The story

Take a look at the Return of Inspiration lessons learned from roughly 7 years of on-the-ground experience in the 4 returns network of landscape partners. This story is made up of two parts:

  1. 5 Basic ingredients for Return of Inspiration in landscape restoration
  2. Recipe for Return of Inspiration in landscape restoration

Recently, Commonland launched an online learning program (rewatch here) to hear from our landscape partners in Spain, the NetherlandsAustralia and South Africa. We went on a so called Mountain Trail with AlVelAl, Wij.land, RegenWA, Wide Open Agriculture, Living Lands and Grounded and some of our new partners. Together, we harvested to find out what our 4 returns network has learnt about the Return of Inspiration over the last 7 years.

Inspiration as a self-reinforcing loop

The Return of Inspiration is connected to a new insight and a sense of hope for a better future and being able to take concrete steps toward that future. In the work of Commonland’s landscape partners we have found that self-reinforcing inspiration loops can emerge by moving beyond experimentation in theory and doing things in practice. It can be fueled sustainably by seeing and celebrating small steps forward and by new people joining the action whilst seeing results through small action.

“There is a difference between inspiration and being inspired. Inspiration also means that people do not just feel that the world can be different but that they have the tools and means to make that difference. A sense of ‘Oh wow, I can be part of that change’. An inviting feeling and feel like you can actually start doing it.”

Dieter van den Broeck, Commonland

Generally, the farming communities we work with in our network have a sense of hope that there is a way to regenerate their farming systems, and feel that they can plan long term into their future, and for future generations. Creating a different opportunity allows farmers to choose how they farm differently, where the innovators lead the way and inspire early adopters to make change through action. The best way to convince a farmer (or a person) is by showing them what is possible in practice. That ignites curiosity. After all, seeing is believing.

“To inspire people it is necessary to create conditions for such inspiration.  It is like a seed that can only sprout if it has the right conditions. And some of these important conditions for sprouting inspiration is participation, actions that really connect deeply with the souls of the people, something that creates vibration in people, not on rational level but in deeper level.”

Frank Ohlenschlaeger, CEO La Almendrehesa

New insight

Inspiration can arise in day-to-day experiences through exposure to ideas for a better future. It can be anything, to anyone, anywhere. You experience a change in perspective or a new insight that makes you feel connected to either yourself, a group of people or the environment you are living in, something bigger than yourself.

Inspired action

This new and hopeful perspective fuels inspired action. This action, in turn, leads to more inspiration because you are seeing small positive changes and are confident that you can continue to make that change towards a desired future.

Sustained inspiration

It can then start to spread because inspired people are contagious. People inspire people through telling stories of change and doing something different. With time, this can contribute to a growing movement contributing to a larger paradigm shift.

General observations on Return of inspiration in landscape restoration

Inspiration can be anything, to anyone, anywhere & change is the only constant.

Inspiration is not something you can do over again if you follow the same steps. Inspiration is something that either emerges or it doesn’t. Creating a sense of inspiration around your landscape project is an ongoing process and there are as many definitions and meanings of inspiration as there are people. Everyone with its own ethics, drivers and values.

Connected to the positive feedback loop described above, inspiration starts with an internal manifestation (new insight). This can occur on an individual and group level, and also on community level. Most of the inspiration comes from day-to-day experiences and insights through exposure to ideas and examples of a better future. Inspiration comes from being able to have the freedom to choose your path (inspired action) and then inspiring others to do the same (sustained inspiration).

So, it does not necessarily come from a stand-alone landscape art project, it is everything combined. It can, for example, instantly arise from observing the slow-paced visible changes in the landscape, practicing a new skill in a new regenerative paradigm, meeting like-minded people at an event, being able to pass on a profitable regenerative farm to the next generation, or seeing your biggest sceptic becoming your best advocate.

As you can see, like a wet bar of soap, inspiration is not easy to catch, but we can try:

“I love the different layers and the time aspect. It changes over time: inspiration flows up and down.”

Liz Metcalf, Living Lands, South Africa

“[Inspiration is] feeling one with my perception, with what I am seeing, what I am hearing, it is not an intellectual part – it is a deeper feeling connecting to something really that goes inside of me. A vibration. Some parts of my work, something I am reading, some very nice music. It is out of my head. From this first inspiration, my inspired action is when I feel one with my activity as a consequence of my first inspiration. I am one with what I am doing. As sense of well-being. Inspiration is liberating the constant movements in my head.”

Frank Ohlenschlaeger, CEO La Almendrehesa

“Inspiration is like an energy that moves people. For example when I started in AlVelAl, I knew the people and farmers who are really a movement that want to transform a territory – that is energy. I am inspired by people who are inspired. It is like a chain reaction of inspiration. What inspires me is working in a project that can transform a territory where my daughters can choose to live here. Because at this moment people have to move from the region. So working in a project to give young people that opportunity to stay here is very inspiring.”

