Environmental Influences

I hiked September 17 at Dolly Sods National Wilderness Area (approximately 4,000 feet elevation), a couple hours from my six-month West Virginia home. Dolly Sods has been a favorite destination for me since I first sojourned there as a forestry student nearly 50 years ago. In fact, I intend for it to be my final destination, where I want my ashes spread. Please don’t tell the National Forest Service!

I write these reflections six weeks later, October 29, 2017. Our September day proved unseasonably warm — highs in the low 70s, warmer than many summer days of my younger years in West Virginia’s high country. Currently, our Fairmont temperature with drizzle is 40 degrees. At Snowshoe, WV, where conditions are similar to those at Dolly Sods, the temperature is 29 degrees, with snow of 3-4 inches forecast tonight, temperatures falling to the lower twenties, and winds to 35 MPH. At the higher elevations winter comes early, reaches deeply, and extends weeks beyond conditions here more than a half-mile lower.

Exposed trees at Dolly Sods bow to the unyielding forces of wind, ice, and snow. Westerlies above 4,000-feet flag branches to the east, the more exposed, the greater and more pronounced the flagging. Krummholz expresses the most severe flagging. The German Krumm translates to bent, twisted, crooked. Holz is wood. The combined word could not be more descriptive. I’ve seen extreme Krummholz above timberline in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, atop WV’s Spruce Mountain and North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, as well as on Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics, and on the upper reaches of Verstovia above Sitka, Alaska:

Exposed west-facing rim-rocks at Dolly Sods also support pronounced Krummholz spruce. Away from the rim, yet still at ~4,000-feet, the forest is recovering from past logging, followed by extensive and repeated late 19th Century wildfires, and periods of grazing and abandonment. For more than 100 years, Nature has been reclaiming the “sods,” succeeding to mixed stands of hardwoods and spruce. Once established, the forest self-protects as it gains full-stocking and develops a canopy dense enough to force the persistent winds above it. However, those spruce that are emergent (see the one below reaching above the general protective crowns) flag to the east in the buffeting winds.

 

Applicable Lessons for Life and Enterprise

Life’s winds shape us and our enterprises. Every time Union Camp Corporation promoted me to a different job and location, my head emerged above the canopy of protective comfort, practice, and knowledge. My reach time and again (temporarily) extended beyond my grasp. I adjusted to the fresh gales and grew stronger from commitment, hard work, making more than a few mistakes, and learning as a result. Longfellow once said: “The purpose of that apple tree is to grow a little new wood each year. That is what I plan to do.” Isn’t that what life and enterprise seek as well? We learn and grow by dealing with stresses — the shifting winds that force us to react, respond, and adapt.

Although Fairmont State University is my first Interim presidency, my limbs and crown had adapted to these higher education leadership gales as CEO of three prior universities, and reporting to the president at three others before the CEO gigs. I’ve grown a bit of new wood with each such exposure. My roots reach deep into my career and life soil, anchored firmly, drawing nurture from diverse experiences. Elsewhere I’ve dealt with state budget reductions, recalcitrant boards, frustrated faculty, and sagging enrollment. Fairmont State University’s winds are mild and balmy contrasted to some conditions I’ve previously encountered. I view the forecast here as an “adverse weather watch.” Foul weather is not imminent, yet the clouds are on the horizon; the storm could develop and then intensify. Blessedly, we still have time to avoid facing its wrath and, unlike our inability to change our near-Earth weather, we can actually abate the atmospheric circumstances that could otherwise generate the fury. My role as Interim President has been to survey our institutional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in expedited fashion. That is, assess what might be brewing, evaluate our storm-readiness, and take actions to reduce or eliminate the hazards and vulnerabilities. I’ve done so through the lenses of my multiple prior exposures and trials. FSU’s biggest risk? Spiraling enrollment and a pervasive attitude of acceptance of the slide as inevitable. I have raised the alert, rallied the troops, and instituted necessary adjustments. I’ve attempted to illuminate an aspirational vision of a favorable eventuality… one that is within reach.

As I often preach, I have applied my four core verbs. I conducted my SWOT analysis by Looking deeply into the fabric of this institution. Peeking behind the curtains and, when necessary, under the rocks. The act of Looking, in and of itself, accomplishes little — instead, I’ve vowed to See. And to See deeply enough to evoke Feelings of need, empathy, and urgency. Feelings that spur and prompt Action. Look, See, Feel, and Act — my approach for dealing with the issues and circumstances that effect lives and enterprises of all manner and sort. We at FSU will act to disperse the gathering storm. We will act to stop and reverse the enrollment decline. Within my first week of preparation after accepting the Interim assignment, I discovered the looming enrollment storm. Simply by Looking and Seeing with fresh eyes that by late June, I found with dismay that our Fall 2017 enrollment numbers were tracking at 4.7 percent below last year to date. Although others seemed ambivalent, I immediately Felt a sense of crisis and urgency. Too late to affect a Fall 2017 turn-around, we began focusing relentlessly on Spring and Fall 2018 — Acting deliberately, aggressively, and systematically.

