Meaningful conversation begins with listening (including looking and the other sense perceptions), sensing what is. The ground, or basis, of effective listening is genuine inquisitiveness. Genuine here means your receptacles (brain and heart) are open.
If the brain is already full of information ("I know."), nothing new can be poured into it. Similarly, if your heart vessel is upside down ("hard-hearted"), it won't hold anything. In either of those cases, any pretence of inquisitiveness is not genuine and therefore not a foundation for true listening.
The human mind is naturally awake and curious, kind and compassionate, open and receptive — that is the view of Nothing Missing Leadership. When brain and heart are open, then inquisitiveness flows naturally, and leads into the profound leadership practice of listening: for data, for logic, for emotional content, for patterns and textures. We keep listening until we hear, keep looking until we see, and so on. We ask questions with all our senses and "listen" into the depth of the responses — actively and empathically listening; listening from within the other's skin; listening to our own body and heart; listening with kindness and generosity; listening free from judgment or ideas about fixing anything; listening from the whole.
When we look and listen with real curiosity, a conversation has begun. The world we sense into always responds with useful information. To say "they are unresponsive" is to say we have stopped paying attention. When our inquisitiveness dissipates, we separate, stop listening, lose our awareness of the ongoing conversation, which continues on its own — without us.
When we moved into Windhorse Farm, we noticed that the hayfield, which had been mowed right to the edge of the lake, probably was not the way it had been before the Wentzells settled here in 1840. Something in the terrain and energetics of the landscape was speaking to us, but we weren't getting it, so we spent a lot of time "listening". What could we see? What could we hear? What could we feel as we lay in the grass?
What was it like when we were still? What about when we moved around? How was it responding to the play of the elements? What was this land at the edge of the lake communicating to us? What was it not saying? Gradually, in addition to its present, we began to see at least a shadow of its past, and we could glimpse its possible futures.
Although we were not certain, we guessed that there had been a beaver meadow here, long since drained to make way for hay. We became very curious about how we might actively engage in a conversation with the land to learn more. Perhaps we could assist in inviting the beavers back by digging a beaver starter-pond, which we did. After eight years of waiting, our invitation was accepted; a pair of two-year-olds moved in, hastily built a subsistence shelter and over-wintered.
The next year they raised the level of the pond, improved their living quarters in the lodge, and started a family. Many "new" plants and animals moved in and the landscape became busier and more diverse as the water spread onto previously dry ground (some of it flooding land important for our annual food crops). The second fall the beaver couple got really serious about laying in food for the winter.
One morning in November, I looked out the window from my retreat cabin and saw that half the trees in an eight-year-old apple orchard were gone — completely gone — trunks, twigs and branches. I went out to look and discovered that the trees, which had just started to bear fruit that year, had been cut by the beavers, dragged to the lake and taken to the pond next to their lodge. Good winter food for the beavers — and half an orchard lost to the farm. I resolved to wire up the remaining 12 trees the next morning so they couldn't get them. The next morning, I collected my gear and went to the orchard only to find they had taken all but one tree, which I wrapped with chicken wire. Today that one tree is the only tree in what used to be a productive young apple orchard. It bears beautiful apples each autumn, and the "vacated" space now hosts an apiary
That began a more intensive and extensive conversation with the Windhorse beavers. Many trees have been protected with wire, and many others, wiring forgotten, have been cut down. We have planted hundreds of their favourite willow trees near their pond, and brought apple prunings to their trails as offerings. Their ponds have multiplied and expanded, encroaching on the vegetable gardens (people and beavers harvest carrots there), so we built a berm to "draw the line" as a boundary we could live with.
Generations of this beaver family have lived in the garden wetlands, and each year the two-year-olds leave the lodge and venture forth into the Lahave River to look for mates and new homes. Adults have died of old age and young couples have replaced them in one of three lodges built by their ancestors. The conversation only gets richer, along with its conflict and mutual learning. Although beavers are by habit quite shy, this family lineage has become accustomed to humans and expresses brave curiosity and playfulness.
Beavers are tenacious, creative and strong. This year they diverted another brook so that it could flow into their biggest pond; they raised the dam and flooded more garden land. The young beavers built three dams (maybe just practicing their skills?) on the newly diverted stream. The overflow from one of the new ponds threatened to flood Blue Dragon, one of the retreat cabins. We said, "Enough!" and took the dam apart so the water could flow through. That night they patched it up; the next morning we took it apart; that night they patch it up. It became part of the morning chores to open that beaver dam. This conversation was persistent, and the conflict seemingly not resolvable (maybe we were just increasing their practice opportunity); however, something changed one night, and they stopped rebuilding. We are curious about that, but have no conceptual understanding. The back and forth continues, each day a joyful learning opportunity; we are listening with inquisitiveness, grounded in not knowing.
We are learning many things from beavers about the qualities of leadership. We don't really know what they think and we don't understand much of their verbal language. However we can observe what they do and we notice some of the consequences. They build intricate flood-proof dams, which gather the water — the richness of the forest — and hold it in their ponds. Each night, with expansive awareness and precise mindfulness, they push mud and weave sticks into every leaking part of the dam. One of the consequences is that habitat is created for hundreds of species of plants and animals, and an inconceivable number of individuals. The wetlands created by beavers are among the most diverse, abundant and productive areas in any landscape. Slowing the water by building dams also causes more water to soak into the land, increasing the groundwater-to-surface water flow ratio, which tends to cool the water in the LaHave River. Cooler water holds more oxygen and protects the indigenous biodiversity in the river. We are only beginning to appreciate all the ways beavers are enriching the natural ecology of this place.
Here are some provocative questions arising out of this ongoing conversation with beavers:
"What am I learning from nature about listening to the whole from the whole?"
"In my own leadership practice and activity, how am I gathering and holding wealth for the benefit of others?"
"How is my activity offering what is useful for increasing the health and vitality of my organization?"
"What else can I learn about my own leadership from non-human teachers in nature?"