Unity and oneness: unending search

“The health of soil, plants, animals, people and the environment is one and indivisible.” “We need a unified nation.” We search for that sense of oneness. And we sometimes find it.

But if we are honest we know it doesn’t last. Ecological resilience research tells us “oneness” is necessarily fleeting.

The oneness of soil, plants, animals, people and environment exists only until a new species or technology or culture comes in which can establish a new oneness. 

An acidic soil is a healthy soil for pines, azaleas, and blueberries, but would kill other plants.  Is it a healthy soil?  The pines think so as they drop acidic needles and make the soil even more acidic. You might call it “White Pine Privilege.” 

The Inuit survived and thrived as Greenland became cooler in the 1100s; early Viking settlers died out. The environment and animals and people were healthy when they were fish, seals and Inuit, not when they were Norse and cattle and medieval catholicism.

After horses were released by early Spanish explorers and found an environment they liked in North America, the Lakota developed a horse based culture which thrived.  This new culture wasn’t so healthy for the sedentary agricultural societies the Lakota raided and destroyed.  In 1776, the Lakota took the Black Hills from the Cheyenne who had taken it from the Kiowa. This enabled the Lakota to declare the Black Hills sacred and today call for the faces on Mt. Rushmore to be obliterated. The combination of the horse and the Great Plains was healthy for the Lakota, not so much for the Cheyenne and the Kiowa and, today, the WASP.

The megafauna present in North America (mastodon, mammoth, horse, tapir, ground sloth, giant bison, giant beaver, giant tortoise, American lion, short-faced bear, and saber-toothed tiger) were healthy and one with their environment and soils and plants until what are now called indigenous people came from Asia.  Then the megafauna provided lots of good meals for the “indigenous” until they were wiped out.

Chaparral requires fire to release the chaparral seeds from their pods. Regular fires are part of the oneness of soils, plants, animals and environment in chaparral country, like Southern California. Some wouldn’t see the healthy oneness in the fires in California today.

During the Second World War in the USA, there was an overwhelming sense of oneness as the country battled two totalitarian, aggressive enemies. Today, America is disunited and breaking into anarchy.

Paradoxically, searching and finding oneness requires us to abandon any attachment to particular animals, cultures, plants or environments. The only lasting “oneness” is more basic than any of these transient epiphenomena. They will pass away while the resilient remain.

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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.
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 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.


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

Just after dawn in Malagasy

Just after dawn in this central Malagasy city, carrots, green leafy vegetables, and plants are headed downhill to the market. Bread and eggs are headed up hill to the hotels and restaurants. Mostly on heads. Often with bare feet. Sometimes the women going to market carry their good shoes along with their produce on their heads. At the market they’ll put on their shoes as they change from porters into salesladies.

A few going to market have push carts. The hand-made carts have brakes (a wooden plate jammed against one wheel) to slow them down if need be. Some lucky ladies get rides down hill on the carts along with their goods. Mostly men control the carts because their strength is needed to get the cart up the next hill.

Now and then a minibus passes with vegetables loaded on top, but most of the transportation is by people on foot.

I’m observing all this because I like to go outside at dawn with my coffee before all the good morning air gets used up. The first couple of days, I just stood in front of the hotel. Now, I watch all this from a narrow alley beside the hotel as I drink my morning coffee. The alley provides a good view between buildings of the churches of old town across the valley. Mostly, I like being inconspicuous in the alley, watching what goes by.

If I’m visible to the passers-by, I attract too much attention. I’m strange, out of place. I’m taller and bigger and whiter than anyone passing by. Some are startled by me, others look at me shyly. A very few smile and say, “bon jour”, thinking I must be a French guy since nearly all the other white folk here are Gaullic. A few try to hit me up for a few coins. Sometimes they have a trinket they want me to buy.

But in the morning, just after dawn, the vast majority are hustling to get their goods to their buyers or potential buyers. They don’t give much more than a passing glance at the big white guy drinking coffee in the alley.