I’ve found too many individuals whose limbs and stems have bent with, thus accommodating the ill wind, rather than resisted by becoming stronger. The spruce tree at the rim-rock has no option for surviving. The choice with respect to how we deal with the wind is ours. I will not accept gnarled, twisted branches on the FSU tree. I refuse to stand other than tall, straight, and strong. I decry accepting something less than what we might, should, and will become. Even the Krummholz spruce can sustain itself, producing seed, some of which may germinate in a more protected micro-site. Finding purchase at the rim-rock edge, I suppose, may provide ancillary benefits — but only if spruce appreciate a good view!

 

By turning the enrollment tide, FSU will enjoy the view. Our campus perches 300-feet above Locust Avenue at our southern edge. We have a great view of the Monongahela River Valley. And we (our entire campus community) now have a much clearer picture of what lies ahead. I believe the institution re-believes in itself. Krummholz implies harsh conditions, scant survival, and endless stress. We were sliding in that direction. Potentially a desperate, scraggly, misshapen shrub clinging to life. Instead, we can be a stout tree, reaching for the sky, sending roots deep and wide into fertile soil, and  growing new wood each year.

This University can be a strong oak — but only if we choose to be — and believe in a destiny of hope, promise, potential, and realization. We are at that juncture. Dr. Mirta Martin, President-Select who begins January 1, 2018, will stand strong like the Mighty Oak, and she will lead the way into FSU’s bright future. I am eager to transition to the new day as I pass the mantel of leadership.

I am grateful for the lessons Nature offers for living, learning, serving, and leading. Nature is wise, seasoned, and persistent. Nature’s lessons, most importantly, are time-tested. Smart leaders heed and harness Nature’s wisdom and inspiration.

A New Day’s Dawning

I took this photo from the back deck at Fairmont State University’s President’s residence this morning.

I could not resist sharing it — with little accompanying text. The image speaks for itself. You do not need my feeble words to interpret Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe.

Each day breaks with promise. We choose our attitude; we decide how to live… and to what end and purpose.

May you make your own day bright… and shine your light on others.

Enjoy!

Homecoming Weekend

I’m writing these words on Sunday, the day after our 2017 Homecoming football game. What an incredible way to end my first three months! Allow me to restate some of the reflections I shared from the lectern at four venues, beginning Friday noon.

At the Emeritus Club Induction Luncheon, I expressed my view of the essential role that FSU plays in shaping lives, leaving an indelible mark that extends through life. A few years ago, I was driving east to an early fall morning meeting in New Hampshire, passing first through dense valley fog, and then climbing into the mountains, slowly ascending through improving visibility. As I entered a sweeping curve to the left, the sun’s orb burning through, back-lighting a fifty-foot dead birch, its skeleton nicely silhouetted. Every branch held scores of geometric orb-weaver spider webs, each fiber bejeweled by countless dew drops, festooning the barren tree. I embraced the sight, aching to snap a photo. Yet the road had no shoulder, and the fog still too thick for me to stop mid-lane.

I thought about the special alignment of conditions that enabled me to see the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that were otherwise hidden within, invisible as I drove back down later that day. That image reminded me that what we do here at FSU is to make sure we provide the special conditions necessary to illuminate and reveal the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lie hidden within each of our students. Our inductees bear witness to our success five decades ago!

I will observe that the Hall of Fame Banquet Friday evening surpassed even my sky-high expectations! The gentlemen representing the 1967 National Champion Football Falcons carry the torch beautifully. I told them that they exemplify the informal, unofficial, reality-inspired FSU mission statement that I have adopted: To inspire, educate, and develop… values based workers, citizens, and leaders… committed to personal integrity, professional ethics, and selfless service. Again, it’s Steve’s interpretation of what FSU does oh so well!

Saturday morning, I helped welcome and greet the nearly 100 Falcon Family Association participants. Because only a staff member or two had heard my orb weaver tale, I related it again, telling parents and family members that they, too, are part of the equation for assuring the right conditions for discovering what lies hidden within! As an old forester, I do indeed believe that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in, or is powerfully inspired by Nature. I say to you, my readers, never forget my love of Nature and my appreciation for the rich and fulfilling environment of North-Central West Virginia, and everywhere I have resided (and visited)!

I focused my few opening remarks for the FSU Alumni Award Winners Saturday brunch on my already deep sense of attachment to this special institution. I mentioned seeing why folks are rooted here. What brings them back. How this college/university on the hill nurtures; guides; inspires; serves as a rock. A rock that anchors them, their vocation, their service, their spirit, and their life. I reminded them that the Fighting Falcon Spirit is soaring high; reaching deep; and linking the past to the present… and on to the future.

I urged all to take time today and every day… to pause; breathe deeply; feast with their eyes; feel with their heart; sharpen and refresh their  memories; and heed the call of Fairmont State University beckoning… again, and again, and again!

