Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the Stump for Consensus

Tonight I'm in Atlanta (actually Canton, a northern suburb) amidst a much-needed rain. I'm the house guest of Liz Logan, who aspires to be a professional facilitator and who set up an evening for me to pitch my Mid-Atlantic States two-year facilitation training to East Lake Commons, a cohousing cmty in the southeast quadrant of Atlanta.

We were the featured entertainment for the regular Thursday evening potluck. Interestingly, attendance at the meal was slightly less than those who drifted into the Common House to hear my rap. (Yes, I'm an engaging speaker, but better than food?) For 90 minutes I explained the program and fielded questions. Amazingly, the 20 or so people in the room (out of a total population of about 100—it's a large cohousing cmty) were overwhelmingly curious about the program and favorable to their hosting one of the weekends. The only way I could account for such a positive initial response to the training was that Liz must have done a bang up job while working with the cmty
the last half year to upgrade their facilitation skills. Now they're all geeked about getting trained. Whoopee!

One of the fun things about working with groups is that you never really know what's going to happen. Tonight I got three standout questions:

1. What could the host cmty expect to get out of a weekend given over to 8-9 hours focused on one gnarly topic?

While the answer obviously depends on the complexity of the topic and the cmty's history with it, there is still a generic answer:
a. A complete laying out of the issue, including a full hearing of any upsets connected with the topic. In the process, the overall topic will be subdivided into a handful of key questions, all of which will be articulated.
b. From among the key questions, we'll select one or possibly two to examine thoroughly. (Sometimes a particular question is more urgent, or more appropriate for taking advantage of the opportunity of having outside facilitation.) We'll work these subquestions as far as possible, generally to the point of reaching new agreements and assigning tasks connected with implementation.
c. While we won't have gotten through all the subquestions, they will have been identified and the process by which the first couple were worked can serve as a template for examining the remaining one, thus providing a road map for completing the work.

2. Does it make sense for a senior to participate in the training if they used to facilitate but have given up because memory isn't as good any more (this posed by a 79-year-old woman)?

Yes! Facilitation can usefully be viewed as a bundle of roles, which don't necessarily have to be handled by just one person. (In fact, some process roles shouldn't be handled by the facilitator—such as notetaking or gatekeeping—while other roles can be, such as timekeeping and vibes watching.) For people with diminished capabilities, there can still be important and useful roles. Forexample, an experienced facilitator who has a failing memory may be highly useful in planning mtgs, and helping to articulate the essential nugget of what a speaker has just contributed to the conversation. They might be an excellent scribe, or someone who can help hold the container of caring and curiosity in heavy traffic.

It's my personal view that being active (both physically and mentally) is one the best ways to age gracefully. If you just stop contributing because you're no longer as fully capable as you used to be, everything tends to atrophy in a hurry and you lose the chance to contribute. Communities can—and should—be a great place to create flexibility about aging in place and finding ways for seniors to meaningfully contribute. I'm not talking about pretending that people are contributing when they're not; I'm talking about being creative in how you assemble facilitation teams, so that one person's limitations are complemented by another's strengths.

3. If there are more members wanting to participate in the training than the cmty can afford to subsidize, how should it choose from among the candidates?

I thought of four screens right off the top:
a. Get as wide a variety of styles as possible. That way, when the trained people are facilitating, you'll have the widest possible range of choices in who to use for any given mtg. No one style works for everyone and the cmty will be well served by having a broad range.
b. Take a look at the compatibility of the people selected. They'll need to get along with and support one another if they're going to be an effective team in helping to inculcate cultural changes in the cmty based on what they've learned in the training. [Note: this is not the same thing as asking if people have similar styles of facilitating; this is asking if they get along well and can respect each other.]
c. Give preference to those who can thrive (or at least not get overwhelmed) in an intense learning environment. Being "on" for 28 hours in a 44-hour stretch can be exhausting for some, and that's the way the training weekends operate.
d. Select those who can make a commitment to giving back to the cmty by facilitating mtgs after they've been trained.

• • •
I just love good questions. I can hardly wait to see what the next group comes up with.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Selecting Plenary Facilitators

A couple days ago I wrote about the challenges of drafting plenary agendas. Today I want to discuss the selection of plenary facilitators. My idea is that there should be a standing committee that drafts the agenda for plenaries (see my Jan 25 post for details about this) and then turns it over to a Facilitation Team (another standing cmtee) who will select someone to facilitate that agenda, using the following four screens:

1. Neutrality In the ideal, you want a facilitator who is as content neutral as possible. That is, someone who is not a significant stakeholder on the topics to be discussed, and therefore seen as neutral to those who want certain outcomes (of course, groups members wanting particular outcomes may not get what they want; but you will already be in trouble if participants perceive that the facilitator prefers that the conversation goes in a certain direction).

Note: There is nuance here in that neutrality is more than just the relationship of the facilitator to the topic; it's also the perceived neutrality of the facilitator with respect to the group members expected to have strong opinions about the topic. That is, you may have a person with no particular opinion about the topic yet who is nevertheless a poor choice for facilitator because of strained relations between that person and key stakeholders on that topic.

2. Availability The obvious point here is that they have to be able to attend the meeting. But it's more than that. In addition to being in the room, they have to be able to set aside whatever else is going on their life long enough to give their full attention to running the meeting. A distracted facilitator does not serve the group well. In addition, they have to have enough time to do their homework. For each topic they need to know:
o Who the presenter is.
o What the objective is.
o How to arrange the room so that any audio-visual tools can be used effectively (this may not be needed, but you don't want to be surprised by it).
o What are the likely challenges to having a productive conversation, and from whom are they likely to come (sometimes it's worthwhile to have a conversation or two ahead of time with people known to be passionate and/or upset about a topic).
o What format(s) they want to use, and in what sequence (if there will be more than one).

In general, it takes about twice as long to prepare well for a meeting than it does to have the mtg, so you'll want to assess whether a potential facilitator has the time to adequately prepare.