Later in the day, I lug my own goods along the same street. I don’t tote anything edible or even very useful to the average Malagasy. I lug the tools of my trade (a computer, a projector and butcher paper) down the hill, mostly walking in the street since the sidewalks are mostly filled with sales booths erected every morning. Tuesday and Thursday are market days and the goods spill off the sidewalk into the street.

The only sidewalks available for walking are in front of the government buildings where machine gun toting guards keep the way cleared.

Every day I walk down this hill past families who have already staked out spots on the sidewalk as their salesroom for the day. One day I pass a mother with two children who look to be about 6 and 4. Their inventory is spread on a blanket on the sidewalk. The children are so cute, I stop just up the street from them to play peek-a-boo with them. The mother soon leaves and the children sell their bananas and cookies to other children and some adults walking by. I stay for awhile thinking the mother will come back, but she doesn’t. The children seem to be doing a good job of making sales and keeping track of the money.

I look in every possible direction at every intersection, trying to anticipate speeding motorbikes and minibuses along with push carts which can get up a real head of steam going down hill.

After about eight blocks of avoiding fellow pedestrians and every possible means of conveyance, plus deep potholes and other obstructions, I get to the alley I must walk up. It’s only about three foot wide and has a rivulet of water running down it. The rivulet is kinda gray and not something I want to step in. I straddle the stream and make it up to a swinging wooden door and then up two flights of stairs meant for short Malagasy, watching my head all the way.

One day as I arrive, huge sacks are being unloaded from atop a minivan. Guys barely bigger than the sacks somehow carry them up the alley and the stairs to the office I am headed to. The sacks are filled with prized certified seed. The organization I am working with will distribute the seed to farmers who will then multiply the seed to provide high quality seed for farmers all across Madagascar.

I don’t particularly enjoy walking up the smelly alley or the narrow stairs built for people half my size and where I bump my head now and then. But I love working with Julienne and her team at Cercle Régional des Agriculteurs Malagasy Fianarantsoa or CRAM. None of them speak English, but they wanted me to come and help them transform their organization, so here I come up the stairs with my equipment led by my translator.

After the first meeting, we decide it would be best for me to see how they work in the field so I visit three communities they work in. All require long, but scenic rides over rough roads. As far as I can tell, nearly every ride in Madagascar is scenic.

Only 5% of the land is flat enough to plant crops. The rest is hills and mountains. So it’s a lot like Appalachia, where I cut my teeth in the cooperative business. Which is fitting because I’m here to help them transform their nonprofit into a cooperative union, a cooperative of cooperatives. Just up my alley.

In two of the communities the local organizations (Cercle Local des Agriculteurs Malagasy or CLAMs) are well developed with warehouses to store seed the farmers produce. They are both close to roads a large truck can get down to haul seed out. The third was more typical of the CLAMS. The village where this CLAM is located is visible from the paved road, but only just. Our vehicle parked in the shade at the end of the passable road, we climb down a trail for several kilometers to be surprised at the quality of their houses. All are made of local brick, two stories high with metal roofs. The bricks are made from local clay, but everything else was hauled in on their backs. Anything they produce for sale also only reaches the road on their backs.

Their compound is composed of four houses which double as storage sheds, an earthen walled corral for their Zebus, and a Christian shrine. They surround a dirt courtyard which is swept clean. In one corner of the courtyard, a teenage girl is pounding grain with a long club-like pestle which she pounds again and again down into the traditional high walled mortar. Her shy toddler hides behind her skirts as she works.

As they learn visitors have arrived, members of the CLAM start arriving from nearby compounds.

They bring out some rugs woven from reeds and place them on the ground under the only shade trees they have. We learn they farm very small amounts of land. An average of two hectares, about five acres. But this land is usually split up in several plots. One farmer we talked to has four different plots which together total five acres.

Their biggest problem is water. They point to a spot across the valley just above their rice and vegetable plots. That is a spring which is their only source of water. It does flow all year, but only a trickle. Any water for their compounds is carried on their heads from the spring up the hills to their houses. We talk a little about checkdams and other water harvesting systems. It’s one of many areas of knowledge that they are interested in, but unfamiliar with.

