Finding companions

It’s mid-summer and the weather is mild, the birdsong sweet, the bushfire season just begun. I’ve been hearing about the thinning of bird populations at Ann Jones’ Off-Track (ABC Radio National) and reading about it in the New York Review of Books (“What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?”). Industrial expansion is eating into the inter-tidal zone where migratory birds feed, and the immediacy of their critique take me back to an old dilemma: How do the few people passionate about any matter (like declining bird populations) keep in touch with and support each other?  I chanced upon the stories I mentioned, above, but how would I find others interested in loss of habitat for migratory birds, or thinning of bird populations? Or how to monitor the thickness of the bird populations in my own locality?

My day job is the social project of taking situations of social concern and learning like crazy. A first step is to find the people who give a damn, and the places they interact, because it’s here, in the interplay between knowledgeable and caring people, that knowledge is held and created. What we know is made in the intersubjective space, and though the myopia of me, me, me obscures this.

The internet was going to connect us to each other. It’s speciality unless adroitly managed, seems to be divergence, not places to converse. Example: I went looking for more on the “Australasian flyway”, the vast route between the poles that Ann Jones is investigating, I put the word ‘Australasian beltway” into Google. Did you know that on January 12, 2015, someone posted a comment on Australia’s Highway 1 as a beltway, a road that encircles a geographic area, noting that this road is the longest beltway in the world.This piece of Oz-trivia was on a site Greater Greater Washington, a website for

“a community of people who want to live and work in communities with sidewalks, bike lanes, and frequent transit; with grocery stores, parks, and plenty of housing choices at attainable prices; that is accessible and welcoming to people of all income levels and backgrounds.”

The posting on the patchwork of Highway 1 spoke of someone with a fine-grained understanding of a macro-level transport phenomena, and I marveled how the web makes space for specialist interests. If I was into the transport infrastructure system of Washington DC, I’d hang about on that website, and see what else that person was saying, and who else was there. Maybe we could talk. Maybe we could meet up.

I’m in the ‘natural resource management’ sector, and the social side of that what’s more, a practitioner of the frail arts of supporting social learning. Where do my people hang out? I try the digital, but each time my net has few pickings. Think lateral, I tell myself, and I’ve ended up the P2P, Commons transition world. NRM people on the social side don’t seem to convene online, and I wonder why. Perhaps we’re each so exhausted from holding our ground in the war of attrition that email has become, that we don’t build other facilities. The Landcare Share Centre, the Victorian Landcare Magazine, the Landcare Gateway, LAL’s Landcare in Focus, the video stories appearing on the websites of CMAs – these are signposts pointing to the creative people in Landcare, but not places to talk.

Yes, the face-to-face is the gold standard, the place where the intersubjective space is most generous and productive. But the fast, light connections of the internet might let us at least find people interested in similar interests, obsessions and questions. Craving lightness, weightlessness, Laurie Anderson’s poignant question – “How do we begin again?” – pushes me back down into the ground. I want to wind down a bit, but as a Baby-Boomer, I feel some responsibility for the last 50 years of destruction. To carry my responsibilities, I need company. How to find it is one of my Questions Without an Easy Answer.

Many people speaking out

Working out the first experiments for CLEA, a network supporting peer learning and mentoring for community environmental action, I have decided that I can’t do it on my own.

Not news to anyone else, but when you’re engaged as a consultant, and have already generated lots of ideas for a project, it’s easy to get carried away assuming that you have to do it on your own – while knowing that you can’t and dreading the grind of doing it on your own!

This project will create a platform for talk between Landcare volunteers and staff about organising, collaborating and influencing. It’s a place to talk about the social side of Landcare, and it’s on the social side of organising local action and forming alliances between players in the NRM space that Landcare excels. The Victorian Landcare Council, which is sponsoring CLEA, wants to add to that mix greater facility in influencing decision makers, specifically politicians and the urban electorate, where Landcare can no longer assume support.

Two people talking at Wimmera small (800x534)

It’s all in the conversations

How to do support such a network? Not by rushing around collecting stories and pumping them out, but by giving those who already speak out in the Landcare community simple tools and a platform for doing so, from many points in the landscape. And alongside the tools for telling your story and expressing your opinion, the tools for building an audience. A gentle nurturing of the community of practice, between the over-committed. It’s all in the conversations – though I can’t say that now without a wince, after Rob Sitch’s “Utopia”.

So I’ve put out a call for help with developing my own digital toolkit, taking myself as a somewhat represesentative sample of such Landcare persons. I need, for example, to ramp up my own mail lists – I’ve been much influenced by Brett de Hoedt’s post on the power of email.

If you want to join in, drop me a line

The Series

This week, I applied for the position of community manager for The School of Life. They want someone to build their online and offline communities, and I’m just the person for the job. That at least was the topic for the 200 word email they asked for, which I worked on Saturday, on and off, then the CV on Sunday, reshaping the email a dozen times as I went. In the end, off it went.

By Tuesday, I had itchy fingers; 200 words allows only so much. I had suggested to The School of Life that the best way to grow their business was to talk to those who are coming through TSOL courses, listen to them, and build support for the next steps those people were taking. I speculated that they’d probably want more time to talk in something like the space of intimate but public inquiry provided in their courses.