I’m reminded of Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon:

“It’s the great big broad land way up yonder.

It’s the forests where silence has lease,

It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”

May all of us carry The Spell of the Fighting Falcons with us forevermore! Service includes a line, “Oh God! How I’m stuck on it all.”

And I am!

Homecoming Parade

Early Signs of Seasonal Shift

As I draft this, it’s only the fourth of September, yet signs are appearing that fall is advancing. I walked the FSU campus this morning, observing evidence. The fire-bush at the base of my hill is signaling change:

 

An ornamental red maple likewise:

Whether viewing Nature’s seasonal rhythms or observing the enterprise we lead, always be alert for signs and signals of change. Some indicate harmless patterns. Others signal danger and proclaim issues that require attention, vigilance, and action. Know the difference, and respond accordingly.

I recall my first end-of-August in Fairbanks, Alaska. The summer had been dry compared to my Eastern temperate climate frame of reference. I learned later that Fairbanks summers are typically that dry. I attributed the yellowing aspen and white birch to drought. Two weeks later, hillsides of aspen and birch were a bright yellow — full fall coloration, which is normal for the second week of September. By the third week, the first snow fell. By early October, the winter snow pack began to build. The 65-degree-north latitude shoulder seasons are abbreviated. Winter arrives early, digs deep, and remains firmly in place through much of April. I should have done my homework. I should have anticipated. I do better now when in new places.

We should all prepare with fore-knowledge relevant to our lives, vocations, and avocations. Nature prepares unfailingly. The birch and aspen knew it was time to act as August waned. They had already translocated their nutrients from expiring leaves to their roots when the first freeze hit. As leaders, we cannot afford to be caught unaware when predictable adversity strikes. Nature’s lessons instruct that we follow her lead. Birch and aspen practices are hard-wired. Some of ours are as well, yet many lessons applicable to living, learning, serving, and leading we must derive from evidence available to us in books, manuals, and experience. Other people have previously made and recorded mistakes we must avoid. We learn from Nature and from those who have erred, as it seems, so we need not repeat.

Anticipate the seasons of your life and enterprise. Protect your essential nutrients from freezes, literal and symbolic. Nature teaches; we learn… and prosper.

Featured Image: Dogwood (Cornus Florida) already with red berries and leaves approaching fall color.

How Wonderful to be Centrally Isolated!

Here at Fairmont, I write a weekly column for the Times West Virginian newspaper. I offer perspective from my Interim Presidency, and frequently weave a Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading thread into the fabric. The essay/column below will appear sometime in September.

Judy and I drove to Cranberry, PA Labor Day Friday to visit our son and his family (three grands!), leaving campus here at 3:30PM. Routine wait-time at Fairmont intersections, a little traffic through Morgantown, WV, then gridlock from Canonsburg, PA north. I suppose time-of-day and holiday flow combined to clog I-79. Our leisurely (but not at all relaxing) 15 mph pace, predictable for a metropolitan area (Pittsburgh MSMA, 2017) home to 2.36 million, reminded me that we are blessed in The Friendly City to be so centrally isolated – my Fairmont descriptor, which I’ll explain.

We’re within 100 miles of Pittsburgh and its airport, shopping, entertainment, professional sports franchises, Three Rivers, and globally recognized identity as a recovered and now emergent city. A little more than three hours from Columbus, OH; under four hours to our Nation’s Capital; a bit over two hours to our state capital. Central, yes — but isolated?

You bet, and that’s a good thing! Isolated from persistent gridlock, stagnant city air, Presidential motorcades (D.C.), game day traffic, and the constant cacophony of life among the masses. Sure, we have our issues, but to a far lesser extent. Deeper, natural isolation is within easy reach. The nearby rails-to-trails; Prickett’s Fort; Valley Falls; rivers rich with fish, escape, and beauty! A little further and you’re in absolute eastern USA grandeur – my heaven-on-Earth, Dolly Sods and the high plateau region above 4,000 feet! Isolated is a wonderful attribute. Over the years, business has taken me to Los Angeles – try seeking isolation there. Forgetta-bout-it! You can have the Santa Monica Freeway. Give me our lovely Connector – from the Interstate to downtown, three minutes of splendor.

And think about our Interstate – what a Godsend to have it and its hi-tech corridor at our doorstep! The strength of a booming light industrial and technological sector right here in our rural midst. Add in our Harrison County neighbors and we have tremendous potential for increasing economic vibrancy and quality-of-life vitality. Oh yes, don’t forget our incredible higher education attributes – FSU and Pierpont – here to feed and fuel the corridor, our Friendly City, and the region!

Again, Fairmont and environs are blessed. Perhaps it takes a short-term visitor to see the obvious. I have come to conclude generally, and in every place I’ve resided, that far too few people even look, much less see what lies around us. We are blinded by familiarity; dulled by our digital devices; and distracted by routine. Fresh eyes and my imposed urgency to make a difference here at FSU force me to look, see, and feel deeply, prompting me to act – on behalf of FSU… and the community we inhabit.

