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It All Began in a Fertilizer Factory


I remember the day I had my first inklings that intelligence might be more than how smart each of us is individually. It was in early June, 1986. I was on the Los Angeles - to- Washington, DC, Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.

This cross-country mobile public relations event had embarked from Los Angeles in March 1986 with a cast of 1200. Two weeks later its parent organization, ProPeace, went bankrupt, abandoning us in the Mojave Desert. 800 marchers went home. 400 of us stayed. Somehow we managed to reorganize ourselves and walk across the country, united only by our compelling vision of global nuclear disarmament and our determination to reach our country's capital.

Our leadership could not have been more tenuous, conflicted and diffuse. Our governing councils had virtually no power to enforce their decisions. By all traditional logic, the whole operation should have just fallen apart and blown away. There was no way it could work or survive. But it did. And in the process it became an extraordinary crucible for personal and collective learning and transformation.

Among the scores of life-changing incidents on that peace march, one day in June, 1986, stands out in my mind:

After three months on the road, our mobile community had become deeply divided. Some marchers were adamant that we should all march together to make a good impression and attract positive publicity. Others wanted to walk at their own pace, strung out along the road, attuned to the beauty of nature and stopping to chat with farmers and schoolchildren. Advocates of each approach saw the other approach as a threat to the march's peace-making mission. The situation started to get nasty. People threatened to leave the march unless they got their way. Then a simple miracle occurred.

Somewhere in Colorado a heavy late-afternoon storm drenched us as we tried to pitch our multicolored tents in a soggy field near a fertilizer factory. The storm became a deluge. Hundreds of us retreated into the smelly, cavernous confines of the factory. As we stood there dripping and jostling, joking and complaining about our lives, we noticed a couple of marchers setting up a microphone and portable speakers. When the makeshift sound system was ready they suggested we use this time to speak from our hearts about the issue that divided us. So we did that.

Taking two minutes each, we shared passion and perspective with each other for more than two hours -- weeping, cajoling, steaming and sweating in the muggy fetid air. Quite unexpectedly, as we talked and listened with great intensity, the answer to our problem began to emerge. We knew we had fully heard each other when the answer became as obvious as the rain on the sheet-metal roof.

All of us realized what we'd do for the next few months: we'd walk together through the cities (where there were rushing crowds, traffic, and media) and strung out in the countryside (where townspeople had time to talk and nature had time to be beautiful). It was so simple, and it handled all our concerns.

On cue, the storm subsided. We dispersed into the glistening dusk, a healed community ready to continue on our path together.

As I headed across the flooded campsite to my tent, my mind was racing. I realized that something amazing had just happened, something so subtle I'd almost missed it: In spite of all our talking, we hadn't made a decision. We'd just stopped talking when we knew.

In the months that followed, we were orchestrated by our newly shared understanding. We called it "city mode/country mode." Like iron filings arrayed by a magnetic field, each of us manifested the orientation of the whole with nobody policing it. We even understood why a few marchers marched to a different drummer, and we didn't hassle them about it.

I'd never before been in a meeting like the one that generated this alignment. Nobody had been in charge. It was as if we'd become a single sentient being, The March, and our diverse thoughts and feelings had become the thoughts and feelings of this single, but ambivalent March-mind wrestling with its problem. Increasingly, as the meeting continued, I'd heard other marchers voice the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart. I'd begun to sense us all sailing on a river of meaning that we'd called up from our collective depths. It carried us to exactly the place we needed to go.

Five months later the March was over. November leaves twittered in chilly gusts as we said tearful goodbyes and our last Maryland campground slowly emptied. Only a few dozen tents remained when I headed home, with my life and my awareness profoundly changed. I was haunted by an inchoate vision, an inkling of possibility I couldn't quite put my finger on.

I wrote:

"I can't shake the feeling that I'm witnessing a metaphorical dawn, that the darkness is giving way, that in the next few years I will see the edge of the sun and know that we, as a planet, have made it."

In the decade since then, I searched intently for the path I knew was there.

In 1992 I was browsing through Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred, when a quote leapt off the page. It was from Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onandaga Iroquois, describing traditional tribal councils. He said, "We meet and just keep talking until there's nothing left but the obvious truth." I recognized that we'd stumbled upon something that the Iroquois have known for hundreds of years.

See also A Laboratory in Democracy: Revisiting the Great Peace March by Steve Brigham.