3. Skill Set Meetings will tend to go better if you select a facilitator whom you think has the skill to manage the kind of challenges you anticipate arising. Typically, challenges fall into two main types: complex and volatile (or both). Unfortunately, the ability to manage complicated or intricate topics is completely different than the ability to handle highly charged topics. A facilitator might be good at one and not at the other, and you want to choose a person whom you think has the chops to handle what you think is coming.

4. Capacity Building The last screen has to do with strategic thinking. You can't use the same person to facilitate every mtg. Not only because they won't be neutral on every topic or available for every mtg, but because your less accomplished facilitators will not improve if they're never given any work. So sometimes it makes sense to not select the person who comes out on top after the first three assessments, because you have other candidates whom you think can do a decent job and you need to invest in the future.

Note: This is altogether different than simply rotating facilitation among all the membership (facilitation roulette) or even rotating it among a pool of people identified as willing facilitators (you do January mtgs, you do February mtgs, you do March... ).

I am advocating the sensitive pairing of particular people with particular needs. Plenary time is precious and you want to do all you can to have excellent and productive mtgs. Careful selection of facilitators should help get you that result.

Finally, there is an important point to make about how the separation of agenda drafting from facilitation selection can help power dynamics in cooperative groups. When combined in one cmtee, this tends to be viewed as a power spot. In addition to there being a greater likelihood of suspicion about the neutrality of the facilitators (if they have been integral to drafting the agenda), you can expect more irritation directed toward this single cmtee. They become a convenient target when things don't go well. If one cmtee drafts the agendas and another is responsible for running the mtgs, it should help diffuse this particular dynamic.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas

I'm in Asheville this weekend, doing a CANBRIDGE series of workshops on cooperative group dynamics. This evening I presented key elements of consensus, and there's a new piece of theory that I've recently added to what I offer on this subject: how the agenda gets drafted for plenaries (meetings of the whole).
Group time is expensive. If you've got 20 in your group, a three-minute statement uses one hour of people time. So you want to minimize confusion about the agenda and make sure that all topics are queued up and ready to go. Here's my best thinking about how to do that:
Create a standing cmtee whose task it is to be the gatekeeper for plenary agendas. Caution #1: the composition of this cmtee may be delicate. It has to be large enough to be widely accessible to the group's membership; it has to be small enough to be able to function expeditiously. I'm think perhaps 3-4 people is the right number (that way, when someone is on vacation or sick, the cmtee can still function well). Caution #2: For this cmtee, don't simply ask for volunteers. The make-up of this group needs to be perceived as fairly balanced, to be well trusted.
Assuming you've selected a good representative group, their job is to vet any and all suggestions for what makes it to the plenary floor. Essentially they'll use three screens to do this. In sequence, they'll test for:

1. Is the topic plenary worthy? The cmtee should be acting on the group's behalf to make sure that all things coming forward are appropriate for whole group attention. That means the group will need to have a conversation about what's worth their time (so that the cmtee will have guidance about what the screen should be—you don't want them just making something up!). Hint: here are my suggestions about the kinds of things that might qualify:

o clarifying cmty values (both in general and how they are to be applied in a specific situation)
o establishing process agreements by which the cmty will operate
o determining mandates for cmtees that serve the plenary (as opposed to mandates for subcmtees, which will be determined by the cmtees they serve)
o relationships for neighbors, other organizations, and government
o changes to the cmty budget (excepting where that authority has been clearly delegated)
o evaluation of cmtees which serve the plenary
o membership process
o establishment of members' rights and responsibilities
o expulsion, or other involuntary changes to a member's rights and responsibilities
o anything for which there is no established cmtee or manager to handle it on behalf of the cmty (once it has been determined to be, in some sense, cmty business).
o court of last resort in cases where internal cmty disputes are not settled through other means

Note that it is not that unusual for some aspects of a topic to be plenary worthy and some aspects not to be. It's the gatekeepers' job to use discernment and help protect the plenary from inappropriate agendas. If something doesn't fit—in the Gatekeepers view—they should suggest where it should go instead (perhaps to a cmtee or manager with sufficient authority to deal with the issue at that level).

2. Is the topic mature enough? Has all the research you might reasonably anticipate being needed been done? Can it be posted sufficiently ahead of the mtg that everyone has a decent chance to look over the background materials? Does the presenter have their schtick together? Is the objective for the plenary focus clear?

3. What is the priority of this topic relative to others that have passed the first two screens? That is, there may be more topcis that are worthya dn mature than can be done in the time available for the next pkenary. Don't try to shoehorn a 3-hour agenda into a 90-minute mtg. Pick what's most important, most urgent, or been waiting the longest, and let the other topics wait for another mtg.

Note that the gatekeepers should not approach their job as the Agenda Police. Rather they should be problem solvers, helping members and cmtees to think creatively about what is a good use of plenary time, and what will help them get their needs met. They are seeking the intersection of the group's needs and those of the people petitioning for time on the plenary floor.
If there's dissatisfaction with the gatekeepers decision, there should be a right of appeal whereby unsuccessful petitioners can get plenary time to make a pitch for why they think their issue should come before the whole group and ovetunr the gatekeepers assessment. Note: this is not an opportunity for an end run to discus the topic; it's a chance to make one last attempt to have cmty support for topci about the issue at a later date. Don't confuse the two.
Once they crafted a draft agenda, the gatekeepers should turn their work over to the Facilitation Team for determining who should run the mtg, in what order topics should appear, and with what format they should be addressed. I'll discuss how the Facilitation Team should approach their work in my next blog.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tiling in the Piedmont