My big question: are we at FSU capitalizing on what I view as strategic comparative advantages? Do we adequately incorporate these attributes into our image, brand, and identity? Are we even seeing, much less capitalizing on, the possibilities? Not when I arrived. Instead, we bemoaned declining WV high school demographics, reduced State support of higher education, and our trailing WV economic stature. I’ve said repeatedly, shed that self-fulfilling mindset. Rise above it.

Ride the wave spurred by our special advantages. Build those positives into our identity. Forge powerful reciprocal partnerships with our robust business and industry neighbors along the corridor. Attract students from outside West Virginia, the region, and the US. Jettison the lethargy of an institution staking its future on Charleston alone. Don’t await the cavalry arriving from Kanawha County to save us – it does not exist, nor will it. Our fate is in our own hands.

I intend to pass the baton to FSU’s next President, having charted a course forward, upward, and onward. We (FSU and our region) are positioned for advance… and for sustainable success. I am grateful for the chance to play some small role in securing the future.

The column ends there. I had no trouble adopting it to my Great Blue Heron Blog theme of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. My Interim Presidency is, in every sense, an extension of my work at Great Blue Heron. I am applying my GBH trade and model to an annual $45 million-dollar enterprise. This trial is proving wildly successful. Employing my ecosystem approach to enterprise management is working beautifully.

After my FSU term, what follows? Another interim gig in higher education, at an NGO, a business? Perhaps a series of contracts to write Forestland Legacy Stories? Maybe a third book — a compendium of these GBH Posts? This Interim Presidency has buoyed my look to what lies ahead.

I am having the time of my life — lifting a university of 4,000 future citizens, 30,000 alumni, and a major cog in the regional economy! Operating from an environmental base that aligns with my heritage… and my destiny. Life is Good!

 

Featured Image: Fog envelops the Monongahela River Valley several hundred feet below and south of campus. September 4, the cooler mornings with associated fog portends autumn.

Stasis Does Not Exist in Nature; Nothing is Permanent

I carved out Sunday afternoon time to visit nearby Valley Falls State Park, August 6. The Tygart River Falls, flush with abundant July Rains, provided a great setting to begin and end my four miles through the more-than-century-old second growth forest.

The Park’s 1,145-acres once supported a community dependent upon the site’s lumber and grist mill, first operated in 1827, and now long-since consumed by dis-use, decay, fire, and flood. Little direct evidence remains. The forest is even-aged, naturally regenerated following extensive, and perhaps multiple clear-cuttings supplying original-growth logs to the mill and then fuel-wood for residential use. I saw nary a stump, evidencing both the long period of time since the last cuttings in the late 19th or early 20th Century and that no cutting has occurred in the current stand. I saw more than a few trees in the three- to four-feet diameter range.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This red oak approaches four-feet diameter at breast height (in forestry terms DBH: diameter breast height, or 4.5 feet above ground level). Many trees beyond are 12-20″ DBH.

The photo below demonstrates that what otherwise might appear to be a maturing forest in stasis is, in fact, a dynamic ecosystem. The trees occupying the stand are competing aggressively for finite site resources: light, soil, moisture, and space, among others. When new growth first began claiming the clear cut forest, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of stems per acre fought fiercely. An eastern deciduous forest rule of thumb is that stand development results in two-percent annual mortality. Causes include disease, insects, inadequate light, wind, lightning, beaver, and many others. The feature-photo red oaks, both about two-feet DBH, wind up-rooted one, striking the crown of the other domino-style as it fell, snapping the second at ground level, in a strong straight-line burst, likely during a thunderstorm. The two 90-100-foot stems lie within two degrees of parallel. So much for stasis in a dynamic forest. Because nature truly does abhor a vacuum, seedlings will soon fill the sunlit forest floor under the large canopy opening.

Wind is not the only agent of change. Most mortality is more subtle, inexorable. This 10″ DBH hickory could not keep apace with its neighbors, slowly losing prime access to light and other essential resources… weakening, unable to fend off the unrelenting forces of insect, disease, and poor resource consumption. The saprophytic fungal fruiting bodies are a sign of death, not an agent of demise. Their parent mycelia are feasting on the vertical cellulose buffet. In time, the hickory will yield to gravity, returning its remaining lignin to the forest floor, from where successor trees will once again take it vertical. Again, nothing in nature is permanent.

 

This dead, until-recently-standing red oak (18″ DBH) has crossed the strength threshold for balancing the above ground mass. An adjacent crown has temporarily halted its slip to full horizontal. Gravity always prevails, and this stem, too, will soon fall to the ground, where it will decay into the soil and, as all living matter does, recycle once more into the living. The forest tells many tales. A four-mile hike can spin a century of life… and death, for those able to read its language. For those who look, see, feel, and interpret.

