A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for? — Robert Browning
I have been fortunate in my careers to be able to learn from some very bright people. Most recently, they include Warren Edwards, Bill Hooke, Claire Rubin, Pat Longstaff and a host of others. I’ve found that I learn at least as much from their questions as their answers. Recently, another very bright lady (I won’t name her, I don’t want to embarrass her; if I did, everyone would ask “And she talks to you??”) was reviewing a description of a model of community resilience I have been working on. The description was couched in terms of shocks and crises, and she asked, “But what about stresses?”
I first met this person at a meeting where she had to endure my parable of the forests and woodmen (see here).
A group of foresters are walking through the dense undergrowth when they reach a clearing where a mighty oak has been uprooted by the wind. Some of them stop to study why that oak fell – the wind speed, the root system, perhaps the soil and so on. Some of them go on to the next clearing where a pine has been struck by lightning, and died and fallen. Again, some of them stop to study why the pine fell. Others go on to another clearing and begin to study how an elm attacked by disease has fallen. While each studies their downed tree in minute detail, all of them bemoan the fact that there are really too few downed trees of the same type that have fallen for the same reason to be able to obtain a general knowledge of why oaks or pines or elms fall due to wind, or lightning or disease.
But they are standing in the midst of a forest in which the trees are each bending to the wind and the other elements and then straightening when the wind or the rain dies down. And the foresters are really most interested in what keeps the trees standing straight and tall, not what makes them fall. So it should be with community recovery and resilience. Resilience does not arise from demonstrated weakness but rather from the exertion of strength. Thus, we need to know and understand the strengths of each community, how those strengths are exerted, and how we can nurture those strengths so that they become even stronger. We must study those still standing, not just those beaten down by the storm.
As I thought of that, I began to realize that my model – though certainly suspect (After all, how well can a chemist understand communities?) – could be useful (at least to me) in developing a deeper understanding of communities and their evolution. The model will be wrong, will be imperfect (Browning’s quote is from a longish poem in which he ruefully recognizes he is cursed with talent: good enough to recognize genius but never quite able to achieve it himself.). As I’ve told many of you, this blog serves as a sort of intellectual scratchpad for collecting and polishing my thoughts. Over the next few posts, I’m going to present the model, explore what it says about communities – their evolution and their resilience, and ask for your criticisms and thoughts arising. The value for me will be that I will learn from your questions and comments; the value for you will be in looking at resilience through a different lens.