30 minutes of uninterrupted dawn chorus Hazel Hill Wood, recorded at the end of March. Hazel Hill is woodland nature reserve and education centre helping frontline staff develop resilience and wellbeing through connection with nature. While people are prevented from visiting the woods during lockdown, the team are working on ways to bring the wood to them during lockdown. Listening suggestions:
This week I have had the feeling that I have been struggling recently to find focus on my creative work. I have lots of projects on at the moment, and I am not satisfied that I am being able to draw a cohesive thread between them. I think this is important because I subscribe to the idea that to have impact on your work, you need to be regularly adding to it in a disciplined way – always adding momentum to the fly-wheel, as Jim Collins puts it.
A recent weekend of conservation work Hazel Hill Woods has revealed to me another woodland analogy for the struggles of daily life, and how we might overcome them. I am calling the analogy, Hazel vs. Hornbeam (the Fate of Best-laid plans).
It emerged when a team of us at the woods were cutting back an area of regenerating hornbeam trees in a clearing. In this patch the hornbeam had shot up to a dense crowd of 6ft-tall finger-thick stems, knitted together with a head-height mat of bramble. Our conservation aim had been to cut these back to chest height to stop them from encroaching on an important butterfly corridor through the woods.
As we slowly cut our way into the dense thicket we started to discover small trees in protective tubes that were being crowded out by the hornbeam and strangled by the bramble. As we uncovered more hidden trees in tubes, we realised that there was a whole array of them that had once been planted. We found hazel, oak, ash, holy and blackthorn struggling to grow in their protective tubes. They had been planted on another conservation weekend years ago but had been forgotten about, and were now being smothered by the naturally regenerating growth.
The woodland context
There is a hundred-year plan at Hazel Hill to transform the forest ecosystem from that of a commercial wood, in which just a few species grow, into a much more biodiverse environment, which is much more likely to be resilient to changes in climate. The area in which we were working had previously been occupied by sycamore trees. This undesirable species had been cleared with a grant from the forestry commission, and in the clearing created, a range of broadleaf species had been planted (the hazel, oak and ash), along with shrubs (the holly and the blackthorn) to create ground-level growth, which had been absent in the commercial forest.
Left to its own devices however, naturally regenerating hornbeam and bramble had quickly grown up and overtaken the planted trees. The former were on the way to winning, the battle for light, already killing some of the latter , and leaving the others struggling. In the short-run there is nothing wrong with hornbeam and bramble, but their short-term success was putting at risk the long-term resilience of the wood by preventing the development of a diverse tree species.
Best laid plans
For me, those broadleaf trees in their little tubes represent best laid plans that were being left unattended because of short-term factors. There are competing conservation priorities in the woods, and these planted trees had been left unattended. Our attention is the light that enables our best-laid plans to flourish. But too often we are forced to direct our attention towards short-term priorities: the deadlines that need to be met, the clothes that need to be folded, the colleagues that need to be briefed, the clients that need to be satisfied.
In the short-term these more immediate matters flourish as they benefit from our attention, but they don’t necessarily lead us to where we want to be. As you wade into the thicket of regrowth, all is lush and green at the top, benefiting as it does from the light of the forest clearing, but underneath, all is brown – there is no diversity. Down there is where our best-laid plans languish.
The feeling of being surrounded
At one point, four of us were working simultaneously and in close proximity in the same thicket. Though we were probably only a few metres apart we couldn’t see each other for all the hornbeam branches and briars that surrounded us. At times, our repeated cuts didn’t seem to be making a difference. I’d turn around and the path that I had driven would have closed in behind me.
This is what it can be like when we feel overwhelmed with matters competing for our attention. After some struggling, my strategy became to just to keep going in one direction. After a sustained, focused effort the lattice of branches and brambles would suddenly give way. A sense of being surrounded turned into a sense of direction; of liberation: I felt freer, able to pause and choose where to go next.
Cutting back our brambles
As I type, I still have some small scratches on my arms from cutting back the brambles. Clearing away some of the things which grab our attention can hurt. There is the pain of letting someone down, or the fear of getting into trouble. But what I noticed as I cut through barbed branches was that they fell away to nothing; untangled and trampled they lost all of their strength, freeing a way through to the trees in tubes.
Personal conservation strategies
Conservation work gives you time to think, and so I set my mind to thinking up strategies for protecting our best-laid plans.
Log what you planted
It sounds simple, but creating a map of what trees we planted where might help us to remember to tend to them every so often. During conservation weekends in which we are planting trees, getting the trees in the ground is a big achievement. It seems unnecessary to create a map of where we planted them. Surely we won’t forget? Inevitably we do. Simply noting down our plans gives us a fighting chance of remembering what we intended.
