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Updated: Oct 17, 2020

By Justin Dowd

Since moving to New Zealand two years ago, I have learned and grown with the Coordinators as they began forming the Learning Environment. I am writing now as a new volunteer, as pathways for involvement with the project are emerging. My connection to the Learning Environment is like Jane Goodall’s with chimpanzees. I lived among and observed the Coordinators as they collaboratively created the Learning Environment.

I realized a rare trait shared by the team members. They are all systems thinkers and the systems perspective is deep in the DNA of the Learning Environment. I would like to explore this trait and share a personal experience of land-based transformation.

Illuminating Unseen Connections

As a young person growing up on the East Coast of the United States, one of my favourite places was the bookstore. I remember feeling warm and safe amongst the colorful shelves, heavy with treasures, sloshing tires plowing through snow outside, smells of paper and coffee brewing in the café. One day I came across a book called “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows. The book taught a radically different way of seeing the world than anything I knew. Meadows defined systems as, “a set of things - people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.” This reminds me of music. Someone once told me, music is the relationship between the notes. This knowledge began to pull back the blinders of a linear education.

To peek behind the curtain and see systemic connections,

simply look at an object and contemplate relationships associated with it. For example, a guitar exists in relationship to people who created it. The guitar’s geometry has a relationship to the evolution of the human hands, and audible frequencies detectable by the human ear. The wood exists in relation to the forest. Atoms of the guitar were once formed during fusion in stars and scattered into space by supernova explosions. I invite you to pause reading for a moment and choose an object close to you - what are the relationships connected to that object?

Nearly two decades passed and I never met another systems thinker. One day I heard words from that book spoken aloud for the first time. I was on the opposite side of Earth, standing in a forest of unfamiliar plants, sounds, smells and creatures. I spoke to a man named Cam who described the forest as a web of relationships. Trees interlocked roots to support each other, birds designed the forest spreading seeds, the mycelium underfoot recycled and shared nutrients. I had met a systems thinker.

To my delight, he lived in relationship to a community of other systems thinkers. They recently started the conscious design of a newly emerging system; the Socio-Ecological Learning Environment.

In the book Thinking in Systems, Diana wrote, “Once you start to see the events of the day as parts of trends, and those trends as symptoms of underlying system structure, you will be able to consider new ways to manage and new ways to live in a world of complex systems.” The Coordinators of the Learning Environment collaborated to imagine and bring into existence a novel system, a learning environment, to help people see systems more clearly.

I believe that growing relationships, wellbeing, and food on land can transform people and facilitate self-discovery and resilience.

The Collision of Theory & Experience

I have experienced this transformation. After 7 years studying physics in Boston, I unexpectedly found myself working on a vegetable farm outside of the city by the sea. In sunny fields of flowers and plants slouching under the weight of blushing vegetables I formed relationships. On the land, through community, exercise, growing food, and learning from nature I witnessed transformative healing. I experienced wellbeing and balance for the first time.

New workers on the land appeared to awake from a stress dream of modern life. Healing related to alcoholism, ptsd from war, a member of an isolating religious cult, a man who lost a child, dealing with life right after divorce, and a high school dropout looking for direction. I began to heal from a decade of self medicating, depression, and an unbalanced existence.

With the arrival of winter came snow and we disbanded. I looked for a place where this transformation could be sustainable on earth. That led to a plane flight, a conversation with a man in the forest, an introduction to a tribe of systems thinkers. An opportunity exists to use some of my life to co-create a system to cultivate resilient wellbeing for individuals, communities, and ecosystems. I hope the idea of creating a land-based place of learning, transformation and resiliency becomes less of an anomaly, and a path of many interwoven as we as a species move through time.

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