Category Archives: Connection

Holistic Management 5: Ecosystem Processes

After defining the whole we want to manage and our holistic context, and recognizing the necessity of planning for failure, the next part of holistic management planning is looking at ecosystem processes and the tools we use to manage them.

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Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.

Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.

Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.

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This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.

We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.

Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.

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Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.

Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.

Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.

This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.

Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.

At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?

Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.

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There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.

If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.

If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.

If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.

At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.

To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.

As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needs and choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?

This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic, nonlinear, and both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.

We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.

Going with the flow — acknowledging ecosystem processes. My daily crime.

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Holistic Management 4: Planning for Failure

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Any management plan must build in the possibility of failure and reversals at every step. Allan Savory emphasizes this throughout his book, Holistic Management. No matter how carefully we define our whole and holistic context, we will always miss something and/or be ignorant of something. The only certainty in life is that it will be uncertain, at least at times. Holistic management planning is not about perfection, and it’s not a destination. It’s a dynamic practice that remains both focused and resilient.

For me, that includes planning for fatigue and discouragement, and this week in particular I’ve been reminded of that.

We’ve experienced a series of financial hits over the last six months. At the same time, I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up extra hours at work, which gives me a little more income. However, working more hours means I have less time to write and be present in my personal and private life. The pandemic ebbs, at least for the moment, but still threatens and limits us. The nation’s political stress seems to go on and on, in the headlines, on social media, and in the community.

Much of the work I do for my holistic management planning is invisible to anyone but me. The SEO and support work behind the scenes for this blog, continuing to publish weekly posts, working on my books, and continuing my search for the right editor, agent, and/or publisher are actions I take doggedly; they rarely result in any discernible (to me) effect, except an occasional rejection – and that’s when I have any response at all!

None of this produces any income … yet.

I frequently wonder what it’s all for, why the writing matters so much to me, and if this is the way I’ll spend the rest of my life.

I heard this week that an author and teacher I’ve followed for years has lymphoma. She’s been an inspiration to me, and when I heard the news I wanted to sit down and cry. My reaction made me realize how important a person we’ve never met can be, especially those we view as successes in the ways we want to succeed.

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The news also reminded me that life is always changing. No matter how stuck we feel and invisible change can be, it’s there, moving us forward inch by inch.

Forward to where? I ask myself, disheartened.

Who knows? Just forward.

I won’t always feel the way I do today. Fatigue and discouragement ebb and flow, along with everything else. I’ve lived long enough to be sure of that. Savory’s approach to management planning makes sense to me for many reasons, but planning for failure is one of the biggest.

C.S. Lewis said, “Failures, repeated failures are fingerposts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

The fact is, life is full of failure, and the gift of failure is learning. We make a choice and take an action. Things happen in response to our action. We say, well, that happened, and decide whether we like or dislike the consequences. Some choices that seemed like a great idea at the time wind up in the What Was I Thinking File of Shame. We make adjustments, make different choices, try to figure out a new approach.

When I’m feeling less blah I might even reframe rejections and this feeling of trying to lift a mountain I have no hope of moving as successes.

Not today, though. Today I’m just tired and discouraged. I’m not living a holistically managed life. The only progress I seem to be making is backward. Financially, I can’t seem to move out of reaction to proaction.

During times like these, what I hang onto is the fact that giving up is the final failure. If I stop working toward what I want, I’ll never get there. Trying to achieve goals and dreams is always going to feel like this at times. Delays and reversals are part of the process and need to be figured into our plans.

All those rejections? Part of the plan.

All those financial setbacks? Part of the plan.

This week’s post? Part of the plan.

All these sticky, messy feelings? Part of the plan.

Mistakes and failures? Part of the plan.

My daily crime.

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Holistic Management 3: Holistic Context

This week I’m moving on with a holistic business writing plan, based on Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. See the first posts here and here.

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Whatever our situation, if we want to change it, we need a map from the place we are now to where we want to be at some future point in time. What this means is we have to move beyond our unhappiness with the way things are now and think about how we’d like them to become.

This point in the process requires a further commitment. We’ve all spent time spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. When I do that, I’m sucking the juice out of my grievances and resentments instead of letting go of the rind and moving forward. Eventually, I get bored with myself, stop focusing on the fact that I don’t like how my life is working, and think about what would work better.

It seems easy, but getting unstuck requires more effort and courage than staying stuck. Stuck is familiar. Getting unstuck means … who knows? Maybe we’ll fail. Maybe things will be required of us that we don’t think we can deliver. Maybe we’ll wind up in an even deeper, muddier, icier ditch than we’re in now. Maybe we resist dreaming (my hand is raised). Maybe we’re quite sure we were born to be stuck, and we’ll betray our family or tribe if we dare to do better than they told us we could.

I have all kinds of reasons for staying stuck. Some I’m conscious of, and some I probably haven’t identified yet. They’re still lurking under the bed somewhere.

