Monday, March 1, 2010

When Good Intentions Are Not Enough

As I reported in my previous entry, I was working last weekend with The Vale, a well-established community on the southeastern outskirts of Yellow Springs OH. One of the topics I was asked to facilitate was Shared Resources. As you might imagine, in an intentional community this touched many aspects of cooperatively living. Despite the breadth of this topic, it didn't take us long to whittle it down to management of the woods, as that's where the brush fires of ambiguity were burning most brightly.

The community's 40 acres are held in a land trust and the community has a long term lease. Individuals and couples own their own homes and have small leaseholds controlling the land immediately around their houses. The conditions of the lease allow members to use wood grown on the land under certain conditions:

o On the land managed by the community, only dead wood is allowed to be harvested, unless a live tree is so severely damaged that there are no reasonable prospects for recovery (think ice storms or high winds breaking off tops).

o On homeowner leaseholds residents are allowed to cut live wood at their own discretion if the diameter of the tree is less than than 12 inches. Beyond that, they need to get community approval—as in the case where a tree i
s leaning over a roof, or has grown so large as that the canopy shades a garden.

o Under the above conditions, members are allowed to freely harvest wood for firewood, so long as the the wood is used on the property (no selling firewood off site).

o If someone wants to cut a tree into lumber, it's at the discretion of the person who works up the tree and is willing to pay the saw bill.

While there can be complications when the person who harvested the log isn't the same one who's willing to pay to get the boards sawed (who gets to decide the dimensions of the lumber, how it will be dried, and where it will be stored) the main ambiguity we unpacked had to do with who controls the use of the lumber.

In the spirit of generosity, the tradition at The Vale is that lumber cut from trees grown on the land belongs to the group, and many of the homes have portions of their structural members, trim, and decorative pieces that have been lovingly harvested from the land. As the stalwarts of the community have positioned themselves comfortably toward the casual end of the rules/no rules spectrum, the community has developed no agreements about who will decide how lumber will be used if it was cut without a specific purpose in mind. Thus, today there are piles of Vale lumber tucked away in a variety of barns, garages, and sheds awaiting disposition.

When we explored this on Saturday, no one was quite clear what all there was, there was uncertainty about who was managing the piles, and there was no understanding about how someone could get permission to use boards—short of a group meeting to discuss, which everyone readily agreed was would quickly get ridiculous.

One member indicated that
he felt fine with any member taking whatever they needed from the lumber that he had paid to have milled. Others wanted users to compensate for the saw bill. Some members reported that they didn't feel comfortable using any lumber, for fear of inadvertently upsetting someone who might be coveting the particular boards they selected. Talk about getting lost in the woods!

As far as I was concerned, this was good will and informality run amok. Not surprisingly, a system that relied heavily on nuance and tradition was more comfortable for long-term members and more mysterious for the newer folks. Not only that, but the longer-term members were surprised to learn how awkward these subtleties were for everyone else to understand.

The awkward dynamics that led the group to select this as a topic had to do with a second generation member who was insisting on getting clear at the outset about how a recent batch of logs would be cut into lumber, who would pay for it, how much he would be able to substitute labor for dollars, and what portion of the lumber he could claim. Others wanted to proceed in the same informal way that they had in the past and found the insistence on addressing these concerns to be off-putting.

The point of this story is not to cajole groups to move more toward the let's-spell-everything-out end of the rules/no rules spectrum—groups should be free to locate themselves wherever members feel most comfortable in that regard. Rather, it's to absorb two lessons:

A. Unless you screen new members explicitly for their comfort level about rules, you'd be wise to anticipate this kind of tension and the need to navigate it without judgment about the variety you're statistically bound to manifest among individual's proclivities.

B. The more informally a group operates, the greater the investment that will need to be made by established members to integrate the new ones, as there will be little written material to work from and the newbies won't even know what questions to ask (until after they accidentally get it wrong and piss someone off). Expecting the sight-impaired to learn how to cross a room (that they've never seen before) by bumping into walls and stepping on sharp objects is poor technique. It's much better to give them glasses, footwear, a map, and a reliable guide. After all, the objective is that they get safely to the other side of the room, not to demonstrate how tough they are.

If you want members to be have reasonable access to local lumber, spell out a fair way by which that can happen and make sure that new folks understand the process. It doesn't have to be a test of one's forbearance or intuitive insight.

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