Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A few evenings ago I succeeded in traumatizing my children for the second time in less than a week. First we watched a PBS documentary about the latest theories on global warming. By the time my kids are my age, the seas will have risen 25 meters, their Grammy’s house, like the rest of Florida, will be under water, and the resulting dislocation of the hundreds of millions of souls who live less than 50 feet above sea level world-wide will have paralyzed the economic and social structures of our planet.

Then, several nights later, we watched another PBS documentary, this time on the global disappearance of honeybees. No one really knows why, but last year one-third the total population of nature’s “pollinating army” literally disappeared. This phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, is apparently the result of a combination of pesticides, starvation, and disease. What was traumatic was learning that, while most grains (corn, rice and wheat) are wind-pollinated, virtually all fruits and vegetables, including nuts are pollinated by honeybees. As the narrator put it, without bees we might all have to learn how to subsist on gruel.

For my kids, that last comment was the kicker. Having been cast this past summer in a local theater production of “Oliver,” subsisting on gruel was the scariest thing anyone could have said.

By way of comforting my kids, I tried to think of how best to put this information in perspective. I thought about buying the best ten acres of arable land and having fun learning with them how to defend it against all comers during what will surely be a brisk period of Armageddon. But none of us wants to leave Montpelier, and none of us likes guns. Then I thought of ignoring the problem and hoping I die before being held accountable. But where does that leave the kids? Then I thought as a family perhaps we should join some radical “earth first” movement. But that won’t work because life has taught me that radical attempts to “fix” large problems often create newer, more complex ones. Finally, I thought of a very neo-conservative solution and decided to join the American Family Association’s effort to remove all public funding from PBS since they’re the reason my kids are now so miserable. You heard me. Kill the messenger.

Okay, so none of the options was particularly attractive.

In between viewing documentaries one and two, I attended a three-day conference in Burlington sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation on community planning, and among many important sessions and conversations with caring, intelligent people, a desire was expressed to capture the essence of and motivation behind the Community Heart and Soul Planning movement. By the end of the conference a manifesto of sorts had been drafted and was circulated for signature among the 300 plus participants.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Heart and Soul Community Planning reads as follows:

“We the undersigned believe that every community must explore and express what makes it special—its Heart & Soul elements—and with specificity describe those tangible and intangible elements that if lost would fundamentally change the character of their place (emphasis mine). Once articulated and acknowledged, community Heart & Soul serves as the “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for citizens as they make decisions about the future.”

The declaration goes on to lay out several guiding principles for what community Heart and Soul stands for, all of which speak to such things as core values, social capital, and a positive vision for the future.

Now it might sound suspiciously like I am advocating for the radical “earth first” fix. That may, in the end be true. But I prefer to call it what it is…embracing the Heart and Soul movement by taking a page out of the Honeybee Playbook.

Honeybees basically do one thing…and do it well. They collect pollen, return to the hive, drop off their pollen load, do a little dance to communicate where the best pickings are, and return for more pollen. They repeat this cycle many times a day, every day until they die. On the occasions that the hive is attacked (by a bear, say), they throw themselves into the fray with a vengeance until the marauder is driven away—sometimes at the cost of the hive, but usually at the cost of several large honeycombs and a few hundred bees.

The Heart and Soul movement gives us humans a way to model this bee-havior. It requires us (the worker bees) to determine, within our own communities (the hive), what we care about. We do our best to provide for our community (collect pollen); to protect it from its enemies (bears); and to make sure that all that is good (the honey) gets passed on to feed future generations who repeat this cycle. [It should be pointed out—with amusement I hope—that male bees do practically nothing except, when necessary, fertilize the queen. Any socio-political lesson to be learned from this, of course, I leave to the imagination of the reader!]

I certainly have no comforting answer for my children about the global problems facing us in the coming fifty or 100 years. But I can help them, teach them, and set an example for them about how to do what’s best for our own community from within.

I think, ultimately, that is what will be our salvation. Each of us, in our own way, will turn to what we each know to be important within our own communities whether “Community” is defined as a place, a region, or people bound by common practice. We must learn how to place a value on that which is important, nurture it, protect it from external attacks, and by doing so, allow it to survive into the future.

Bees don’t think about global politics. They don’t think about moral issues or economic interdependencies. They basically do one thing, and in doing it, set in motion a chain of events that, among other things, results in the food chain at the top of which we sit. We have to imitate their behavior and bind it to the tenets of Heart and Soul community planning with intention, determination, and integrity. We can do this. We must. One person, one community, one hive at a time.

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