Once we know what we planted, one strategy is to make time to regularly tend our saplings. It would only take a small amount of systematic attention to keep the hornbeam and brambles in these area in check.
Sometimes though, we don’t have the luxury of being able to provide these things with regular attention. The alternative is to do what we did this weekend – every so often, go in there and cut back all the distractions and bathe our best laid plans with the totality of our attention. In daily life this might amount to a digital detox. Or, for a more substantial clear out, we might consider taking what Daniel Pink calls ‘Sagmeisters’ – regular sabbaticals interspersed in our working lives.
Our aim wasn’t to clear out all the hornbeam and bramble. Hornbeam regeneration is a natural part of the woodland ecosystem, as are the brambles that weave their way amongst them. We just need to create a bit of space for those slower-growing but ultimately very beneficial species to establish themselves. Similarly, short-term matters are part of the humdrum of daily life – we just need to carve out enough time to give our long-term plans the attention they deserve.
Get things established
Ocourse, the aim of all this cutting back is to enable the hazel, ash, oak, holly and blackthorn to establish themselves. As they start to mature they can look after themselves, and the hornbeam and brambles will subside. This is the point that Steven Covey makes in his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’ when he talks about what happens when we prioritise the important over the urgent. If we make time for the important things, we should see the number of urgent things we need to deal with reduce.
One day, decades after the scratches on my arms have healed, we’ll be able to sit under the shade of these broadleaf trees and know that our efforts to tend to them were worth it.
Last weekend 38 people came down to Hazel Hill for our annual Autumn Conservation weekend for two days of woodland conservation and human restoration. We design the weekend to be a mixture of invigorating outdoor conservation work and relaxation in the woods, with a dose of entertainment thrown in too.
Building on what we learnt from last year, we began the conservation work on the Saturday with a series of activities that would make an immediate and visible difference in the woods. An on-going conservation priority at Hazel Hill is the creation of butterfly rides, which serve two purposes. The first is to create the sort of wide path through the woods that enable the many rare species of butterflies that inhabit the surrounding fields to pass freely through the foerst. The second is to allow light in to the lower levels of the wood in order to increase the biodiversity.
This year we began our work by significantly widening the ride that runs from the forest ark to the southern cross, which had become significantly encroached upon by regenerating hornbeam. In the process we uncovered and liberated around twenty-five broadleaf trees in tubes that had previously been planted and which were being smothered by the hornbeam. I remember planting some of these trees myself on my first conservation weekend six years ago, and so I am pleased to see them being rescued. Any of this weekend’s participants returning to this spot in the wood in ten years time are now much more likely to find ash, oak and hazel trees maturing, thanks largely to their work this weekend.
I recently read Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Focus, and I have been thinking about how our ability to focus affects our ability to design. This thinking was the basis of a workshop session that I recently wrote about harnessing ‘wandering mind’, that mode in which the brain roams freely and forms new associations which are the basis of creative thought. I piloted this material as part of Think Up workshop on creativity that we ran at Hazel Hill wood in July, which seemed to go down well, so I am sharing it here.
Below is a modified extract from some of the course materials associated with this activity. I’d be interested to know if anyone reading recognises these phenomena or tries the approach I am recommending.
In his book Focus, emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman explains that the brain can really be understood as having two distinct sets of circuitry: the lower brain and upper brain. The lower brain whirs away in the background working on solving problems without us even noticing. Its activity only comes to our attention when it produces an idea as if from nowhere. The upper brain by contrast is the seat of self-control and is the part of the brain that we actively focus on a problem.
In evolutionary terms, the lower brain is the older part. The lower brain is the source of our impulses and emotional reactions. The upper brain can repress these impulses, but at the cost of diverting our attention from the design challenge on which we want to actively direct our focus. In this instance, the lower brain circuitry is causing a hindrance to creative thinking.
However, the lower brain does have a crucially important role to play in design. Research shows that in the moments before people achieve creative insight, their lower brain has been in a state of open awareness. In this state, the mind wanders freely, widely and without judgment to create new associations. When these new associations are made, the upper brain then locks in on them and fishes them out into our active attention.
In order to harness our wandering minds as part of the design process, our upper brain needs to be ready to spot a good idea when it emerges. To do this we need to do two things. The first is to make time in which we stop actively thinking about things and let out thoughts come to us, for example, going for walk or even going on holiday. The second is to minimise distractions, which divert our active attention away from spotting new ideas as they emerge from the lower brain. In other words, making time we when turn off our smart phones and blocking out interruptions.