Last night in Zim: What do I see?

Last night in Zim.

Always sad, yet hopeful.

When I close my eyes, what do I see? I see cows, lots of cows. I see dirt and smiles and torn pants, and worn shoes without laces, and military style tents, and boma sheeting and solar lights, and old shovels, and buckets of water, and Jeeps and Land Rovers, and bare feet, and maize, and the Southern Cross, and the Large Magellanic Cloud, and grass of every type, perennials and annuals and palatable and non-palatable, and finger-like grass and feather-like grass and sticky and thorny and bearded grass. I see rivers and mud, and baboons tearing thatch from my hut so the rain wets the blankets, and turtles surveying the world like little generals in a bunker, and the hornbills gobbling grasshoppers, and praying mantises flying across the flashlight beam like lost angels, and scorpion-like spiders, and baby sheep and baying goats, and Dojiwe the elephant head-butting a marula tree to make the fruit fall to the ground where she can fetch them with her articulate trunk or we can feed them to her, saying “Trunk up!”, and then putting them in her mouth as we scratch her tongue while she rumbles in the elephant version of a purr. I see lightning and hear the white noise of my fan, and the pestering pigeons. I hear the night owl and crickets and the train between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls screeching its arthritic wheels on the poorly managed tracks. I hear the chefs in the kitchen, chopping, cleaning, laughing, and shouting. I hear the car from town bringing supplies, fruit and meat and vegetables, and sadza and rusk, and tea, and milk and water and beer. I hear hyena and lion daring each other in an antagonism as old as time. I hear the mouths flying into the lamp. I hear the roosters. I hear the dogs at the kraal barking at creatures in the forest. I hear the tv playing it’s one and only Zimbabwe station. I hear the water boil. I hear the wind. I feel the heat and the sand and the sweat and the nasty seeds in my shoes. If feel the ants in my bed, the little fuckers. I smell the dung and the approaching storm and the sweet morning and the bacon. I see the sun setting, casting its long light on old windows with iron bars and a lime tree, with bulbous green fruit, ready to drop. I see distant trees with flat tops, looking like fans, holding the crest of hills, waving goodbye, and daring me to return.

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My First Real Night in Africa – “This is the change I have seen”

My First Real Night in Africa – "This is the change I have seen"

At the kraal – the moonlight is shining through the vents of my tarpless tent. I can recline and see the stars while still protected from mosquitoes.

I just sat on a log with Dickson, the head herder, and the experience is vivid in my mind’s eye.

He is cooking sadza on a teak wood fire. As the the water in the pot starts to sizzle, ashy smoke stings my eyes, but I keep my place. He is a sage. The red from the fire gives him an other-worldly countenance, and above his head, the Southern Cross sits like an aura, pointing to the well grazed vlei we just returned from.

Ten hours walking with 500 cattle and 100 goats and sheep over rocky hills and through head-high grass, a baking sun with with only the occasional cloud – I’m tired and dirty. I want a bath, which won’t be forthcoming, so the sweat and dust will stick like a second skin.

It’s hard work, but it’s necessary, and in the near future, many more of us will be doing it. I’m glad I’m learning from the best.

When Facebook no longer tells us how many friends we have, we’re going to wonder where our food and water comes from.

Dickson told me he’s seen the land and the water improve over the fourteen years he’s been herding here. There is less bare ground, less "cracks" he called them. The grasses used to be in "patches – here and there", he says, moving his hands from place to place. Now the land is covered, he continues, with a smile, and the rivers run clean – no longer muddy.

"This is the change I have seen," he says.

"This is what I am saying."

Dixson at campsite .jpg

[Dickson cooking dinner at the camp]

Herd walk 2.jpg

[Dickson herding]

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Tomorrow: Day and Night With The Herders

Tomorrow: Day and Night With The Herders

Hi All,

Well, tomorrow’s the big day – 24 hours with the herders. Getting psyched up for it now. It’s a long day (and night).

My one and only worry, of course, and a bit more so this time, is when I need to take a you know what during the evening.

The lion activity has been a bit higher amplitude this season. There have already been several attacks, including one today in broad daylight on communal cattle (not ours). The cattle ran out onto the tar road and where hit by a truck. An ugly seen. Again, these were communal cattle, and the stewardship isn’t as good, but it was on our property right near where the kraal is now. Yes, the communities also graze their cattle on our property, even though they aren’t supposed to, and we just factor it into the plan.

