goes to the lowest possible point.  Coming down off Angora Mountain to the West and the East Ridge of Meadowcreek, lots of water rushes down to the low point which is Meadow Creek and then the Little Red River.  We want to slow down and catch as much of this water as we can, so the berms have to be high.  But more important, the swales behind the berms have to be as level as possible as they slow water as it moves.

When we have gentle rains, all the water follows the swale behind the serpentine berm.  But when rains are too intense, there must be an outlet, an escape ditch, a waterfall over rocks.  The escape waterfall is built at the beginning of the berm/swale system, usually at the outlet of a pond or where a stream flows off the mountainside.  The escape waterfall is made just a little lower than the top of the berms.  When built below a pond, water first fills the pond till it reaches the outlet.  Once the pond is full, the extra water will sit in the swale almost imperceptibly flowing into the soil or along the swale to a slightly lower portion of the swale.  Once the available water has reached an equilibrium, meaning it has filled the lowest point and has no where else to go, it just sits there, unmoving. And as it sits, it slowly seeps into the surrounding landscape, hydrating the soil and recharging the water table below.

The swale prevents the pond from overflowing by acting as a channel away from the pond.  But in extremely high rainfall events, an outlet is needed to prevent breach of the berm.

Usually the tops of the berms are just as wet at the swales.  This is  due to capillary action pulling water from the swale into the soft mound of the berm. (Capillary action is the phenomenon where liquid flows upward through narrow spaces against gravity — you can see this phenomenon when you dip the end of a paper towel in water and watch the water climb up it.)  Because the capillary action is so effective in good soils, these berms along the swale can provide enough water to establish a tree system with irrigation only needed in extremely dry years. Trees established top of a berm with a swale below will get more moisture than trees in the middle of a field. The trees roots will also slow down water runoff in high rainfall events.

Down here, the Delta is one big swale system.  Since we have a hard clay pan beneath us and virtually no slope, most of the water just sits. The only way it disappears is when the sun comes out and evaporates it or vegetation sucks it in and transpires it.

Such a contrast and such a delight to have the two exact opposite topographies to work with.