This old sentinel probably predates the even-aged stand. Its large girth and course crown (mostly dropped) evidences that it grew open for some time, perhaps shading an early residence along the road that is now the trail. Maybe it provided some welcome shade at a concentration area where laborers placed wood on skids for transport to the mill or community. If only it could relate its story. Had I dallied longer at this milepost along my own route, I might have read more from the land. My journey was quick; the forest’s sojourn covers well over a century. Note the human nature touch on the adjacent beech tree. I did not notice the carving of initials and date until I viewed the photo at home. I walked alone; perhaps a couple had passed hand-in-hand, and left the mark of their feelings?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even this healthy, full-crowned, dominant yellow poplar shows a scar or two. These now-healing wood pecker excavations have left a physical mark, opened a court to fungal invasion, and may one day lead to stem failure. Why this tree? Why here along this stem? What tasty morsel attracted the pileated woodpecker? I show it here only as evidence that nothing in nature is static — not even for this magnificent yellow poplar, reaching 110 feet above its 36″ DBH trunk. I also include it here because it evokes an image of that brilliant soldier of the forest pounding for insects on a late spring morning, resounding and echoing across the wooded hills, perhaps reaching the river below.

I ended my hike back at the river, above the old mill race. These waters will still flow long after that poplar returns to the forest floor, decays, and is recycled through ten thousand more such forest fauna and flora. Nature is restless and relentless. Her lessons are persistent and powerful.

I conclude a powerful lesson from my hike: nothing about your business, enterprise, or life is permanent. Don’t count on anything to remain at stasis. Change is inexorable, occasionally predictable, sometimes not. Gravity and the passage of time are certain and reliable; little else is. To the extent you are able and willing, open your eyes to the world around you, and learn from it.

Drawing this post to closure, I offer two relevant observations applicable to the work of Great Blue Heron, LLC:

  1. I am taking the equivalent of a hiking tour of Fairmont State University, where I am a month-and-a-half into my six-month interim presidency. I am reading from the historic and present landscape its story of people, potential, place, and promise… and translating what I see, through a set of generated feelings and deep experiences, to recommendations for action and implementation. GBH can do the same for your enterprise or organization.
  2. My four-mile Valley Falls hike yielded a micro Forestland Legacy Story. Just think what we might develop from a full day or two on your property, weaving Nature’s tale with the threads of your ownership into a fabric rich with sentiment, memories, family, and nature. A story that, like the waters of the Tygart River, will flow into the distant future, touching descendants centuries hence.

 

Featured Photo: Everything is static… without the passage of time; stasis does not exist in Nature!

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Nature’s Triumph and Tragedy on Big Blue Lake: April 21, 2017

We had watched the Canada Goose pair along our near-east shore for more than a month. First, they began frequenting the stretch of shoreline, seeming to stake claim. One of the two aggressively chased away intruders. Next, they scratched and prepared a nest 2-3 feet from water’s edge. April 7, we saw the female at dawn sitting on the nest. The male sat remote from the nest, 150 feet south.

Pity the hapless male (we think he showed aggression only to other males) who wandered within the zone he intended to protect. He would honk angrily (it seemed angry to us – his actions demonstrated fierceness), launch horizontally and on occasion leap upon the interloper. He would, when possible, grasp the offending bird’s tail with his beak, and attempt pulling that bird under water. In all cases that we witnessed, the other bird’s primary action was flight (as in flight or fight). Not once did we see the trespassing culprit stand up to the fury. Even when the male dunked the other, that bird managed to emerge and escape, apparently unscathed.

When the angry bird pursued in the water, he displayed his pique with hoarse honking and head extended, neck parallel to and just inches above the water, appearing snake-like. Others quickly surmised that this guy was serious.

Something Amiss

We knew immediately at first light two weeks after the female began nest-sitting, that something was not right. The pair sat together where the male had steadfastly stood guard. I observed to Judy, “Something is wrong. They look sad.” As we gained light, I looked at the nest through binoculars. Sure enough, egg shells and feathers marked the nest vicinity. The two stayed close through the next couple of days, she remained stationary that entire first day. The second day, she walked with a pronounced limp, but seemed otherwise okay. She had obviously suffered some injury in defending the clutch.

What predator? The overnight possibilities include coyote, skunk, raccoon, and snapping turtle. The coyotes have not been emboldened enough to venture into the open parts of our neighborhood, preferring to stick to adjoining woods and fields. Nor have I seen raccoons, yet I imagine they are nearby. I have detected skunk scent, but have not seen one near our lake. However, we’ve frequently seen two big snappers on our end of the lake; fifteen inches in diameter or more with large heads. Big enough to handle a goose. Stealthy enough to ease from the water and do his work before the goose could alarm the gander. I’m sticking with the turtle attribution.

April 21, 2017 – both a sad day for our goose neighbors, and a day of celebration for a mallard pair. We had not spotted their nest nor witnessed any courtship or family planning and preparation. Within an hour of spotting our forlorn goose pair, we saw a female mallard emerging from water grasses along the west shore, with a string of tiny ducklings trailing… and papa following behind. Even with the binoculars I could not make a head count, guessing at least ten. Within a couple of days, our next-door neighbors made a confirmed count of 13. As the mallard family approached the heart-sick goose couple, we ached for their loss. What did they feel? We can only speculate. They certainly projected a sense of loss.

