Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vermont offers over 80 hands-on courses per year in design, construction, woodworking, and architectural craft and offers a variety of courses concentrating in sustainable design. Now in its 35th year, Yestermorrow is one of the only design/build schools in the country, teaching both design and construction skills. Our hands-on 1-day to 3-week workshops, certificate programs and semester programs are taught by top architects, builders, and craftspeople from across the country. For people of all ages and experience levels, from novice to professional.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Observing Nature’s Patterns: Thoughts on Regenerative Design & Development

Guest post by Brittany Schroeder, 
Berea College summer intern

I've been brainstorming all week about how I wanted to write this particular blog. It would be easy to just write a day-to-day summary with a few reflections on my latest class—Regenerative Development & Design—but I do not believe that would do this particular class justice.

A few weeks ago when I told Dan, the Curriculum Director, that I wanted to take this class, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought it would be great to get some kind of design course under my belt, and the word regenerative intrigued me. Since I have an interest in ecological restoration work, and regenerative is synonymous with restoration, I thought this course would greatly assist me in this manner. I was right. It did. But this course did so much more for me than show me the value in nature. It helped me see the value of myself in nature.

I know this all sounds ridiculous. I spent a week in a classroom and I come out talking like I have found the deepest meaning in life or something. But that is the nature of this course. I did not just learn about regenerative design; I partook in the process of regenerative design and, in turn, something inside me was regenerated. Writing this last sentence, I think it sounds like a post by someone who has completely lost her mind. Fret not—I haven't completely lost my mind. That will come later, and it will be a good thing. But I’m getting too far ahead of myself.

To make this easier on everyone, I'll backtrack to just after dinner on Sunday night, when our class met for the first time. Joel Glanzberg introduced himself to the class as the instructor and member of a design group called Regenesis. Rather than have us go around the table and introduce ourselves, as I’m used to at the start of class, Joel first asked us to turn to the person next to us and talk about what really mattered to us.

Wait, I was supposed to have a personal conversation with the stranger next to me and tell them what I valued most? Well, okay . . . I guess I can do that.

Joel then asked us to define regenerative, design, and development. I can honestly say that at this point I was feeling uneasy about what I had gotten myself into. Why was this guy asking questions of us rather than introducing us to some PowerPoint on regenerative design? I didn't understand. And I wouldn't understand until about three days later, but be patient. I'll get there.

We were to meet every morning at 7:30 AM for morning exercises. These exercises were a combination of yoga, tai chi, and other meditation exercises. I had taken a class in tai chi last fall, so I thought it wouldn't be much different. I was of course wrong. These exercises felt more like stretches than the tai chi I was used to, and many of them involved movements I was unfamiliar with. Every morning I heard different parts of my body crack and creak as I stretched in ways that up until last week I did not think I was capable of. Yet it was strangely relaxing to me. Joel taught us about proper breathing and movement, and after an hour of twisting and breathing I found myself not needing my usual morning cup of coffee.

Morning movement classes ended with quiet breathing.
Joel began day 2 by discussing the five types of capital—human, social, ecological, built, and financial—and the relationships among them. After this talk and the one the day before, I wasn't sure if we were ever going to get to discussing how to incorporate regenerative design into our work. That was until Joel began talking of Wendell Berry's essay "Solving for Pattern." This was more in line with what I had hoped to learn about in class. I wanted to understand natural systems thinking and how to design for such.

That brief moment of reflection over Wendell Berry was followed by Joel encouraging us to "look for the difference that makes a difference." Okay. He lost me again. How am I supposed to be able to find "the difference that makes a difference" if I don't actually learn a single thing about regenerative design by the end of this class? I'm embarrassed by my impatience and ignorance now. This all seemed like "fluff" at the time, and I wanted substance. What was it that Joel was teaching me that I wasn't seeing? Why was he telling me all these tales of warriors and writers rather than telling me about how to regenerate systems?

That morning Joel also introduced us to the concept of ecological succession. This was something I learned about briefly in freshman botany. But rather than giving us a textbook definition of ecological succession, he told us about its importance in an ecosystem. According to Joel, this system is successful because of the disturbance it creates. The disturbance “breaks up” the older trees so that new ones can come through, and that disturbance generates a host of other regenerative processes that enhance the soil and feed the species that live on that land.

He then related that concept to us, saying that people need to be disturbed so that newness can come through. In Joel’s words, as humans we habitually live in a two-force world: we have a force that drives us (an activating force) and a force that prevents us from achieving our goals in nearly every case (a restraining force). These forces constantly push up against one another and often result in a compromise, where no one on either side is happy with the end results.

