Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Here Comes That Rainbow Again

There are weeks when the news contains stories that force you to shake your head in disbelief.  However, this isn’t all there is.  Newscasts don’t lead with “Another plane took off from National Airport this morning.”  Bad news sells, and the loss of civility and the misbehavior of powerful individuals are serious issues today.

But there are kindnesses and civility all around us as well, if we’ll look for them.

As I’ve been thinking of how I can move more intentionally to respond to our times, a song has been stuck in my head.  Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, which was inspired by the lunch counter scene in Chapter 15 of John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel Grapes of Wrath.  Kristofferson was born in Texas during the 1930s, and mentioned that he read Steinbeck’s book in high school or college (probably the latter, since he was a Pomona College graduate, just like our Claire!) Years later, he was reminded of the scene and wrote this work which Johnny Cash, who also made a recording of it, said might be his favorite song by any writer of our time.

In the intro to this video, Kristofferson says, “I kind of wrote it with John Steinbeck…only he was dead at the time.”

It is a simple song, with the following lyrics:

The scene was a small roadside café
The waitress was sweeping the floor
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee
And two Okie kids by the door

“How much are them candies?” They asked her
“How much have you got?” She replied
“We’ve only a penny between us”
“Them’s two for a penny,” She lied.

Chorus
And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
With the smell of rain on the wind
Ain’t it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny”
“So what’s it to you,” she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
And got up and nodded goodbye
She called, “Hey, you left too much money”
“So what’s it to you,” they replied

And the daylight…(Chorus)

Let’s do our best, in these times, to be good to one another.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Gratefulness and Thankfulness

Thanksgiving Pilgrims

Our little Thanksgiving Pilgrims

This is the time of year when we turn our thoughts to Thanksgiving.  I was taught from a very young age that it was very important to be thankful, as I often heard my grandmother admonish us to “always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”  I won’t get into the “you’re welcome” vs. “no problem” debate, but you can probably guess, given my age, where I land on that topic!

Some suggest we too often say “thank you” by rote. I find that to be true in my experience and began to wonder if we mistake other thoughts and emotions as thankfulness.  Fortunately, I came across a blog post that helped me sort through at least some of these thoughts.  The author, a Benedictine monk who holds retreats for groups from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions., makes the case that at least some of what we think of as thankfulness is actually gratefulness. He suggests it is important to understand the difference and then describes the two in this fashion:

Remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time. What happened? Eugene O’Neill puts it this way: ‘For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to Life itself!’…

Our thoughts may quickly turn to thankfulness for the opportunity to witness this beauty, but in the first few seconds the author notes we are in some other state.

Why do I call that wild joy of belonging “gratefulness”? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether unearned, utterly gratuitous — life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

In the very next moment, when the fullness of gratitude overflows into thanksgiving, the oneness you were experiencing is breaking up. Now you are beginning to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. Gratefulness turns into thankfulness. This is a different fullness. A moment ago you were fully aware; now you are thoughtful. Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

I like that distinction.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves.  To a sense of belonging. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness.

Joshua Tree at sunset

Joshua Tree at sunset in a moment of gratefulness (photo by Claire Brown)

Most of us express our thanks to colleagues, family, and friends on a regular basis. But I’m going to work on the gratefulness part of the equation. For I know that the more I’m fully aware, I’ll have even more reason to be thankful.

I receive so much in my life from family, friends, colleagues, and readers of this blog. Thank you…and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

DJB

We Shine a Light on the Past to Live more Abundantly Now

This week at the National Trust, we are preparing to host the 2017 PastForward national preservation conference in Chicago.  Long-time colleagues and new friends who care about the past and the places that bring that past into the present will gather from all across the country.  I suspect that we’ll share thoughts that challenge the conventional wisdom, offer support for a broader understanding of the American story, and come away with a new appreciation for the work that takes place by preservationists and by those who don’t (yet) identify as preservationists.

Why do these people gathering this week in Chicago care about the past?  And what’s with that name, PastForward?

In a recent conversation that included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, (The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), journalist and author Krista Tippett summed up the answer to those questions with her opening line:  “In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now.”

I think that’s a great summation of why so many of us will gather this week at PastForward.  William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  In that same spirit, I am of the belief that preservation isn’t about the past.  It’s about the continuum of past, present, and future. And we shine a light on all aspects of our past in order to understand “so many paradoxes and so many dilemmas”—to use a phrase by Gordon-Reed—that exist in our country and in ourselves.

