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.

Iowa is just too civilized

Iowa is just too civilized. A gradient of civilized society runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Louisiana is as dysfunctional third world as any African petro-state. Parts of it reminds me of the most miserable parts of Angola. Arkansas is third world, but not quite so polluted as Louisiana. Missouri is one step up into moderately civilized, but not so bad that nature has been run out. Iowas is so civilized there is hardly any nature left. Minnesota is so thoroughly civilized they even let in such as Ilhan Omar to destroy it from within. Just as Rome once did and France and Germany did more recently.

Iowa counties’ resilience. Darker counties are more resilient. Darkest counties are in top quartile of resilience for all counties in US. Source: Worstell et al. (2018).

As states and countries become more civilized, they usually lose touch with nature. They no longer understand basic human nature and they eliminate non-human nature. (Though they may proclaim their devotion to nature while while jetting to climate change conferences.) Resilience requires ecological integration. Iowa has little left of such. Just look at the broad swatch of non-resilient counties in North Central Iowa. They are as bad as corn-belt Illinois or the Delta of Mississippi or the High Plains of Texas.

But some Iowa counties are still in the top quarter of America’s most resilient counties, just as some in Louisiana are. The most fascinating counties are resilient ones which adjoin non-resilient ones.

Iowa has a great example of that: Washington and Louisa counties, just south of Iowa City and a couple of counties North of the Missouri line. Washington County has a big batch of Mennonites. Maybe they are keeping it resilient. I’ve also heard some of the small towns there are more than half Mexican. And that they have some big hog farms. How all that factors into making a community resilient is the question the Resilience Project explores. That’s why we’re headed up there to do some ground-truthing on our resilience model.

If you live in Washinton County, we really want to talk to you.

Tribe vs. community

Rarely do the liberal and conservative elites unite in denouncing something. Tribalism, however, they both hate. In elite circles, “tribalism” is the opposite of an urbane, cosmopolitanism outlook. Brexit was cursed as “a reversion to tribalism.”

The liberal elite are joined by the conservative elite in denouncing American tribalism. The conservative elite on “Fox & Friends” joined together one recent morning to lament “hyphenated Americans” who “focus on background.” Having an ethnic identity, like Norwegian, Irish, or African American, is what “we have been trying to move past for a long time.”

“My grandmother, I believe, spoke Norwegian,” Fox News host Pete Hegseth said. “I don’t know a word of Norwegian. That’s what I hope every group who comes here does.” His conservative co-hosts agreed.

These elites act as if their elite tribe is somehow not a tribe. As laughable as this idea is, it’s also horribly cruel. What they value so much in their own lives, belonging to a little platoon that provides a sense of identity and purpose, they want to deny to everyone else.

As conservatism has increasingly defined itself as hating what progressives stand for, the conservative position on race and ethnicity has been to demand a “color blindness” and a denunciation of identity politics that eyes with suspicion any identity other than “American.”

Whether the elites are liberal or conservative, they all seem to have the same attitude. They want to ban tribalism (all tribes but their own) because they desire a society which looks up to them. They seem to want a homogeneous mass of identical individuals whose happiness and behavior depends on direction from them, the elite.

But the elites miss what underlies a strong and resilient society. The most resilient societies are diverse, but the diversity serves a common purpose. It is complementary diversity. It is composed of communities which are all independent but all working together for the common good. America has always been a nation of people with multiple overlapping identities. We have our American-ness as one identity, but that is tied up with a diversity that includes our particular geographic place, our particular vocation, our particular faith, and, yes, our particular ethnicity.

You cannot understand a person, including yourself, without trying to comprehend the invisible forces, spanning generations, that shaped you.

A corollary to this insight is that we owe it to our children to give them not only a healthy and happy and challenging now. If we hope they have a happy and successful tomorrow, we need to also give them a yesterday. In some cultures, this is easy and natural. In some settings, this takes real effort.

A recent book provides a great illustration. It’s author, Michael Brendan Dougherty,was raised around New York City as an only child of a single mother, with only irregular contact with his father from Ireland.

Spending one’s youth in different suburbs, in two different states, raised without a father is a formula for serious alienation. It’s the same profile as the man who murdered Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Va., after joining a white nationalist movement. Much of what afflicts the working class in Middle America today is the nakedness of a deracinated life: We have more and more men who lack faith, who lack ethnicity, who lack fathers, and who live in areas that lack a sense of distinctive place.

So, what did Dougherty’s mother do? How did she try to save her son?

She made him Irish.

