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October 30, 2006

Dear People,

This fall in the East in two separate five-day events, I offered the Work That Reconnects --and found myself re-connecting to two powerful women who weren't even there. Along with all who actually took part in the work, Dana and Daidee seemed present as well. One was a great systems thinker and organizational player in service to a sustainable world. The other was my grandmother.

Over the years in the courses I taught I relied on Donella (or Dana) Meadows' books (the classic Limits to Growth and especially Beyond the Limits) to make systems thinking both intelligible and dramatically relevant. I counted on her monthly "Dear Folks" newsletter, as well as her syndicated newspaper column "The Global Citizen," to lift my heart as well as furnish my mind. I never met her, though, till the day we taught together at the Institute for Deep Ecology summer school. It wasn't long after that when, in full flower, at the height of her powers, Dana died. Just after moving to the Hartland,Vermont farmland where the consulting firm she had founded and the co-housing community she had inspired were settling in, she was struck by a sudden fatal illness.

So you can imagine how strongly, on my first visit to the place, she kept entering my mind. These are the maple-wooded hillsides she loved, this the "welcoming garden" she planted by the road; this lovely lanky man is the Stephen who created in partnership with her the organic, horse-powered farm; this spacious, welcoming structure we're working in is the Common House where she lived the last month of her life.

I was brought there by Edie Farwell, whom some of you from my intensives know. As resident of the Cobb Hill Co-Housing Dana founded, a member of Dana's Sustainability Institute, and director of the program created in Dana's memory (the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows), Edie had long nourished the notion of bringing these different realms together for an experience of the Work That Reconnects.

Here are some words Edie recently sent out describing the event:

"The workshop was a first on many fronts. It was Joanna's first time with us. It was the first time that participants from the two classes of the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows Program met together. It was the first time that 100% of SI staff were in a workshop together. Usually a subset of us go to workshops, but never before have we had all eleven of us attend a workshop in full. This was also the first time that Cobb Hill members participated in such a workshop together, and first time to join forces with the Fellows and with SI.

"It felt as if all four of these groups were circles that revolved around carrying on some of Donella (Dana) Meadow's work - the two classes of Fellows in her name, SI which she founded, and Cobb Hill which she co-founded and for which was a primary visionary. At the end of the workshop it felt like one large circle of us all working together carrying on Dana's work, Joanna's work and each of our own work for sustainability, both collectively and individually.

"Joanna led the sixty of us in a series of experiential sessions, presentations, activities and discussions…we found exceptionally powerful. Her main tools are systems thinking, Buddhism, and deep ecology, and more recently deep time. She uses systems thinking to show how we are leaving behind the industrial age and moving towards a life-sustaining civilization (or a sustainability age as Dana called it), Buddhism to show how we have choice to form our future and to strengthen our effectiveness, deep ecology to learn from plants and animals, and deep time to delve into how future generations will view this era.

"A primary goal of her work is to empower people to fend off apathy, despair and overwhelm, and to do their part as fully and effectively as possible to help bring about the sustainability age, or the Great Turning as she calls it. She uses exercises, tools, and teachings to inspire people to be knowledgeable about the extent of environmental and social devastation around us, to fully feel it, to not shut down in the face of it, and to have the wherewithal to find joy in this world even in the face of bone-deep knowledge of the increasing challenges. And to be clear on the most effective strategies each of us can do. Dana's Beyond the Limits is a primary book on which she bases much of her work. A related goal of Joanna's work is to help communities facing crisis or uncertainty to choose the path of solidarity, learning, strength and unity, rather than isolation, despair, and in-fighting.”

I loved my time at Cobb Hill, loved the clear air of late September and the turning colors, loved being in the company of people banking their lives on a livable future. On our last full day together there was a collective move to create a memorial service for Dana. The ritual, very simple, was spacious and deep. Fall flowers from her "welcoming garden" were placed in the center of the big room at the top of the Common House, with a photograph of her face set beside it, and in concentric circles we all took our places. As we entered, the opera music Dana loved, the very CD she was playing near the end--a love duet from La Traviata--engulfed the room. Then, in the ensuing silence, people spoke, randomly and simply. It was a completion that was also a new beginning.

When I could get her to talk about her childhood, my grandmother Daidee would tell of how her great-grandparents left Virginia at the time of the Revolutionary War. Loyal to the king, they pulled up roots and transplanted themselves to New Brunswick. There, in Canada's Maritime provinces, my Whitehead and Hartley ancestors lived for over a century, until they journeyed west to Minnesota by covered wagon. Daidee was ten at the time, with a dozen living brothers and sisters. Feeling a strange pride in that stubborn ancestral line, I had an avid appetite for her stories of early years in a land I pictured as wild and wind-blown.

This month, after Cobb Hill, I went there for the first time. At a rural training center called Tatamagouche on the north shore of Nova Scotia, I shared the Work That Reconnects with over fifty people from the Atlantic provinces, as well as Quebec, Ontario, and even the Yukon. Beauty surrounded me and filled me to overflowing. It came in the form of wide skies and wide waters where blazing trees were mirrored and wild geese swept in. It came in the form of attentive, thoughtful faces breaking into tears and laughter and song. Maybe you've heard some of them singing, in recordings of the women's choirs across Canada performing Caroline McDade's hymns to our living planet (e.g. O Beautiful Gaia).

So I thought of Daidee, as I do most days of my life, though I haven't seen her for fifty years. There in the land she had walked as a child, I imagined how those very skies and shores watched her grow, how they nourished the courage and curiosity she would manifest her whole life. I am so like her, in the shape of my face and the contours of my mind. I wonder what she would make of my break with patriarchal religion, and if she would stir, as I do, to these women's soaring voices praising Gaia.

I am grateful for the strong lives that have woven into mine.