Milky Way

The Quest for Common Language

November 2014

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Over time, communication that is built on the intent to find an expand common ground, mutual caring for the well-being of the other, honesty, and the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable – and hence real – with the other person will build trust, and increase the possibility that communication will lead to mutual benefit.

Still, with all these prerequisites in place, it is important to understand that words do not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. Just as Inuit languages are reported to have 50 synonyms for the word “snow” – a claim disputed by linguists who can’t even always agree on what a “word” is – most words in any language carry nuances that aren’t apparent without some inquiry. Since all communication begins with words and language, it is important to pursue this inquiry as a preliminary to clear communication.

Here in the land cooperative where I live, for example, we have spent the last 30 years getting clear what we mean when we talk about “forest management.” Does a forest need to be managed? What does management mean? What is a forest? What is a healthy forest? How do you know if a given management practice leads to a healthy forest? Even if we can agree that we all want a healthy forest, and that forest management is necessary to improve the health of the forest, the actual reality of forest management is different than what it is imagined to be before it is done. So, to talk in a clear way about “forest management” all of these questions must be addressed.

The answers to these questions will often vary based on past experience, and past experience will differ from person to person. When I first came to the forest, I had an idea in my head that I would create an orchard. Doing so required me to cut about 40 reasonably large trees to create a clearing in which I could plant my fruit trees. Doing this actually made me physically sick. When the job was finished I was horrified at what I had done. I felt like a butcher, guilty of genocide. I eventually did plant my orchard, and then subsequently lost all my fruit trees but one, when I moved away and was unable to take care of them. But I also took with me a loathing for any kind of human intervention into the life of the forest. Forest management became a four-letter word for me, and I brought this with me to the table of subsequent community discussions.

Since none of my neighbors ever asked me why I felt the way I did, nor did my story or theirs ever get told, our communication about forest management was little more than a standoff behind entrenched positions for many years. Without the stories, without an understanding of how we each came to our separate conclusions about forest management, genuine communication was impossible, much less finding the common ground that would allow us to develop a viable forest management policy to deal with the declining health of a forest we all agreed needed some attention.

Fast forward to 2009, when a derecho – or inland hurricane – blew through our forest and knocked down hundreds of large trees. The storm took all of 20 minutes, but for the next two years, my neighbors and I all worked together to clean up the debris. It was contentious at first, but after spending two entire days as a community cutting our way out to the main road, helping each other through weeks without power or phones, and then gradually coming to empathize with our common plight, we started coming together around a forest management plan that worked reasonably well for everyone.

Personally, my own attitude toward forest management shifted because of my experience of this storm. With 6 of my 10 acres severely damaged, and 3 of 10 moderately damaged, I became one of two landowners in the county eligible for a disaster relief grant. I hired a mule logger to cut and skid the 300 or so large trees blown down by the storm; sold the oak to a local flooring mill; milled the pine to build a shed; and spent a thousand hours over the next two years with my chain saw, cleaning up tops, and other debris, while my partner created swales, burned brush, and stacked firewood.

Throughout the process, I got to know every square inch of my land, and felt much more connected to it than I did before I started. I saw that I had a part to play in managing the forest where I lived, in a sense, finishing and finessing what the brute force of the derecho had started. I felt the gratitude of the trees; and I began to feel included in a large community – both human and more-than-human. Meanwhile, I got to know several local loggers, heard some of their stories, and began to empathize with their approach to forest management – most of which, revolved around wanting to preserve the forests so their children could continue a dangerous livelihood that had nonetheless kept their families alive for several generations.

All of this fed a much more open-minded attitude toward forest management that I was able to bring to a discussion with neighbors, with whom I had shared a common experience, and who no doubt had their own personal epiphanies about forest management. We did share some of these stories; ideally we would have shared more. But in any case, our common experiences created common ground out of which a common language in relation to the concept of forest management could emerge.

Where such common experiences do not exist, it is worth taking time to hear the stories behind the words that we use, in order to understand what they actually mean to the people we are talking to. Then, and only then, does it become possible to empathize with those who carry different points of view. When we can empathize, and see the world from the vantage point of those with whom we communicate, then we can move from the entrenched position of our own view into a field of common ground.

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