Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Tree - and its Journey in Me

A tree once captured my imagination and has never let go. This tree lives in the Arnold Arboretum, an incredible green jewel in Jamaica Plain in the southwest section of Boston. The Arboretum was design by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America. Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Capitol grounds in DC, and more iconic spots than you can shake a stick at. As my cousin - who knows about these things - once said to me, “He da man.”

My wife, Jill, and I discovered this tree one glorious fall morning while escaping from our studies at BU. Roaming the Arboretum’s undulating grounds, we had just crested one hill and were romping down the far slope when we stumbled upon a captivating scene. A massive tree had recently shed its leaves in a perfect golden circle. It was truly a vision - and, almost as if harps were playing, drew us under its branches.

Soon after discovering this spot, a craggy old man in a black cape ambled by. He seemed remarkably introverted, yet he stopped to show us some quinces he had just gathered. He said if you put them in your drawer, they dry out and give off a wonderful fragrance. This guy was like out of a storybook, weaving himself into our adventure. Amazing.

One of the lower branches was very long and thick, and dipped down in the middle - low enough so I could jump up, swing around, and perch on it, just like riding a horse. So I sat up there while Jill twirled around on the ground amidst the brilliant leaves. We took some photos - in black & white - which captured our sense of whimsy in this moment. And I found the tree tag labeled “blue sugar maple.”

Many times, we would return but could never manage to locate our enchanted tree. Despite our numerous visits - and with no map - we still had a hazy understanding of the Arboretum’s layout. We even introduced the place to our kids - when they were old enough to help in seeking the legendary tree and just young enough so they wouldn’t think it was an uncool thing to do. Still no luck - but I was buoyed by the spirit of our quest -  even if the goal remained elusive.

Several years later - after the internet changed everything - I finally saw a map of the Arboretum - online. Clearly, the grounds were organized by tree type - and sure enough, there was a section labeled “Maples.” A spark of hope.

It was December, and I was planning to travel to Boston for a 3-day workshop. Jill came with me, and we drove up from New Jersey a day early to beat the approach of a winter storm. We settled into our B&B as the snow was beginning. And the next morning, all bundled up, we trod through the thickening snow and hopped on the Orange Line of the T.

Visiting the Arboretum is always a joyous occasion in any season, and we had been there in the spring, summer, and fall - but this was a first - exploring the grounds as the snow worked its magic. The map - and my tactic of heading for the maples - did the trick. Before long, we spotted a tree we suspected was “it” - but in such an altered landscape it was hard to be sure. We walked around it several times wondering “it this really the one? Is our old friend still here?” And slowly but surely, it became increasingly clear we had indeed found it - that 34 years later we were reunited with our aged friend, still standing strong. This time, we found a tag dating this tree back to the 1880s, which helped me see our time with the tree in a much broader perspective. How wonderful to think about this grand old icon continuing to grow and thrive through all these years - as we got married, started careers, and raised two kids, now out of college - in still just a fraction of its lifespan.

Looking back, I’ve come to realize my deepening love for the natural world was kindled by the time we spent roaming the Arboretum. This connection has taken me down many paths of sustainability and spirituality in my adulthood, including:

  • promoting greenways for non-motorized travel
  • pursuing more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods
  • studying well-designed and well-used public spaces
  • preserving open space and farmland
  • exploring permaculture and organic farming
  • weaving nature into the urban landscape - including pocket parks and rain gardens
  • walking mindfully through the woods (something
    unheard of when you’re part of a Boy Scout troop!)
  • exploring healing gardens with labyrinths
  • transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy
  • focusing on the shift to green buildings and green infrastructure
  • healing the planet and combating climate disruption
  • understanding the complete interconnectedness of all species with Mother Earth

With all these learnings and explorations, I have evolved into a Spiritual Ecologist. This term just came to me one day when I was trying to describe myself in a short phrase. After Googling it, I found - lo and behold - that this is a real thing - and two of my dearest teachers are listed in the Wikipedia entry: Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy. Somehow, this felt cosmic - but of course it made perfect sense.

Now, from the vantage point of middle age, I see this tree symbolizes something very dear to me. Roaming the Arboretum’s emerald hills awakened a deep connection with and appreciation for nature that had been lying dormant in me for many years. And this tree stands as a centerpiece, an anchor in a journey that continues to unfold.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Manifesto 2013

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
–William H.(Holly) Whyte (1917-1999)


With all the advances in communications around the globe - and even in space - the next frontier is right in our own backyard - in fact, just next door. It’s the neighbors we don’t even know. Maybe we recognize them but don’t know their names or their life circumstances. Maybe we’re nervous about developing a connection because we think we might not like them or their viewpoints.

Yet, like Martin Luther King, I ALSO have a dream. I imagine neighbors in cities and towns building relationships as they get to know one another. Some people may become friends while others may just say “Hi” on the street. But, in my dream, people will at least know who lives on their block. And bonds of trust will take root and grow. With time-tested ways to communicate, we all can get along better and work through our differences. Imagine being able to do that - what a concept!

As the saying goes, "There is much more that connects us than separates us." We are all alive at this time, and the mere fact that we're breathing and our hearts are beating is truly a miracle. And the miracle extends to our being aware of - and open to - the people around us.