One of the joys of the traveling life is the opportunity to visit friends in the interstices. As most of my work (cmty events, FIC business, or consulting gigs) happen on the weekends, that leaves Mon-Thu free for travel, writing reports, and dropping in on friends. The last four days I've been visiting with Ann Shrader—one of my dearest friends—at her home in Floyd County VA.
I've known Annie since 1969, when we met at a dorm floor party at Carleton College (she was a freshman on 2nd Myers and I was a sophomore on 1st Goodhue). After, as they, "getting together," we eventually wound up together in a group house in Washington DC post-graduation. After that we were part of a four-person group which started Sandhill Farm in 1974. We had a kid together in 1981—Ceilee, who will be 27 on Sunday and a first-time father this coming April. While our lover relationship atrophied and died at about the time Ceilee was born, we remained close and lived together as cmty partners until she left Sandhill in 1999. She departed to get distance from Stan (with whom she'd developed a long-term, loving relationship after me; in '99 they were breaking up and it was too painful to live in the same place).
Now Annie lives 1000 miles away (which has an interesting parallel with my wife, Ma'ikwe, who also lives 1000 miles from me and shares Annie's birthday—what's up with that?), and I look for opportunities to get together with her whenever I have reason to be near Virginia.
I helped Annie buy the house and 2+ acres she's been living on at Left Bank Land Trust since 2002. It's in the piedmont just below Roanoke in the Blue Ridge Mts of southwestern Virginia. As happens, one starts to take a different attitude about housing when you own it, and Annie's been gradually upgrading her digs since getting title to them. Fixing up her bathroom has been right at the top of her Home Improvements List, and I had made a commitment years ago to tile her bathroom floor. The last few days we actually did it.
I love doing home construction projects, but over the last couple decades I've gradually moved away from working with my hands and toward working with my fingers (at a keyboard) and my mouth (facilitating, mediating conflict, and public speaking). All of which is to say my hands are blistered and sore today after custom nibbling tile all day yesterday to fit into non-square corners and around the toilet. But I also have the satisfaction of seeing the finished product, and delivering on a promise—for the rest of her life, Annie will walk on the bathroom floor we did together. It'll be one more reminder of our richly intertwined lives. (Physical reminders of connected lives are important icons, helping us evoke the relationships which sustain us. And unlike most of my current work as a cmty networker and process consultant, with construction projects you can actually tell when something is completed!)
This afternoon I'll drive to Asheville, where I'll have a weekend of consulting, followed by several days of catching up with friends: Jo (my daughter), Susan Patrice, Terry O'Keefe, plus ex-Sandhill members Jess Mund, Michael Penniman, and Jessie Thornwaite. But before I depart, Annie and I will grout the tile, re-hang the bathroom door (now a bit shorter), clean up the tools, and have a batch of homemade waffles.
As I think about it, tiling is a great metaphor for my life, which I piece together one person at a time, fitted into a whole and cemented by social connections. Sure, there are blisters from time to time and occasionally I break a tile in the wrong place, but these things are always reparable if you're willing to pay attention. It's a great life.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Morning After

I'm back.

I've been out of Internet contact the last five days, traveling across country and then working at Shannon Farm over the weekend. They're tucked in a lovely Nelson County valley just east of Rockfish Gap in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mts. While it may come as a surprise to my urban readers, there are still rural pockets that do not have access to DSL, and Shannon Farm is one of them. (In contrast, Sandhill has had DSL for more than five years—even though the local phone company which offers it has the lowest customer to wire mileage ratio in the state of Missouri. Go figure.)

I think of it as an electron diet. Instead of checking email at night, the last few days I've been yakking more and reading (Collapse, by Jared Diamond). Today, I'm with my ex-partner and dear friend Ann Shrader at her cozy bungalow on the Left Bank Land Trust, just outside of Floyd VA. This rural outpost does have DSL, so here I am again.

• • •
The weekend of consulting with Shannon was set up as an exchange for their having hosted FIC 's spring organizational meetings last March. Over the last 10 years we've been frequently able to work out a barter with hosts, whereby the don't charge us for room use—both for housing and mtg space—and we supply them with a couple days worth of process consulting. FIC keeps its costs down and we build a stronger relationship with our host. It works well for everyone.

As part of the deal, I brought an apprentice with me—Sarah Ross from Great Oak, a cohousing community in Ann Arbor. Sarah had participated in a two-year facilitation training I did in Ann Arbor and which concluded this past September. For students who have an interest in facilitating away from home and
want to test the waters for a possible career in facilitating, I'm committed to creating opportunities for that. (Why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who had no track record? It was a struggle for me 20 years ago and now I'm trying to make it a little easier for the next generation of community-oriented process professionals to get their feet wet.)
Shannon set up 11 hours of plenaries, starting Friday evening and running through noon Sunday. The community had selected ahead of time four topics to delve into: consensus, conflict, power & leadership dynamics, and membership issues. I had one preliminary conference call with their Process Committee, which provided some background. (Though I sometimes I do a lot more prep work on the phone, this was fairly typical

I'd arrived at Shannon Thursday evening, which allowed time to recover from traveling 900+ miles to get there and to meet with anyone ahead of the plenaries if they wanted to work on personal concerns or give me face-to-face background on certain issues. Only two people took advantage of this, which was less than usual and less than I was hoping for (but, as a consultant, all you can do is fill the trough with water; you can't make the horses drink).

There are about 60 adults living at Shannon, and half of them came to one or more of the weekend sessions. While that means a lot of members opted out, attendance was somewhat higher than what they get for a typical community meeting, and about average for the participation level I see when consulting with large groups. So the turnout was decent and there was a lot of interest in seeing what could be done to improve the quality of self-governance at Shannon. One the highlights of the weekend for me was how much people hung in there, especially when someone didn't get the focus or outcome they were hoping for from the previous session. Sometimes people were on the spot and uncomfortable with what was said or how they were treated. Yet with few exceptions people came back and did the work of staying open to future possibilities. There was a lot of resilience and caring in the room and that's gold.
Going the other way, there was also a lot of prickliness in the room,and I experienced an unusually low level of patience whenever we had selected a focus or format that was not to someone's liking. Even as some people spoke their appreciation and support for what we were doing, there were always voices ready to counterbalance that with criticism. In 20 years as a process consultant, I don't think I've ever before had the experience of being strongly criticized by at least one person after every session for what had just happened.

