The Arc of Evolution

After nearly six years, and serving more than thirty-five clients across Canada, Highwater Mark Strategy and Communications is evolving. I have accepted an exciting new position with an international conservation effort called the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative (CCCI) where I will be the Initiative Coordinator. I’ll officially be employed, full time, by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an organization I played a leadership role with as a board member from 1997 through 2004. I’ll work from Canmore, Alberta, where my family and I are settling in nicely after our December move.

My work with CCCI starts on Monday, the 14th, fittingly Valentine’s day. There will be chocolates and flowers.

For the last six years Highwater Mark has been the tool with which I have tried to make the world a better place. Coming on the heels of a dozen years as a full time activist and as Executive Director of a small, scrappy conservation group concentrating on wilderness protection and endangered species preservation, I needed to step back and see if what I had learned could be applied more broadly to help civil society. That was 2005. For the last six years I have worked with a wide spectrum of clients: Ontario’s Voices for Children and Victoria’s Steering Committee on Homelessness; Vancity Credit Union and Mountain Equipment Co-op,  Salt Spring Coffee and Holland Barrs Planning. I worked with governments too: the BC Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services, the Regional District of Nanaimo, and the North Shore Recycling Project.

And I worked with friends old and new in the environmental movement: The Sierra Club BC, the Stanley Park Ecology Society, The Pacific Resources Conservation Society and the Flathead Wild team, including Wildsight and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

It was an often intense and rewarding time, and I learned a great deal, some of which I will try to capture in future blog posts.

I can’t say what the future holds for Highwater Mark. For the time being I’m going to continue to volunteer as a strategic advisor to MitoCanada, a new national health care organization serving people suffering from the debilitating and often life-threatening illness of mitochondrial disease. I’m also helping the Advocate for Children and Youth for the Province of Ontario with an organizational merger with another former client.  And I’m going to do my best to synthesis the last six years of my work to try and leave behind a little insight into how leaders, and their organizations, work (and sometimes don’t) in the day to day effort to make the world a better place. And I will continue to publish books: that will be in my free time.

That’s what the last six years has been for me: an effort to help those who are helping children, families, the homeless, the sick, and the wild things and the places they need to survive. It’s been an honor to serve so many amazing people and organizations.

I see this next stage in my career as an evolution: my great hope is that I can bring all that I learned as an advocate and Executive Director together with the spiritual approach to leadership and advocacy I wrote about in Carry Tiger to Mountain, along with the new skills I built helping businesses, governments and social-profit organizations, to the Crown of the Continent. Sometimes when you’re undergoing these changes in trajectory it’s hard to see how one evolves into the next. But when you stand back its possible to see the arc of that evolution clearly, as I see it now.

My work with the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative will be to serve those who are protecting a massive swath of extraordinary land south from Alberta’s Kananaskis Country to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, and east from the Rocky Mountain foothills and front to the Columbia Valley in the west. It will be conducted through the lens of preserving a climate-change ark; a refuge where wild things and the human communities that thrive along with them can change and adapt in a world of flux. It is one of the great challenges of our time, and I’m excited to find myself in the middle of it once again.

I have been preparing all of my professional life for a challenge and an opportunity like this. To bring together my passion for the mountains, for wilderness, for wild creatures; and to use the skills I’ve developed as a facilitator, coordinator, planner and advocate under one banner to make things just a little better, for the wild blue-green earth and all those who call it home.

Thanks for being a part of the last six years. I hope I can count on you to be along for the wild ride that starts on Monday.

A Tale of Two Walkers

Two of my friends are on long walks right now.

Jason Meyers is walking the length of the Bruce Trail, a total of 885 kilometers, through some of the most lovely country remaining in Southern Ontario. He is joined by his partner, singer and songwriters Bri-anne Swan, who will be performing concerts along the way. Jason and Bri-anne’s odyssey is being under taken to raise awareness of and money for research into a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.

Alexandra Morton is walking down the length of Vancouver Island, having started by boat on Malcolm Island at the mouth of The Broughton Archipelago, and will arrive in Victoria on May 8th, after walking more than 450 kilometers and visiting dozens of communities along the way.

Alex is walking for wild salmon. Dubbed “the get out migration” she and dozens – and likely hundreds before she reaches her destination — of others are walking to send a clear message to Canada’s federal government: that open net fish farms are killing wild salmon. These wild creatures are the electric current that charge the Pacific coast. Hundreds of communities depend on them. The only acceptable solution is to get the salmon farms out of wild salmon habitat and onto land where they can be better controlled.

Both of these extraordinary people are pilgrims and I am enormously proud to know them.

Jason is a pretty close friend. We met in 2001 or 02 in Canmore, Alberta where Jason was working for a marketing company and I was working for a small conservation group called Jason came on board as a volunteer to help us get our act together, giving us valuable insight into how to reach new markets with our conservation message. Shortly thereafter we hired him and I think his life went downhill after that. Now he has a thriving web strategy company called Five Stones and lives in Toronto. He has supported me through some pretty tough decisions and rocky times, and I am grateful for his devoted friendship.

