Playing with Trees

Every Saturday morning, November through June, except maybe holidays, the Tree Team goes out to plant trees in Oakland.  The work is acknowledged by the City of Oakland; a couple of organizers get paid (from grants – nominally, I suspect) for all the planning and coordination that goes into it; most of the work force is voluntary.  I join once a month or so, some months more than others.

Occasionally, a sub team goes off to prune or retrieve stakes from the trees that no longer need to be supported; some of this work can be done off season.  This past Saturday was such an off-season pruning event.  I made sure to go out, because that was my last free Saturday for a while.

Derek, the landscape architect who does a lot of planning for the team and Chris who is somehow a pruning expert gave a briefing: team history and overall purpose, safety, day’s work specifics.   We learned that, unlike purple leaf plums and crape myrtles we pruned in January, magnolias are evergreen and it doesn’t matter much when to prune them.  Their wood is also softer; we can easily tackle larger branches.  We grabbed the tools, a handsaw and a pair of loppers each, split into subteams, and spread along the few blocks to find the trees that Chris marked for pruning earlier in the week.

At first, Shawn and I formed a team.  I had worked with Shawn before: he was on my team both times I led one.  We found a magnolia with a few tall branches marked for cutting.  Shawn climbed up a ladder with a saw.  I nibbled on smaller branches with the loppers from the ground until Shawn needed me to catch the branches he cut off.  Chris came by, advised Shawn on the direction of the final cut.  Stepped in to catch the branches.  I retreated to cut the branches on the ground into smaller pieces for later pick up.  Chris decided we need to make a pile of cut branches in a different place.  I dragged one brunch there, then figured, I’d cut another one first before dragging it.  Chris interrupted and told me to carry the branches to the new place.  Bother!  Suddenly, I just wanted to go home and take a nap or something, and I barely even started working!  I dragged another branch over, then picked up my tools, said “Looks like you guys are doing fine without me here” and went to look for another team.

Derek and Mary Sue just finished pruning one magnolia.  Mary Sue was making neat piles of branches.  Derek was about to walk over to the next tree.  “I’ll work with you,” I said.  “They wouldn’t let me do anything and Chris is being a pain in the butt.”  Derek grinned.  We set up a ladder.  I climbed up with the handsaw and did an undercut and half of the second cut on a 26 year old branch (we counted the rings later).  It took a while, during which time a gentleman from behind the fence made sure to inform passers by I needed a chainsaw.  Derek reassured him I’d be fine without.  I took a break, Derek finished the second cut.  “Let’s chop it up,” he said, “do you want the saw or the loppers?”  I wanted the saw.   Derek cut off another branch or two.  Then I did.   As we cut and chopped, Mary Sue came by and tackled smaller branches with the loppers.

I told Derek about the book I was reading, Drive by Dan Pink.  It’s about motivation.

In the book and in the TED Talk, Dan Pink emphasizes that the essentials of the motivating work environment are “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.”  He debunks the carrot and stick approach to motivating workers and alludes to the intrinsic motivation.  What that is doesn’t come through sharply in the TED Talk.  The book and the interview I’ve heard on the You Are Not So Smart podcast are more clear, and that’s what attracted me.  I didn’t need motivation as much as validation for what motivates me.  The intrinsic motivation has to do with our innate creativity, with joy of solving problems, with pleasure of connecting with other people.

All that, in the environment providing autonomy, a way to mastery, and purpose, boils down to: we truly and deeply love to play, and that’s OK.  Not just OK, pretty great actually for getting work done.  Play to make something better.  Play to learn.  Play to connect.  It can be to build a model helping make decisions.  It can be to design and produce a cool graph showing EVERYTHING – in pretty colors.  It can be to help a tree grow so it makes a sad neighborhood around it happier, but also learn about the ways of the trees and get very dirty with magnolia sap and sawdust making up fun piles of logs and flowering branches along the way.

Funny how it works even when we choose to volunteer our time.  Note to self, note to all the organizers out there: let’s play!

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