To their credit, the last topic we discussed Sunday morning—chosen by popular vote—was what the community can do to understand and turn around (or at least diminish) the adversarial atmosphere in which they do their work. More than one person spoke about how difficult (or even traumatic) it was for them to facilitate community meetings, because of how accepted it is shoot at the facilitator if something is not proceeding as they think best. The dynamic was likened to "facilitating a pack of hungry wolves." So I didn't feel special.

There is a long history in the community (founded in 1974) and there is a string of unresolved hurts that have become deeply embedded negative stories, significantly distorting current conversations and sharply limiting what's possible. These will not be easy to turn around, yet it is possible.
The community's history also includes great successes. Plus, there is considerable awareness of their issues and apparently the motivation to work on them: two ingredients which are absolutely essential to making a lasting change. That gives me great hope.
• • •
Now it is Monday morning. I am no longer at Shannon, and once again experiencing what I style the consultant's schizophrenia. After being fully immersed in Shannon for three days, I've suddenly surfaced back in the rest of my life. I will write my report this week and move on to other things. Shannon will fade from my consciousness. Yet I'll wonder if I've given them enough hope and tools to effect the changes that they want so much. I'll wonder if I'll ever find out.
For those who need to know the end of the story and exactly what impact they are having in the world, I do not recommend process consulting as a career. It's a good thing that I love my work. Otherwise it'd drive me crazy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Tomorrow I head out on the start of a road trip that will last 5+ weeks. I am now "x-departure," which means I'm within 24 hours of leaving and fully focused on prepping for the trip and wrapping up as many loosed ends as possible. I'm trying to squeeze the last bit of advantage out of my resources at home (like access to files and a printer) that I'm about to do without.
I'm on the road half the time, which means I get a lot of practice at prepping for trips. Over the years I've developed routines to help make sure the right things get in the car. I have a particular location in my bedroom where I store items that need to go on the next trip (and a place where I put notes to myself about what to bring, which I review assiduously once I'm x-departure).
I love traveling. I almost always go by train (when Amtrak will get me reasonably close to my destination) or car (when Amtrak can't get the job done or I have a lot to schlepp), and that means I get to see the country, which varies incredibly by region and season. It also protects time for reflection (which I otherwise tend to give away in my busy life), allowing me to let go of what I was just doing and get ready psychically for what's coming up next.
I also love what I do when I travel. Excepting a normal amount of vacation time, most of my trips are for FIC business or process consulting (or both), with the occasional visits with friends and relatives who live near where I have business. While a 5-week trip is on the long side of normal, my itinerary this time is a fairly typical choreography, with a little of everything:

o Jan 16—make sorghum deliveries in St Louis & visit Ella Peregrine in Louisville
o Jan 17-20—process consulting with Shannon Farm in Afton VA
o Jan 21-24—visit ex-Sandhill member Ann Shrader, and Velma Kahn in Floyd County VA
o Jan 25-27—process consulting in Asheville NC
o Jan 28-30—visit with my daughter Jo, Susan Patrice, Terry O'Keefe, and Jess Mund
o Jan 31—present at East Lake Commons Cohousing in Atlanta
o Feb 1—meet with Phil & Doug at Village Media in Summertown TN
o Feb 2-3—FIC Oversight Cmtee meetings at Dunmire Hollow
o Feb 4—turn in my car at home and board the Southwest Chief for Albuquerque
o Feb 5—arrive in Albuquerque
o Feb 6—celebrate with my wife—Ma'ikwe—her 38th birthday
o Feb 7-17—prep for and deliver instruction as part of the faculty for the economic segment of the Ecovillage Design Education course
o Feb 18—date with Marjorie Wholey & Steve Polson
o Feb 19-21—visit my son Ceilee and his gravid wife Tosca (my first grandchild!) in Las Vegas
o Feb 22—take the choo-choo home

What's not to like?
The down side of this lifestyle is that I'm away from home too much. While I love what I do when I travel and understand why it's important that I do it, I miss the connections of home (both people and place) and suffer from the arrhythmia associated with having one's heart beating in so many disconnected places.
There is irony about being devoted to community, yet spending so much time with others talking about it, rather than at home living it. Still, I think the Communities Movement is better served by having administrators who live the life they promote, rather than relying on full-time professionals who used to live in community, or worse, have only visited or read about them. It needs to be alive in your belly. Community as a practice, not just a story.
So, for the next five weeks, I'll be composing posts about what duplicate bridge columnist Zeke Jabbour styles "Tales of the Trail." Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Perambulating the Bounds

