In my forties, I got a bug to become a great gardener. My new husband, Dave, persuaded me to buy a tree farm on the top of a ridge, with a two-acre kitchen garden and a young orchard of fourteen fruit trees spread around the property. My new gardener status required cultivating and pruning, a lot more than just harvesting.
And did I mention that Dave was a botanist and the senior manager of a forest products company? This meant that we would also be tending and propagating with a high level of care because that was how he saw his role in life.
The first time I grabbed pruning shears, he barely caught me in time to spare the life of a small tree that I thought was getting “too tall.” I had lined up the shears and cocked the handle, ready to remove the offending overgrowth. The yelling I heard at just that moment made me think someone had been hurt. I looked up to see Dave crashing toward me at high speed. On arriving, he looked at my chosen branch and asked, “Carol, why are you cutting at exactly that point?” After I explained my careful reasoning, “to make the branch short enough for easy reach,” he informed me that my preferences were mostly irrelevant to the task of pruning. If I wanted a healthy tree and apples for decades to come, I had to work “with the tree, not against it.” That was the day I first learned about nodes.
On a living plant, nodes are the spots where new buds, leaves, and limbs are formed and from which they spring. They are also where the greatest number of interactive exchanges take place among energies at work as they move from root to fruit and back again. If a gardener wants to be a partner with the tree, she works with nodes, nature’s way of managing the vital and viable growth that is capable of sustaining life over long periods of time.
We humans can become instruments in the work of trees and useful partners in the management of their ecosystems, but only if we understand nodes. This understanding enables us to support the healthy growth of all plants by opening them up for more air, light, and access to nutrients. We can contribute to the health of forests, fields, and soils by taking cuttings from the right spots on parent plants and rooting them at the right depth in the ground. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson explains how Native People took on the role of propagator as a sacred obligation to forests and their lives. We can still fill this role today, but only if we educate ourselves about nodes and the way they work.
Nodes and Living Systems
Living systems can be comprehended fully only by understanding the junctions from which and through which growth is determined—the points where different systems come together to nourish and balance the forces of life, adding to the vitality and viability of the larger system in which they are nested. We are used to thinking of our bodies—and of our planet also—as made of up things rather than of a variety of systems that are always dancing together. This dancing consists of the continual “making of choices” that regulates and manages our vitality. When our inner systems can no longer dance, we die.
In this way of thinking about systems, we see ourselves as master tenders of living entities, whether they are our own bodies and gardens or Earth’s forests and oceans. When we seek to know and act without a living view, we oversimplify and engage with life as segments and parts, and we cannot be good partners to trees or any other living beings.
In my work, as I seek to understand living systems more generally, I find that all wise professionals know about nodes and engage with the layered interactions at nodal junctions in plants and gardens, throughout communities, and in whole lifesheds. In any living system, there are points that must be identified and understood before we make the decision to intervene. If we ignore them, we can create only weakness, destruction, and death, for nodal thinking is essential to tending the vitality of anything that lives.
For example, engaging with a child at the location in his life where his passion, motivation, and likely talent intersect is the only way to ensure that he becomes focused, excited to learn, and creative. Parenting is a “profession” in which knowing the nodes of a particular child’s life is an urgent necessity. Ignoring these intersections is like working with a plant as though growth emerged from the tips of roots or the ends of stems, rather than from nodes. Nothing will blossom.
The same challenge is present in modern medicine, and in some branches physicians and other providers work actively with nodal understanding. Complementary medicine proposes that physicians work with patients as living systems and know at least as much about how human bodies work when they are healthy and healing as they do about diseases, syndromes, and wounds. Otherwise, their approach to treatment will be the same as mine when I set about to lop off an overgrown limb, but with a much more dire result. Without insight based in nodal thinking treatments may easily create unending side effects, which is now the number four cause of death in hospitals.
Medical Acupuncture—a newer modality that is increasingly widespread among allopathic physicians—leads to reduced pain, reversed symptoms, and even the healing of some injuries that are otherwise only treatable with surgery. Acupuncture point is the name for any location on the body—any node—where inserting a needle or applying pressure can reactivate a system, causing it to open and respond beneficially. Attending to these points in the course of medical treatment is the same whole systems approach to health as pruning a tree with attention to the locations of its nodes in order to provide it with light, air, and space.
One more example: an estuary is a node in a wetland system, a place where exchanges determine and constantly “report” on the health of the watershed based on changes in the eco-exchanges, including those with humans. Seeing an estuary as a node of representation for the entire system, you can read in it the history and health of the whole and understand what contributions human interventions can make.
Seeing and understanding living entities as integrated systems with nodal junctures allows us to nurture and support them, and this is true at all levels and in all practices.
Nodal Thinking and Business
In business, thinking nodally can make growth and healthy cultures possible. For example, at the end of the apartheid era, Colgate Palmolive was faced with transforming or closing its operation in South Africa. Facing challenges that ranged from a new constitutional requirement to rapidly promote black Africans to conflict among tribal factions in production facilities to sales that were sinking like rocks to the necessity to open new markets for products with higher margins—they learned to think nodally.