I could apply this to my life as an environmentalist. Environmentalists often witness compromises in which no one is pleased with the final decision. Living in a two-force world, we are used to forfeiting or agreeing to something we don't like in order for the outcome to be "less bad."

Joel proceeded to introduce us to another type of force, a "reconciling force." In natural systems, when a reconciling force is introduced the system finds its balance. In human systems, when that reconciling force is found, everyone walks away from a decision point feeling as though a critical value of theirs has been honored. But in order to find this reconciling force, we first need to fully understand what each side values and work from there.

Finding the value of something that opposes you is just as hard as it sounds. We tend to devalue our restraining forces. We see something in opposition to us as a burden and often overlook its driving force. Why should I care what it values? It limits me! For instance, I could say the only thing coal companies value is financial capital and not look farther that. In this instance, we overlook the other kinds of capital this establishment might value, such as social, built, or maybe even ecological capital. Or maybe every coal company only really does value money—I honestly don't know. But if you do not take the time to observe what a restraining force values, you will never move beyond compromise. I'll come back to this idea later.

Before lunch on Monday, Joel introduced us to the concept of a purpose statement.  He wrote the following purpose statement for our class:
          To develop a coherent way of seeing and working
          in a way that enables evolving awareness and practice
          so that we can be effective and useful in the world.
He then proceeded to say that we would achieve this task by the end of the week. Once again, I was quite confused as to where these words came from and how we were supposed to go about achieving this goal when I didn't even yet understand what regenerative design fully was.

After lunch Joel asked us to pick a task for ourselves and develop a personal purpose statement for that task. He then directed us to split up into teams of two and discuss our tasks. For an hour or so I sat with Shawn, a student I took Constructed Wetlands with. Shawn and I both had chosen big tasks that would improve our respective regions. He wanted to improve the culture of his hometown, and I wanted to revive areas of Appalachia that were plundered by extraction processes. We talked for a long while about our interests, and jotted down a few words for what we believed would be our purpose statements. Easy enough, right? Well, when regrouped, Joel posed more questions for us and we found that our statements needed to be refined. What Shawn and I had chosen weren't really tasks but long-term goals and dreams. How hard was it really to write a purpose statement? And what was the significance of doing so?

The class spent a lot of time outdoors. We had many discussions inside the Yestermorrow treehouse.
Tuesday morning, following our morning exercises, Joel told us we were going to be doing a different kind of exercise. After opening up a discussion on how nature works in patterns, he brought us outside and told us we were going to learn a bit about tracking. I like to think of tracking as really immersing yourself in nature. It involves using each of your senses and slowly taking in your surroundings. It's a very calming activity. I found myself being less distracted and more on point with my thoughts immediately following our tracking experience. Which was ideal because Joel proceeded to question us and add more elements to our tasks at hand.

In order to fully develop a statement of purpose, we were to break down our task a bit more to make it more approachable and therefore more achievable. It had to have a clear process as well as products. Which forced Shawn and I to sit down and really rethink our tasks. I brainstormed a few ideas of tasks I could do in Berea and then went through another round of discussing what I valued in each of them.

At this point, I was beginning to feel a little unsure of myself and this class. I loved the nature exercises, but I could not see how developing a task cycle was useful. This felt like a "personal ecology" class where we had to sit down and analyze our values. I didn't understand why any of this was important until I went to town to get some groceries.

As I was opening the trunk of my car to set my groceries down, my eyes rolled across my GRE prep books. I groaned over their existence, and started to shut the trunk to my car when something Joel said crossed my mind. Joel had introduced us to the idea of disturbances, which are things that often repel us or shake up our way of thinking. I reached back into my trunk and pulled out my books, and immediately began to ponder what was causing this disturbance inside me. Why did I detest studying for the GRE? Why did the sheer thought of it disgust me? I sat there on the trunk of my car for a minute and began thinking about everything Joel had been talking about with us this past week, and that's when my eureka moment hit. Suddenly all his talk about disturbances, systems ecology, and tasks clicked. I proceeded to go to my notebook and began to write down a new task for myself.

The next morning, the class gathered to discuss regenerative design on a wider scale. In order to understand the importance of regenerative design and how to apply it, you have to understand how the system is working. Nature functions in a self-organizing, systematic way. In order to see how nature engages and exchanges information, you must be able to view its patterns. The whole of nature works in patterns of forces working off one another and growing together to form a successful living system. No one part of nature is in dominance, and all disturbances created by its functioning parts lead to the development of the system. There is value found in each part of system, and the other functioning parts recognize this and develop accordingly. It's miraculous, really. The ecological system doesn't make compromises because it’s a system of reconciling forces, and it meets the needs of every organism living in it.

