Systems Thinking through Art in Nature

Four pieces

Art pieces by Jay Mead, Michaelyn Bachhuber, Nirmala Nair, and Dominic Stucker

By Dominic Stucker, Program Manager at Sustainability Leaders Network.

Systems thinking and creativity are essential for bringing about the transition to sustainability. Systems thinking helps us assemble diverse stakeholders to better understand the integrated economic, social, and environmental systems we seek to change. Creativity and art help us gain clarity in vision and tap into the breakthrough thinking necessary for innovating a new reality, a new relationship between people and planet. Fortunately, these leadership skills are mutually reinforcing, especially through making art in nature.

Immersing ourselves in nature, sitting quietly, eyes opened, eyes closed, we can hone our skills of observation, noticing patterns and processes that have evolved over millennia. Using all our senses, we can experience and learn from nature. Perhaps we see the streams, brooks, and river in a basin, noticing nature’s nested hierarchies. Or we reflect on the larger water cycle, a process that, instead of linear and polluting, is cyclical and cleansing. Gazing skyward from a soft bed of pine needles, we can observe the forest’s resilience in flexibility, trees swaying in the wind. Or we smell the pungent soil, part of annual cycle that returns sustenance to the trees’ roots. Perhaps we see the genius in a flower, tracking the sun and folding its petals at dusk; or in the capacity of a cactus to store water; or in the design of a feather. We can learn from and co-create with these natural systems.

I have had the privilege and joy of participating in several Art of Sustainability sessions with Vermont artist and educator, Jay Mead. Two that stand out were along the Housatonic River in rural Connecticut and along a wild part of the Connecticut River in Vermont. Jay invites participants to see nature anew through quiet observation, sensing, and play. The invitation includes being fully present, setting aside transient to do lists and deep-seated preconceptions about how the world works. Participants are asked to start from a place of unknowing – playful for some, meditative for others – being open for deeper wisdom to emerge.

Encouraged to accentuate patterns in nature, we created a wide variety of art from found materials. For me, I was drawn to the flow of water in each basin and created pieces that traced these lines (mine is the piece in the lower right, in the image above). Personally, I think I wanted greater flow in my own life, a balance of the dynamism and confidence of water as it makes its way through the world. Professionally, I am now conducting research on how climate change impacts water resources, and how we might cooperate in basins to adapt.

Needless to say, Jay is expert in helping people tap into their own creativity as a way to explore, express, and clarify visions for the future. In addition to personal discoveries, people often gain a greater sense of connection to the group and the place. One participant noted:

The Art of Sustainability session helped me to profoundly reconnect with (a) the natural system in which we live and (b) my own potential as a creative being. The result for me has been a deepening experience of a very powerful way of being in the world – a way of being that creates the space for me to show up for life differently, to connect with people differently, to ask different questions, and to generate different responses to the challenges I encounter. I hesitate to describe this as a NEW way of being – rather, in my heart, it feels like an entirely OLD way of being… but a way of being to which I had lost my connection. – Michael Dupee, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Senior Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility, Vermont

The creative process is one of humility and co-creation with nature, with the vision for the piece often emerging through the process of creating it. Trista Patterson, for example, collected small red berries and wanted to create a heart shape alongside a stream flowing into the Housatonic River. The water, however, pulled some of the berries into the current, carrying them into eddies downstream and highlighting flows not visible to the casual observer. The lesson was one of letting go, of collaboration, of fully participating in the process and being open to an array of outcomes. In reflecting on the piece, Trista pointed out the importance in her own life of eddying out of the current, of taking time for herself in order to keep working at her highest capacity. She described the co-creative process in this way:

If I followed my heart and I put things where I thought they should be, nature would show me the patterns of places where things would eddy out all by themselves. And they would create their own patterns somewhere downstream, maybe not exactly to my intention, but maybe somehow more beautiful or more wild or more consistent with natural principles. – Trista Patterson, United States Forest Service, Ecological Economist, Alaska

Ultimately, the creative process helps us learn about ourselves, learn about our place in the world, and clarify our visions for the future. Another participant described what she got out of the session: “My vision is really powerful around healing work, which is an aspect of sustainability that I think is really important.” – Elaine Kohrman, United States Forest Service, Social Scientist, Oregon.

View this video, by Colleen Bozuwa, documenting our Art of Sustainability session along the Housatonic River.

From a systems perspective, Donella (Dana) Meadows, in her article Dancing with Systems (2002), describes the importance of letting go:

The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned… We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!

Dana goes on to highlight some of the same qualities we practiced in Jay’s Art of Sustainability sessions as guidance for navigating the complex systems we seek to change. At least four are about observation and learning:

  • get the beat
  • listen to the wisdom of the system
  • expose your mental models to the open air
  • stay humble, stay a learner

These encourage us to notice the diversity of stakeholders in a system, flows of information, and behavior of the system over time. Dana encourages us to notice what works well before making changes and, when we intervene, to do so in the spirit of experiment, learning from our mistakes.

She goes on to describe these three nuggets of systems wisdom:

  • expand time horizons
  • expand thought horizons
  • expand the boundary of caring

When creating art with nature, we come to learn that all things are interconnected, that there are, for example, a great many people and natural processes to thank for the food on our plates. By expanding the geographic and temporal scope of care, we inform decisions that we make, decisions that impact people in distant places and futures, thus increasing our collective chances to survive and thrive. As another participant, Maria Carvajal, Founder of SuMar, Choices for Nature in Mexico noted, the larger purpose of social change work is “trying to integrate humans with the patterns of nature.”

These pieces of wisdom, present both in systems thinking and creativity, are essential for addressing the many challenges we face in bringing about a sustainable future for people and planet. They seek meaning, expansive possibilities, and the big picture, offering a profound sense of new possibilities. Sustainability is an art. And art helps us break through old ways of thinking to get to sustainable solutions.

To learn more about and view Jay Mead’s work, visit his website.

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