Also, there was an attack in broad daylight on the little goats in the boma, poor things. But again, it’s because the herder had wondered off (in search of another goat). Such is life in the bush.

The truth is lions are petrified of people, but I’ve still been told, in so many words, "do your shitting before it gets dark." That’s harder and harder to do as we get older (he. he.).

Let’s hope you hear from me again.

Peace and love.

– s

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A message from Zimbabwe: regarding McPherson, Savory, Grasslands, Climate, Hope

“Savory’s ideas about employing livestock to fix carbon have been widely and thoroughly debunked by scientists. Using a nonnative species and a source of methane emissions to remove grasses and other plants in the name of carbon sequestration makes no sense.”
– Guy McPherson, Posting to the 350MA list, March 24, 2014.


[Climate activist Seth Itzkan on land in Zimbabwe that was converted from a semi-desert to lush grassland with a full field of deep-rooted perennial plants in only a decade, using Allan Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) approach. Grassland restoration is a paramount strategy for climate change mitigation. The efficacy of the Savory approach is self evident.]

Hi Friends,

I’m writing you from Zimbabwe now, as I think you know. The Internet ranges from poor to nonexistent, especially in the rainy season when cloud cover interferes with the satellite connection.

In order for me to write anything of substance, I need to create it first off line, and then cut and paste when I have a good connection, and if I want to upload a photo, then I need to get a wired connection, and there is only one drop that I can use – which has been setup for me – and only during working hours. This drop runs outside the window of the computer closet and dangles over a table. If I attempt to use it during the high point of the day, I bake in the heat and the glare makes it almost impossible to see the laptop screen. If I attempt to use it later, say between 5 and 7 PM, I am eaten alive by mosquitoes, some of which may carry malaria. I can’t stay after 7pm because then it’s dark and the lions and hyenas come out. Argh.

So, I hope you get a sense of and appreciate the reality here. Even to read the 350MA posts requires me to download a thread and read offline, although occasionally the connection is good and I can read and respond on the spot. Needless to say, this isn’t one of those times!

I also hope you can appreciate the profound feelings I have about the topic of grassland restoration for carbon capture and how every off-handed comment that anyone makes, from someone on this list, to McPherson himself, could easily illicit a lengthy and scholarly reply, which just isn’t possible at this point, and thus a source of frustration. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t change all these hardships for anything in the world. To stand in a grove of climax grassland plants (such as Panicum maximum – that’s roots can be meters deep) under a mopani tree, and on soil that is dark and full of bugs, water, fungus, and organic carbon molecules, in the middle of what was once a semi-desert (and void of carbon), is an experience of such reward, that nothing can detract from it. It is such a palatable vindication of this method, that the dismissive and miscast scattershot that comes from the Internet is so bewildering to me, I sometimes wonder if I and the detractors are on the same planet. I am standing in the evidence of efficacy, and they have their heads buried in studies that don’t even approximate the methods at use here. So, which do you want – the miscast studies, or the reality – grass, soil, bugs, water, carbon captured? Oh, and yes, let’s not forget the dominant players in this transformation, livestock (heaven forbid!), or I as like to call them – ruminants, properly managed according to evolutionary principles to restore the ecological balance on grasslands that was lost through agriculture, improper animal husbandry, and the decimation of the once prodigious herds. Take your pick. Soil or desert? Climate mitigation or climate exasperation?

Below are pictures taken just two days after McPherson’s post to this list, and pictures of the same spot taken in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2013. The land is recovering because the livestock concentration was quadrupled, while the grazing plan was radically changed – from conventional “continuous” grazing (or a few animals here and there), to Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) – many more animals, moving as a group, according to a carefully controlled plan. This second approach mimics the beneficial behavior of wild ruminants herds that has been lost (and is entirely unlike conventional grazing management).


[Pictures show robust biodiversity on restored landscape in Zimbabwe (“Two Tree site”) that was for decades a virtual desert. Restoration occurred through the reintroduction of animals – livestock – managed as a facsimile of wild herds, providing trampling, grazing, and dunging impact essential for arid-area grassland vitality. Photos: Top Row – root systems of perennial Heteropogon contortus, Bottom Left – seed head of climax perennial, Panicum maximum, Bottom Right: ground cover with millipede and fungus. Photos copyright 2014 Seth J. Itzkan.]

