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When the World is On Fire, We Need Each Other

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Beth Anstandig

When the reporters started calling, I figured they were after the story about the harrowing evacuations in the middle of the night, horse trailers weaving through the emblazoned Santa Cruz mountains, and the hundreds of displaced animals settling into unfamiliar barns. We’re located in the south Bay Area where we were quite literally surrounded by mega fires for almost two weeks.

My ranch went from a herd of 5 to 50 in a matter of one very tiring evening. We had a constant stream of trailers coming through the gate, hooves pounding the floorboards as they caught their first scents and glimpses of their temporary home.

Certainly, the drama of the fires and livestock evacuation makes for a gripping tale. Yet, something unusual happened in the interviews. The reporters couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how all of the horse people helped each other.

How did we communicate and find those in need?

How did we coordinate efforts?

How did we figure out who had space for more animals?

These were the questions that we circled around. And, as I answered, the intrigue and wonder grew. The angle of the story shifted and what became most reportable was how a community, in this case, a human herd of horse lovers, knew how to mobilize and support each other.

I took note. I had my own questions. Like, what does this say about our current climate, as a species, that we are amazed when people help each other. 

A few weeks after our local fire crisis had quieted down, our country bowed its collective head on the anniversary of September 11th. On that day, I took some time to remember and reflect. I read a few articles and along the way, I happened upon a short documentary narrated by Tom Hanks called Boatlift: An Untold Tale of 9/11. It’s the story of the boats that rescued and evacuated half a million people from the shores of lower Manhattan as the whole city reverberated in terror. It’s a 12-minute film and captivating, as you witness the moment when one radio call mobilizes an entire boating community. Within fifteen minutes of the broadcast, the New York harbor was full of boats.

Grab a tissue. Watch the film. Seriously, these boating guys (mostly men) joined forces, collaborated, and created a complex and successful rescue system out of thin air.

What is it about these stories that captures our attention and our hearts?

What is the human element that pulls us in and asks us to linger?

I chewed on these questions for a while until some hypotheses began to emerge. These stories both involved ancient practices—boating and horses.

Not to delve deep into the history here, but the human relationship with horses dates back to 6000 BC and the oldest evidence of humans using boats is documented around 8000 BC. These activities conjure a more embodied part of our humanity and involve tangible and practical skills. For a good long while in our human story, these skills were essential to our survival and our mobility. They involve simple things you can touch and feel like ropes, leather, fences, buckets, and the employment of muscle and energy.

All of these elements recruit attitudes of willingness, helpfulness, and resourcefulness. Interestingly, the basic technology of horsemanship and boating haven’t changed much. If you look at the gear, it’s mostly the same as it has always been. There’s a refreshing simplicity to it all that connects our humanness to its origins, a way of life that was rooted in our survival, our essential needs, and our bodies. And, when we are more connected to our bodies and our survival, we are more connected to how much we need each other. 

We have only lived in our heads, ruled by thought, language, and intellect for a short while in the grand scheme of things. The shift from agriculture to industry and then to technology happened in warp speed. Even our factory experiences allowed (and still allow) a more tangible connection to our place in the work we are doing. A person might have awareness of their position on the assembly line and a sense of purpose in what is being created or built.

It turns out we need this.

We need to know and feel our impact in order for our commitment to connection and community to come alive.

Sitting at a desk and staring at numbers on a screen doesn’t light up the part of our human-animal that operates as a herd member. Neck deep in our tech revolution, we just might be too far removed from the WHY of our work, the real lives we can affect, the ways we can reach out and help others. This core part of us, an inherent servant leader, is often numb in the work we are asked to do, day in and day out. The lack of connection to our servitude has catastrophic consequences on how our work teams operate. We don’t really feel how much we need each other so we fail to come together with a sense of community. As human animals, we are hard-wired to need each other, and our lives have so much more meaning when we are engaged in groups who embrace the practices and behaviors of sharing resources and offering real support.

There’s a moment in the Boatlift film when they show footage of a group of executive men, covered in dust and debris, still wearing ties and suit coats, as they lift a woman and her seeing-eye dog above their heads and onto the boat.  It’s no wonder we see the boats saving frightened people or the cowboys and cowgirls leading each other’s horses and we feel an ancient pull from within, a deep knowing as we witness community in action. 

In the case of my ranch, I was part of a community of mostly women that showed up for each other. We built pens, stacked hay, and loaded animals. We drove trucks and trailers down closed roads with zero visibility. We carried heavy water buckets, integrated horses into herds, navigated dark pastures, and smoke-filled air. We asked for help. We offered help. And, when we had our immediate community settled and cared for, we looked for ways to help others. It’s what we do. We are a human herd.

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