18 March 2009

Preaparing for Change

As spring slowly starts to seem possible once again, we prepare for the change of seasons.

The heavy sweaters and wool socks won't go into storage for a long time yet, but the short sleeved t-shirts get a run through the wash as they become viable wardrobe options once more, and last year's sandals are checked to see if they will hold up through another season. The calendar is pulled down from the wall and the dates for planting are checked and double checked against a countdown to the last frost date. Seedlings are put into peat moss to get a jump on the growing season, and when their roots poke through the newspaper pots, they are transplanted into tomato tins so they have more room to grow. Drawing after drawing of the garden layout is made and discarded, then retrieved for further examination and thought. Pasture layout and gate placement diagrams go through the same process, with frequent trips outside to the snow covered yard to imagine what it would look like with a fence through here, or a gate over there.

A lot of the preparations for the change of seasons are thought experiments: What would the garden be like if I put the herbs in containers instead of a raised bed? Where could we put in an orchard? If we had two cow/calf pairs that needed to get from the back pasture to a shelter at night, and we need an easy path to the barn for the cow who is in milk, where would the fences and gates have to go? How could we design a chicken coop that let the birds into the garden in the winter and kept them out in the summer?

These things are a lot easier to experiment with in thought than in reality: you don't want to build a fence and hang a gate and then discover that you put the gate where the snow drifts two feet deep in the winter so you can't open it. You don't want to plant fruit trees near the house and then realize that you've just invited the local bees and hornets to hang out by your back door.

You also want to build in some flexibility, because even (or perhaps especially) carefully laid plans are still subject to change. We only have one cow/calf pair at the moment, but what if we decided that we needed two? The chickens currently free range all the time, but what if we wanted to confine some of them for part of the year, or if we needed to isolate some of the birds for breeding or egg laying? Thought experiments let you wander down possible paths of the future, without committing to anything in particular. Yet.

Of course, the trick to a successful thought experiment is to really think. You have to consider not only what you want to accomplish, how you might go about it, and the various alternate pathways that you might seek out in the future, you also have to imagine the things that might go wrong, the full and varied consequences of the changes you are planning to make, and the ways that the situation might evolve over time.

This kind of thing can be really enjoyable, if you let it be. After all, there's no pressure to get it right the first time: if you come up with a better design in a week, you can draw that plan out too and then let both ideas sit for awhile until you truly have to choose one or the other. Maybe in the meantime you'll stumble across a website with ideas you hadn't thought of yet, or a book with a a plan that will work in your situation with just a little tweak. In the end you may have several drafts that are variations on a theme: sometimes, it's the theme that's common to all of the ideas you've had that is the real clue as to how to proceed.

Thought experiments let you safely explore scary ideas with minimal risk. You can ponder things you're really not ready to try yet (or things that you hope you will never have to try) safe in the privacy of your own mind. Drawing pictures won't cost you anything, and researching is cheap or free. Maybe you'll never need or want to implement what you've thought about, in which case you haven't really lost anything. Then again, maybe the situation you were hoping to avoid will appear with little or no warning. If it does, you'll be able to reach into your memory and retrieve the thoughts you had about something a lot like this, and voila, you have a ready-made plan at your disposal right when you need it.

I often say I don't believe in planning, I believe in being prepared. Real life seems to fiercly resist all efforts at planning ... well, my life does, anyway. If I sat down and carefully plotted out exactly where I'd put each thing in the garden, I can guarantee that for a number of good reasons, a lot of things wouldn't get planted according to the diagram. There'd be more tomato plants than I expected, or fewer cucumbers, or the zucchini would be taking over the place before I even got going ... it would never be like it was on paper. So why do I bother with the paper? Why do the thought experiments at all? Why not just wing it?

I prepare because if I have five or six (or seven or eight) different options, all of which I've drawn out and considered and contemplated and weighed, then when I'm out there in the dirt with my seedlings and trowel, I have a collection of ideas that can be mixed and matched when I finally have all the information I need to make the final choices. I also know that the ideas that stuck around are the ones that elimiated the big mistakes I made when I first did my drawings: I'll remember that there was a reason all the later plans left the space beside the gate clear ... it's so that the finished compost can be easily dumped into the garden without crushing any plants. All the time spent at the kitchen table in the depths of winter pays off when I can stand in the spring garden and quickly choose from the ideas I came up with back when I had time to think at leisure.

So, like every other year, we have a set of thought experiments bubbling along to work through the questions that arrive with the onset of spring. This year, though, there's another set of thought experiments on the go at the same time: there are big changes that look ever more likely to arise in the larger world, changes that could rather substantially shift the base assumptions about the way we go through our days. Just because we can't be sure what is going to happen, or just because we hope that nothing really big will shift ... well, that doesn't mean we can't at least think about ways we might deal with these kinds of things if they did, by some chance, happen in our corner of the world.

So, since thought experiments are safe and free, we can allow ourselves to edge our way little by little towards the ideas of change, exploring the possibilities and thinking about how we might cope if something really did shift in a big way. And then, if change does happen to come our way, we can choose from the good ideas we came up with when we had time to think at leisure.

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