As I write this essay, the ducklings are in their sixth week, 70 percent of mama’s size. The count has been steady at ten for the past month. Three lost to who knows what end – predation, illness, poor swimming? They are more than halfway to fledging. They run remarkably fast when, while they forage under our feeders, one of us emerges and mama urges a dash to the water. We’ve seen her signal alarm as they swim in tight formation. Their response is immediate, furiously paddling and flapping their still miniature wings. Again, surprisingly rapid.

Now back to the goose pair. The female stopped limping within a week. Even during her period of hobbling, she could fly.  To our dismay, the male did not cease his aggressive territoriality and now phantom-nest protection. The couple stays in the vicinity of his nesting guard post. Any male who happens near bears the brunt of the gosling-denied gander’s residual fury. He hasn’t missed a beat, still maniacally attacking interlopers – always just one of a pair – we suppose the male. How long will he persist in guarding and protecting? He seems somehow comfortable as the Big Blue Lake Bully.

Another goose pair, who nested on the southwest shore, fared better. Mom and her five goslings presented themselves at our feeders May 4, two weeks after the fateful night. Those five are now quite large, visiting occasionally. Other nesting birds grace our meager one-third acre. Two shrub willows shore-side on our lot sport new red wing blackbird nests. A kill deer couple is incubating four eggs just fifteen feet from our patio, perched on a mounded bed where we planted a fringed-leaf Japanese maple mid-spring. They chastise us every time we venture their way. They treat us to frequent broken-wing diversionary displays!

Lakeside life for us is quite rewarding, offering surprises day after day. Most are pleasant, despite the occasional setback, including the goose egg predation. Yet Nature is like that, as is life and vocation generally. No individual or enterprise operates with only tail winds and smooth sailing. Breezes shift, gales rise, and ill winds blow. We should take heed that Nature prepares for contingencies. There is a reason that just one killdeer pair tends four eggs, and will likely follow with another brood this summer. That two geese are raising five goslings and a mallard couple starting with thirteen ducklings, now tends ten adolescents (they remind me of awkward teenagers). Nature instructs us to consider risks, understand the potential consequences, and prepare for head winds and undercurrents.

Also, and this point is paramount, Nature affords far more than lessons and truths. Nature INSPIRES, via both triumph and tragedy – if only we remain alert to what Nature reveals. I eagerly anticipate a gift of revelation, beauty, awe, magic, and wonder every time we walk out the door into our very suburban and undeniably domesticated yard sitting above Big Blue Lake. Life’s journey has immersed me in all levels of wildness, from Denali National Park to the Sipsey Wilderness on Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. Two other of my favorites places that generate absolute Natural exhilaration are the Tetons and West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness. All four places reside within memory’s reach, available upon command. Big Blue Lake lies within literal reach. It, too, is rich with Nature.

I urge my clients and readers to develop memories, but to not reside entirely in those recalled mental images and stored sensations. Find sources of Nature’s inspiration within physical and temporal reach. Touch the world around you… nearby; find comfort and solace at-hand. Commit to fulfilling your obligation to steward this One Earth upon which you and humanity are totally dependent.

I’ve quoted Louis Bromfield (from his book, Pleasant Valley) repeatedly in my writing and speaking: “The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”

Change your life, your enterprise, and some small corner of this Earth for the better… by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.

Featured Image: Our two grieving parents.

Final Tribute to Mom

PREFACE

Great Blue Heron, LLC is both vocation and avocation for me, a soon-to-be-66-year-old forester, naturalist, and semi-retired university president. I write these blogs from the heart, especially this one. If you are averse to sentimentality, deep emotion, spirituality, and remarkable lessons from nature and family, stop now. If you have (or had) a mother and she, in large or small part, shaped who you are, then you may care to continue reading. Note: The photo is me at age six with Mom and Dad.

The Blog: My Final Tribute to Mom (April 18, 2017)

Mom passed peacefully yesterday pre-dawn as she slept, just five hours after Easter. We had said our goodbyes, mine moist with tears, just two weeks earlier. I handed her the essay below the last day of our visit.

The Essay: Steve’s Tribute to Mom; April 4, 2017

After Mom heard my eulogies for Dad and for Judy’s Mom, she asked me to write hers – not upon her death, but then. She wanted to read it, rather than have me reserve it for her eventual memorial service. I took that as her positive reaction to what I had said in remembrance of Dad and Zola. Flattering as her request may have been, however, I refused to write hers in advance, not wanting to implicitly sanction some kind of premature release – a jinx. What if I wrote it and something happened to her? I did not want culpability for Mom’s premature passing!

