Walking With Someone Who Knows Something Different

This week we hosted a forest survey workshop. Our local USDA agent asked if they could use our small parcel of woodland as a training opportunity for the staff from the surrounding field offices. That was fine with me. So on a pleasantly breezy morning, I tagged along and and spent a few hours learning how they measure forest stand density, how they classify different forest biomes, and which criteria they use for evaluating the potential for different forest management practices.

Apart from the instructional portion, I most enjoyed the chance to walk the woods with people who were interested in this environment. Much of the time was spent simply wandering around, chatting, making observations, asking questions, and building a narrative sense of the often secretive life of these woods. I love opportunities to walk a familiar place with folks who know something deeply, those who have spent their lives gathering specific knowledge through intense personal involvement with a skill or a practice.

Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to walk the farm with hunters, loggers, wildlife biologists, archeologists, and local historians. Each one has offered unique and special insights into some aspect of this land and the plants, fungi, and animals living here, insights I might never have considered on my own. The special moments appear spontaneously when my companion will stop and point at something, saying “now this is interesting”, “see, this is what I was talking about”, or “I’m surprised to see this here.”

I can’t categorically dismiss the potential for learning from the sorts of leaders, experts, and public intellectuals who feature in news programs, podcasts, and lectures. But I’d probably always pass on an opportunity to listen to the world’s foremost talker on a subject for a chance to walk with an obscure practitioner of that same subject. We’re surrounded by platform building and influencers, models of interaction that depend on hierarchy. I don’t think that communication at large scale (even my farm blog falls under this suspicion) is the best or healthiest mode for being social humans. I much prefer the way we can learn alongside one another.

I can’t pretend that walking with folks will be a panacea, that it is the one thing missing from our lives, or that it would reshape all of human interaction. But I do think it points us toward a better way to be together. I appreciate the way a walk in the woods or through a field begins by taking two people, perhaps two strangers, and physically positions them near each other. The activity itself creates a common purpose and lays the foundations for a sense of camaraderie. It invites opportunities to share our observations about our surroundings. We begin to see and to understand new things about our surroundings, and about each other. I’ll gladly take that walk.

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