Past Forward 2017

PastForward 2017 in Chicago

That’s what I hope we can bring “forward” this week:  an approach to understanding the past that helps us live more abundantly today.  And if you cannot be with us in Chicago, please be sure to check out the live-streaming of several of the TrustLive sessions (think TED talks for preservation with some amazing speakers).

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Own Your Job

Progressive Insurance has been running a series of very funny ads about how we turn into our parents after buying our first home. The setting is a group therapy session, and each member has one or more Dad-isms to share with the group.  I don’t know if my favorite is “Who left the door open, are we trying to air condition the whole neighborhood?” or the woman who holds up a hideous baseball cap and says, “This hat was free.  What am I supposed to do, not wear it?”  Both are things my father said (multiple times) in the past, and I suspect that both have come out of my mouth as well.

This intro is to give you fair warning:  in this post I may sound (a little) like a parent.

WWDJBD?

The “What Would DJB Do?” mug my staff prepared for my sabbatical. You can consider this my personalized “World’s Best Dad” or “World’s Best Boss” mug

New York Times reporter Adam Bryant recently wrapped up almost a decade of columns from the Corner Office, where he interviewed CEOs of all types, skills, and personalities.  While most of us won’t have the opportunity to be the CEO, there are lessons to be learned from those who have charted a successful career path.  Here are a few gems from Bryant’s reporting, plus one or two I’ve learned from CEOs along the way.

Do your current job well:  Successful people focus on doing their current job well.  Bryant notes, “That may sound obvious. But many people can seem more concerned about the job they want than the job they’re doing. That doesn’t mean keeping ambition in check….But focus on building a track record of success, and people will keep betting on you.”

Be responsive:  I had lunch recently with a retired CEO who told me that as she grew professionally, she took that first trait of doing her current job well and added the habit of responsiveness.  She made it a habit to respond to emails from the CEO the same day she received them, usually with a recommendation and a draft response for consideration. People noticed and “kept betting on her.”  As a young employee, she also volunteered to manage special projects for the CEO and the executive team.  She learned about different parts of the organization and learned new skills along the way.

You represent an organization, not your personal brand: Many of us are called upon to represent our organizations through speeches and at meetings. Another CEO reminded me that it is important to consider the audience you’ll be addressing as well as the organization you represent.  If you show up for a speech for business professionals and city officials with uncombed hair, scruffy shoes, and dressed like you slept in your clothes, it reflects on the organization. If you want to wear a t-shirt and jeans, you’d better be as dynamic as Steve Jobs or work for a tech company.  Otherwise, you’ll come off looking unprofessional.

Practice makes perfect.  If you are giving a speech, it helps to act as if you’ve seen your presentation before.  Don’t look at the screen to see the power point, look at the audience.  That requires practice.  Before every board meeting, the Vice Presidents in the Preservation Division and I practice our presentations and we critique each other’s work.  It really pays off.

Be trustworthy.  Enough said.  (But you can read Bryant’s take on this at the link above.)

Work ethic is important:  Finally, Bryant’s favorite story from a decade of interviews came from Bill Green, the CEO of Accenture, the consulting firm.  Green told the following anecdote about his approach to hiring:

“I was recruiting at Babson College….I get this résumé…(which) is very light — no clubs, no sports, no nothing. Babson, 3.2. Studied finance. Work experience: Sam’s Diner, references on request.  It’s the last one of the day, and I’ve seen all these people come through strutting their stuff and they’ve got their portfolios and semester studying abroad. Here comes this guy. He sits. His name is Sam, and I say: ‘Sam, let me just ask you. What else were you doing while you were here?’ He says: Well, Sam’s Diner. That’s our family business, and I leave on Friday after classes, and I go and work till closing. I work all day Saturday till closing, and then I work Sunday until I close, and then I drive back to Babson.’ I wrote, ‘Hire him,’ on the blue sheet. He had character. He faced a set of challenges. He figured out how to do both.”

Mr. Green elaborated on the quality he had just described.

“It’s work ethic,” he said. “You could see the guy had charted a path for himself to make it work with the situation he had. He didn’t ask for any help. He wasn’t victimized by the thing. He just said, ‘That’s my dad’s business, and I work there.’ Confident. Proud.”

Mr. Green added: “You sacrifice and you’re a victim, or you sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do and you have pride in it. Huge difference. Simple thing. Huge difference.”  Bryant ended his column by noting that this story “captures a quality I’ve always admired in some people. They own their job, whatever it is.”

I love that: own your job, whatever it is.  I’m pretty sure my dad would agree.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB