Bark, Skin and Cedar – The Land as Teacher

Tom GibbonsComplexity, Learning, PresenceLeave a Comment

In just a few days now I will head off with my son to the mid Ontario wilderness.  We will spend a week paddling, portaging, sweating, swimming, being amazed and being bitten by bugs.

But right now I’m writing this blog post and beside me is the book, Bark, Skin and Cedar – Exploring the Canoe in Canadian Experience by James Raffan.  It’s good to have a browse through this book before you head off for a canoe trip.  To be reminded of a history and place that extends into the depths of Canadian past.

To be reminded that for all our perspectives we consider new and unique in today’s world, in many ways we share a journey that has been repeated countless times by those forgotten and gone.

I met Jim in Rankin Inlet, Northwest Territories at the time, now Nunavut.  We were both there to speak at a teacher’s conference, him because of his extensive experience in the north and with experiential education, me because my sister was a teacher up there and a good promoter of her brother…. Different pathways, same place.

Jim was a veteran of the north, having spent lots of time there, on the land, with elders, with himself.  I was there for the first time, a rookie and very excited to experience bits and pieces of the north as a ‘tourist’ might.  Still pretty cool; well actually very cold, as it was February and the night time temperature dropped down to – 45 C on a crystal clear and very long night.

Jim’s talk was about the land as teacher.  I subsequently spent some time with him as he helped me take this perspective into a leadership learning initiative that took place near where I will be in a few days.

Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are until a long time later.

Fast forward about 15 years or so and look into some of the work being done in complexity science as applied to organizations and you will see it focusing on what we can learn from nature.  No doubt we can.  Yet quite often that focus moves in 2 ways.  One, an idealized, almost romantic perspective of what nature has to teach us.  Nature is always right and we need to go back and reconnect with that rightness.  And two, a perspective that what nature does, can, or should be replicated by us in our organizations.  That we should learn the ‘simple rules’ of birds and all flock in the same direction as our vision.  That we should seek our deeper purpose and we will work together as do bees or termites to create things much greater than any one of us.

I’m not sure if Jim and I ever talked about the specifics of the idea of the land as teacher.  But I do remember thinking that at the heart of his message is that the best way of learning from nature is to be part of it.  To be part of it as a human person and to not forget that you are a human person as part of nature.  I think this perspective applies to how we can learn from things like the complexity sciences.

Let’s not forget that we, as humans and part of nature, have our own uniqueness’s as well.  We have a different consciousness than most of the rest of nature.  We interact in different ways.  The choices we make about our behaviour are different as well.  We ARE nature and unique to it at the same time.

I think the lessons from nature and the lessons from complexity science are best positioned as metaphors.  And that we should be very rigorous in recognizing the differences we have as interactive human persons as we transfer these metaphors back into our very human organizations.

I remember Jim telling me how majestic and wonderful the polar bears are and that he had lots to learn from them when he was able to observe them in the wild.  He also said he always kept a gun nearby too when he was observing them…. just in case.

So while I’m in the wilderness over the next week or so, I’ll do my best to remember that I’m a part of it all and still completely unique at the same time.

Perhaps you can do the same thing as you navigate your organizational wilderness.

Author – Tom

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