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:

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.

The auctioneers are busy this winter

When you’re young, farm auctions are fun. When you get older you realize a farm auction means another farmer has gone under. When your young, smart, hard-working neighbor has an auction it’s tragic. Last year was tough for farmers and many are going out of business and selling all their equipment this winter.

Farm size is increasing and number of farms decreasing across the US.

When I went out to get the paper yesterday morning, a line of pickups already stretched a quarter-mile to the west and trucks lined one side of our narrow road for a half mile to the east. They kept coming until both sides of the road had almost a mile of parked trucks on both sides.

Our young neighbor had taken a loan, rented some land and started farming on his own 15 years ago. He’d been working on other people’s farms all his life and finally got his chance when an older farmer decided to start a liquor store and rent out his land.

Now he will go back to work as a hired hand on one of the growing megafarms in our county. Federal farm policy makes it easy for the big boys to get bigger. To do so, they have to put other farmers out of business.

Increasingly the best land in our country is owned by non-farmers. People who don’t really know how to manage the land and are often mostly interested in the rent payment.

There is nothing resilient about a system which runs smaller farmers out and helps non-farmers get control of their land. Some of us are fighting to create a more resilient agriculture in the US. Join us at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

A resilient government?

Washington, DC, used to be the place to go. I arrived for the umpteenth time two days ago and rode in my first Bangladeshi cab. Like almost everyone I meet these days, the cabbie was interested in growing food on his own small farm. I contributed a little experience and a few dollars to his endeavor.

I used to go to Washington, DC a lot. I used to go to the state capitol a lot. I really thought changing the country’s laws would change the country.

Now I realize I was wrong.

We went to the state capitol and got the Arkansas Department of Agriculture established and a bunch of other laws enacted to help small farmers. One helped a few dairy farmers stay in business for awhile. But eventually, the big feedlot dairies in Texas and Oklahoma destroyed almost all the small family farm dairies from Arkansas to Georgia.

We went to DC a lot and got a bunch of sustainable agriculture programs established and even got the Delta Regional Authority established. Some of these have helped a few farmers and rural communities, but the big boys continue to expand and push out small farmers and destroy small communities.

None of these programs have lived up to our hopes. What they’ve made us realize is that any good law coming out of DC is an epiphenomenon, a side effect. Good laws which have lasting effects are the result of thousands of individual efforts and the movements these individual efforts create. When the country is transformed, it can then transform its laws.  Until then, transforming the laws will have no effect. The laws will be implemented such that nothing will really change.

The sustainable agriculture movement was one such movement based on thousands, if not millions, of individual efforts. The Back to the Land folks in the 60s and 70s and the Organic folks provided an alternative to the “Get big or get out” mentality of farm leaders epitomized by USDA Secretary Earl Butz in the Nixon years.

The farm crisis in the 1980s convinced many that America needed a new approach to agriculture. Sustainability became the buzzword of the cogniscenti after the U.N.’s Brundtland report (Our Common Future) came out. Sustainable agriculture was born and became law in the 1990 farm bill.

In the early years, sustainability was just a modern version of the older conservation movement that resulted in national parks all over the country and even a Missouri Conservation Department. My grandfather was one of the first Conservation agents, but he didn’t live to see sustainability take the place of conservation.

Some of us who had established cooperative processing and marketing ventures in the 80s became part of the sustainable ag movement in the early 90s. By the late 90s, the leaders of the movement came to realize that transformation of the agricultural economy will only happen when farmers control processing and marketing. Farmers can preserve the air and water and sequester carbon to decrease climate change and still be put out of business unless they control processing and marketing. Those who take care of the earth while they produce wholesome food should benefit from the added value they create in food.

So the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program began. Farmers could now receive grants to help them develop new processing and marketing ventures. The program was based on extremely successful state programs such as the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission (APUC) in North Dakota and the (AURI) in Minnesota.

We went to state legislatures in Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee and got programs established which adapted VAPG, APUC and AURI to those states. The one which has helped the most farmers is the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board.

These state efforts are still flourishing, but the national VAPG has run into hard times. When it began, there were many national groups working to promote sustainable agriculture policies. Today there is just one: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). NSAC is the sole force keeping VAPG alive.

And even some in NSAC are wavering in their support. Why should local groups continue to support VAPG? Six reasons come to mind.

  1. VAPG was started by NSAC.  Only NSAC pushes it for funding.
  2. VAPG gives funds directly to farmers. It’s the only competitive grants program which does.
  3. VAPG received a high score in a survey of NSAC members. Only two programs scored higher and neither of them focused on economics.
  4. VAPG is transformational. We won’t really change American agriculture until farmers own and control processing and marketing.  That is the purpose of VAPG.
  5. VAPG can provide funds to the organizations who are members of NSAC.  If you help farmers get VAPG grants, they can hire you to write the feasibility analyses and business plans they need under the grants.
  6. The final reason addresses the question: what is the purpose of NSAC?  Is the goal to help farmers or for NGOs to get grants for themselves? There is nothing wrong about NGOs getting funds to help farmers, but the goal should always be helping farmers become more sustainable and resilient. VAPG does that directly.

National advocacy organizations are like any natural system. They pass through a adaptive cycle with four phases: getting organized, growing fast, maturing and releasing. A farmer’s field shows these four phases every year. The seed is planted into prepared ground. It grows quickly. It matures and sets seed. The seed is harvested and removed from the land.