Clearly, the sense of community people used to feel is sorely lacking for many. I don't know how long it's been since most people knew their neighbors, but I imagine in earlier societies it was a basic part of people's experience. And somewhere along the line - as our society has become more complex - we lost touch with that part of ourselves.

Margaret Wheatley, founder of The Berkana Institute, author, and an expert in leadership and community building, has said, "Whatever the problem, community is the answer." In her work, she has been "preparing for unknown futures by creating strong and sustainable relationships."

Intentional communities - such as ecovillages and co-housing - where people choose to live in proximity based on common goals or ideals - serve as examples of what life can be like when people feel a strong bond with their neighbors. And while these communities exist in many countries - including the US - they are exceedingly rare. That’s why I’m calling this idea “Community for the Rest of Us” - in the same way the Macintosh was introduced in 1984 as “The Computer for the Rest of Us.”


So how do we create a more connected community? Let’s imagine that for a minute:

Suppose that I now recognize all of the folks on my block. I learned their names and saw their photos using an online application, Nextdoor.com, which has been gaining a foothold across the US. Nextdoor provides a secure bulletin board-type web site, available only to residents within a defined geographic area. Imagine that due to a concerted enrollment effort - including periodic open houses - we’ve reached 100% participation on our block. And we held a block party during the winter to celebrate the achievement!

And how can we foster meaningful conversations - within blocks, neighborhoods, towns, and cities?  

Over the past few decades, a variety of approaches for supporting group dialog have sprouted and have now grown into time-tested tools. Here are some of the names: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and The Art of Hosting. In general, they all have several aspects in common, including:
  • Focus is on a “level playing field” where everyone in the room is encouraged to participate. And all voices need to be heard.
  • Leadership/facilitation roles are distributed within the group.
  • Well-crafted questions are used to spark conversation and focus attention on what matters. We grow in the direction of the questions we ask.
  • Chairs are often in a circle - with breakout groups in smaller circles or around small, round tables.
  • People are encouraged to be fully present, to listen openly and deeply - suspending judgment - and to speak their own truth based on experience.
  • Ideas that surface in small group conversations are “harvested” and shared with the larger group.
  • The wisdom exists within the room - to collectively generate innovative ideas, approaches, and solutions.
I’ve heard many people talk about collaboration, though I’ve rarely seen it in practice within organizations and communities. And now we are facing challenges of such complexity that none of us is smart enough to solve them alone.

In particular, there is a growing awareness of the vast challenges of climate disruption caused by increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. My sense is that more and more people care about this issue and want to contribute - but they don’t know how and/or don’t think what they might do would make a difference. Coming together through collaborative dialogue can help us explore the situation and can empower us to move into constructive actions - individually and together.

So this is my mission: I want to help community groups and associations tap our collective potential by exploring these new modes of group conversation and idea harvesting. And I want to work with town and city governments in leveraging these approaches as they open communications channels with their citizens. 

I see this challenge and opportunity as part of a global awakening that’s happening - on many levels. People are realizing more and more how precious life is - and that being more connected to each other is fundamental to our collective growth.

Mr. Rogers had it right all along: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” We have much to share - tangible and intangible - that can benefit us all.


Call to Action: How You Can Help

What you’ve just read is a starting point for my thinking. And more than just a sideline, I’m seeking to make this pursuit my livelihood. In communities and in organizations of all types (governmental, non-profits, businesses), I aim to foster conversations that matter around engaging questions, and leading to effective actions.

Perhaps you can help in these ways:

  • Let me know what you think of my vision. What questions or ideas do you have to share?
  • Who do you think should know about this vision?
  • Will you suggest people and/or organizations with whom I should connect in my journey?
 Feel free to contact me at robbkushner@gmail.com or 201-349-4481.

About Robb:

I grew up on a suburban block in Maryland, just north of DC. Around us were young families of varying backgrounds. I played with all the kids on the block, and my parents knew nearly all the adults. This seemed like the natural way of things. Then, during my college years in Boston and Cambridge, I found myself living in an apartment building where hardly anyone knew anyone else. “What a strange way to live,” I thought. Being strangers to our neighbors has seemed odd to me ever since.

Another experience during those years in Boston planted a seed that’s been growing in me. I spent time with my future wife exploring the Arnold Arboretum - designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and part of his Emerald Necklace running for seven miles through the city - one of his many enduring gifts to American city life. Through my connection to these stunning landscapes, I began to wake up to the awesome beauty of nature and to our integral part in it. 

Over the years I’ve learned my forte includes turning people onto ideas, places, people, music - and more - that I find interesting. I’m always learning - in many areas - and I’m adept at connecting the dots to grasp the larger picture. In recent years, my affinity with the natural environment has deepened, and I realize more and more how we need to connect with each other and also with the earth in moving toward a sustainable future.

My career has woven the triple threads of learning, technology, and relationship-building. I’ve taught classes covering a wide range of topics and also designed applications to help people learn and share knowledge. In a variety of positions, I’ve developed skills working with others in a collaborative mode. At the Union for Reform Judaism, I learned a lot about strengthening congregations, which are a particular type of community. I’ve also worked to preserve land in New Jersey and promoted greenway development to enable safe walking and biking between and through communities.

I believe the future is bright for us, if we can truly wake up to all the blessings we have and learn how to work together toward common goals.


Feel free to contact me at robbkushner@gmail.com or 201-349-4481.