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Life begins the day you start a garden - Part 1

Today, my partner suggested I write about business using an extended metaphor of how I garden. I haven't been feeling particularly inspired to write, but it's a good writing prompt, and I agreed to do it with the caveat that it be more broadly about building, running, or improving any organization, institution, even an entire country rather than narrowly about for-profit enterprise.

To tell the story of the garden is to tell the story of how I think about my work, whether that be working in the garden, working on a piece of art or music, building an organization, or nursing one back to health. It can sometimes be most challenging when you cannot simply start with a blank slate, and have to work within the confines of an existing architecture, with limited budget, salvaging what can be salvaged, repurposing what can be useful, letting time and stressors reveal weaknesses, knowing when to uproot something, and knowing when to cut dead wood.

To tell the story of the garden, it is necessary to first tell the story of our house. It was built probably around 1840. We're not exactly sure, the first paperwork on it is from 1896 but it is most certainly older than that and appears on the earliest hand-drawn maps of our town as the only house on the block. The original farm probably took up the whole block, and may even have been larger at one point. It would have been some distance from the more developed downtown area at the time, and on the very edge of the settlement.

The remains of most recent wood stove

The original stone threshold for the barn is out behind our shed. The house didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity until the 1960s and only a cast iron wood stove for heat until probably the 1980s. The last rusted bits of the original wood stove were in the garden when we moved in, as well as a more recent stove the previous occupants had been using as a outdoor fire pit.

The woman who lived here before us left a detailed letter with as much history about the house as she had been able to track down. Her father, a Mr. Olsen, had purchased the house from an elderly woman in the 1960s, a retired schoolteacher who lived here alone. I do not know the elderly woman's name, or if she was a widow or a spinster, but for the sake of storytelling we shall refer to her as Ms. Johnson. Based on her approximate age, she could have been perhaps a granddaughter of the family who built the house.

The story Mr. Olsen told his daughter, is that when he bought the house Ms. Johnson came to him to explain that she had only sold the house because she could no longer afford the property taxes but that she had no place else to go. Mr. Olsen agreed to rent the house to her for something like $30 a month. Ms. Johnson rented the house from him until she passed away in the early 1980s.

During the time Ms. Johnson lived as a tenant in the house, Mr. Olsen made several improvements and maintained it for Ms. Johnson. He had electricity and indoor plumbing installed, including the claw-foot bathtub which we use today. However, Ms. Johnson being very old-fashioned, refused to use the electric lights or bathtub. She bathed and took water from the hand pump in the back yard, and lit the house at night with candles and lamps. We were told that when she passed away and Mr. Olsen found the claw foot tub had never been used and had the original tag on the faucet.

It was in the early 1980s when the first gas-fired furnace was installed and the cast-iron wood stove removed. We still have that furnace, and it's a bit rickety. Mr. Olsen gave the house to his daughter and her husband, they raised a family and lived in the house until we purchased it in 2018.

The garden was at one point magnificently landscaped, we believe around the time they moved in, which would put it in the early to mid 1980s. We've seen photos of how it looked in the 1990s and it was still quite impressive. We believe Mr. Olsen himself was the "master gardener" some of our neighbors have mentioned, who designed and landscaped the garden.

I grew up in a series of homes built in the 1880s and 1890s, so I'm used to living in an old home and know to expect the unexpected, and that it will never really be "finished." You have to want to live like this to do it. To say we've had our fair share of surprises since moving in would be an understatement. To do a full restoration would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars we don't have so, just as when I was a kid growing up, we're mostly focused on essential maintenance, small improvements for comfort and functionality, and dreaming about what we would do with it if money were no object.

Our living room

It's always been a functional structure, not decorative like the Victorian where I lived in grade school or even the more subdued farmhouse where I lived in high school. The original structure is perhaps a third of our square footage, with two additions made probably in the 1960s and 1980s. A complete restoration would most likely put the house in better condition than it's ever been, it certainly is far more luxurious even now than when it was a two-room farmhouse with a loft. It has no original decorative woodwork inside or out. It's simple and utilitarian, and perhaps just a little bit small to be quite comfortable.