Time has advanced. As I write these words, Mom is in a nursing/rehabilitation center at age 92. She is tired (exhausted), hurting, and ill, yet she is spiritually at peace. She says emphatically that she is ready (perhaps eager) for release – to her ultimate Home. Just moments ago, she mentioned awaiting the chariot, “coming for to carry me home.” Tomorrow (4/5), Judy and I fly back to northern Alabama. I feel compelled now to write what she requested more than two decades ago. Not yet a eulogy – but certainly the makings of one.

April 3, 2017, Mom visited my business web site, Great Blue Heron, LLC (stevejonesGBH.com), named for my Dad’s totem, his talisman. She asked me, “How did you become so interested in Nature?” Someone entered her Dawnview Center room before I could answer. My response would have been:

You and Dad spoon-fed nature enthusiasm into me. No, it was more like you pumped nature into me via an IV – a direct injection.

You began by introducing me, through grandma Jacobs, to flowering plants – annuals like petunias, marigolds, snap dragons, four-o’clocks, cleome, and other old favorites. We collected seeds, sowed them in spring, nurtured the plantlets, and transplanted them outside. We watched the magic of germination, elongation, growth, and eventual flowering. We continued through the cycle to seed collection, and preparation for yet another growing season.

You gave me plant kits – the kind where we just punched holes in the plastic cover; added water; positioned the tray on a sunny window-sill; watched the seeds sprout; and again, transplanted after danger of last frost.

You both treated us to Sunday drives; picnics; camping; exposing me to Nature. Your efforts may not have consciously aimed to sculpt a naturalist – but still, you sowed the seeds. And you provided fertile soil; bright sunlight; room to grow; encouragement. Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor pursuits defined my early years – and all the years since. Nature courses through my veins — and it will until my final heartbeat. You and Dad are responsible, whether your motives were intentional or not. Your love and your nurturing (and naturing) have made all the difference.

Nature is a thread that weaves through the fabric of my life. Nature is a big part of who I am. Nature is core to my heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit. You and Dad spun my life’s Nature thread from the fibers of nourishing life experiences — rich with flowers, trees, forests, creeks, ponds, hills, mountains… and love.

When I see a great blue heron, I view it as Dad paying a visit; expressing approval; saying hello; keeping in touch.

That is what I would have said — and that is what I will now share with her in writing. I just inquired, “Mom, what is your favorite bird and why?”

She replied, “Either the robin or the gold finch.” “The robin because of his royal bearing and proud brown/red breast.” I can see Mom’s mind at work – the robin’s purposeful running or hopping across the lawn, ear cocked for worm noise, always ready to pounce… and extract a juicy meal. “The gold finch because of his bright color, but mostly due to his intensity of business.” I imagined Mom’s deep admiration of its rapid flittering hither and yon… and back and forth with deliberate purpose — and with seeming passion for its mission.

The great blue heron will always symbolize Dad — who will live on in my heart and in the image of the magnificent water-side predator. From this day forward, Mom will be both the robin and the gold finch — and she will live in my heart — long beyond her years. I take great comfort that Mom will live on in me, and through me to our kids… and theirs… and hence.

Robert Louis Stevenson spoke to the beauty, magic, and spirit of touching the future: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.” To Mom I offer the following words of tribute:

You and Dad sowed seeds that sprouted and now flourish as my internal tree of life, which yields enriched living, learning, wisdom, truth, and love. Far too many citizens today are blind to the beauty, awe, magic, wonder, and power of nature. You have blessed me with 20/20 vision

I say now, to you and Dad, thank you for giving me life; for motivating me to look; for encouraging me to see; for enabling me to understand; for helping me to truly appreciate nature’s power, wisdom, and inspiration.

The great blue heron has flown free for 22 years, since Dad’s 1995 passing. My dearest mother, may the robin and gold finch likewise feel flight’s freedom and glorious heights… when the chariot comes for to carry you Home. Please take my deep love and lasting appreciation with you to what lies ahead in your Spiritual journey. May you, like Dad, “slip the surly bonds of Earth, and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings… put out your hand, and touch the face of God.”

That is the essay I handed to Mom, and which she read in my presence. Blessedly, Mom’s chariot arrived for her yesterday morning. She had slipped more deeply each day into her passage, the transition from this physical world. During our final phone “conversation” Easter late afternoon, she was already somewhere else, “speaking” rapidly words we could not follow. Words we believe were not intended for us. We think she did not hear our voices through the phone line.

During our visit two weeks ago, she occasionally communicated with those already passed. She spoke once of Dad pulling her toward him by her arm. She wanted to yield… to join him. By Easter Sunday, Mom often enjoyed “conversations” with her siblings (all preceded her in death) and her parents.

This morning we watched two robins forage in our perennial beds – the first time that we’ve seen more than one here. Twenty minutes later, as a shower approached from the southwest, our resident great blue heron flew from east to west just fifty feet above the lake along our shoreline. He could not have flown nearer. I’m sure he glanced our way. Shortly after, the rain poured, nourishing all that is alive and flourishing.

I feel a great sense of relief, peace, and calm. Mom and Dad have signaled that all is well. Joy fills my heart… my soul… my spirit. They both have a Home in Glory Land – that outshines the sun!