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We might decide we don’t want to change things, after all, at least not using this model. It’s too much work. It’s too overwhelming. We can’t see the point in all these “holistic” complications. Taking on life in neat little reductionistic pieces is a lot easier. We don’t want to think about this stuff or ask ourselves hard questions.

I, however, am determined to continue, so my next step is to think about defining my holistic context with a statement of purpose, what quality of life I want, and how I intend my future resource base to look.

A statement of purpose is just that, one statement exactly describing our goal. Obviously, this requires some forward thinking, as opposed to sulking about our present undesirable circumstances.

(I’m reminded of a saying I once heard: If you’re in hell, don’t stop!)

It’s easy to obsess over what’s not working. We’ve probably been doing it for a long time. Thinking about what would work better is kind of a refreshing change, for me, anyway. Coming up with a one-sentence statement of purpose sounds easy, but that’s deceptive. I began with one word: security. I want to build some security for my future.

Great, but what does that mean, exactly? Security is pretty vague. I thought about it, journaled, made notes and lists, and gradually shaped a statement of purpose that felt true.

With that out of the way, I turned to thinking about what quality of life means to me. It means security, to begin with. This feels like a good sign – harmony between my statement of purpose and the quality of life I want to achieve.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

At this point, I can mine my grievances for information. I’d like a roof that doesn’t leak. Check. I’d like a house that isn’t slowly tilting on its cracked foundation, mouseless cupboards, a better floorplan, a lot less stuff. Check, check, check and check.

Of course, I want to be able to afford a more secure place to live. Financial security. I also want to shape a sustainable life, which means investing in less gas and oil (heating fuel) dependency and having a more energy-efficient home, among other things.

Quality of life, however, depends on more than our housing situation. This is a holistic plan; we must look at a wider picture than we’re used to. I need healthy relationships for quality of life. I need to be able to make a meaningful (to me) contribution to others. I need to be creative. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. I need privacy and quiet in which to recharge and write.

I made lots of lists, allowing myself to fantasize without worrying about what I deserve, whether I can afford, and all the rest. The result is a final list of what quality of life means to me, and what I mean by a sustainable life.

Lastly, and this is one of the unique aspects of this framework, is defining what we want our future resource base to look like. We must consider possible present actions through the filter of the future.

For example, if we want to clear land of unwanted plants (called weeds) in order to make a garden, one option is to douse it with weed killer. That might or might not destroy all the weeds in the short term, but it certainly degrades the soil, which will need intensive rehab and reclamation to become healthy and productive again. We’ve just killed our garden.

I’m not managing a ranch or farm, but thinking about the future still applies to me. If I want a future financial resource base that’s healthy and gives me financial security, taking out a big loan to fix our roof is a foolish choice. Not only does it further destabilize my present inadequate financial resources, it locks me into future debt. Fixing the roof would keep the water out, but the rest of the house is no longer sustainable in the long term. Much better to find another way to achieve and invest in a more sustainable housing situation.

Thinking about how the decisions we make now affect the future is one of the biggest weaknesses in how we plan, individually and as businesses. We’re impulsive, we’re impatient, and we’re more concerned with our present challenges and problems and our bottom line than we are with whatever might happen in the future. We clear cut part of our land to pay bills. We poison our dandelions because the neighbors object to them. We pick up leaves in the fall so our yards look neater. All those actions ripple into the future in destructive and unexpected ways, but we rarely stop to weigh the possible or probable consequences.

We’re in permanent reactive mode rather than being proactive and taking time to plan holistically. We set ourselves up for one unexpected problem after another, one unforeseen consequence after another. Our plans and policies fail, and we’re not sure why and don’t know how to fix them.

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These two first steps, defining the whole we want to manage and defining the holistic context, present and future, force us to clarify and focus not only on the problem, but on the tapestry into which the problem is woven. We are not leaping to a solution for a problem we’ve only glimpsed from the corner of our eye.

In other words, we allow ourselves time to correctly define our problem.

This process also gives us a chance to make observations, identify resources, and gather information, which can redefine or erase perceived problems. If we have the good fortune to be responsible for a piece of land, raking, digging, tilling, removing rotting wood, using herbicides and fertilizers, and limiting diversity of plants and insects are not only unnecessarily expensive, they’re actions that will impoverish and degrade our future resource base.

This is what I learned as I struggled with my health. My problem wasn’t autoimmune disease. My problem was my diet. When I fixed that, the autoimmune symptoms disappeared.

Working to define a holistic context as part of management doesn’t satisfy my desire to find and implement a solution NOW. Even as I resent the time I’m giving this process, though, I’m conscious that this is a more complete way to problem solve, a more thoughtful way, a more intelligent way. So I’m holding my horses and taking a step at a time, fascinated, in spite of my impatience, by the elegance of managing my life and goals with this new tool.

What is my holistic context? My daily crime.

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