After devoting a few weeks to thinking systemically, they saw that their highest potential point of engagement was the development of human capability in the application of personal initiative. In other words, individuals would be engaged in disciplined and recurring personal and business development and expected to apply it to business challenges immediately. The focus on was systemic critical thinking, personal growth and self-management, and financial effectiveness in daily actions. In rotating teams, everyone attended two-day monthly sessions.
The result of working at the node, rather than putting teams to work on the independent issues, was that rapid change happened on many fronts simultaneously. The company promoted black leaders to top positions within six months of launch, which gave Nelson Mandela a story to tell other businesses who were finding excuses. The continuing education of operators enabled them to become leaders in communities, where they sat on newly established township councils, raising up life and governance; in turn they brought what they gained in their communities back to their work. Because of personal initiative on the part of all members of the business, sales grew at the rate of 30 percent per quarter.
Nodal understanding enabled Colgate to discover a high-potential intersection, where focused engagement would flow back out into the body of the whole and move most aspects of life in the business, from management proactive to sales and marketing strategy to community engagement. Working on the challenges one at a time with different teams or functions could have taken decades to achieve the same results—or certainly many years. Finding the node, working with the energies that grow people and business—gave them terrific speed and sustained momentum.
Decision Making: How We Get Distracted and Miss the Nodes
People often intervene in living systems but rarely understand what gives them their vitality and viability or see how to make contributions that will support their evolution toward greater health and abundance. And unfortunately, nodes are not part of traditional decision-making processes. Although most businesspeople know that, in order to be effective and produce good results, they must make good decisions about when and how to take action, their decision making is nevertheless fragmented, partial, and scattered. When they become aware of this, they tend to pursue one of four standard decision-making modes as a way to prepare for making an intervention or taking action, none of which work well with living systems.
Covering the Bases. This way of making decisions attempts some action in each of many arenas, with the hope that at least a few will be in the ball park. It is shotgun or scattered in nature, intending to take advantage of as many options as possible because the right spot for a strategic intervention hasn’t become apparent. This is a familiar sales strategy when the goal is expansion. It is expensive and obviously not strategic, and it is also amazingly widespread.
Setting Priorities. This inductive process usually starts from a list of options compiled in a brainstorming session. It brings a semblance of order to disparate ideas. Ordering is usually related to timing or importance or sometimes to complementarity (e.g. if one task is completed before another, a better result is likely). Setting priorities tends to be a linear process that results in a timeline. At best, it is a clustering of things that fit together attractively in time and space.
Leverage. This is a term very popular in the world of finance. It describes using one thing to accomplish another, which may conveniently reduce the number of actions necessary to achieve an end. An example is borrowing money to invest. When the return is high, the borrower can repay the loan and pocket a profit. This is often called “using other people’s money.” Those who engage in it seldom consider the effects it has on others. They are concerned only with making a profit.
The financial term was borrowed from physics circa 1724. In the physical world, leverage is the use of one thing to move another without touching it directly. With a lever, often a tool such as a shovel, it is possible to raise a heavy object, such as a boulder, that one wouldn’t otherwise be able to budge. Since 1932, in the financial world leverage has meant to get a big effect from less effort than would ordinarily be required. In behavioral economics, it is used as a verb, meaning to manipulate others by means of enticements or incentives to do something that will benefit the manipulator. In all human applications, leverage is extractive. Those who leverage accrue benefits disproportionate to their own efforts—or, in common parlance, profit without investing skin in the game.
Laissez Faire. Finally, it is always possible to remain passive, to allow business to go on as usual with no interventions and let the market decide the outcome.
Nodal Decision Making
When decision making takes into account an intersection of stakeholders, characterized by beneficial impacts on one another and co-evolution, then it is nodal. This is particularly true when those directly engaged in the intervention are taken into account and expected to benefit. Nodal decision making requires seeing or imaging the entire set of stakeholders at work with one another, expending the least effort to do what is most beneficial in order to return the system to self-direction or elevate it to a higher level of expression. This calls for imaging the working of the entire process and the intersection where the connections are creating the most beneficial exchanges. This intersection is the node at which to make the intervention, the location in the system where an intervention will have the highest potential to support growth and evolution.
Returning to the garden metaphor, in a mechanistic world, a healthy garden calls for procedures, for example a preset watering schedule and an automatic sprinkler that turns itself off after half an hour. In a regenerative system, a caring person connects with the state of the plant by touching the soil to determine whether or how much water is needed. She then selects a sprinkler or a watering can, based on the need that she has gauged. Similarly, there can be no fixed procedure for timing and gauging the need for pruning. Visiting plants, befriending them, and feeling concern for their needs and caring for them is what makes a Master Gardener
Knowing the nodes is what reveals how a living being patterns itself toward health and opens the way to understanding the effects of actions upon it. Life is complex and layered, and may differ from individual to individual within the same species. To bring about regeneration, a practitioner must be in touch with a particular plant or forest or market at a specific point in time and must discern what it needs to grow and be healthy in the system within which it is nested. To become a regenerative practitioner requires imaging oneself as an instrument in order to find the nodes, the amazing number of dynamics and intersections that are pulsing and seeking to produce new life. We work with living entities, and we can kill them or evolve them. The training of a master is to understand where the nodes are and how to work with them.