I encountered this term during the space I allow for myself. Wednesday afternoon at 4:00PM every other week I spend in my PQ Graduate group with an amazing cohort of sage women. Our leader this week, Nan, shared this natural phenomenon with the rest of us. Probably many of you who have made the time in your lives to read Richard Power’s book The Overstory are already familiar with this, but because his book sits in the electronic equivalent of my bedside table stack of unread books, it was new to me.

Crown shyness is the phenomenon first noticed in the 1920s where trees at the top leave space between their branches. As the author of the linked blog indicated, there are many reasons for that. I encourage you to read the piece and see the fascinating photos of this phenomenon, as well as to note it next time you find yourself in the dense forest. Which I also encourage you to do.

While many of the definitions I read about crown shyness expressed an anthropomorphic dislike or aversion to trees touching each other at the higher elevations, I prefer to interpret this phenomenon as a choice to eschew contact to allow for the introduction of more light to the glade, or to prevent the spread of virulent insects, in other words, as a protective phenomenon. In that interpretation of this image, it reminded me of where I need to focus on my leadership as we enter the production phase of our semester at USC. If I’m critical, (which is always necessary when evaluating ourselves), I find my current function as Head of Production lower in the anatomy of the forest, and as a result, less able to provide a view and structure of the needs of the work to be done.

I think we do the roots part well in our production and design program. As faculty and staff, we are many strong, sturdy trees bound closely under the soil to support each other as we lift the canopy of our teaching and productions up. Our students rise, seedlings, then saplings from the ground up, supported in their growth by a strong glade of full grown trees. We don’t always provide the same ideas about what is needed for growth, and the occasional fire in the underbrush reminds us that the creative theatrical process can become heated and temporarily out of control. Fighting back these small fires, we nevertheless make necessary space for the seedlings to grow, clearing the underbrush for the saplings to rise and flourish.

Coast redwood are adapted to fire and other disturbance. Seeds germinate best on mineral soil as is exposed by flooding, fire, or wind throw for seed germination and establishment.

National Park Service

In my own week, I became aware that my personal underbrush is unhealthily thick. My tasks, while varied and interesting, without editing and determining how they might be delegated, can become strangling, preventing me from rising to the level of the canopy to envision and support what is needed.

But most importantly, as this relates to leadership or not, I’ve become aware of the vital importance of hosting clear head space. I have a wonderful colleague, newly assigned the role of Head of Design, with whom I also serve on multiple other school committees, whose ability to ask canopy-view questions catapults me to the 100 foot view.

On Saturday, I was sitting outside on a bench near the theatre where I’d come from tech rehearsal, eating my lunch, and soaking in some sunlight to slough off the theatre’s chill when along he came, on his way to a Design Consult. As he dropped onto the bench, he insistently posed his questions, after first asking if it was okay to be asking them. In doing so, he instantly elevated me to the top of our shared canopy, where we both really belong.

I appreciate the novel granularity and his newcomer’s perspective with his questions:

  • Are you my boss?
  • How much do you really need to be in tech?
  • Do we need a separate person to handle all the hiring?

How frequently do we allow ourselves to become mired in the undergrowth, using precious hours and headspace with answering email, or being partially present where we might spend that time better with more focus, constructing the communications that are necessary to stave off the torrent of email. How little thinking and navigating time do we actually allow ourselves? And where is the joy time? In the collaborative process, we refer to incubation time, but more fundamentally, how do students, staff and managers recharge our own batteries, reminding ourselves of the way we want our limited live days to be filled?

I take good care of my body. I walk 3+ miles four to five times a week. I eat well, sleep really well; within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow, I’m out. I utilize the PQ tools, mini mindfulness exercises throughout the day to calm my breath, steady my nerves allowing me to remain present and mostly sage in my daily interactions. This practice is built upon empathy for others and the ability to navigate to a place that reflects both my values and the institutions. And yet, I clearly have stumbled a bit when considering empathy for myself. When I allow myself to “zoom out” (an interesting term in light of the past 18 months?) to consider my colleague’s questions, I realize how much more I can do to open the canopy above, which will ultimately benefit the entire forest. Head space, or crown shyness, however we want to term it, is no longer something that I or my forest can live without.

4 thoughts

  1. Beautiful post, as always Els. I hadn’t thought of the analogy of the undergrowth‘s need for periodic burnouts (pun unintended but sort of hilarious). Let’s say clearing out. That’s a great analogy.

    I reading the other story right now – does Powers mention crown shyness? I haven’t come across it yet. But I notice it several times a week on my walks through the forest 🤩

    1. Hi, Nan, thanks as always for reading. The work we’ve done so informs all my thinking these days and I’m always so grateful to you. Like I mentioned, the Powers book is still on the e-pile of books on my bedside table. One of these days I’ll get to it! xoxo

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