RESTORING FORCE: VOLUME II
I hope this letter finds you as good as you can possibly be. The other day, as California’s skies turned from deep orange to amber, again, I was scrolling through the radio and stopped on a local station, enthralled by a crackling recording of an ancient Native American chant. Melodic, deep, repetitive, soft. Like heavy drops of water falling on the soil. It was a Rain Chant coming through the airwaves, and this local station was playing one… after the next… after the next… and had been for days, broadcasting a prayer for relief from the relentless heat and the burning that has now consumed millions of acres across the State.
The song that captivated me was a recording from early wax cylinder technology. This Edison invention from the late 1800’s was the first time in human history we could preserve and replay sounds. Ethnographer Frances Densmore deployed this technology just in time to capture many of the songs of cultures that were already tragically vanishing. In a speech in 1899, Densmore said, “The songs I bring you are the songs of yesterday. The winds of the prairie and the pines of the forest have heard many of them for the last time.” Stephen Smith, NPR host added recently, “To most of us, the old cylinders might not seem like much. Just brown wax tubes in some storage room at the Library of Congress. The recordings sound rather like a vintage photograph looks: faded, distant, two-dimensional. But just like an old picture, there are stories to be found in the cylinders. You have to dig past the surface noise, past the blur of forgotten history. Lives are carved in the wax. Lives of people with names like Yellow Wing, Chased-By-Bears and Red Fox.” To hear these songs in the year 2020, one after the next, stirred something in me. It created a longing, a possibility that perhaps we could embrace the practice of nonviolent reciprocity where our society at large is engaged in an intimate dialog with nature (and vice versa).
At this writing, the West Coast continues to burn, civil unrest sparked by police brutality and political tension is rocking the country, and the planet in general seems to be reciprocating in as equally violent a fashion as we have exploited it. Wildfires, a global pandemic, unprecedented flooding,120 degree temperatures in Death Valley. The list is long and seemingly increasing by the day. How did we come to this? How do we reawaken what we’ve lost and find ways to regain our balance in both our civic lives and our relationship with the natural environment?
In my opinion, a good step towards equilibrium would be for each of us to develop our own practice of paying better attention. Observation is a skill at which artists seem to be particularly adept. In the late 1800s, in an effort to create a green canopy throughout San Francisco’s Presidio, which was then an Army base, the Army planted forests of eucalyptus trees interspersed with rows of Monterey cypress. Conditions did not favor the cypress and they died out, leaving open gaps. In 2010, between two rows of the surviving eucalyptus trees, British artist Andy Goldsworthy responded with a sculpture called Wood Line. Wood Line fills the gap with a graceful, sinuous sculpture that zig zags along the earth’s floor through the space between the standing trees, effectively “drawing the space,” as Goldsworthy has described it. Made up simply of branches found in the park, the sculpture is more than 1,200 feet long. Wood Line serves as a reminder of what was there before, what’s there now, and is a prompt to consider what will be there in the future after Wood Line fades back into the earth without a trace.
Sustained acts of attention like Goldsworthy’s require slowing down, listening… seeing… feeling. In my own experience, the most profound outcome of the slowing down that the Pandemic has forced upon us is the gradual but certain emergence of gratitude and compassion. Even with the seemingly perpetual state of assault we’re under, if we can take the time to give attention – pay attention – to our natural environment, we can realize what a miraculous gift it is to be alive. From a place of compassion, we see that everything and all of us are connected in profound ways, deepening our patience and sensitivity to others with different views or in need of a helping hand. The presence of gratitude and compassion makes possible the conditions for reciprocity with nature, which not only can lead us toward an ecological balance, but a societal one as well.
Over the summer months, Sherwood has dedicated time to updating our long-term strategic plan as a chance to focus on what kind of contribution we really want to make over the next ten years. Fitting in this slow reflective work at a time when we’re busier than we’ve ever been is hard. We thought the Pandemic would create a lull for our business, but we’ve found the opposite; there is a deep refocusing by our clients on why projects matter from a both a social and environmental perspective. As engineers, we have actual tools to make lasting physical changes in how water is managed, how natural areas grow, how we protect against wildfires or flooding, how we sequester carbon, and how we cool our cities. And yet, as busy as we are responding to our clients right now, our decision was that we must take this moment of collective reflection and bring that observation inward to set a course for Sherwood of the highest positive impact and professional achievement. The plan that is emerging synthesizes observation, experience, creativity, optimism, a profound respect for natural systems, and the respect for the communities we are invited into to do our work. This approach to look at a problem from many sides is ingrained in Sherwood’s process and guides our plan for how we are preparing to address the biggest environmental challenges our society faces in the decade ahead. How will we be measured individually and collectively for what we have contributed to the 2020s? The answer to this question matters a lot.
As we each respond in our own way to those challenges, both environmental and societal, let’s all be mindful of the many voices, not just those languishing on wax cylinders, that are calling out for justice – indigenous peoples, people of color, our black brothers and sisters, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. And let’s listen, in particular, to the fury of nature’s voice – a fury that disproportionately impacts the underprivileged – and give it a seat at the head of the civil engineering table so it won’t have to keep shouting at us.
Let’s imagine, as an industry, what it looks like in the best possible future to work together, and to truly support each other as co-workers and colleagues. Let’s imagine what we can do to support our communities. Let’s find ways to allow our creativity to come forward and bring new ideas and change. And let’s do our part to make sure all people can find a soft trail in a quiet park when they need it, to slow down and reflect on what really matters; and to perhaps be present to truly hear the full melody of a raindrop landing on the earth.
S. Bry Sarté, Founder & CEO