What might be possible in the online environment? We’re all over free-for-all forums where idiots rule. We want time with sensible, thoughtful people, but we need a way to check out what others are like, and to venture what’s true for us, without immediately having to converse. And even when I know someone, it’s tedious having discussion as our only option. Why don’t each of us say something, in a condensed way,  then shut up. Why not assemble points of view and experience from like-minded people, to get a sense of how we’re handling challenges common to all of us.

So the series. Post a postcard from your life, on a theme. Set a word limit, encourage visual, video, audio, but again, with limits. Invite past course participants to contribute.

A series, for example, called Taking my time, just the sort of thing someone who had recently taken a TSOL course on “how to balance work and life”, or “how to stay calm” might be thinking about and challenged by. “Describe a moment when you took your time.” In 200 words, images encouraged. Here’s what I might post to such a series:

I was in town for a meeting, then went to lunch for a debrief with our team, and after that, across the road to visit a friend in St Vincent’s Hospital, so by the time the #96 tram came up to Swanston St, I figured I was cutting it too fine for the 3.15 train, and decided not to rush. I got off the tram.

I’d heard about the poetry bookshop in the Nicholson Building from the poet Peter Bakowski, but never been there, and as I’d paid my dues to mammom in a long meeting, I figured an hour off was in order.


It had started raining at some point in the morning. For a spacious minute I stood beside the busker, his attention on the music.

I made it back to the station for the 4.20 to Bendigo, and I have just now pulled from my bag Stephen Dunn’s latest collection “Lines of Defence”. Bone dry observations, hard won determinations:

“….. If weather encroaches, I’ll go
inside, take down a romance from the shelf.
Mostly though, I want nothing that might
require me to want what I can’t have.”

Now imagine if 10 other people, or 20, responded to the same question.

We would get a wider perspective, and more depth to our understanding of the challenge of taking our time. Now imagine a series radiating out from each of TSOL’s courses, or series on matters cutting across different courses. We would start to build a picture of life as it’s being lived now, to put alongside what those philopsphers are saying about how to live.

One other use for a yammer network

Close to the Heart: Stories of Everyday Transformation is the working title of a project being designed by my colleague Moragh Mackay and friends. “Close to the Heart” is my gloss this morning, as I absorb the Riddells fire and our Sunday discussion in the coastal scrub south-west of Wonthaggi.

Close to the heart is about speaking from the heart, as you make your way through changes. Since most things are changing, that might as well read “as you make your way.”

The project’s interest is moments on the trajectory of change: moments where you realise you’re bound by assumptions that restrict you, that you might be able to step beyond; moments where you relax into the chaos and happy accident of events; the moments where you feel the call of what is waiting to emerge and step into it, unprepared. We each find ourselves at our own points on the roller-coaster of change.

In working on our design, I’m considering how digital tools can allow for me and you and us. I’m used to facilitating face-to-face interaction: what evokes and supports these three positions in digital space?  We’re imagining cycles of story-telling and reflection on stories, weaving digital interaction with face-to-face workshopping to carve themes out of the stories gathered, feeding this back into the stir of stories.

I’ve had the astounding (to me at least) observation that a yammer conversation can hold the documentation that provides the living material for reflection and then for the making of artefacts around the themes: film, stills, text and audio that draw together threads and feed this back into the story-telling.

Of course, in the first instance, yammer is a way to building shared understandings and move work along – what I’ve only just seen is how yammer conveniently holds documentation of the inquiry. Another ‘of course’: the value of the documentation depends entirely on the quality of the conversation – its honesty, poetics and precision.

A question for Genevieve Bell, Intel

Driving into town on Monday, end of January, I caught the Sunday Profile on Genevieve Bell, Intel’s anthropologist, on Radio National.  It was great to hear the story of how she left of her trajectory in academia, and took another path. With Intel, she looks at how people live, and what role the tools in their life play, digital and otherwise. She described researching what people have in their cars – I have a clear image of my car with its contents laid out on black plastic, and me explaining how each item got there.

I looked around the web for an email address for Genevieve, without success.On the way, I found video with her at at Intel, with this marvellous observation: “Curiosity is not just about observing things, it’s about being changed by them.”

In the end, not finding an address for her, I sent a request to connect via LinkedIn, and I hope she will find her way to this question: Genevieve: what’s happening with hand-written lists?

I observe that I’m taking to written lists more, not less. My favoured format is an A4 piece of paper folded in four. I can keep several lists on the one piece of paper: things I have to buy next time I’m at the supermarket, and another list for hardware, my to-do list for current work, and my to-do list for around the property. This lasts me for about 5 days, and there’s even room for ideas that come to me when I’m working in the garden, or driving.

I’ve come to feel that my embrace of the written list is because when I write my list, consult my list, cross things off my list, I hold my life in my own hands.

I do this digitally, of course, moving my life around with my fingertips, clinging onto some sense of agency while battered by other people’s ways of organising what’s important. My file manager, my web browser, my email program.  Hard work, all these hard logics.P1090197


As I take out my floppy piece of paper, crowded with notes, and add to it, or cross things off, or check what I remembered in the middle of the night I must do this morning, first thing, I hold my life in my own hands, and the organisation of my life evolves with great flexibility. Then I put my list in my pocket, and get on with it.