Last week, we had one of those magical winter days where the weather was more like late March than early January. In the mid-60s with a gentle wind out of the south. Downright balmy. Weary of sitting at a keyboard, I took advantage of the occasion to go for a walk in the woods.
Sandhill has 135 acres, 60 of which are in trees. As northeast Missouri as a region is only about 10% in trees today, that means we're blessed with 4x the average. It's a lovely mixed hardwood forest. While white oak is the climax tree in our area, we also have significant stands of red oak, black walnut, white ash, elm, black locust, honey locust, silver maple, shagbark hickory, red cedar, cottonwood, and sycamore—plus sprinklings of that many again other species. In short, we're wood rich. Which is great for a community that's trying to focus on self-sufficiency.
For the last 30+ years we've been able to cut from our own land all the wood we use for heating our four residences, all the fuel needed to cook down our sorghum syrup in the fall (which is not minor—in the three weeks of harvest we roar through twice the wood boiling sorghum juice that it takes to keep us toasty all winter), plus the dimensional lumber we use to construct our buildings and make a good bit of our trim, shelving, and cabinets.
Despite all this wood use, we have more lumber on our land today than when we started in 1974, which means we're meeting our goal of harvesting on a sustained yield basis. Thus, when Mark from neighboring Red Earth asked if he could get a dozen 13-foot black locust poles for constructing a barn, we agreed to supply them.
In our climate, black locust makes the best poles if you're going to eschew treated lumber. So it made good sense that Mark was looking for that species, which doesn't grow on Red Earth's property, just three miles away. While not as rot resistant as Osage Orange—called "hedge" around here, because it was originally introduced to the area as a hedgerow planting; locals say a hedge post is so tough it will wear out two holes—black locust naturally grows straight and tall, which hedge does not. So if you want poles, black locust is your choice.
While I don't do as much forestry work as I used to, I still love it and I readily agreed to be the one who oversaw the selection and collection of Mark's poles. For one thing, it gave me a great excuse for the walk through our woods that I took last week.
The beauty of the woods is more subtle in winter, yet the views are clearer with all the foliage gone. The colors are muted, and the normal sounds of birds and insects are conspicuously missing. It is a quiet time of visiting old friends.
Having walked our woods many times, I already knew where the stands of black locust were located. Species tend to clump (there's a reason for the saying that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree) and I know the patterns in the same way that I know that power will be unevenly distributed in a group. Over the course of about two hours, I walked to each stand of locust, observing which trees were big enough (I needed a minimum of six-inch diameter heartwood at the small end), straight enough, and could be extracted with minimal damage to the land and other trees. In addition, I was assessing which were too crowded, which were encroaching onto fields, which had rot or storm damage on upper limbs, and which appeared "unthrifty" (too many branches low on the tree) and ready for harvest. We have perhaps 200 black locusts on our land of harvestable size, so I had choices, and there's a lot to weigh when you aspire to making selective cuttings intelligently.

• • •
But my winter walk through the woods was more than reconnoitering black locusts. I was "perambulating the bounds." I was communing with our land: taking stock, and paying attention to the changes. It was a meditative, reflective walking of the boundaries that has a ritual quality about it. I was looking at all the trees, not just potential poles. I was looking at how the Sandhill Branch—the intermittent stream that runs through our property—was cutting away the banks in its never-ending sinusoidal rhythms. I was noticing how runoff from about 40 acres of our neighbor's fields has virtually silted in the 12-foot deep pond we had constructed 32 years ago (why are they plowing such erodible land?). I was noticing how the die-off of red oaks is continuing. I was admiring how some of the trees we planted as six-inch slips in 1975 are now more than 12 inches in diameter and thriving. I was scouting out which oaks I'd cut in March to yield the 100 three-foot logs I'd want to inoculate with 2 kilos of shiitake spawn (we've been doing this every other year since 1996 and are now self-sufficient in these mushrooms).
The next time I'll walk the land will be in late April, when the wild morels make their shy, brief appearance, poking up through the leaf mold. Then the new green will be rampant and the frogs will be in full chorus. There will be bluebells and spring beauties. Only the mud and the tree trunks will be the same.
They say that the best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer. While I mostly think of walking the land as an aspect of getting one's shit together, I reckon it can also be seen as one of the most pleasurable ways of spreading one's shit around.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Remembering Marcos

I learned yesterday that an old friend, Marcos Canyon, died of a heart attack. I hadn't had contact with him since the early 90s and had lost track of what he was up to. But for a period of five years in the mid-80s, he and I worked closely together as fellow delegates to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). Hearing this sad news brought back a flood of memories...
As I recall, Marcos joined East Wind (
a sister community to Sandhill, it's located in south-central Missouri) in 1983, when he was in his 50s. He retired early from the 9-5 world and decided on a rigorous program of lifestyle experiment for the latter half of his life. East Wind was either the first or second stop on his adventure. His modus operandi was to select some innovative situation that caught his fancy and then fully immerse himself in it for five years. He didn't just want to observe, like a tourist; he wanted to roll up his sleeves and try it out first hand. More than that, he wanted to help. When five years was up, he'd select something else and move on. I've never seen curiosity subjected to such strict discipline.
After East Wind, Marcos devoted his
next half-decade stint to Innisfree, a cmty nestled in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mts and noteworthy for its efforts to create a therapeutic and respectful environment for the developmentally disabled, integrating them into everyday cmty life. Marocs served as their Outreach Director for a time.
(Innisfree is an excellent example of the growing understanding that belonging to a community, all by itself, contributes to health. In essence, humans are herd animals and we crave close connection with our own kind. In isolation—think suburbs—our lives become fragmented and basic health is undermined. The good news is that the damage is largely reversible.)
After Innisfree, I lost track of Marcos on his next rotation.

