Saturday, February 23, 2008

Living in a "regenerative" way

My apologies for the silence. It's been nearly two weeks since my last post, the one that opened a new "blog duet" with poet and blogger on community Janet Riehl, in which we are considering the balance between outward-aiming work in the world and the inward work necessary to sustain the spirit and energy that outward work draws on. I'm usually pretty good about maintaining that balance, but in the past week, I "spent" all of my outward-aiming work energy on speaking engagements, so blogging just had to wait until I could let the new ideas settle and hear myself think.

Yesterday, Richard and I drove home from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I spoke at the New Mexico Xeriscape Council's 13th national conference on water conservation and sustainable landscape design. Some 400 attendees involved in how we design the landscapes where we live and work gathered to hear a fascinating and inspiring line-up of speakers, beginning with New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, who pointed out that conservation is the cheapest and most effective way to "find" new sources of water. Bingaman quoted US Bureau of Reclamation studies saying every dollar spent on water conservation yields around $5 dollars worth of water that can now be used in other ways -- or just allowed to flow downstream to maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Other highlights of the conference: Natural capitalist Hunter Lovins talked compellingly about the opportunities in environmental challenges, from developing renewable energy sources and carbon cap trading to restoring ecosystems. Her three points of natural capitalism:
1. Buy time with increased energy and water-use efficiency.
2. Reinvent with natural technology after studying how nature - the ultimate sustainable, renewable system - does business.
3. Restore natural systems - healthy ecosystems provide trillions of dollars a year in "services" from cleaning and delivering fresh water to fixing carbon to regular CO2, the most important greenhouse gas.

Gloria Flora talked about how to work within human communities to bring change for the better: Find the common ground and work from there. Think in terms of transformation, not destruction. Peter Warshall gave us the global picture on conservation of water and energy. This nugget particularly struck me: 8 barrels of water are used in locating, recovering and refining every barrel of oil. (Yikes! That's a powerful incentive to consume less oil, whether in driving or choosing foods and clothing not dependent on oil-consumptive pesticides and fertilizers.)

NPR correspondent and "doyenne of dirt" Ketzel Levine took us on a tour of some of the heroic ordinary people working with restoring local plant communities whom she has interviewed in the network's series on global climate change. (Check out Ketzel's fabulous NPR blog, "Talking Plants.") Sculptor Betsy Damon showed us the results of her three decades spent using landscape sculpture to restore rivers and educate people in China about clean, healthy water.

The phrase that sticks in my mind from the conference came from Keith Bowers of Biohabitats, an ecological restoration firm based in Maryland. He talked about "regenerative design," designing landscapes and systems that renew or restore themselves, using the integrity of nature to also meet human needs. I hadn't come across the word before, but it was the perfect lead-in for my talk about how Richard and I stumbled into restoring what we only half-jokingly call our "decaying industrial empire," half a block of blighted property that is now the site of our house and our wildflower-filled yard, our lively organic kitchen garden and the restored block of urban creek that edges our property. (The photo at the top of the post is Indian paintbrush in our front-yard native grassland as it looks now; below is the "before" shot.)

We didn't set out to rescue this place, but once we bought it, there was no other option but to return it - and us - to health. It's been a tough project, and it's given us a lot of joy. (Nor are we finished, but that's the story of life!) Now I know it's been regenerative as well, because in restoring this place, much of its native plant community and some of the animals and insects as well, we've restored our own connection to the landscape where we live.

And that brings me back to the blog duet with Janet Riehl on the subject of keeping one's balance between outward-aiming work and inward-aiming sustenance. It seems to me that regenerative applies here too: if we work to make our lives regenerative, to make sure the rhythms of our days restore our own energy and enthusiasm as well as work to restore the communities around us, if we use nature as our model to keep our balance, surely we'll find the balance that brings us both fulfillment and joy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Finding your balance: outward and inward

I've been talking with poet and blogger Janet Riehl about how to find a balance between an outwardly focused life and an inward one. It's a subject important to us personally, as we find our lives becoming more public and our work more in demand. But recognizing the relationship between connection and stimulation on the one hand and solitude on the other is a crucial issue for all of us. How do we nurture ourselves and still nurture the world? There is no one answer: we all need to find our equilibrium between inward-focused spiritual and emotional work and the outward focus involved in creating new connections and tending existing relationships.

In this ongoing exploration of where the balance lies and how to find it, Janet and I have decided to start what she calls a "blog duet": I'll post my initial thoughts and then turn the virtual mic over to Janet, who will respond, and so on. We hope our back and forth postings will prove inspiring and useful!

I'll start with an admission: I'm an introvert, although I seem extroverted to most people because I've learned that outward-extending behavior. But acting like an extrovert doesn't make me someone who thrives on constant contact. In fact, the question I struggle with is this: If I'm always connected, always tuned to other people, how can I hear my own inner voice? If I'm listening to the other voices around me, I can't listen to the quiet voice of my own creativity, my spirit. I find that especially when I'm traveling for work and have to be "on" all the time in interacting with others, I become exhausted and need the quiet time that being anonymous brings in order to rest, check in with myself, and restore my inner equilibrium.

