Vermont Public Radio: Cooperation

A recent VPR commentary. You can listen to it here.

At a recent Select Board meeting in my town of Castleton, instead of cooperation, divisiveness and vindictiveness ruled. Instead of allowing individual talents to benefit all of us, partisanship reigned. Instead of taking advantage of available resources, close-mindedness prevailed.

Some of the issues tearing the town apart will be decided at the ballot box tomorrow. But since the arguments have moved from issues to personalities, the nasty atmosphere is likely to persist.

Now, I have my own take on the important issues we face. But I care less about the issues than about the discord this debate has stirred up among neighbors.

Sadly, this may have become business as usual in the Federal government. But in a small town like ours – even a small state like ours – where people must regularly deal with each other, we’re supposed to know better.

We know people can and do join hands here because we’ve seen it happen during crises, most recently during Hurricane Irene. Scores of stories describe the heroic pulling together of individuals and groups throughout the state.

I’m a newcomer. We moved to Vermont just six years ago; so I’m keenly aware of how fortunate we are to be living in such a magnificent place. And I’m happy to report that most people I meet are sincere, community minded, caring individuals. So I’ve been very disappointed to encounter so much unexpected distrust and rivalry in my new home town. It sure doesn’t measure up to the prevailing image of Vermont.

But, however the vote goes, Town Meeting Day also marks the traditional beginning of the gardening season. So a couple of weekends ago I attended an event offered by the Vermont chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. There I got a look at some of the fascinating ways plants cooperate with each other and with other organisms.

We’ve known that trees communicate threats to each other through chemical signals. Now we’re finding that deep underground, plants collaborate with microorganisms and with each other. For instance, corn plants manufacture sugar in their roots, thanks to a partnership with bacteria, and send some of it to nearby bean plants in return for the nitrogen bean plants send their way.

So apparently, plants know that cooperation leads to individual success; that every plant has something useful to contribute; that roots have great value, but only when used to nourish the whole plant; that new species may have new improvements to add to the mix; and most importantly, that collaboration is the key to a flourishing future.

This has worked to plants’ advantage. They dominate every environment; they compose ninety-nine percent of the biomass on earth – while humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one scientist, “just traces.”

“A single carrot, freshly observed, can set off a revolution,” said Cezanne.

Seems we could learn a lot from the carrot.

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