• • •
Because we were both active FEC delegates, it meant we maintained a regular correspondence—this was back in the days when people wrote letters—and we'd sit at the table together twice a year at the semi-annual assemblies (when the delegates gather to discuss business). His given name was Mark, yet he affected a Latin air; hence Marcos. (Although I never asked him, I always wondered if he was partly moved to select that name in honor of the imaginative child who served as the protagonist in Dr. Suess' first classic, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. He was curious, too.) A careful dresser, Marcos carried himself with erect posture and something of an patrician air (think South American aristocrat). He was not snooty, but precise. He'd occasionally season remarks with bits of Spanish phrases. Whether his actual heritage was Spanish I never knew.
For such people, how they are perceived in public often carries high significance, and one of my cherished memories of Marcos is how he taught me a humbling lesson about the trouble one can get into by failing to take into account that people differ in how they like to be approached. Let me tell that story.
Marcos shouldered more than his share of the FEC workload and was a respected delegate. Because both of us were busy in Federation affairs, our work tended to intersect. Mostly that was good (FEC was, after all, a network of cooperative communities). However, occasionally there would be tension. My style, when I have an issue with what someone has done (or not done) in the context of organizational business, is to bring this up directly at the next business meeting. When this involved an unflattering observation about Marcos, he would bristle, and the exchange would invariable go poorly. To set the stage properly, I mostly admired what Marcos did and was generally careful to make sure that I appreciated the things I liked, so that my comments about his performance were not overly slanted toward the critical. While he acknowledged that the ratio of my observations was overwhelmingly complimentary, he dismissed it with (and I remember the quote because it stung so much at the time): "When I go to the symphony, I only hear the sour notes."
OK, now I was really pissed. Who did he think he was, dismissing me and acting as if his actions were above evaluation? Even at this early point in my nascent career as a process consultant, I was already locked into the idea that in a healthy group all members need to provide each other an accessible avenue for feedback about their behavior as a member of the group. It looked like Marcos was shutting me out and I was getting pretty righteous about how wrong that was.
This pattern persisted for a couple years. Because we were both high functioning, the work was still mostly getting done, but I was doing a slow burn about not being able to bring up with Marcos the occasional problem I had with his choices. Then, one day, we had an unexpected break in our schedule at an FEC assembly and Marcos and I went for a walk. With considerable courage (which I didn't recognize fully until after the fact), he asked why I tended to pick on him at meetings. Huh? Here I thought he was arrogantly ducking responsibility for his actions, and he experienced my attempts to discuss it as disrespectful churlishness! Once the dam had burst, it only took us about five minutes to sort it all out.
I explained my need to be able to comment—sometimes critically—on his choices, and he had no trouble at all agreeing with the legitimacy of that request. In turn, he requested that I raise my concerns in private; he didn't want to have his pants pulled down in front of the whole group. To my chagrin, I realized that I had never asked him how he wanted to be approached. I had just blithely assumed he'd be OK with whatever I preferred. Boy was that stupid. And ineffectual. After that five-minute conversation, we never again had a problem giving each other feedback (I'm not saying we always liked what was said; I'm saying we never again had a problem with how to say it).
It was one of those keep-your-eyes-on-the-prize lessons. The point of feedback is to solve a problem (or at least reduce tension and/or clear up any misunderstandings); it is not to look great or to embarrass your audience. That means paying attention to the need for delivering feedback in the manner most likely to be received constructively by your audience.
It was my dance with Marcos 20 years ago that brought this invaluable lesson home to me. Muchas gracias amigo, and adios.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The $2 Lemon

Last night, Stan made dinner. We had mashed potatoes, black beans, fresh spinach, a variety of condiments… and a lemon. The amazing thing is that everything was homegrown.

     To be sure, Sandhill has a longstanding devotion to growing a high percentage of its own food, and it isn't that rare to have meals whose ingredients were all grown within walking distance of our kitchen. While that's a feat that's generally more easily accomplished during the growing season (when fresh food is abundant), now and then we can pull it off in January, as Stan did last night.
     Let's walk through the menu:
     Having one's own potatoes is not that remarkable. Potatoes are relatively easy to grow in the Midwest and they keep well through the cold months with a modicum of attention to managing ambient moisture and temperature. Most years we're self-sufficient in potatoes year round. No big deal.
Black Beans
     Black beans are bit more challenging. While all kinds of beans grow just fine here—plenty of sun, moisture, and good soil—almost no one in their right mind would attempt to grow them for dry storage in our climate. The problem is too much moisture at harvest. All beans (soybeans being the major exception) tend to set and mature their pods over a period of weeks, not at the same time. This has obvious evolutionary advantages in that there is a much longer stretch of time over which the plant has chances to successfully produce viable seed. But it makes them a bitch to harvest. 
     Ideal culture for producing dry beans is one which has dependable water during the plant's vegetative stage, followed by dependably dry conditions during maturity. You want the early maturing pods to hang around (literally) and wait for the late maturing pods to catch up before you attempt to thresh them. If you cut the beans too soon, the late pods won't be dry enough and the high-moisture beans may spoil the whole crop; if you delay cutting them too long, late rains can mold everything. It's a hold-your-breath-and-pray-for-the-right-weather proposition.
     To manage this on a commercial scale, dry beans are grown in dry climates (think eastern Washington) where you can irrigate the plants when they're young and then turn the water off as the pods start to fill. On the homestead scale, we can finagle the weather by growing beans in small enough batches (maybe 1/4-acre at a time) that we have the option of taking evasive measures if rain threatens the maturing beans in August. We can (and have) gone into the field ahead of the weather, hand cut the plants, piled them loosely on a wagon, and driven the wagon into a barn, where they can air dry at their leisure until they're ready for the combine.
     Now you're probably saying to yourself, "That's a lot of trouble just to grow your own dry beans," and you'd be right. Organic black beans are relatively easy to obtain these days and we're not talking about a lot of money. But we're stubborn and have a lot of pride in our commitment to self-sufficiency at the dinner table.
     This is a hardy green, and with care, we can manage occasional servings of it in the winter. We do it by planting a crop in the fall and then covering it with Reemay (a spun polyester shade cloth that conserves soil temperature and acts as buffer against winds, while permeable to moisture and a good portion of sunlight) once the cold arrives in earnest. It's kind of like a poor man's greenhouse. We keep chard and Brussels sprouts under the same covering and it's a great treat to have fresh greens whenever a winter warm spell supports a burst of harvestable growth under the Reemay.
     Ordinarily, when a person talks about a $2 lemon, it's in the nature of a story about buying a cheap toaster at a flea market, only to find out it doesn't work when you get it home. This story however, goes the other way: it's about a somewhat pricey purchase that may actually turn out to be a bargain—at least according to homestead economics, which deeply discounts one's labor.
     Sandhill is located smack in the middle of the US—growing zone 5. That means we have a prototypical temperate climate: wet springs, hot summers, glorious falls, and cold winters. The works. Lemons don't grow in that climate. However, we love fresh lemons—they're way better than what you get from bottles of reconstituted juice, and three years ago Gigi acquired a small lemon tree that came in a pot. Once the dangers of frost have passed, we position it in the yard, out of the wind. In the fall we lug it back inside, and place it next to a southern window (where it can gaze, perhaps wistfully, at the outdoors and the natural weather that it's more southern cousins are able to bask in year round). 
     After three years, this "tree" is only 18 inches high, growing out of a pot 12 inches deep. Kind of like a citrus mascot. Yet despite its diminutive stature, the darn thing started bearing fruit last year. Real lemons! (And in sharp contrast with ReaLemon.) 
     So far, we've harvested about a dozen lemons and there are about that many again on the tree in various stages of ripeness (I can't look at a tree that small producing fruit without thinking of teenage pregnancies, but what do I know about lemon adolescence). Apparently the going rate on a young potted lemon tree is about $25. That works out to about $2 a lemon so far (if you don't count your labor ferrying the pot around, watering it, and generally loving it up), but the price is dropping. Of course, it'll be a while before we're self-sufficient in lemons, but now we can see how we might get there, and that's exciting for us homesteaders.
     This spring we're going to buy three more.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Global warning?