First, she named him Michael Brendan Dougherty.

Then she dug deep to plant roots that would anchor this little family that otherwise could be tossed by the tempests of modernity. She brought little Michael to Irish culture festivals and Irish pubs. She brought him to Gaeltacht Weekends where attendees were supposed to speak no English, but only the Old Irish language, which, as an act of rebellion, some of the Irish had been trying to resurrect for about a century.

“[M]y own nursery was injected with a peculiar kind of Irish nationalism,” Dougherty writes. “My mother wanted me to know myself as Irish. ”

His book is grounded in the specific worlds of Ireland, greater New York, parochial school, and modern America. One can divine easily the broader lesson, though, and that’s why a the book has been praised by a bunch of Jewish American conservative writers who appreciate the richness of family, faith, ethnicity, and language.

“None are so blind as they who will not see.” Other writers and commentators denigrate America, the deplorables, Wal-mart goers, and any other tribe other than their own liberal minded clique. They can’t see how they draw sustenance from being part of a very exclusive community which sure looks like a tribe. They denounce tribalism while pledging full allegiance to their own tribe.

We have an innate need to be part of a tribe. Loving your people, your ethnicity, your culture is something we all need. But when such love is coupled with hate of all those who aren’t part of your tribe, tribalism become destructive.

“We are totally right and they are totally wrong” is an extreme of tribalism which assures destruction.  The American Indians were divided into thousands of tribes which nearly all fought with each other even as the advancing Europeans took over their lands.  Something similar is happening in the US today.  Because we are so busy fighting with each other instead of working together to conquer our many challenges, other tribes are invading and taking over more and more of our country as we fight with each other.

Even if one side does win, this tribalism will identify an Other within its ranks. Then the tribalism and destruction will begin anew. Spend a little time in Africa and you’ll see how tribalism destroys. Yet the elite in Africa also want to eliminate tribalism, while not recognizing they are part of a tribe who wants to eliminate tribalism.

Belonging to a community or tribe is good. But watch out or your allegiance to your tribe will result in destruction all around.

Yes to Koran and eagle hunting; No to Bible

Turkish Airlines breaks the rules. In contrast to what you might expect from the national airline of an Islamic country, Turkish Airlines is much more flexible than American airlines. It does things no American airline would dare to do. For example, they offer audio versions of religious texts. If you don’t want to watch the latest movies, you can listen in sonorous English while the Arabic script flows from right to left across your screen. No American airline is brave enough to offer the Bible to fliers.

Turkish Airlines does a lot that no American airline can match. On my last flight, I was served a cube of comb honey and a dark sphere which stood up on my plate. It turned out to be a shell of hard chocolate with mango slices and soft chocolate inside.

On long flights you get a couple of full meals and sandwiches and spirits whenever you like. Turkish Airlines boasts that it flies to more destinations than any other nation in the world. But even on short flights, they treat you really well. On a 90 minute flight, you get a full meal that is pretty durn good. Most of its airplanes have hundreds of movies available on demand.

Many of the movies are in Turkish with no subtitles. They lure you in with an English summary, but then you usually can’t understand the movie. Sometimes the movie is so entrancing that you watch it anyway. That happened to me on my last trip. I’d just come from visiting guy in Kyrgyzstan who hunts with falcons and eagles, so when I saw a movie about a young girl becoming an expert falconer in rural Turkey, I tried it and watched all the way to the end, though I couldn’t understand a word. Now I know the tricks of becoming a falconer. A red tailed hawk just might be enlisted in my new hobby next winter.

Usually I get bored listening to a language I don’t understand, so I skip around the available channels and that’s how I found the Koran. You can hear the Koran spoken in English as you watch the Arabic phrases flow from right to left across the screen–much like Hebrew. Funny how close Arabic and Hebrew are.

Turkish Airlines doesn’t offer the Bible for Christians or the Bhagavad gita for Hindus or the Tao Te Ching for Taoists. But they do let you switch seats almost at will. American airlines don’t let you do that any more. They are intent on making money by insuring they are paid more for good seats. Comfort of passengers is definitely not the top priority for American airlines these days.

My next flights overseas will be on Delta and Ethiopian Airlines, so I’ll see if they match up to Turkish. I’m not holding my breath, that either will over the Bible, though Ethiopia was Christian a thousand years before America existed and six hundred years before Turkey switched from being Christian to being Moslem. Anyway, I’m going back to Kyrgyzstan as soon as I can, so I’ll get to enjoy Turkish Airlines again very soon.