The sustainable agriculture movement is like that seed. It was organized in the late 80s and early 90s. It grew quickly in the 90s. It matured in the 2000s. Now it is getting ready for release.

Release in the natural adaptive cycle can mean death. Or it can mean reorganization and rebirth. Those systems which are resilient are able to reorganize and are reborn.

Those systems which are able to reorganize and survive are those which have nurtured their children well. National organizations only survive and thrive if they nurture the local organizations which are their foundations. Local organizations need money to survive. So, as most ag lobbyists will tell you, ag policy is nearly all about money.  How to get more money for this or that program.  Which will give farmers or farm organizations money for what many consider worthwhile projects.

Unfortunately that means farm organizations are glad when their part of the budget is bigger.  Today that means such organizations are, in effect, glad when the country accrues more debt. That is nothing that makes me happy and it shouldn’t make you happy either. The country is also a system which must nurture its children and not saddle them with debt they cannot repay.

We face the current maturity and pending release of the natural systems which are our country and many of our favorite national organizations. Natural systems which survive the release phase are those which have nurtured the next generation. For a national organization focused on helping farmers, survival and rebirth depends on the success of the farmers it tries to help.

If conservation-oriented farmers beget more conservation-oriented farmers, then their organizations can be reborn, reorganized and resilient. Does your favorite organization fit in that category?

Nature builds its own walls

If you remember any poems from high school, you probably remember Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Two neighbors come together every Spring to rebuild the stone wall that Nature is intent on destroying. Every winter, the ground freezes and thaws and topples a few stones from the wall. Frost is new to this farm and not much of a farmer. He likes Nature.  He doesn’t like walls much.


Ronald Reagan didn’t care for the Berlin Wall. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he cried in 1987. In the early 90s the Soviet Union crumbled and the wall came down.  Will Pancho Villa’s grandson make the same cry in Tijuana some day?

All natural systems are open. All barriers, membranes and walls are permeable. They let some things in and keep others out. A system ceases to have any integrity, ceases to be a system, unless there is something between it and what is outside.

Today we have two North American countries with vastly different systems sharing a common boundary. The boundary is permeable—more so in some places than others.  In isolated areas, you can still wade across the Rio Grande when it’s low. Some would make the boundary more defined, less permeable. They would “build a wall.” This group also professes a deep and abiding love for America.  They not only stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, they put their hands over their hearts.

Those who most dislike America and standing for the Pledge favor more permeable boundaries. They want people and all sorts of substances to more freely move across the border. They are joined by those who say they like America, but only pledge allegiance to the making of money. This uneasy, and usually unspoken, alliance of big business and the anti-americans is the reason immigration reform doesn’t happen.

In 1914, when Robert Frost published “Mending Wall,” fences were built to keep animals out. The range was free in those days, as it still is in much of the world. Cows, goats, sheep, antelopes, bears, cougars and people could just range wherever their legs could take them. Frost, a bit of an anarchist as most poets are, liked that. So he didn’t like walls. Besides neither he nor his neighbor had cows, so why did they need a wall?

In 1914, most people in America still lived on farms, but by 1920, more than half lived in cities. In 1914, nearly everyone in Africa, Asia and Russia still lived on farms or in small villages. People had lots of kids and the surviving children spread out over the landscape to establish their own farms.  Today, in most of the world, people have few children. The exceptions are the poorest regions of Africa, the Americas and Asia.

The countries of Africa cannot provide for these burgeoning populations and people do anything they can to escape to Europe next door. The countries of Central America cannot provide for their poor families and the poor will do anything they can to escape to the U.S.

Because America’s border is porous, millions have come in illegally and live among us in nearly every town. We enjoy the fruits of their labor on our farms and at our construction sites. The unholy alliance between big business and the anti-americans will most likely continue to insure the border is porous. So your best bet is to learn Spanish. The wall in Tijuana will be torn down one day, if present trends continue.

Yet human systems are part of Nature, when push comes to shove. Resilient natural systems self-organize to perpetuate themselves and their component species. If we are resilient, we will self-organize to perpetuate our values and our way of life.  If not, we will disappear.

Any system must possess certain basic qualities to survive and thrive.  It is diverse, but the diverse elements are complementary and devoted to the goal of making the whole system thrive. The diversity which is extolled in America today is a chaos of conflicting values and goals, with one common theme–to tear down the present system.

A resilient system’s self-organization includes establishing a barrier between itself and other systems. It’s not an impermeable barrier. Resilient systems are highly connected to other systems. But they are also ecologically modular.  They are independent modules which can close off the connections to outside elements if those elements threaten the integrity of the system.

Robert Frost left the farm after one year and went to live in town. His neighbor and his neighbor’s sons continued to rebuild the wall every year.

Lots of stone walls have been built at Meadowcreek. None of them have kept out the riff-raff.

After Reagan’s Berlin Wall was torn down, a pastor’s daughter from East German took control of government. Germany today is coping with an influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, increasing crime and taxing public resources while big business welcomes their labor.

Soon, from an ecological perspective, Trump and Pelosi will be gone. Their current shut-down of government will end without anything close to a strong border. What will remain is the innate self-organizing tendency of all resilient systems. Which includes the innate desire for a boundary.

Natural boundaries brings the useful in and keeps the destructive out. Any thriving system has a such a boundary.

A thriving America will build such a boundary naturally. A nation which does not will disappear and chaos will take its place. Many are, wittingly or not, cheering at the latter prospect.