It's the first Sunday in January. Ordinarily, here in northeast Missouri, cross-country skiing is an option after morning coffee. Well, I've just finished my java and the outside temperature is already north of 50 degrees, merrily on its way to an expected high in the 60s. I saw a confused goose flying northwest—the direction from which the coldest winds ordinarily roar down from Canada. As a rule, January is our coldest month and because we heat with wood it's not unusual to wake up and have to labor a bit to get the indoor temperature that high. What's going on?

     As the snow cover of the last two weeks exits stage south, we are left with a challenge we generally don't have to face sooner than late February or early March: mud. While the balmy weather is easy on the wood supply, it's a complication in other aspects. Mark, from neighboring Red Earth Farms, had just contacted me about felling some black locusts from our property to use as poles for a barn they intend to construct this spring. We've got the trees and ordinarily we'd have made a date this week to harvest them. But you can't do that in the mud (you can cut 'em, but you can't haul 'em). We need the ground to be frozen.
     We're beekeepers, and the hives send out field scouts whenever temps rise above 50. Nature has hard-wired them to think that means it's time to start looking for food. While it must be nice for them to "get out of the house" for a bit, there's really nothing for them to do in January—no nectar and no pollen. But January flights take energy and that means they'll be consuming their precious winter stores of honey that much faster. If it happens too often, we'll have to feed them so that they won't starve before the spring honey flows commence. That's a worry and expense we'd rather not have.
     To be sure, January thaws are a normal part of the local weather cycle, and it's difficult to discern long-term trends in the midst of seasonal swings. Today won't set a record for high temperatures in northeast Missouri, yet it's way above the average high for this time of year, which is around 30 degrees. What constitutes evidence of global warming and what's just normal fluctuation?
     This is Sandhill's 34th winter. That means we've seen a lot of weather. I can recall a Christmas morning that started out at -24 degrees, and multiple days in a row where it didn't get as high as zero. It is definitely less common to see the thermometer dip into negative numbers than it used to be. Some winters it doesn't happen once. (And typically there's hell to pay the next growing season because without the hard cold we don't get good winter kill of grubs and other garden pests.)
     My wife, Ma'ikwe, has plans to be in Daytona Beach the last two weeks of January, and she's really looking forward to the warmer weather she's expecting. I just looked, and the forecast there is for highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s—just a shade cooler than what we currently enjoy here in tropical northeast Missouri. 
     Who knows, maybe this spring we'll plant oranges.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Training one's mind

If you've ever been to downtown Portland OR, you can't miss the big sign atop the Union Station terminal, admonishing all who pass by to: Go By Train. For the most part, it's advice I've heeded.
     As a consultant and cmty networker, I'm on the road about half the time. As often as possible, I choose the choo-choo to get me where I'm going. (It doesn't always work out: sometimes I'm schlepping books for an event, or traveling to locations so remote that our skeletal national rail service can't get me close—but if Amtrak goes out of business for lack of ridership, don't look at me.)
     I love the train because it's slow. At least compared to a plane. It doesn't travel at 35,000 feet (which I don't believe our bodies were designed for) and you have time to finish digesting what you'd been doing and turn your attention to what's on the menu next without fear of dyspepsia. You even have time to look out the window, read a book, or take a nap—agreeable and rejuvenating practices that have mostly been squeezed out or banished to the very edges of modern life. The train protects my reflective time, allowing me room to pick up a thread of thought and see what I can weave with it. (Why do you think they're called trains of thought?)
     Unlike the plane and bus, your psychic space is not as likely to be violated on a train (traveling as a sardine may get you there quicker, but at what cost?). And unlike the car—that icon of modern mobility—on the train you don't have to pay attention to the road; you can even take a stroll, stretch, or get a snack.
     To be sure, not everyone can sleep well on a train, and it can be a mistake setting up appointments within four hours of scheduled arrival times. Yet for all of that, there is no more civilized way to travel.
     Most of Amtrak's rolling stock was constructed in the 80s—before the impact of laptops and cell phones on everyday life had been foreseen. While most cars have been retrofitted with electric plugs at every seat, they still haven't gotten around to updating the electrical accommodations on the double-decker equipment for the long runs to and from the West Coast. This is both a good thing (mercifully, batteries get drained for the cell phones belonging to people with more minutes than sense, and by the second day out you're not nearly is likely to feel trapped inside a phone booth, forced to listen to what your neighbor had for breakfast, or about Aunt Gerturde's bout with sciatica) and a bad thing (even the nimblest among us cannot always secure the one electric plug per car—usually at seat #55—that was installed to facilitate vacuuming but which will also keep a laptop humming productively for those not prone to motion sickness).
     Yesterday I boarded the eastbound Southwest Chief (train #4 if you're keeping score at home) in Albuquerque. While the train snaked through the snow-dusted southern stretches of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and rumbled up to Raton Pass, I dove into a Sara Paretsky novel, did an acrostic, and basked in the afterglow of two weeks of holiday down-time with my wife.
     This morning I awoke at dawn, just as the train eased into Kansas City 10 minutes early. I had time for a brisk walk to a nearby Panera and secure a large coffee with two shots of espresso (I pretty much know where it's possible to get good java at every service stop on Amtrak's system). The temperature was right at zero—welcome back to January in the MIdwest—yet invigorating. Back on board, I ambled forward to the lounge car to nurse my coffee and the last 60 pages of my pot boiler. About 20 minutes after pulling out of KC, I paused to absorb the full effect as we eased across the icy Missouri River. The random display of pale floes against the dark canvas of the brooding water appeared to me as the liquid negative of lichen rosettes on cemetery marble, or the overlapping mold patterns atop a long-neglected carton of cream. From the train, you can get angles on the landscape you can't get any other way.
     Two hours later I was in La Plata, where I disembarked at the refurbished art deco station and Gigi collected me for the hour drive home. Ironically, the Southwest Chief lumbers within a single crow mile of my home, but the nearest stop is 45 miles away. Living in sparsely populated northeast Missouri (in a county with no stop light), we are lucky to have the train service we do, and I don't begrudge the drive. It extends the trip that much more and allows me time to hear the latest news from home, in one leisurely telling.
     Now, about 22 hours from when I boarded in NM,  I am ready to be home.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Starting new communities

