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Acorn as innovation instructor

Acorn and oak leaf (iPad sketches by Lorraine Smith)

Great lessons in innovation abound. We need to grant ourselves permission to see them — not to imagine the impossible, but rather to recognize the apparently unlikely yet perfectly obvious.

Take the acorn, for instance. If I arrived on Earth from outer space and someone asked me to organize an array of life forms by species, never would I imagine the acorn and the mature oak tree belonged together.

I might view the acorn as a rather small nut that I can twirl between my finger and thumb and then not think twice about tossing over my shoulder. The full grown oak tree, on the other hand, would tower before me, a rugged structure that I could scarcely wrap my arms around, and I would need some heavy equipment to move it one inch, much less pitch it over my shoulder. Maybe if I stared long enough — as in, over several seasons — the formation and eventual dropping of acorns would give me a hint, but I’d probably be so busy incorrectly pairing the acorn with the apricot that I’d miss the oak show. I would totally fail as a species-matching visitor from outer space.

Since I’m not from outer space (in spite of occasional feedback suggesting otherwise) I can take a cue from the acorn to think about innovation, to understand not just the possibilities but the realities of the world.

Happily, most Earthlings succeed in matching up the acorn and the oak tree when put to the task. I’ve tested this proposition, and people usually get it right.

And I’m not even close to the first person to make this observation about nature’s constant reminding us of the possibilities (see Buckminster Fuller’s lesson 5 in Leyla Acaroglu’s great piece, here). The acorn and the oak are so well understood to be the same species that we feel the connection—we know without thinking about it. But maybe we should spend a bit more time thinking about it.

At a time when our own species is struggling to change how we behave in relation to our planet and each other, the very question of how we evolve from our own “acorn state” of high potential in need of certain conditions to thrive could be answered by trees and their humble beginnings.

Oaks are a handy teacher in this regard for me, as I grew up among many of them in Toronto, Canada, and while summering further north where they abound as great canopy-shaping marvels on the shores of Lake Manitou. But pretty much any tree shares this story. The Figueiras of Brazil’s urbanized and beleaguered Atlantic Forest, for example, where these trees appear extruded into existence from a giant sculptor’s hands and not in fact sprouted from the little crumb-like bits that are its seeds, are utterly different and far away yet tell the same tale.

What could we become, what greatness could we allow to emerge from our smallness — if we followed the lead of these simple seeds sown all around us? In my new home of New York City, acorns are falling frequently right now as autumn gets fully underway. It’s a great, and much needed reminder, of the incredible potential and the opportunity to imagine what we can become.

If you find yourself in search of innovation and meaningful change, consider a quick check in with your local acorn.

This piece first appeared as a Medium article in October 2016.

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iPad sketch of urban trees in evening light in New York City (by Lorraine Smith)

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