Constellations and Systems LO6133

John Woods (
Tue, 19 Mar 1996 18:10:57 -0600 (CST)

I like to listen to books on tape when I'm driving around or eating doing
other activities that don't engage my mind so I can listen. I just
completed a book titled The Sea Runners by Ivan Doig, a very fine writer.
I was captured by his description of the idea of a system, as he wrote
about his protagonists, men who were indentured workers in New Archangel
(now Sitka), Alaska, working for Russians, but planning an escape by canoe
down the coast to Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. As
we consider systems, it's sometimes does our hearts and minds good to read
how artists might talk about such ideas. So here is how Doig tells about
the system in which his characters, Melander and Karlsson, find themselves
and refuse to be bound in by:

...Disquieted shipman, musing woodsman, now plotters both.
Against them, and not knowing it, although habitually guardful as
governing apparatuses have to be, stood New Archangel and its system of
life. The system of all empires, when the matter comes to be pondered.
For empires exist on the principle of constellations in the night
sky--pattern imposed across unimaginable expanse--and the New Archangels
of the planet at the time, whether named Singapore or Santa Fe or Dakar or
Astoria or Luanda or Sydney, were their specific scintillations of
outline. Far pinspots representing vastly more than they themselves were.

That voyage, which deposited Melander and Karlsson into their
indentured situation illustrates that here in the middle of the nineteenth
century, this work of putting out the lines of star web across the planet
had to be done with the slow white wakes of of sailing ships. But done it
was. Sea-lanes were extended and along them the imperial energies
resolutely pulsed back and forth, capital to colony and colony to capital.
Africa, Asia: the lines of route from Europe were converging and tensing
one another into place for decades to come. North America: the
gray-gowned wee queen of England reigned over Ojibwas and Athapaskans and
Bella Coolas, the United States was taking unto itself the western
vastness between Mississippi and the Pacific, the tsar's merchants of
Irkutsk and St. Petersburg were being provided fortunes by bales of
Alaskan furs.

Such maritime tracework seemed, in short, to be succeeding
astoundingly. Yet... yet all this atlas of order rested on the fact that
it requires acceptance, a faith of seeing and saying, "Ah yes, here is our
Great Dipper, hung on its nail in heaven," to make constellations real.
So that what the makers of any imperial configuration always needed be
most wary of was minds--such as Melander's, such as Karlsson's....

So as you read this, think about the constellation that is your own system
and how it is made real by our assumptions and faith. What we call a
dipper might not be a dipper at all. And think how that system might be
changed, no, not just changed, made better, by minds such as ours.

A little foray away from the conventional to remind us of the human
enterprise that learning organizations are about:

John Woods

-- (John Woods)

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