The second story back bedroom

The second story has two rooms, connected by a hallway that has probably served as a bedroom at some point. I am 6'2" tall, and ceilings upstairs are low, just inches above my head. They slant dramatically on all sides, and I have to stoop to go through the doorways upstairs. I've knocked my head going through them many many times. Despite this, it's cozy in a hobbit hole kind of way, and the back bedroom feels very tranquil.

Where the house itself appeals to my Scandinavian love for the utilitarian, and probably ranges from "quaint" to "miserable hovel" to most other people, the garden is what we fell in love with. The first time we saw the house was mid-spring, and the crabapple trees were in full bloom. I knew that the house itself would be an endless exercise in triaging repairs and improvements, but the garden, even in an advanced state of neglect, was absolutely magical.

In May 2018, when we first toured the house and property, only the intentionally landscaped plants had begun to grow. What passed for lawn was still patchy from winter. Most of the flowerbeds were covered with leaves that hadn't been raked the previous autumn. None the less, the overall effect of being in it was profound. A bird bath stood at the center of the garden, surrounded by a ring of boxwood shrubs, in turn surrounded by a ring of grass, surrounded by a ring of flowerbeds, with a path that led around these flanked by more flower beds. There was a feeling that the center was a magical circle, with the paths that wound through the garden making up a kind of labyrinth. Since my partner and I met, we've made a tradition of visiting labyrinths as we travel and walking them together. There was something mystically perfect about this garden and that it was meant for us.

Since the day we moved in, the house itself has felt secondary. It is a place to shelter and sleep, to prepare meals. Our purpose is to be caretakers of the garden and its magical circle. My partner has a special love of hummingbirds, and although the previous owners took many of the yard decorations with them, throughout the garden left hanging in the trees were hummingbird feeders and decorations. We moved into the house in July of 2018, and it was as if the last bit of magic holding the garden together slipped out at that moment. Between when we began the process of buying the house in May and our moving day, the garden was completely overgrown.

We were so occupied with moving, making essential repairs, assembling IKEA furniture, that attending to the garden became a low priority and by autumn whatever structure it had left had slipped away. The small fish pond, now at least a year neglected, was filled with black water and dead leaves. Many of the rustic yard decorations, trellises, and indeed anything made of wood seemed to have chosen that exact moment to suddenly disintegrate. What had been antique wheelbarrows repurposed as planters, became masses of untamed greenery and mud atop disjointed piles of rusting iron parts. Trees that had looked healthy and green in the spring died or were sick.

This parallels the case for many of the places I have worked over the years. As a millennial coming into the professional workforce around 2008, it was as if as the Baby Boomers who had led and staffed the organizations I encountered neared retirement and they prepared to leave, maintenance had been postponed, roofs leaked, copiers broke down, computers that had been contemporary ten years earlier were on their last legs, even relatively younger workers in their 40s and 50s seemed tired, demoralized, unmotivated and apathetic. Where I was beginning my career, my excitement, passion, and optimism was universally met with resentment and even hostility. Perhaps while those older workers remained those organizations had been able to maintain some degree of utility. Perhaps those relatively younger workers expected things to go on as they always had. Yet as more and more of the old guard left, not only within the organization but within organizations we needed to interface with, the machinery began to fail in increasingly catastrophic ways.

Everywhere I turned I was expected to assume roles performing processes that went nowhere, emailing contacts within other organizations that had long since retired, depending on relationships between my predecessors and their counterparts, when their counterparts no longer existed. Processes that were technologically mediated broke down because newer software wouldn't work with our old computers or when we managed to get new ones that our old software wouldn't work. Almost none of my coworkers or counterparts within other organizations had any technological savvy, so explaining technical problems was impossible. The vendors that had previously had longstanding trust and friendships with my predecessors no longer felt any obligation to our organizations.

