Most of my best thinking happens when I am walking my dog Charlie. You might know Charlie, the Conservation Dog. He has been helping us teach elementary and middle school students about conservation over the last five years as part of the Conservation Pack.
He works pretty cheaply. He insists on getting a little something off my plate and twice daily walks. Part of his contract is that we have to walk out at Ada Hayden Heritage Park at least once a week. Ada Hayden is small lake outside Ames that is surrounded by prairie, wetlands and marked by rocks with the images of famous conservationists, such as Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold, carved into them. Charlie always tends to pee on Aldo for some reason. Perhaps he is hoping that someday his face will grace a rock out at the lake to commemorate his contribution to conservation in Iowa!
Yesterday morning, despite the cold weather and the snow, Charlie and I headed out to Ada Hayden. It was a gorgeous morning. There was a mist over the lake because the lake was still warmer than the air above it. The trees were covered in a snowy frost. There were hundreds of geese and ducks on the lake. Charlie was as happy as Charlie gets when we are out there. Charlie did his sniffing thing and I did my thinking thing. We are both as happy as we get when we are out there.
I was hoping to come up with some kind of idea to write as a Thanksgiving blog. As we walked, I kept thinking about gratitude and generosity. Now most people understand that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks and being grateful. We have all experienced Thanksgiving meals where we go around the table and express our gratitude for something. If you think about it, behind every grateful thought is usually an act of generosity. If we go by the story of the pilgrims we were taught in grade school, they wouldn’t have survived without the generosity of the native people and so it was right for them to be grateful.
We also would not survive without the generosity of people around us. It is one of the most powerful things we can do as human beings. Generosity is the only thing that I have ever seen that motivates people to change their lives. You can’t force people to be generous — it has to be inspired. An act of giving that is forced is not generous. Generosity is an act of love. Likewise, true gratitude also comes from the heart. I know there are studies that document that generosity is hardwired into our human psyche. It doesn’t mean we innately know how to be generous but it means that our bodies respond positively to acts of generosity. The same is also true of acts of gratitude.
I was thinking about the Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners. The ones who seem to influence their neighbors the most are the ones who practice generosity and gratitude. I have seen them go out of their way to help others and to share their knowledge, time and resources. Their generosity extends beyond other people to the very land that has given them their living. They express their gratitude to the land by nurturing it through cover crops, wetlands, no-till, rotational grazing, native plantings, and other acts of conservation. Such acts aren’t just generous in the present moment but are gifts to future generations. Regardless of commodity prices and the costs of farming, you will always get a high return on your generosity and gratitude.
What we do to our environment, we ultimately do to ourselves. I know it is crazy to ask people to simplify their lifestyles and focus more on their human relationships and their relationship with the earth. We won’t sustain our land and water if we don’t respond both individually and systemically. None of us are insulated by the consequences of our personal, institutional and policy choices when it comes to our natural resources. Is it crazy to ask people to do a little less so that we can give more to future generations? Crazy — yeah. The only way we get to a more sustainable future is for everyone to get a little crazy in their generosity!
During this Thanksgiving Week, I am really grateful that I get to work with such a wonderful team at the Iowa Learning Farms: Matt, Ann, Liz, Nathan, Mark, and Jamie. Grateful for the dedication of our partnerships: farmer partners (yes, even you Jerry!), IDALS, IDNR (USEPA), NRCS, PFI, Leopold Center, the Iowa Water Center, and USDA-ARS. I am grateful to work at such a wonderful institution, Iowa State University, and be a part of Extension and Outreach. Of course I am grateful for the Conservation Pack: Charlie, Jackie and Stewy! Thanks to all of you for making my job such a great job. Your generosity is inspiring change in me and others in the state.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. They seem so arbitrary. This year I will try some Thanksgiving commitments. I vow to be more generous in the amount of time and resources I put into both my personal environmental choices and in my role as program director. I vow to be grateful for everything, even those things that challenge and frustrate me. I vow to keep walking Charlie at least twice a day as long as we both are able.
I know I am never going to be carved into a rock as a great conservationist but hopefully the exuberance of my generosity might inspire others who will go on to do great things to sustain and protect our common home. I would like to do what I need to do today so that people in the future will be grateful. Happy Thanksgiving!