He is one of the most earnest, loyal and hard working people I have ever met. He describes himself as “part technocrat, part gypsy, part mountain goat” and is happiest and most at peace while walking. Recently he walked the 900 kilometer Camino de Santiago trail in Spain and I’m pretty sure that journey changed his life. Both he and Bri-anne have people close to them who are affected by MS, and so the He Walks, She Rocks journey is dedicated to them.

I’ve only met Alex Morton once, at her home in Sointula, on Malcolm Island, where she was kind enough to take me in and feed me wild salmon while I was researching The Darkening Archipelago. Alex is the most passionate and reasonable voice I’ve ever met for salmon and the ecosystem that they bind together. She measures her ardor with a scientist’s eye for levelheaded insight into what is destroying our oceans and practical solutions for restoring it to health. She read and latter “blurbed” for the DA, and her insight made it a better book without a doubt.

That these two amazing people are walking, each for a cause that is close to their hearts and critically important, at the same time is no coincidence.

Pilgrimage is a part of most every major religion in the world. Muslims have Mecca, Jews have Jerusalem, Buddhists have the Bodi tree at Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. When we journey to these places, we do so for intensely personal reasons. While the outward journey may be one of self sacrifice, of faith, of community, the inward journey may be about compassion, devotion, and love.

It is this love that is needed so desperately now, at this perilous and profoundly opportunistic intersection in human evolution. When people are capable of such love for life, for friends, for family, for the wild earth that we are inextricably a part of, there is cause for hope, for joy, for our future.

Two people surrounded by many, each on a journey for something that they love. Join them.

The He Walks She Rocks journey:

The Get Out Migration:

The Four Reminders

Recently I did some campaign style work for a coalition of environmental organizations. While I’ve served a number of conservation groups since leaving my post at in 2005, it’s been more than five years since I was directly involved with a campaign. I’d almost forgotten how stressful it can be, and was surprised at how easy it is to get caught up in the tension that comes with that work.

Over the weekend I re-read one of my favorite books – Comfortable with Uncertainty – by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.  I was looking for some insight into how I might re-engage in the effort to protect wild landscapes and the creatures that live in them, without spiraling into the sort of dysfunction that drove me from the environmental movement half a decade ago. I flipped to a chapter of the book called “The Four Reminders” and it was exactly what I needed.

Buddhism’s Four Reminders are talisman to help us constantly return to the present moment. It is through this presence that we can surmount the obstacles that we face head on, with compassion and without fear.

The four reminders are:

Our precious human birth; the truth of impermanence; the law of karma and; the futility of samsara.

Our precious human birth: the work we do as activists is hard. We’re often times struggling against seemingly impossible odds, and we’re doing so because something that we love is threatened. This creates terrible pressures and leads to anxiety, stress and fear. But remembering our precious human birth – the simple fact that each of us is alive and here on this marvelous if not troubled planet – allows us to extend ourselves to one another in a way that might overcome our fear. We can open our hearts and act with love, not fear, and in doing so return to the present moment of our work.

The truth of impermanence: This might be our last moment on earth. We’re just passing through and nobody can say for certain what happens next. This can cause a lot of anxiety. That’s OK. But it can also help us return to the present and create a thankfulness for the gift of being able to work together to make the world a better place.

The law of karma: Every action has a reaction. Everything we do, everything we say, creates energy that can help us or hinder us in our efforts to succeed in our efforts. I often times act out of pure habit, and speak from a life of fear based reaction. But I’m learning – very slowly – to interrupt my habitual way of responding to the world, and taking a moment to pause. In that empty space I can sometimes chart a new course, one that emerges not from fear, but from love. I’d like to believe that this moment will yield results for the things I believe are important in the world.

The futility of samsara. According to Pema Chodron, samsara is the act of preferring death over life: “It comes from always trying to create safety zones. We get stuck here because we cling to a funny little identify that gives us some kind of security. Painful though it may be.” I for one have long been attached to the story of myself, and my place in the world. It’s served me from time to time, but I’m pretty sure that if I was to abandon the idea of a fixed identity and instead embraced the uncertainty of every moment, I could be more available to those I seek to serve.

I am going to continue to try and make the world a better place through my service to people, to places, to wild creatures, and to my own wild future. The Four Reminders will make this a little bit easier.

Silence as Strength

Recently I was part of a vigorous conversation about how to gain media attention for a conservation issue important to Canadians. The issue is complex, with multifaceted intergovernmental elements, and many of the government decision makers involved are skittish about media attention at the present time. To complicate matters, after nearly a decade long campaign to raise awareness of the issue, and with almost no noticeable progress during that lengthy interval, a recent announcement resulted in significant progress towards the conservation goals of the campaign.