Land Restoration in Zimbabwe

Photo credits: ACHM, Seth Itzkan. Composition image copyright 2014 Seth J. Itzkan

[This time-series sequence shows the transformation from a barren landscape in Zimbabwe to a healthy grassland savanna from 2004 to 2013. Average annual rainfall is 600 mm. This is referred to as the “Two Tree” site because of the adjacent two trees in the center background. The land, which had been barren and eroding for decades, is “treated” with a heavy concentration of animals. About 500 cattle are corralled on the site for 7 to 10 evenings, leaving an excessive amount of dung and plant litter. Within one year after the animal treatment, short-rooted annuals start to grow, such as aristita (the white stringy plants – 2005 photo). With the emergence of these plants, the land is thus incorporated into a carefully monitored grazing plan. After only a few years, the annuals and first succession perennials (chloris, urachloa) are densely packed. These provide “ground cover” that helps retain moisture and builds biodiversity in the soil (2006 photo). These annuals and early perennials are a first-phase in the restoration, but their carbon capture will be minimal. After about 8 years, however, deeper-rooted perennials appear (Heteropogon contortus, Panicum maximum, 2013 photo). These accelerate the carbon capture which can continue for decades.]

For those who are interested in the supposed discrediting of Savory, as referred to by McPherson, this miscast is based almost entirely on a single paper by Texas A&M professor David Briske (often recited by Briske himself). This paper, however, has now been discredited, even by a fellow colleague at A&M, Richard Teague. As it turns out, Briske, did not actually do research on HPG, but only compiled studies on “rotational” grazing, and then made a monumental error by claiming those studies were representative of Savory’s HPG. As Teague showed, they were nothing of the kind. Of the studies cited by Briske, not one, repeat, not one, was HPG nor even similar. Almost all were “fixed” grazing regimes and of the few that were “adaptive”, they were so minimally as to be of no consequence. No studies ever integrated continuous monitoring and adaptation for ecological performance, which is a hallmark of HPG. The difference between what HPG is, and what is cited by Briske, is so large, I am bewildered by Briske’s actions and honestly question the intentions.

Fortunately, a new generation of range scientists is emerging who are not dissuaded and can see for themselves the obvious improvement of land where livestock are managed properly and are doing studies that actually assess HPG. They understand that HPG is not a “grazing system”, it is a planning process (which follows an “aide memoir”). The actual grazing plan will thus be different on each ranch (in each season) and will be continuously changing, according to conditions on the ground. This fact, so basic to the concept, is remarkably lost on Briske. Such is the distinction, I am learning, between academics and practitioners.

Those who are interested in the nuances of this “debate” can read more about it on my website, here. If you have any questions about specifics, I am happy to help answer. In the scheme of things, however, this is a side issue among academics (and entrenched activists). For land managers, the efficacy is becoming increasingly clear, and for the shrinking base of detractors, they are just going to have a harder and harder time defending their position, especially when so much is at stake, regarding the environment, our climate, and the welfare of humanity.

Grassland recovery = Climate change mitigation

Much love from Zim!


(in Zimbabwe)

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Poetry and Pictures from Seth in Zimbabwe

Shadows Become People

In the evening, shadows become people.
They mingle by the light in the shed,
then disperse in the forest,
their oblong bodies, hiding behind the leaves.

An embryonic fluid descends on the camp after a warm rain.
The bugs and grass rejoice,
and you can almost hear the soil swallow.

You wouldn’t know the earth has woe.
Can you tell it by the dung beetle
that pushes its nursery uphill?
Or by the hornbill,
that swallows a grasshopper with one gulp?

Desperate Leaves

A healing sound
The patter of rain on desperate leaves
Open like palms – first faint
A whisper, a hint
Then the rhythm
Taps from angels

Still – I can see stars.
And the smoke from my cigar – finds its way
Across the threshold.

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sethitzkan sent you a video: “Climate Hero: Heteropogon contortus”

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Climate Hero: Heteropogon contortus
by sethitzkan
Seth Itzkan at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, discussing the virtues of climate hero Heteropogon contortus (H. contortus) and other deep rooted perennial plants that are now growing in what was previously highly desertified land. Plants like H. contortus have deep roots that sequester carbon and build soil structure and biodiversity. They are an indication of soil and ecosystem health and a welcome sign on what was previously barren, hard carped surfaces. More info at
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sethitzkan sent you a video: “A Handful of Mitigation”

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A Handful of Mitigation
by sethitzkan
Seth Itzkan discussing soil carbon and climate mitigation, at the Africa Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe.
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