Leading through practice
A leader is best
When people barely know that he(she) exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him(her).
Fail to honour people, They fail to honour you;
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his (her) work is done, his (her) aim fulfilled,
They will all say, We did this ourselves.
Lao Tzu Quoted in J. Jacobs, (1992) Systems of Survival, Vintage Books, A division of Random House, Inc., New York, P.125)
I cant really talk about leadership, I can talk about change. I can talk about what it means to do things ourselves. Tim Collins, my partner, and I lived in Pittsburgh USA between 1994 and 2005. We focused upon art, ecology and environment projects as artists and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Nearby there is a stream called Nine Mile Run that has been suffering from human impacts for over one hundred years. It runs through a major natural park in the city. Residents have been complaining about leaking sewers, horrible smells and posted warning signs that indicated the water was unsafe for recreational use. City officials made a plan to put that stream in a pipe and bury it. When I went to see the stream for the first time, I did not see the fish in the water. But I did see a newly emerged Tiger Swallowtail butterfly flying along the stream, my partner saw deer tracks in the wet mud, we saw wild ducks in a pool. If that stream were buried it would be hard to bring it back to any sort of original condition. I asked myself how artists might help change this.
We met many people who had worked on the stream in the past. Dr Mary Kostalos taught us about water chemistry and its relationship to the life in the stream. She introduced us to her mentor, Dr Jan Sykora, who in turn introduced us to Michael Koryak. These scientists guided us to understand that water was not only for human beings but also other creatures as well. That stream had a human family that had cared for it and studied it for years. Yet that stream was to be buried.
One snowy morning Dr Sykora, who was a biology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, took us to a natural park. There was a small clean spring in the park that fed into Nine Mile Run. He showed us how to flip rocks in the shallow water, and examine them for life. We found small translucent shrimp like creatures, wiggling under the rocks. He explained to us they were gammerus (Hyalella azteca), crustaceans, small creatures that lived on the bottom of shallow streams and ponds. They swim on their sides with seven pairs of legs. We flipped another rock, and found one of these small creatures holding the others curved back. Another group of them seemed to be snuggling together in the cold water Dr Sykora said that they mate during winter. We asked what they would eat. He told us that gammerus ate dead leaves, twigs, and other organic matter. In the stream he picked something up and put it in my hand. It seemed to be a dead leaf. I spread out the leaf on my hand. I found it was not an ordinary leaf, but an example of the finest natural lace, it had been made by these bottom dwellers. None of the veins were broken. Dr Sykora replaced the creatures we had collected very carefully back into the water. He told us these small creatures were not only an indicator of good water quality, but that they keep their living environment healthy.
Gammerus is a small part of the chain of organisms that make up stream ecology. It is easy to say we are all connected. But it is hard to feel how we are connected. I became connected to that place through my friends and their relationships with small creatures. It is naive to say that I wanted to save them and their stream. I could not stop imagining the scenes of the little creatures cleaning up their living place, creating beautiful objects, and then being lost downstream in the rushing waters of Nine Mile Run during storm events. If I collected those lacy leaves, framed and presented them in a gallery, some people might see them as an art object. It was not the object that was important. What struck me was the way the object represented the story of its makers and their homes. But to access that story you would need to have had the experience that I had with my friends and the little creatures; of water, air, light, trees, shrubs, rocks, mud, fish, salamanders, birds, deer, and raccoons. There was a spectrum of topography, life forms, sounds and seasonal changes; these were all elements of that environment. The aesthetic was embedded in the experience that my partner and I had on the snowy morning with the scientist. The story of gammerus would end if the relationship between the springs and a healthy stream was permanently lost. I wondered if a new story was possible, how people might intervene in that environment.
Change is never certain. People are not comfortable when they do something new. Even when there is a successful example in front of them, people often say, Yes, but this region is different. We dont do things that way here. Creating change is like going through an unknown forest with a blindfold on. People are afraid of getting lost, or falling and being hurt, or maybe they fear being left behind.
I am in a forest with many people. We are moving in a consistent direction, led by someone but there is no way for me to see the trail in front of us. I feel the warmness of someones hand in my own hand and the kindness of someones voice who occasionally guides us. I hear the sounds of the forest and the breathing and talking of people I care about. These guides are like my friends in Pittsburgh: each of them showed me more and more of that place where the little creatures lived. After the experience, even though I am not an expert, my values have changed I care deeply. I am amongst others who have also learned; we can share this with other people who come later. We are all moving through the world, and on some level we are all blind. At the end of the exploration can we tell who the leader was? Is it important? Once people reach the end of the forest, some people go into another new forest, and others might stay to tell the story of what we have all accomplished together.
Reiko Goto lives in the West Midlands, and works as a PhD candidate with the On the Edge Programme, at Robert Gordon University. Her research focuses upon art, ecology and its impacts upon public places and policies. Reiko has been recognised for her achievements in applied research in art and ecology from 1994-2005. She co-directed the Nine Mile Run and the 3 Rivers 2nd Nature projects; and is a distinguished research fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. Reiko is currently working with Tim Collins, to develop The Secret Life of Trees: a Biogenic Opera for British Cities.
First published: Research papers March 2007
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