Nature’s Inspiration at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge inspires living, learning, serving, and leading. Accustomed to living places where local birds spend winter far to our south, we are pleased now that some choose to join us for the cold months. The Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association (http://www.friendsofwheelerrefuge.org/) April quarterly newsletter reported that Wheeler provided winter habitat for 19,000 sandhill cranes December through February. We visited often, marveling at their beauty in-flight and on-ground, enjoying the symphony of their joined voices, and feeling their spirit rise within us.

The cranes left Wheeler before the end of February. All is relatively quiet there now and will remain so until the they begin to return mid-November.

Their lessons for me are simple and powerful:
1. Understand and flow with the seasons of your life and vocation
2. Bloom where you are planted – whether the summer tundra of northern Canada or winter along the Tennessee River here locally
3. Find reason to joyously sing and frolic (at least in your heart, soul, and spirit)
4. Share common purpose
5. Make the most of wherever life (or the seasons) takes you
6. Each of us is part of a grand design; know it and embrace it

Only a few of my neighbors know about Wheeler; even fewer have visited. Although the cranes wintering here is a gift from God (enabled by the intrepid conservationists who helped envision and create the Refuge), far too many people are ignorant of the annual three-month miracle along the Tennessee river.

A January day at Wheeler (photo) instructs us to truly open our eyes – to actually look, see, feel, and act on behalf of our future. Nature’s inspiration is a powerful force… an elixir, a tonic that can soothe and lift. Nature’s wisdom runs deep, tested across the eons. Too many of us, tragically, are blind to Nature’s magic, wonder, awe, and beauty.

Nearly none of us recognize that we are integral to Nature’s ebbs, flows, patterns, and processes. We are all subject to the seasons of life. We can all learn from the way sandhill cranes flourish across conditions, time, and geography.

Great Blue Heron, LLC (stevejonesGBH.com) helps open eyes to Nature’s wisdom and inspiration, and apply Nature’s lessons to our lives and enterprises.

A Natural Impetus for International Education

As CEO, Great Blue Heron, LLC (stevejonesgbh.com), I am a founding Advisory Council Member, Edu-Alliance North America. Edu-Alliance Co-Founder Dean Hoke posted that the “Council just completed our first Member Retreat in Orlando. Thanks to Kenneth Salomon, Judyth Wier, Jay Noren, Steve Jones, Roger Brown, Allen Meadors, and Nancy Kathryn Hoke. Outstanding ideas & participation from everyone. We have a strong commitment to improving international education in the United States.”

What a pleasure to meet with like-minded professionals, experienced in international education. And what a joy to slip south more deeply into spring’s inexorable advance.

I am so pleased that Great Blue Heron can participate in this venture to improve international education in the western hemisphere. You might wonder about the connection between Nature-Inspired Learning & Leading and international education. The explanation is simple – allow me.

Our Earth is an isolated mote of dust in the vast darkness of space. We orbit an insignificant star on a spiral arm of the Milky Way, one of some 100 billion stars in our home galaxy. At the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), travel to the center of the Milky Way would take 25-30,000 years! Astronomers now estimate that ours is among two trillion such galaxies in the universe. Every single aspect of life and living on Earth is intimately interconnected; nothing is truly isolated on our tiny planet. Nature and Human Nature intersect in all dimensions of our fragile global community. So, whether education, politics, economic development, trade, health, or social issues, all is global. Edu-Alliance recognizes our planetary reality and is committed to improving our social, economic, and environmental well-being and human sustainability through education. We believe we are fulfilling a fundamental imperative for the common future good.

Edu-Alliance has a three-year performance track record, improving international education in the Middle-East and Northern Africa. What better time than now, with a new US Administration in-place, for introducing Edu-Alliance to North America. Our intent as a core Advisory Council is to help education administrators, governmental entities, industry, and the NGO community navigate the international education arena during this period of absolute need and transition.

Nature handles transitions from the basis of a few billion years of evolved wisdom, a little ongoing trial and error, and the basic laws of physics. Nature instructs that perturbations constitute the norm. Nature and Human Nature have handled far more serious “disturbances” than this election emplacing a new Administration unfamiliar with the ways of “doing things in Washington.” I view the situation as more an opportunity than a threat to higher education. Let’s advantage the moment to make things better – it is Nature’s way to seize opportunity. Our country, as has Nature across the vast sweep of time, optimizes in response to change. We in the US have invested 250 years in improving America by attracting and welcoming the world’s best and brightest, those entrants seeking asylum, opportunity, and an education in our Homeland. Likewise, our American students are strengthened by access to opportunities abroad to learn, work, and visit.

I am convinced that the new Administration seeks that as well. Edu-Alliance (and Great Blue Heron, LLC) can assist achieving those ends through initiatives in furtherance of international education. It is only Natural that we help find advantage in the moment. An informed, educated global citizenry is part of our collective solution to Earth Stewardship and global sustainability!