Tribute to Dana Meadows

Published: April 22nd, 2001

By Philip Rice

~Cobb Hill Co-Housing~

My name is Phil Rice and today I’d like to talk about my experience of Dana as a fellow member of a project to create an eco-village called Cobb Hill Co-housing.

Occasionally before she falls asleep, my 3 1/2 year old daughter asks: “Daddy, what did Dana do?” A good question. For the bedtime ritual her answer is: “She grew pretty flowers and gardens and kept chickens and knitted and baked bread and played with me.”

But it’s a good question for all of us: What did Dana do? Or better yet: what can we learn from what Dana accomplished and how she accomplished it?

For a long time, Dana held a vision of a community of people, rooted in the land, learning how to take care of the land and each other, and sharing what they learned. Here’s how she wrote about her vision in 1993. “I must find or create a group of people to live with who are dedicated to a just, peaceful and sustainable world, both in the way they live and in the way they reach out to impact the public discourse…”

Eight years later, from my front window, I watch as the buildings of Cobb Hill sprout from the landscape like so many not-quite-yet naturalized daffodils hugging the hill side. There is already a thriving CSA and market garden, maple sugaring and cheese-making and most important, many new relationships between the families involved in this endeavor. How did one person’s vision create a process that involved so many people and gave rise to all of this?

Dana made things happen in a special way — a way that I am trying to learn to practice myself. She lived at once in a very lofty place, with a vision that was unconstrained by fear, doubt or worries about feasibility and at the same time in an ordinary and pragmatic place filled with honest hard work, step by muddy step.

And she never saw her push toward that vision as the journey of an individual. Although there was much about the core of her vision that she was unwilling to compromise— the sacredness of every square foot of farm land, the necessity of affordable housing units, the adherence to high standards of energy efficiency and resource utilization—much of her vision was unspecific, ambiguous in a way that invited the rest of us to move into and co-create the vision with her. She admitted not knowing exactly how things would be brought into reality. Her admission invited and welcomed collaboration and engendered creativity and community.

Many of you knew Dana as a quintessential gardener. Gardeners create a space and the conditions for plants to flourish and grow. The act of growing a garden is the act of facilitation of what is dormant and possible and the best gardener acts as the servant to the seeds. This role of servant is at once profound and pragmatic. An excellent garden needs both the intellectual vision and the physical work.

Eight years ago she concluded that letter about her vision of a community this way, “Well, who knows what will happen? I have a new vision now to work toward. Meanwhile, if there’s one more nice day outdoors I have raspberries to prune. If there isn’t, I have a basement to clean.”

Dana was drawn to powerful and sometimes distant visions of a better way, while remaining rooted in the real work that it takes to allow visions to grow. I think this is close to the heart of what we can learn — to keep our vision unconstrained and our feet on the ground. To hold the heart&soul of the vision tenaciously and its particular manifestation lightly— at the same time. This what it takes to allow a vision to evolve into a relevant and powerful reality formed by the many participants in a community.

In creating Cobb Hill all of us including, Dana, have had our moments of frustration and exhaustion. But in Dana I also almost always detected a certain air of celebration. It was often Dana would remind us all of how much we were learning, of the amazing gifts brought to our community by each new member, of how exquisite the wildflowers in the hidden corner of the pasture were. I believe that the source of this sense of celebration was Dana’s conviction that we could simply decide to create the kind of world we wanted to live in. I would like to close by reading a poem written about Dana by my wife, Beth Sawin which captures something of this conviction.

The poem reminds me of the belief of some of the worlds peoples that physical reality is sung into existence out of mystery just as together we sing our future into existence.

The poem is called What She Sang:

Fill the gardens with color
and then add some more.
Hatch chicks in the bathtub.
When the moon glows on new snow-dance.
Roll the smooth roundness of beans
between your thumb
and forefinger.
Sip tea.
Knit socks.
Fill baskets with apples.
Tickle babies on their feet,
until they laugh.

It can all go on forever,
the babies,
the apples,
the dancing,
once we choose to begin.

Take a step now.

Walk with me and sing.

— Beth Sawin

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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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