Letter Re: The Survival Mindset–Becoming Part of the Social Ecosystem

Hello James:
In many ways, communities behave like biological organisms. They respond to foreign invaders like our bodies respond to the flu virus. They respond to “us” like our bodies respond to “us”. They may not actively nourish teeth, hair or fingernails, but they do not reject them either.

One key aspect to creating community is to be visible before the balloon goes up.

I run for exercise. I tend to wear the same kinds of outfit every time I run: a swim trunks and a brown tie-dyed shirt. My runs extend 8 miles out. Some Sundays I run home from church (8 miles). A couple of days a year I run home from work (12 miles). Most runs are a circular route or an out-and-back that stays within 4.5 miles of home.

I like to run my routes in both directions. Inertia makes it easy to run the same route the same way each time. But there are major dividends to mixing it up. You will be amazed at what you see when you travel a favorite path in reverse. In fact, one of the prime rules to avoid getting lost is to keep looking back because things look totally different when viewed from the other direction.

You will see berry patches, fruit trees, prime trapping spots, hop vines, out-buildings, open water, salvageable junk that you never knew was there.

Another advantage of traveling different routes and favorite routes in reverse is that you will see people and people will see you.

An iconic event in my life is the day after a tornado went down our driveway and leveled four of our outbuildings, including a full-sized, hip-roofed barn. The day after the tornado was marked by 60-mph winds. Directly downwind of our shredded barns was the house of an 80 year-old couple. I spent the day latching hold of sheet metal roofing, and attempting to anchor it down.

Finally, I ran out of places to stash the 18” by 10’ long razor blades that the wind kept trying to launch downrange. I called a local salvage yard.

“Nope. I am full. I cannot take any more metal.”

“Wait a sec. Where did you say you live? What did you say your name is?”

“Come by in an hour. I will make some room”

Danny stacked a couple of car bodies on top of an adjacent double stack to make room. After laying down a couple of truck loads of roofing metal he anchored it down with the car bodies.

He explained to me: “People look down on people in the salvage business. It took me a minute to figure out who you were. You and your wife wave at me when you are out walking… like you are glad to see me. Heck, you even waved me down once and asked me about what kind of softball bat to get your daughter. You let me know that my opinion carried weight with you. That may not be a big deal to a lot of people. But it is a big deal to me. Out here, treating people with respect counts for something.”

It was never my expectation that I would gain something by treating Danny with respect. My basic outlook on life is that all pedestrians should treat those piloting 6,000-lb. machines with respect.

Another seminal story from my life was when our daughter took our family down to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans as a graduated senior from high school. Our family tradition is to go on a ‘senior class trip’ with our family. The graduated senior plans a family trip that is in alignment with our family values. Instead of spending thousands of dollars sending an almost-adult on an unsupervised trip where they will be subjected to much temptation to do things not in alignment with our family values, we put a like amount in an account and let the almost-adult plan a trip. Our daughter chose post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and rebuilding/refurbishing housing. I cannot remember when I have been more proud of my daughter.

She made reservations in a hotel on the North side of the Ninth Ward. I remember chatting with the clerk at the front desk. New Orleans can be a very tough town. He (a Caucasian) could walk at-will….but only because he was local and he was known. Even so, he had a limited corridor where he felt safe (known) traveling and he had a limited time horizon of when he was part of the local ecosystem. He had no words strong enough to explain the stupidity of non-natives going into pedestrian mode in that neighborhood. I believed him.

Another character from my life was Carol E. She was in her 50s when I was in my mid-teens. She had lived the life of an adventurer. She had hiked in Tibet. She had rafted the headwaters of the Ganges. She had hitchhiked and ridden trains across Europe.

As a doddering 55 year old, she regularly crisscrossed three counties in central Michigan. She was a fixture. She knew where the water-cress grew. She knew where the young bucks threw their returnable beverage containers. The dogs barked at her, but only to say “Hello”.

We came into her orbit because we lived a scant four miles from her home and we had apple trees. She very politely asked my dad if he minded her eating one from the ground when her travels took her by our place. Of course he did not mind, being of the opinion he would rather give a gift and gain another neighbor who felt protective of us than to say “No” and gain ill-will (and she might take them anyway).

I learned a fair amount from her as the apple season progressed from the Jerseymac apples, to the Gala, the Liberty, Jonafree, Northern Spy and finally, Gold Rush.

The take-home is that she had right-of-passage nearly everywhere within 15 miles of her home because she exercised and maintained it. She was a familiar, and therefore accepted, member of the local social ecosystem. – Joe H.