Updated: Jun 6
The land I live on had a wildfire in 2008. After ten years of drought, on the day after a lightning storm on a hot July day, a thousand acres of timbered canyons burned. In a place that gets a scant twelve to fourteen inches of rain a year, I thought we’d lose everything, but we didn’t.
Areas of burned timber began to replace themselves over the next couple years, with new trees popping up plentifully right in the fire scar. Those patches are well on their way to replacing the ponderosa forest that came before them.The terminal moment for one tree was the germinal window for another. Life, death, rebirth. Old things die; young ones replace them. Tidy and neat.
Except it wasn’t that simple.
In some places, after a couple seasons, no pines came up at all. Only grass and brush. Some of this opportunistic life brought new birds, new plants, new insects. Still, a decade and a half later, there were no new trees in these places. The window had closed, at least for ponderosa pine succession.
The Fall of 2020 brought a bumper crop of pine seeds spinning on thin blades down from the trees that scattered them; the early Spring of 2021 brought a flush of seedlings where there was exposed ground, something that had happened two or three times before in the 13 years since the fire. There were hundreds of new infant trees per acre. There were none where the grass was, but lots everywhere else.
Yet a month later they were all gone. The Spring and Summer were severe, full of withering heat, suffocating winds, and smoky air. The window opened, but it closed too soon. And now we wait.
Turns out it takes more than a good seed year for ponderosas to germinate. They need access to firm soil or they get suspended in the tangle of grasses above the ground and can’t root. They only fall so far from a seed tree, within a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet or so; without sponsoring trees they don’t pop up at all. Finally, they can’t go from seed to seedling without sufficient water following months of cold.
Even if they do manage to germinate, even if they’re capable of one day being three feet in diameter and indestructible in the face of wind, fire, and drought, when they’re young they need the right time and the right space. Some years there is plenty of seed but no moisture when they fell; other years there is good rain but after a poor seed crop. Other years there is both, but still…no seedlings. Too much grass and brush.
Germinal windows—those opportunities for something to come from nothing–require the right things in the right space—access to soil, enough moisture, a lot of “random chances” called seeds in order for a few of them to land in just the right cracks and depressions where they can get going. But it’s not just the ingredients, it’s the combination and the time. After a nascent ponderosa pine makes it through its first summer, it’s a lot stronger against wind, heat, and drought. Until then, it is at the mercy of its germinal window. Once they’re through it, you can sit back and watch trees do their thing, if you’re patient enough to stand where they are day after day, storm after storm, searing day after searing day. Once they’re through that window, they’re self-sustaining and resilient in the face of greater and greater challenges —and maybe one day capable of showering millions of seeds themselves.
There’s a lesson for me here as I think about leadership. It’s easy to think about how I keep things from mal-functioning—companies, processes, relationships. It’s harder to think about creating the conditions that allow thousands of potentials to go to “real and active.” It’s even harder to think about how to extend those germinal windows so that more and more of those fragile new ideas, people, possibilities, can solidify into stability over time on landscapes that, these days, are always changing.
Germinal windows are popping up all the time, and so are terminal windows. They aren’t inherently good or bad. Bursts of rain, dictators, epidemics, new innovations, misinformation—every person reading this post–all spring from them.
Sometimes we get to create these windows, ponder how to best set the stage for good—a terminal window for something unhelpful here, a germinal window for something promising there. Often, though, in a world where the conspiracy of variables is so vast and our control so small, our best work as leaders and creators is to watch closely for the windows themselves, and, like the ponderosas, flood them with bets when the time is right.
We’re going to need a lot of things that can weather unpredictable stresses in the time ahead—school boards, companies, neighborhoods, businesses, communities, young people, innovations. And we’re going to have to get them through germinal windows and out the other side.
If you’re creating windows, think about how and when you do it—and why. How do you create access to soil, proximity to fertile sponsors, nourishing moisture, protection from dessicating wind? If you’re watching for windows, be ready to move with abundance and be happy with the few possibilities that survive.
In a world where we lose too much time pushing for results and drowning in task, our yield on any given window isn’t necessarily the high percentage (but it’s great when it happens!); although optimizing the chances is worthy effort. Instead, it’s in how many windows we can see and open, in any time and over time. Winners will emerge over time—are we creating enough opportunities? Find and make a lot of windows, get good at keeping them open, and watch the returns come in.
The key is to recognize windows when they open and develop the skill to hold open and extend as many windows as possible, to create the yield that comes from waiting patiently for the certainty of return in the uncertainty of which things—which seedlings exactly—will emerge as survivors.
Germinal windows are powerful places and times to learn. There’s a time to wait and watch and a time to move; a time to find them, and a time to make them.
Last Summer, the germinal window closed on all those hundreds of thousands of ponderosa pine seedlings. In the smoke and heat that clouded the western half of North America, they all died.
But….the ones from 2018 did well, and so did the ones from 2019. Not many, but a few, and the windows keep coming.
I’ll be watching for the next window(s) and thinking how to keep them open and flood them with possibility.