One of the things we’re going to be doing now Transition Culture has migrated to its new home is to have a theme for each month, something that will bring a degree of focus to what we post during that time. This month’s theme is ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’, which doesn’t mean that we are going to spend four weeks trying to sell you books, but rather going into it what that actually means in a bit more detail. We’ll be speaking to people doing great Transition projects around the world about why they do it and what they see as being the power that arises from what they do. I’ll be exploring five of my own ‘doing stuff moments’, formative experiences that convinced me of the need to do rather than cogitate. We’ll also be hearing from Transition Network’s Sophy Banks about The Power of Not Doing Stuff, the importance of designing in time to be, to reflect, to re-energise. And lots of other great stuff besides, you’re going to love it.
A good place to start when discussing doing stuff is the famous quote attributed to Goethe, but not actually, it turns out, said by him:
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
I gave a talk at the West Country Storytelling Festival last year, and at the end of it, a woman in the audience asked “how do you get the confidence to do all that stuff?” It was an interesting question. I’d like to explore it by telling the story of my front garden. Here is how it looked until recently. Turns out I never took any pictures of it, so here it is according to Google Street View. It may be their copyright, but I figure they didn’t ask my permission to take the picture, and it’s my garden anyway, so here it is …
It featured a horrible pointless ‘ornamental” conifer, of the type so beloved in suburbia, a Buddleia that had got a bit carried away with itself, some overgrown thing that brought down my phone line in the last big wind we had here, lots of ‘ornamental’ grasses and ferns (yawn) and brambles, lots of brambles.
Ever since we had moved in, we had said that one day, we would clear the garden and replace it with a forest garden. One day, that conifer would fall, to be replaced by fruit, nuts, herbs, perennial vegetables. It would happen. Just not quite yet. One day. As the time passed, we got more and more used to it, and that ‘one day’ stayed some time off in the future, rather like the day when cold fusion becomes and economically and technically feasible energy source.
Then, one Saturday morning about 3 weeks ago, something switched. It was a sunny morning, we had a day when the kids were all occupied for the day, and we decided, on the spur of the moment, that today was the day. Seizing the moment, I rushed out with my saw and got stuck into the conifer, taking it down in pieces. The pile of foliage grew and grew, the conifer shrank and shrank. It’s amazing how much stuff comes out of a tree like that once you start to take it to pieces (three full trailer-loads). The buddleia was next. By this stage neighbours started coming out to see what on earth I was doing.
After initial concerns that I was having some kind of stress-related episode, and once I had sold them on my vision of nut trees and fruit bushes and herbs, then something rather special happened, the community came together to help us in our task. One neighbour came round and offered to take down the big tree and to chop up what I had already cut down with his chainsaw. Another lent me his car and trailer to take all the stuff to the garden waste bin at the recycling centre.
Elderly women who pass by every day looked initially rather shocked, and I had to answer a few “what have you done?” type questions. I explained to them all the vision of what we were going to put there instead, and the next day my clearing up was interrupted by different elderly women saying, rather excitedly, “I hear this is all going to be fruits and nuts. I’m sure it will be lovely“.
A few days later, we hired a digger for a couple of hours. I have written before about my love for diggers, but this was a wonderful reminder of what amazing tools they are in the right hands. In about an hour and a half, he had pulled out all the tree stumps and roots, the deeply rooted perennials, and basically cleared the whole site back to a blank slate. Once again my neighbours turned out, cheering when a tree root was finally prised clear of the ground, and providing a running commentary on his labours.
We are now in the process of starting to plant it up with soft fruits and herbs, mulching the ground and creating paths through it. It’s a fair bit of work, and it’s happening in small bursts (what with, y’know, life) but it’s underway and it’s looking great. But what might be some reflections as to how this little project tipped from being on the long finger to becoming action? Edward Snowden, currently hiding out in Moscow airport, and hopefully a candidate for the next Nobel Peace Prize put it, “I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act”. Indeed. Some thoughts:
- People love to see someone who has decided to do something. It’s kind of infectious. If you get started, if you start demonstrating boldness, people will join in, put their shoulder to the wheel. Katryna Barber, a member of the Woodstock in Transition’s Initiating Group in the US, put it like this in a recent article about the group:
Transition is like when you’re a kid with your friends and you decide to make a circus. The energy level is so exciting and inviting that more kids want to join you!
- Deciding to “do stuff” arises from what is often a complex mix of circumstances. A key one is to create a bit of breathing space in your life. An evening a week. A day. A few hours. You need to feel in a position where the basics of life (childcare, work etc) are under control, and there is a bit of time and space to focus on what it is you want to do. Breathing space gives rise to possibility. I had an unexpected day off on the Monday, it felt like Spring had begun, so it felt like there was an unplanned-for bit of space. Often in our busy lives we need to really design for that space, intentionally create it.
- The vision of what’s waiting for you at the end of the task needs to be sustaining, enticing, and possible. Had we decided that morning that we wanted to, I don’t know, reforest Devon or save the world, we probably would have decided to go our for ice cream instead. One of the key things about our vision for the garden was that we could communicate it in one sentence to passers by, and the local elderly women network became our key communicators, telling each other all about it.
Once that boldness is exercised, life kind of swings in behind you to support what you are doing. I hear this time and again when I visit Transition projects. When I was in Crystal Palace, talking to the people in the Transition group who had created the Local Food Market, that was very much their experience, that it developed its own momentum. As Pete Yeo of the Funding Network says in the video I made about the Totnes Local Entrepreneurs Forum, this is what it looks like “when a community gathers around its positive changemakers”. Something magic happens, there’s a power there. Serendipity kicks in. Making opportunities for the community to gather around positive change is a powerful force. As in the garden, so in the community.