The Woodland Garden
I was talking with my brother on a recent car trip and the conversation got around to work. He asked me to try and describe clearly what it is that I do with leaders and leadership teams. We have talked about my work in vague terms many times before but he seemed to think the whole thing a bit of a mystery and wanted some better explanation. It was an interesting invitation-it’s something I find difficult to talk about- and I was quiet for quite a while-because it doesn’t lend itself easily to discursive thinking. As ever, once I got started, I found it really hard to get to what it was exactly that I do with those groups and individuals and it all sounded clumsy. Words came forward like listening, exploration, coaching, enquiry, emergence, but they sounded light weight and they lacked the purpose and meaning I feel when I’m ‘in the work’. I felt troubled and vague.
When he asked me what he would look up in the yellow pages to find me, I laughed out loud. I gave up. ‘I have no idea’. I replied.
The conversation turned to other things and eventually after a time, moved onto the woodland garden that my brother has created in the last couple of years at his home. I asked him to tell me more about it.
The woodland garden had originally been a vegetable garden, surrounded by grass. In the first few years after moving to the house, the veg grew well and the lawn was in pretty good condition. Over the years however, as the environment changed, the productivity of the land fell away year on year and the grass started to get mossy and fell into poor condition. The main reason behind the change was due to the growth of a line of trees in a neighbouring farmer’s field that now threw the area in to shade for much of the day.
We spoke about the moment when it was clear that something needed to happen or could happen-that movement from redundancy to opportunity. In the end it boiled down to a couple of choices; either get the farmer to cut down his trees or adapt the land to the new context. The former option was not viable as this was a new plantation and thus attention turned to the question of adaptation.
It took a while for the potential to become clear but in the end the clue was in the small number of trees that already occupied parts of the land-that were growing well despite the changing conditions. During the winter, the direction became apparent to my brother- it was clear; he could re-invent the space as a woodland garden and bring it to life in a different way.
Over the course of the winter he and his son took long walks in the surrounding woods and collected fallen tree limbs and branches and began to create a pathway through the land, one that snaked and weaved with the contours of the land, creating a pattern that became clearer with time, that took shape, felt solid, felt ‘right.’ With the arrival of spring, the path was complete and at some point he brought in some woodchip to define the pathways clearly-using that specific material because it felt sympathetic to the principles of the developing project. Slowly over several months, he found specific trees that seemed right-that had the right ‘feel’ for the space and the planting began. As we were speaking in the car that afternoon, things were well advanced, the woodland garden was established where the vegetables had been and it was looking really beautiful.
We talked for a while about the relationship between planning and listening, the way the design first made itself known to him, how it occupied a space in his mind that was at once clear and yet emergent, liable and vulnerable to change and adaptation as the eye sought and found possibility in the space. It was, I suggested, a living project defined in the space between the land itself, its inherent limitations and possibilities and his capacity to think laterally and to hold uncertainty in a creative and playful way. It was not something he had considered but he agreed with it. It was a project that wanted to happen and that had its own life force.
We were quiet again for some time after he told the story. I was struck by the joy with which he shared the story; the experience itself was a pleasure-something that I have reflected on since in relationship to questions of purpose and meaning. However, something else fundamentally important happened as I listened. A sense of clarity came to me. After a while I laughed and said,
‘What you just described- that’s what I do in my work with leaders and leadership teams- that was a perfect description.’
‘People talk to me when the vegetable garden has stopped producing vegetables and when the grass has got covered in moss. Conditions have changed. So we sit together and we wait to see what else we could do with the space- what else wants to happen. The analogy is a good one.’
‘Old things must die off in their time and space needs to be made for whatever wants to come forward-the work is to sit very quietly- just like you did and hear what wants to happen-to notice the conditions-then follow what wants to emerge- into existence-in your case a forest garden is what wanted to happen-now its thriving.’ That’s what I do, I said.
We both laughed-it was one of those aha! moments and one i shall not forget. We both understood each other a little bit more that day-we both got what i do as though for the first time. We share a lot in common-for which I am always grateful.
‘One thing though,’ I said, ‘I still have no idea what heading you would give it in the yellow pages!’
‘Three words come to mind’, replied my brother; ‘deep, creative, potential’.
I like that.