Make America Joyful Again II

A young girl is helping her mother by hanging up clothes to dry. She then picks up her 3 string Kyrgyz guitar and starts practicing. Her mother is cooking dinner for the construction workers across the park. They smile when we walk over.

The mother offers us bread, as Kyrgyz do for visitors. Her daughter showed us the music she had copied out and was practicing.

Down the road, the wife of the falconer is cooking a traditional bread called boorsoks and sends her daughter to give us some when we are talking to her husband. They are still hot when we get them so I go visit the cook. Turns out she knows English and loves to talk. She joyfully tells me all about how she makes boorsoks over an open fire and her six children and how her husband won a prize at a falconry competition in Saudi Arabia.

All the while she’s talking and smiling, she is rolling out dough, cutting it up and plopping it in the oil bubbling over the fire. When we leave, she insists we take a bag of boorsoks. Another daughter and a son come around the corner as we leave and smile shyly at us.

This Kyrgyz town has a community center that includes a theatre and a museum. The museum honors a famous writer who was born there. We get a tour from two dedicated guides. The theater is the home to a community theater group.

Part of the group is just leaving a meeting and sitting on a wall. They are called the “Joyful Grandmothers” in Kyrgyz. When we start talking, they ask me to come sit with them. They laugh joyfully as I push my way down amongst them.

All those instances of joy appeared in a couple of hours in a small town called Sheker on the Kyrgyz side of the Kazakh border.

A few minutes later we found another joyful grandmother who loves to sew and embroider natural felt. She was bursting with enthusiasm and insisted we eat too much and take home lots of extras.

There are so many stories of joy in this isolated and not very wealthy country on the border of China. These are just a few from one day. I hope to go back again soon and collect some more. Until then, I’ll try to spread some of that Kyrgyz joy in America. We need it.

For the first Make America Joyful Again, see: https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/blog/make-america-joyful-again/

Spirits in the swamps: methane and rice

Swamps are not nice places to be sometimes. Even when they are called wetlands. Rice paddies are really just small little swamps that only last a few months. So they don’t accumulate all the evil that swamps do, but they get close.

Probably one of the most evil things that swamps produce is a deadly odorless gas called methane. You might have methane in pipes going into your house. It’s called natural gas today because the industry has good public relations people. The producers of natural gas have to mix it with really smelly stuff so you notice and get out when there is a leak. Or you would die. Swamps and rice fields produce methane in abundance.

Those of us who live close to swamp areas, have lots of stories about methane–also called swamp gas. Occasionally it is ignited and appears to be a lantern or a face running through the woods (“will-o’-the-wisp”). European folkfore has numerous stories about strange, bright apparitions leading lonely travelers astray–all inspired by methane somehow ignited in the woods. Watch the following video to see how much methane swamps produce.

in modern times, methane has become even scarier since it is one of the greenhouse gases leading to climate change. Methane is way more potent the carbon dioxide. Over 20 years methane traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. In 100 years it degrades, but still traps 28 times as much. Methane emissions from swamps are the largest natural source of methane in the world, contributing roughly one third of all methane released from nature and by man combined.

Methane is produced by bacteria decomposing organic matter under water. When rice is flooded, man is creating a little swamp with perfect conditions for methane producton.

Rice doesn’t produce nearly as much methane as swamps (about 2 per cent of the methane released by human activity). So rice fields are a small, but definite contributor to our GHG problem. And its a problem which can be solved. We just have to figure out ways of growing rice with less flooding. Researchers are figuring out ways to do that and rice farmers are implementing them resulting in lower costs for water and lower methane production.

It seems like a great achievement. Except in some places, like California, all the natural lakes have been destroyed and there is no habitat for migrating waterfowl except flooded rice fields. So in the short run, we have to keep flooding California rice fields.

As soon as possible, however, we need to get farmland in California converted back to natural lakes. Natural lakes in a dry climate like California’s rice growing area do not accumulate the high levels of organic matter under water which leads to methane production. Reestablishing that system should be our goal, not flooding rice fields and watching the methane bubble up.

In Arkansas, with 50+ inches of rain a year, we have plenty of habitat for migrating waterfowl without flooding rice fields and are trying everything we can to reduce the period of flooding on rice fields.    

Wetlands and rice fields do produce methane. We can’t just sweep that fact under the rug because we need flooded rice fields for waterfowl migration. Instead, let’s recreate the lakes destroyed in the Pacific flyway. We don’t have to settle for methane production from rice fields.