Here in lies the human problem. Our society has set itself apart from the natural world. Our system tries to exist outside the realm of nature, and this is where it often fails. Conventional design makes up most of the system, and it is just one step above the law from being uninhabitable. LEED, or green building, initially started off with a great mission, but has since become a standard that is "less bad" but still not great. And sustainability is just scratching the surface. We are not going to make this Earth habitable if we are all living sustainably. We will just slow down the degradation. This is why we must aim for regenerative design, which calls for us to live as nature, and to co-evolve with the rest of the ecological system. We cannot live in a system that has set a course for degradation. In terms of ecological succession, conventional infrastructure has climaxed; since its initiation, it has slowly begun to fall apart while natural systems continue to grow and thrive just as they always have.

After accepting these realizations, you might ask yourself, "How do I become a part of this natural system?"

We must "find the difference that makes the difference, and act." This requires us to create a task, find the forces that drive and restrain it, discover the values in those forces, and then come up with a reconciling force that makes a difference in that system. It turns out, all the exercises we were doing all along so far in class were actually foundational to the process of regenerative design. We were learning about regenerative design all along, we just didn't understand all of its different processes and parts. I say "we" because all of us taking the course felt quite lost to begin with, but the more we began discovering the values of the tasks we assigned for ourselves, the more we began to see value in ourselves, in the course, and in its purpose statement:
          To develop a coherent way of seeing and working
          in a way that enables evolving awareness and practice
          so that we can be effective and useful in the world.

The final day of the class, Joel had us present our task and own personal statement to the class. I stood up and presented my own task:
          To take the GRE
          in a way that my anxiety does not hinder my perception of my 
          so that I can apply for graduate programs that will allow for a 
               continued education in ecosystem development.

When I pulled my textbooks out of my trunk, I realized the disturbance was mainly caused by my anxiety. I've found over the years that my anxiety issues are my greatest restraint. My anxiety has adverse effects on my test taking, my social interactions, and my overall development. I find that my anxiety attacks often leave me emotionally and physically drained to the point where I am left incapable of completing some of the simplest tasks. And a full college load has not helped lower my anxiety any. As a result of this disturbance I began to not only analyze the value of the GRE, but the value of myself and the system within which I functioned. I realized that my anxiety does limit me, but even it has its values, and if I cannot be a functioning member of the system I wish to be a member of, then I am not performing my ecological niche. The system I chose to be a part of cannot reach its fullest potential without me.

I decided I needed to start somewhere, to choose a small task that was manageable and wouldn't overwhelm me to the point of me being ineffective. So I chose to sign up for and begin studying for the GRE. And in order to successfully accomplish this task, I had to understand that my perceptions of this exam would have an overall effect on how I would perform. I could study for hours on end, but if I didn't believe in the value of my studying and myself, I would not be serving myself to the best of my abilities. I realized that being able to study for the GRE and relearn some of these concepts again is a privilege. It can only help me become a better version of myself.

With this in mind, when it comes time to take the actual test at the end of August, I will be ready to take it no matter what. My perceptions are the difference that makes a difference, and I'm pleased to report that since laying out my task, I have successfully studied for the GRE each and every day. I find myself learning more and more by the day, and I have a completely positive perception of myself and the work I'm doing. It sounds almost too good to be true, but by partaking in the regenerative process, something inside of me was regenerated. Only growth can come from what I took away from this week.

We ended the class with an exercise we had been doing every morning. Joel referred to it as "the snake," and it involved us weaving in and out of one another in a line. The beauty of this exercise is that it fully tied together everything we had learned in regenerative design. Each person used the force coming toward them to propel the other along in the line. We were a line, or a system, of reconciling forces that used the others’ force to push and move forward. Just like in our ecological system, we were moving parts that required the strength of others to grow and develop.

The Snake dance - moving gracefully with opposing forces
In sum, I would say the lessons from this week were some of the most rewarding of my entire stay at Yestermorrow. I dove into something completely different than what I had anticipated and reaped more rewards than I expected. These lessons will stick with me, and now that I have an understanding of the regenerative process, I'll be able to apply it to more aspects of my life. The beauty of this process is that it can apply to just about anything. Every process can be regenerative; thus, the final products can also be regenerative. And we can all afford to learn and grow throughout every step of the process.

Brittany completes her internship at the end of this week. We will miss her good energy and her insightful reflections on her time at Yestermorrow. You can read more posts from Brittany's time at Yestermorrow on her blog.