The announcement wasn’t a gold medal performance, to use the language of the current media preoccupation, but if followed up by another strong performance – read, another positive announcement – it might warrant a trip to the podium by the key decision makers.

That announcement might be forthcoming in short order, and the debate I was involved in was whether or not to issue a preemptive media release to ensure our conservation priorities are at the forefront when the story is reported. It seems that the media, when reporting on the recent announcement, didn’t report that we had only got about 1/3 of what we had wanted; they simplified the story, as they are apt to do, called it a win, and moved on.

Those in favor of the preemptive strike argued that in doing so we would demonstrate our prowess with the media, something that has come to define this particular campaign. The logic is that by not missing an opportunity to put pressure on decision makers, we would show them that they must address our demands. It’s fairly sound logic, and almost always carries the day.

Those opposed stated that given the intergovernmental nature of this particular campaign, pressure might cause one or more of the players to retreat from a positive position, and set our campaign back.

I added my two cents worth to the conversation, and then let the cadre of other voices have their say.

What I didn’t say was this: sometimes silence is a better demonstration of strength. Knowing when to say nothing, at least publically, can demonstrate to decision makers that you know how the game is played, and that you are playing it as well or better than your opponents are.

I haven’t written about the Tao of leadership and activism much recently, but intend to on this new BLOG. In Carry Tiger to Mountain there is a chapter called Retreat to Ride Tiger: Acting without Action.

In the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu says, in verse 3, “Sometimes the best action to take is to take no action / to embrace the unexpected as it occurs.”

“As activists, we are people of action. An activist acts. Some us fear that if we are not busy doing something for our cause, we are backsliding,” I note in Carry Tiger.

As activists, it feels awkward to do nothing in response to an opportunity. Doing nothing, after all, is the antithesis of being an activist! But taking no action is not the same as doing nothing; no action – or wu wei as Taoists call it – is a conscious choice.

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be for this particular situation. The decision to work behind the curtain to influence the media’s response to the forthcoming story may not yield the intended result. If that is the case, we may have to make some noise again to refocus the debate. That too is part of the Tao of strategy, the watercourse way: allowing the right action to arise of its own accord. To remain watchful and intuitive and know when to step back and when to push like hell is a skill that comes with experience.

Having strength does not mean always have to display it. In fact, having strength sometimes means stepping back, remaining silent and watchful, and allowing those you hope to influence perceive your power through that silence.

Preparing for the Perihelion Shift

This is an extraordinary time to be alive.

It is, arguably, the most important period in the history of humanity.

We face the most extraordinary challenges. The twin apocalyptic horseman of climate change and the loss of biological diversity are laying waste to so many of the world’s ecosystems. Global economic systems are failing. War and conflict plague us on nearly every continent.

And now, we see that these three monumental challenges have a common source: borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today. We have failed to respect the natural limits of our life-support systems, and in doing so, have amassed a staggering ecological and economic debt. The scarcity that this had created has lead Dennis C. Blair, the head of US Intelligence — the umbrella organization that overseas the FBI, the CIA and the NSA — to site the global economic crisis as his number one concern for global security.

While the world faces nearly unprecedented threats, I believe we have both the skill and the opportunity to meet them.

And so we have a choice to make:

What do we want to be doing during this most important time in the course of human kind? What do we want to be doing as individuals, and what do we want to do collectively, as a community, as a society, as a species?

The choices that we make now, today, will carry us as individuals and as a species into the next perihelion shift.

The perihelion is the point at which a celestial body, such as a planet or comet, is in its closest orbit to its star. In the case of Earth, the perihelion orbit takes place roughly every 23,500 years. That’s the point at which the Earth’s orbit is closest to the Sun. This perihelion is influenced by all of the other celestial bodies in the solar system. Other planets, moons, comets, and even factors like gasses and dust can influence the perihelion. If none of these other factors were involved, then the earth’s orbit around the Sun, for example, would always be exactly the same. But the gravitational forces of all the other objects spinning through space play a role in determining our trajectory.

People have been observing this for more than a hundred and fifty years. And during that time, they have noted anomalies in their calculations of the parabolic orbits that celestial bodies make around the sun. In short, sometimes planets and other bits of rock and ice, hurtling through space, don’t do what we expect them to: they experience a perihelion shift. Their orbits change unexpectedly. Astronomers guess that these shifts are the result of unforeseen forces: a moon or an asteroid, or even a dust cloud, that they can’t see which influences the gravity of the orbiting body.

We as a species are drawing near to the sun. Who among us will be that gravitational pull that creates the desperately needed perihelion shift that sets us on a new trajectory?

What will your part be in that shift? Your relative gravity need not be immense. Small things can create great change. A meteor can change the parabolic orbit of a planet. But we must choose. Now is not the time to be passive. Decide: what do you want to be doing during this most important time in the history of humanity. And then do it: joyfully, passionately, intelligently, and above all else, with love.

Drawing Closer to the Sun, Varkala, India

Drawing Closer to the Sun, Varkala, India