Happy New Year!

     It's the start of a new calendar, and my thoughts this holiday are traveling along a parallel track: the start of new cmties. It's among the most important and delicate areas that the Fellowship for Intentional Community operates in. While we're mostly helping people find cmty—and mostly that means a group to join or enhance what they already have—some important fraction of the time we're offering assistance to folks trying to launch a new group.
     I'm currently in dialog with someone (whom I'll call Mr X) who's inspired by the promise of intentional cmties to put together a Trust which will solicit donations of property for the purpose of starting cmties. The concept is that the donor, if they choose, can live in the cmty for the remainder of their life, while the title belongs to the Trust. The donor gets a hefty tax deduction (while they're still alive to use it), plus the chance to live in the bosom of cmty during their sunset years. The Trust (run by Mr X) will decide which forming groups have a sufficiently mature concept to get a lease on the property, and will further monitor cmty activities to see that the group is adhering closely enough to their plans to warrant their leasehold being sustained.
     In my back and forth with Mr X it has come out that he's studied intentional cmties and has spent some time living in them. Based on that, he believes that the main reason that most new cmties fail is because of poor planning (either no business plan or an ill-conceived one) and an inability to hold slackers to accountability. He further finds that consensus (the most common form of decision making in intentional cmties today) is grossly inefficient and hamstrings the streamlined administration that cmties so badly need.
     By having the Trust retain title to the property, he's willing to step in (gently, yet firmly) to insist that the cmty follow through on the commitments it made as a condition of their receiving the leasehold. If they don't toe the line, he's prepared to clear them out and give another group a chance. While I'm sure he doesn't intend to be arbitrary in his assessments, and will give groups which have strayed from the path a reasonable chance to get back on the straight and narrow, in the end he'll hold them accountable. He will be the personification of tough love. 
     For Mr X, the limiting factor on cmty success is decent property and sound financial planning, and there's a lot to be said for his approach. In particular, I agree that some groups fail for want of suitable property that they can afford. I also think that cmties are often poorly planned, and that starting groups can sometimes be shockingly naive about the financial resources it will take to succeed. Further, Mr X is on the money (so to speak) when he identifies accountability as a common cmty stumbling block, and I agree that many groups operate inefficiently using consensus (which is one of the reasons I get steady work as group process consultant).
     For all of that however, I have a very different view than Mr X about where the key log lies in unscrambling the new cmty logjam, and getting them flowing freely down the river of success. While Mr X thinks that cmties are essentially a financial or economic challenge, I think they're principally a social one. People are hungry for cmty because they want more connection and interaction. That leads people to attempt living together in ways that are significantly more intertwined, yet that doesn't man they have the social skills to know how to safely navigate the turbulence they are sure to encounter in such close proximity.
     Both Mr X and I agree that accountability is a serious challenge for many cmties. While he's thinking about inefficiency; Im thinking about poor morale and unresolved tensions. 
     Where Mr X wants to abandon consensus (or at least substantially modify it) in favor of more hierarchy; I think groups need more training in consensus and how to work constructively with conflict.
     I tried to point out to Mr X that for almost all groups I know, they want to control their own destiny and there will be a lot of resistance to embracing a concept where the donor (for as long as they live) or the Trust (under the control of Mr X, as the benevolent overseer) has power over the cmty's fate. He was unpersuaded by my analysis. Mr X believes that there are plenty of people wanting suitable property and willing to accept the limits he's proposing in exchange for access to land. He believes groups will come to appreciate the wisdom of his insistence on developing and adhering to a business plan, rather than chafe at the need to keep someone outside the group satisfied about the appropriateness of cmty choices and activities.
     So here we are. Both Mr X and I (on behalf of FIC) are seriously interested in helping new cmties succeed, and yet we have substantially different ideas about how to pursue it. While it's exciting to meet someone genuinely interested in the same topic (and someone who has clearly put a lot of thought into the issues), It's frustrating to feel that my attempts to offer advice (distilled from 25+ years as cmty networker) are having so little impact on Mr X's thinking!
     In the end though, that's just my ego feeling bruised. The truly good part about all this is that Mr X is fully free to try out his ideas. If, after all, he's more right than I, it'll have been a damn good thing he didn't let me talk him out of his basic concept.
     The essential challenge of consensus (that thing I champion), is learning how to get excited about ideas that are different than your own, to develop curiosity about how someone came to different conclusions on things you both care about deeply. So here's to Mr X—whose different ideas about how to substantially enhance the success rate of new cmties starts are quite different than mine.
     It's a new year, and full of possibilities. Let's see what happens.