Elvira Marín Irigaray, coordinator AlVelAl, Spain

“Inspiration is contagious. Out of the hands, into the head and into the heart. And providing a call to action. Things for the next generation, not only putting a dot on the horizon but also working towards it. A day of sweat when I really put something into the ground and seeing it is possible then it means other things are possible.”

Laura van Veller, Grondverbond, The Netherlands

“Inspiration has a lot to do with synchronicity and affirmation with the community. [in the Philippines] We work with displaced people. There was one woman, we helped her work with her garden. She talked about how healing it was for her. The whole time we never talked about healing. Hearing it from the community it was an affirmation of our work.”

Sarah Queblation, Green Releaf, Philippines

What you get from these quotes is that inspiration is the oil in the restoration engine and is less about convincing, more about showing and experiencing future options. Inspiration is a fluid concept, it is not one single action and needs to be nurtured over time. Also, inspiration activities take different forms, focus on different community groups, and there is not a clear defined outcome as for example when restoring a natural zone.

Inspiration comes from changing the way we relate to each other and the land.

We discovered that a return of hope and a sense of purpose is also connected to changes in thinking, a new perspective on life. Often, this starts with connecting and listening to other people and moving from ego to eco thinking. When you bring in the land as one of the stakeholders, you start to look at the whole system you are part of and start realising you have to work together for future generations. In the end, restoring land is about restoring people because we are part of the land and have an emotional connection to the land.

In building relationships with others on the land, it is important to stay humble, start small and build trust through face to face contact. Storytelling is also part of inspiration as people inspire people. You have to talk about it through direct contact (going to farms, meetings etc.). It is about having different types of conversations, space for reflection and inviting the land as a stakeholder in the conversation.

A solid level of connectedness, inspiration and hope can be a real stable base for building something into the future. Even though there will be changes and challenges along the way, inspiration can be the base for your collective and long-term work. Interestingly, the Return of Inspiration is the most important in our work yet it is the most difficult to quantify and to get funding for.

Likewise, it may be challenging to prioritize inspiration, since it’s not that tangible. To give it the space and the attention it deserves. Even though it is critical, focusing on creating a sense of inspiration can also sometimes be experienced as a luxury – as said, there needs to be a headspace and psychological bandwidth for people to be able to open up and get inspired and connect to something bigger than ourselves.

Inspiration through (being able to) put your money where your mouth is, you have the means to create a better future.

Just as landscape restoration is connected to the mental state of the people living in it (see 5 basic ingredients), it is also intertwined with concepts of agency and social cohesion which, in turn, seems to have a connection with financial capital as a means. It is about the creation and enhancement of agency that funding can have to help you make your dream a reality and create that alternative future (i.e. having choice and the ability to exercise that choice). What is critical here is that the imagining of a better future forms only part of the return of inspiration, the ability to realise that imagined reality is an equally vital part.

If it is only money you are not really building something.

As soon as the money dries up, you lose inspiration. Inspiration is therefore deeper. Land stewards must have the knowledge and opportunity to not only improve their land but to deeply understand and connect with what they are doing (regenerating soil life, for example).

In that regard, inspiration can be experienced in the way you set up your business away from a narrow mechanistic/analytical vision toward a more holistic vision taking the landscape and its people into account. This requires a paradigm shift and this, in turn, requires patience.

With the growing appetite for restorative/regenerative practices and products, it is important to distinguish sincerity from ‘green washing’. Inspiration can go straight out of the window if insincere stakeholders come on board with the wrong intentions (profit-driven, short termism etc.). But if you get it right, buyers of regenerative landscape products can also be inspired and for this, you need to be very open and transparent:

“My biggest customer Rapunzel in Germany – the biggest change came when they visited me. When they came, they saw all that we are doing. They left really inspired. Now as a consequence we are a project on their home page. They already knew the project but when they were here and we had the human connection – that made a huge difference.”

Frank Ohlenschlaeger, CEO La Almendrehesa, Spain

For farmers, keeping your business healthy is key and in Australia it proved to be about listening and answering needs of your ‘target groups’:

“the pathway to market for regenerative products was lacking, the thing that providing inspiration for the farmers is that WOA created that pathway to market. Inspiration can be about connecting conscious consumers to regenerative farmers through selling of locally-sourced, ethically produced food.”

Christie Stewart, Wide Open Agriculture, Australia

In the Dutch landscape work of Wij.land inspiration also comes back in frameworks for financial contributions – such as donations, land investments through land trust model, buying regenag products etc.  In conclusion, putting your money where your mouth is can be inspiring.

To close

If there is one thing that we learned from these sessions it is that inspiration is an omnipresent and important part of landscape restoration work. It can be understood and captured over time but only to some degree. Inspiration can be experienced differently by different people and can evolve over time, and that’s how it should be.

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Inspiration can create a self-reinforcing loop from a new perspective to inspiration action to sustained inspiration.

1135 members are now active on 4returns.earth, connecting, sharing their field experiences, and creating new opportunities and initiatives together.

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