Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Spirit of the Thing I

Early In 2010 a number of North American native plant devotees gathered at the North Carolina State Arboretum in Asheville to spend some time considering the native vegetation of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  I was asked to open the gathering with a reflection on the reason for our gathering.

I’ve been reflecting.

I’m old enough to do that now, you know…to reflect.

When you’re young they won’t let you reflect. You have to do, not reflect.  If you’re reflecting they think you’re lazy.  I never could get my parents to understand that. “Tom get up and mow that lawn,” my father would say. “But Dad, I’m reflecting.”  For some reason he didn’t buy it.

When you get older, you have to reflect because they won’t let you do.

But I’ve out-foxed ‘em because I not only still do, I reflect on my doing and on the doing of others.

And today I’m going to share some of those reflections.

As some of you know, I’m a biologist with specialization in ecology and a career in natural resource management and conservation biology. I’ve also been fortunate in doing additional graduate academic work and fieldwork in aspects of the humanities and social science. Because of my transdisciplinary background, my reflections often center on the life that we share this Earth with and on the ways in which we perceive that sharing.

My ecological training draws me to think about things in terms of connections…for example, how do plants and animals relate to and interact with each other and with the nonliving environment? That, by the way, is the basic question of ecology…that question of interaction…of connections…of interdependence.  Every species, our own included, is linked, directly or indirectly, with a multitude of others in a community of plants and animals and, genetically…with all life on Earth since the beginning.

What are some of these connections? How does some of this interdependence work out? Well…the plants that we are here to celebrate today …provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for other organisms. On the other hand, many plants depend upon animals for help in reproduction. Insects pollinate flowers and animals spread seeds and provide nutrients from their bodily wastes. Some species have become so adapted to each other that neither could survive well, if at all, without the other.
But the interaction of living organisms does not take place on a passive environmental stage. Ecosystems are shaped by the nonliving environment of land and water—solar radiation, rainfall, mineral concentrations, temperature, and topography. The world contains a wide diversity of these physical conditions that, in turn create a wide variety of environments: freshwater and oceanic, desert, grassland, tundra, and these beautiful forests and mountains that surround us with their rock outcrops, bogs, heaths, their cove forests and dozens and dozens of other habitats and communities.

(Continued in the next post.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Journey into Mediation

No life is linear and I’ve had the opportunity to take several side trips during my own professional life.  One of those was into mediation.  This work started as a workplace dispute practitioner for the federal agency employing me.  Following retirement from the federal government, I expanded on those skills with substantial additional training and conducted hundreds of mediations in several levels of civil court in North Carolina and Georgia. 
I’m sure that my mediation training and skills have carried over and into the natural resource management work in conservation biology I continue to this day.  Although much mediation is routine, a matter of process as one works through the steps toward resolution, other cases are uniquely interesting.  I remember a court case that was never referred to mediation.  I had the opportunity to watch it in court while waiting for a mediation assignment. I call this…
The Pig that ‘twern’t” and Other Cultural Considerations
“It twern’t no pig,” repeated the elderly man sitting at the table inside the rail. The testimony had gone on for some time before the judge raised his hand signaling for a pause. Everyone in the courtroom could tell he was thinking about the issue of the pig that ‘twern’t.” Finally, looking at the elderly couple with a smile on his face, he said “It wasn’t a pig?” “No suh,” they said in unison, “It twern’t no pig.” The judge nodded “If it wasn't a pig…” “It twern’t no…” “I know. I know,” he waved them silent. “If it wasn’t a pig, was it a hog?” A sigh swept across the onlookers in the courtroom and several nodded their heads sagaciously and repeated, quietly and thoughtfully to each other, “A hog, it was a hog…not a pig.”
In case you think this vignette is pure fiction, let me remind you that mediation is inevitably conducted within the framework of a specific cultural context that possesses its own unique features.  It is important that mediator identify the context and its features, because keeping the appropriate cultural context in mind will usually lead to greater success in producing reliable and lasting agreements.  In a country as large, complex and diverse as the United States, this cannot be emphasized enough.  Knowing the differences between a pig and a hog can be very important.
During this same period, I had an experience as a biologist that speaks to the role of pride in mediation and in life in general.  I call this…
I Have My Pride
I was asked by a neighbor to identify a plant and to tell him if it might be harmful to other trees on his property.  I made the identification and left a message on my neighbor’s answering machine explaining that the plant in question was harmless.  As it turned out, my neighbor’s wife was the one to retrieve the message. She passed it on with a chuckle because she had also told her husband that the plant was harmless.  It had, in fact, become an issue between them.  The phone call I got from my neighbor was eye-opening and unpleasant.  Using the message machine rather than taking him aside for a personal chat had damaged his pride. In addition, he had been told by his “Diddy” that the plant was harmful.  I have found that, in the rural parts of the nation, information passed from father to son is often considered sacred.

(This material is abstracted from Baugh, T. and J. Wood.  2003. The pig that twern’t.  ACResolution.  Fall 2003:37-39.)