Guest blogger, Brian Schwartz, makes two leadership discoveries learning from nature while working with the New York City Restoration Project.
A bit of background
Standing on a Bronx Street muddied and soaked with a cold rain, I glanced at the trees I just planted and caught the sun behind wayward clouds. Feeling the perfect synergy between physical exhaustion and mental contentment, I was compelled to share two simple lessons I have gleaned from spending my days tending the natural in the great city called New York.
The wild has always called to me since my first solo adventures into the Pennsylvania woods. I have been blessed to live nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and among the gentleness of Green Mountain Summers. The last several years the unexpected happened, I fell deeply in love and moved to New Jersey to live with my fiancée.
Discovering a bleak job market I spent time volunteering for a Buddhist non-profit and searched for that perfect job befitting my MBA in Sustainability and my Master’s in Buddhist Studies. As winter moved to spring I read about an opportunity to perform a six month AmeriCorps’ term of service with the New York Restoration Project.
Guided by the motivation “to ensure that every New York City resident, family and neighborhood has access to vibrant, green spaces”, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) is engaged in restoring underserved parks, creating community gardens from vacant lots, and educating the citizens of New York about their city’s environmental sustainability.
I was excited about the prospect of spending time outdoors restoring and revitalizing green havens in the urban jungle where people could sit and sense the wonder of the natural. Suffice to say I am benefiting from my term of service and want to share two lessons I have learned from planting trees that can nourish our understanding of leadership and personal growth.
Lesson One: Need for Rootedness
A tree, like a human being, grows its roots located to place. Nestled by soil the roots become accustomed to a certain pressure, a certain atmosphere of feeling. When transplanting a tree it is essential to honor this by packing soil around the roots. If the soil is packed either too tightly or too loosely, the roots will go into shock and lose the vitality needed to assist the tree in its growth.
There is a stunning simplicity to a tree’s need for a certain density of soil, and so too for us humans. When rushed from home, to car, to office, to bustling market places, and the millions other physical, emotionally, and mental spaces we must ask ourselves, “what roots of ours are falling or have fallen into shock and no longer support our growth?”
Like trees we need a certain atmosphere to reach our potential, though ours be of a more ethereal nature. In Buddhist culture there is a principle called Maitri. Meaning self-love, matiri is the ground; soil if you will, from which our positive qualities are nurtured.
This self-love is not smugness or a feeling of superiority, but a gentle and accepting awareness that allows us to perceive our hang-ups, obstacles, and the conditions that cause self and other’s suffering. Our negative thoughts, emotions, and situations are like rocks obstructing root growth. The obstacles must be acknowledged for what they are and a way around must found. Eventually these obstacles entwine with our roots creating a firmer foundation than we would ever have had without them.
A tree’s roots will go into shock if they are not properly nestled, likewise our minds will not nourish our higher goals if our thoughts, emotions, and concerns are not rooted in self-love. We need the strength to move out past obstacles and for that we must not let our roots go into shock and lose the foundation for our growth.
Lesson Two: Need for Vision
The second lesson I have gleaned from trees is the need for vision in one’s life. When transplanting a tree it is common practice to create a circular mound of soil around the tree. This is done to create a water basin to ensure the tree’s roots get the water they need.
If the mound is to low the roots may not receive the water they need; however, if the mound is to high the roots will become accustomed to where they are and begin to spiral in upon themselves slowly strangling the potential inherent in the tree.
A way to help inspire a transplanted tree’s growth beyond its protected new home is to place fertilizer in a circle away from the trunk. The nutrients in the soil will cause the trees roots to reach beyond its comfort zone: thereby preventing the potential strangulation of self-entwinement.
Like a tree we need the nourishment of vision to reach into the beyond. It is true that we need to be rooted, but we also must strive to grow. The obstacles of environmental destruction, social and economic injustice, and the commoditization of so much that we should hold dear are obstacles we must move around guided by a broader vision. A vision of new ground that can support a fuller version of what ourselves and the world around us can be.
I hope I continue to learn from that special intersection between Main and Wild. There is a special learning that can occur in the wild. This wild need not be deep in inner solitude or physically far away from others, but can be found in a neighborhood tree lush with life or the play of insects between sidewalk slabs of cement.
Like a long neglected vacant lot in a big city made vibrant by its transformation to an urban garden oasis, the Earth and we are capable of being restored in a healthy, vibrant, and dynamic manner. Let’s commit to learning from nature in our great work of global restoration.
I hope you will attend your roots and expand your vision as we continue to learn from our natural world. From the corner of Main and Wild, I wish you much growth.