I cannot count the number of times I was told that one of my predecessors used to simply shoot off an email to so-and-so with such-and-such about a specific need, only to find that either the contact, or their entire organization, no longer existed. This would precipitate months long investigations trying to find a new counterpart to resolve an issue, and after explaining that the person in question was no longer an option told time and time again "that's how we've always done it." The situation across the board at every organization I worked in or with since that time has been this, there were processes at some time that I must assume had been functional. Most workers, managers and executives were extremely averse to making any change, lest such delicately balanced processes be unexpectedly disrupted. However, those processes had already broken down, and without change the senseless thrashing of those organizations was breaking more and more things, faster and faster. I see this playing out on the microcosm of most small organizations, across larger organizations, across cities, and countries. Since we moved into this house, I've often said "this business is a metaphor for America" or "this garden is a metaphor for America," because the root causes and ultimate effects of spiraling entropy are the same, and in my mind the solutions are the same. We assumed control of a home and garden that had been owned and maintained by Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. Through no fault of their own, the onerous task of maintaining a home and garden that require constant attention and finesse began to outstrip their physical abilities, and doubtless their motivation, morale, and passion. It was time to hand it off to the next generation, but like with so many organizations and institutions, by the time they handed it off it was on its last legs. This house and garden, like so many organizations and institutions, the older generation held on to control beyond their ability to hand off a functioning entity to their successors. Generationally, the Baby Boomers unwillingness to recognize that their time would eventually come to an end had prevented them, in the aggregate, to construct a succession plan, train their subordinates to move into leadership positions, and bow out gracefully before things began to catastrophically fail.

The purpose of explaining my perspective on this is not to point fingers and assign blame. I have found that most frequently, that is how Baby Boomer people regard it when you attempt to accurately describe what challenges our generation is faced with. I genuinely don't care who is to blame. Their generation made the decisions that created the reality we must live with, but simply laying the blame, rightfully, on their heads alone does nothing. Those of them that aren't gone yet will be soon, and in the coming decades they won't even be around to write snarky articles about useless millennials. As I've written elsewhere, I spent the better part of a decade trying to work with them, during which time they were already halfway checked out. Baby Boomers always seemed far more interested in mocking people my age for their taste in music or their clothing than in building us up to take the reins. While I was trying desperately to get my bosses to make bare minimum capital outlays to stabilize our deteriorating IT infrastructure, usually meaning cost savings over time, what I received were insults about how our generation put too much stock in computers. It is what it is, this is the scenario we've been handed, trying to make emergency repairs to a 747 in mid-flight while it's on fire.

So again, it's not about laying blame. How could our generation be to blame for bad decisions that were made when we were still in grade school? Baby Boomer culture highly values finding someone to blame when things go wrong, because the worst thing that can happen is that something "makes you look bad." I really don't care, my interest is in finding people around me, regardless of age, who are willing to help build and rebuild our homes, our organizations, our institutions, our governments, and our world. It shouldn't be necessary

to add this disclaimer, but if the above analysis of Baby Boomer culture doesn't apply to individuals in that age range, then it doesn't apply. It's broadly true, but I've met plenty of Baby Boomers who are enthusiastic about working with younger people rather than against them.

As we took over this home and garden, it became immediately clear we had our work cut out for us. We spent the better part of the first year completely focused on making the house itself livable. We had to get one room situated only to move the stacks of boxes from another room into it, a process we repeated continuously. Books couldn't be put away until we had shelves, and the shelves couldn't be brought in until the kitchen was unpacked, and the kitchen couldn't be unpacked until the counters were cleared of boxes, ad infinitum. Things that had worked when we bought the house were broken. Drains backed up. Lightbulbs burned out. Every simple repair unveiled a dozen new problems. Had I not assumed the worst, I might have been angry. Luckily, this was fairly similar to how living in old houses had been when I was young. I don't remember a time growing up when some room or another wasn't under construction, or when trying to fix a floor revealed the need for electrical work, or when trying to fix the plumbing revealed major structural problems. I knew it would be a roller coaster ride, I was still thunderstruck by some of the problems we discovered.

Over the course of the winter, the elements had taken a heavy toll on the garden. When spring arrived, it was clear that if we ever wanted to have anything but a vacant lot for a back yard we had better start taking our responsibility as caretakers seriously. There is no other way to describe what we had to work with, it was bleak. To make things worse, we had a very severe snowstorm in late spring that killed and damaged most of the boxwood shrubs, badly bent several cyprus trees, and killed many plants that had already started to grow.

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