The other morning, for instance, my husband and I were in the nearest Big City sitting at a neighborhood deli that we've been visiting for nearly three decades, separately and together. We feel at home there because we recognize many of the faces of the regulars. But no one really knows us, or expects more than a smile; the place gives us the comfort of the familiar without the demands of intense connection.

The night before I was the headliner at a fundraising dinner for donors at a university institute. From cocktail hour until when I finished my "charla" sometime past ten (a charla is a "chat" in Spanish, and I use it in the sense of an informal reading and talk about what's in my mind and heart), I worked with a crowd of donors who didn't know that they cared about a relationship to nature and the community of the land. In the end, most of them realized that they did: they were charmed and kept me talking because they hungered for more.

After a "performance" like that, where I and my ideas and beliefs are on stage and in a sense on trial, I seek a place that offers the comfort of community and contact, but allows me my solitude in the midst of the crowd. It's exhilarating to be "on" and the center of attention, to feel your work touching other's hearts, but after it's over, it's like coming down from a sugar rush or a serious dose of caffeine. There's awful thud" when the energy is gone and you just need to curl in on yourself to recover.

For me that means quiet time when I can let the stimulation of other's emotions and thoughts subside, my thoughts clear like a pond going still after a rainstorm stirs it up. I use the image of a storm deliberately: what connection and conversation and the stimulation of being around other humans does is very like what a rainstorm does for a pond: it stirs up the bottom sediments, redistributing nutrients, changing the patterns of habitation and flow, and adding fresh water and nutrients as well as other lives washed.

In very much the same way, interaction with other people stirs up our thoughts and our patterns, adding new insights and data and changing our habits of thought and routine so that we see things in new ways and turn over our accustomed patterns. That's all healthy, if not easy. And finding the quiet time to listen within to both head and heart helps us settle again, lets the water still and clear and the new information and insight be integrated into who we already are.

Over to you now, Janet. . . .

(I'm illustrating this post with a photo I've used before of the full moon rising over the Sangre de Cristo Range blanketed with snow and washed with the last light of the sun. That brief period when the full moon is up and sunlight still illuminates the landscape represents for me the kind of balance I seek in my life, a balance that isn't static, but shifts as conditions shift. I shot that image last month in the next valley south of the one where we live. As with all the words and images in this blog, please ask for permission before using it in any way. Thank you!)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Writing from the couch with my heart outstretched

I'm writing this from my favorite late-in-the-day workspace: the living room couch in front of the woodstove. And before you get the idea that writing is a cushy life involving lying on the couch and eating bon-bons and watching soap operas, let me assure you that there are no bon-bons anywhere in the neighborhood and I'm not watching soap operas (we don't have a television). The couch is just where I go when the day's store of energy is used up, but I haven't finished the day's work. I put my feet up and my computer in my lap, and keep writing.

Sometimes when I'm tired and still wrestling words at this time of night, I wonder if I'm crazy to write for a living. Perhaps. But the truth is, it's the only thing I want to do. I'm reminded of what Ken Washington, Director of Company Development for Minneapolis' renowned Guthrie Theater, said when I asked him for advice for young artists:
If you can do something else, do it. But if you are driven, don't let anyone stop you.
I spent the first decade of my career in field science, studying how ecosystems, the wild, self-sustaining communities made up of plants and animals and their relationships, shape the landscapes we share. I studied sagebrush, one of the West's iconic shrubs, wildfires, and the habitat needs of big animals like grizzly bears. I loved the work: it took me outside, gave me license to explore some of the wildest country in the lower 48 states, and nurtured my bond with the community of the land.

When a health crisis and divorce shattered that life, I moved away from the home I loved and thought I'd start over again in science. Until I found writing and was hooked by the lure of telling stories, whether true or invented. What keeps me at this crazy business after two decades, eleven books and literally hundreds of magazine articles and newspaper and radio commentaries is knowing that what I write is a gift: it could be just the thing to lift someone's spirits, teach them something they didn't know they needed to know, or spark that "ah-hah" moment when suddenly we see the world differently.

Good writing can change minds, nourish spirits, and touch hearts. Good writing can, I believe, change the world, one reader at a time. And there's much in the world I'd like to change, starting with mending our fractured relationship to nature, which I believe has a lot to do with other ills like poverty, war, and violence.

So here I sit on the couch, writing long after my work day should be done. Because - thank you, Ken Washington, for helping me understand this - although I could do other things, I don't want to. My heart is in writing. And to write well, my writing has to come from my heart.

In her song "Goodnight America," sing/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter talks about dreaming with her heart outstretched as if it were her hand. That's a powerful image: it speaks of courage and vulnerability, of being true to one's inner self as well as to the outer world. So here's my new writing goal: to write with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.