It’s a peaceful, quiet, isolated spot, with beautiful views down the valley. We joke it would be covered in vacation homes if it was in the US and ask if any French people live in the area. They say no, but one French girl did spend a year as an intern on the other side of the valley. I wonder aloud how I would survive here with my dependency on computers and internet and cold beer and other habits which require electricity.

Only 13% of Malagasy have electricity in their homes and the folks in this valley are in the majority. I’d have loved to stay longer and at least visit the spring, but my minders want to press on to the next village. There we did spot one solar panel and a huge Lutheran church set off by itself from the village. Nowadays the pastor only holds services once a month. He also grows rice seed. “Pastora” marks his bags in the CLAM warehouse. We don’t see any electric poles for dozens of kilometers as we skirt along the ridges heading back to the city.

Now that I’ve got the lay of the land, its time to dig into the fun of helping them sort out how to transform CRAM and the CLAMs. I’m hopeful, but not totally sure, how successful we will be. You never know in this sort of work.


My trip was made possible by CNFA and USAID through the Farmer to Farmer Program. A trip to Madagascar might be in your future. Look at the assignments available and apply.

Shooting stars everywhere tonight

Today, August 12 and tomorrow, marks the peak of one of our most anticipated natural events: the Perseids meteor shower. After the sun goes down, look into the northeast sky close to Cassiopeia. This constellation is shaped like a flattened W. It rotates around the North Star directly opposite the Big Dipper. Trace a line from the two stars at the bottom end of the Big Dipper to the North Star and on to Cassiopeia and the meteor shower.

Tonight you don’t really have to find Cassiopeia. The meteors should be everywhere. f course first you have to find a spot in the country without light pollution. Then you have to wait till the moon goes down. Yesterday I went out about 4:30 am and saw quite a few. This morning a thunderstorm has come in. It’s really delightful, but does eliminate any chances of seeing more shooting stars tonight.

The meteor shower will still be close to its peak tomorrow, Tuesday August 13. If you go out about 3:30, with no moon in the sky, even the dimmest meteors will be visible if you can get yourself far away from man-made light pollution.

But don’t wait for tomorrow to get outside, it might be cloudy tomorrow. I once spent a cloudy August night laying in a park in Chisinau, Moldova, hoping for the clouds to lift so we could all see meteors. At least I convinced a bunch of city folk to get outside and watch the sky at night.

It’s just fun to just lay out watching the sky on a beautiful summer night. Go out tonight and tomorrow night to double your chances of seeing some great meteors.

Being in an isolated part of an isolated county of an rural state, Meadowcreek is a great place for night sky watching. No light pollution. The sky is so clear that we’ve even had a University inquire about putting up a remote controlled telescope.

All we have to do is find a space away from trees with a clear view of the sky. Usually the best place is the middle of one of the meadows in our bottoms. Sometimes we get a beautiful fog filling up the valley in the evening. It’s a spectacular sight to sit on the Resiliience House porch eating dinner and watching the fog flow in. Luckily for meteor watching, August is dry enough that we don’t often have such fogs.

It might be nice to float on an air mattress in the Blue Hole and watch meteors. Once I laid out a blanket on the grass above the Salamander pond. It’s such fun to fall asleep and then wake up to bright meteors streaking across the sky.

I try to ignore the astronomer’s explanation that the meteors are pieces of a comets’ tail that burn up when they hit our planet’s atmosphere. I’d much rather believe they are good luck and that the more you see, the better the next year will be. I like the tradition of some Japanese of opening your collar to admit the good luck when you see a meteor.

As I’m writing this, I’m watching the lightning of a thunderstorm and wondering why we like sunrises, sunsets, full moons, thunderstorms and meteor showers so much. But I don’t wonder for long, I just enjoy them. Just as I enjoyed the beginning of the Perseid meteor shower yesterday morning and hope to again tomorrow.