Brooks on Books: What are You Reading?

When visiting family or eating with friends (or interviewing job candidates), I often ask “what are you reading?” I find books or other long form writing a better source of conversational kindling than discussing the weather, recent doctor visits or the op-ed pages. A discussion starting with books and authors can lead anywhere. 

For example, my Aunt and I regularly exchange book ideas. A lover of horses and Native American culture, she introduced me to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries featuring police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. (So far, I’ve read Dance Hall for the Dead and The Ghostway.) This led to discussions about Navajo artists and my Aunt’s earrings, which helped me discover the Native American artist Frances Jones and a lovely bracelet for my wife for our anniversary. This series of links, connected by books, occurred over a ten-year period.

My Mom and Dad belong to book clubs (Mom and her friends drink tea when discussing their books; Dad’s crew drinks wine). Over the years, both sent me books they’ve read and enjoyed. Dad, a Vietnam Veteran, sent me a copy of Beyond Survival by former POW Gerald Coffee. The book recounts how Coffee and his fellow prisoners of war supported each other and communicated with a secret code tapped on walls between cells. (Sometime, after a difficult day, I flip through this book for perspective and appreciation.) The book strengthened an interest in reporting and fiction from Vietnam, including my favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book of linked short stories related to the Vietnam War.

Books connect us. This goes beyond required high school reading and Bible study, both of which offer their own foundational literacy. When someone uses the word “tesseract” or “grok” in a sentence, I feel a flush of joy and follow-up later to ask when they read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Richard Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land. The book-based connections help us share memories (and travel through space and time). 

So, what are you reading? I welcome your comments and recommendations.

This post is dedicated to my Dad. Happy Birthday, Captain!

Is This Meeting Necessary?

According to the late author and management expert Peter Drucker,[1] “one either meets or one works.”

While our sympathies agree with this, we’ve also experienced effective, well-run meetings that got things done. Meetings either leverage or waste company resources, time and productivity, so the skills required to lead and facilitate meetings have value and import

Diagnosing meeting quality does not require a PhD (few things do). As noted in a previous essay, meetings fail for specific, well-understood reasons

Alternately, meetings succeed if they adhere to a few basic practices. This starts with asking, “is this meeting necessary?” In Loving Trees is Not Enough, I wrote about primary roles served by meetings:

  • Rapid decision making;
  • Sharing information and education; and 
  • Generating ideas and feedback.

We should be able to state, in one simple sentence, the purpose of any given meeting. “We are deciding how to staff this project” or “we are reviewing the audit results to identify next steps.” If we cannot specify the purpose, then what happens if we cancel the meeting? Per Mr. Drucker, we work.

To keep meetings on track, start on time and with an agenda. Remind those assembled (in one sentence) what we plan to accomplish. The agenda serves to clarify expectations in advance. This helps participants prepare and contribute appropriately, in addition to confirming whether or not they should attend in the first place. Everyone should “need” to be there and have a specific role.

At the end of the meeting, ask “who else needs to know?” Then, you can get back to work.


[1] His books, including The Practice of Management and Managing in Turbulent Times, remain relevant and timely to this day.

How to Improve the Communication of Research: Lessons from Forestry and Wood Bioenergy

In 2012, the Forest History Society published Wood for Bioenergy: Forests as a Resource for Biomass and Biofuels,” a book I co-authored with Amanda Lang. It serves as a primer on the markets, policies and technologies associated with wood pellets, liquid fuels and wood-based electricity and power. In 2021, the Lynn W. Day Endowment sponsored my lecture that revisited our assumptions on wood bioenergy ten years ago – and other forestry-related topics – and how they played out over time (click here to view a replay of the lecture).

Over time, we learned lessons from (1) our own research and (2) the way reporters and the media covered research. We observed how researchers and reporters, while typically operating in good faith to do the best job they can, end up failing to communicate core finding or insights accessibly or accurately. For example, when the Forest History Society commissioned us to author Wood for Bioenergy, the copyeditors recommended, on multiple occasions, that we simplify concepts for the target audience. Generally speaking, we tended to be too “technical” and needed to boil down key findings with context.

Common Errors

Articles in newspapers, on the other hand, tended to suffer from different issues. In 2014, I published an article on this topic in BioResources (“Learning from mistakes in the media to improve the communication of wood bioenergy research”). The article focused on three common errors in reporting on wood bioenergy and forestry that offer guidance for the coverage of research and technical analysis:

  1. Failure to provide context, which rarely requires exhaustive research or supplementary analysis. Help readers and policymakers get a relative sense for the magnitude of a problem. 
  2. Improperly assigning “causal” relationships. For example, does it only rain when the Red Sox win, or are other factors involved?
  3. Errors of fact. Double check the basic facts. One faulty assertion casts doubt on the broader work and body of research, which can undermine the careers and efforts of entire research teams.

Conclusion

Being effective in our fields requires skills beyond the technical. Technical skills divorced from the ability to communicate that we have these skills, and the insights we generate from applying these skills, limit our influence. Success and relevance to decisionmakers depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.

Ground Rules for Productive Meetings

This post introduces an essay on leading and facilitating effective teamwork and meetings

Meetings fail for three primary reasons. One, the purpose was unclear. Two, meetings fail because they are poorly planned. Three, meetings fail because they are poorly run. They start and end late, or agenda integrity was not maintained.  At the end of the meeting, nothing was decided, and no one was better off.  Neutral facilitation and value-based ground rules can help teams use an effective process during meetings to discuss its issues. 

Click here to read the essay.

Tough Trees and Growth Rings

The late Dr. Alex Shigo, author of accessible books on trees and former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Forest Service, described trees thusly:

“Trees are superior survival organisms. They live longer, grow taller, and become more massive than any organism ever to inhabit earth.” 

Dr. Alex Shigo

In short, trees are tough. Street life for a tree involves air pollution, yard sale signs, climbing kids, tire swings, knife carvings and car accidents. In the woods, trees endure drought, floods, fires, deer stands and enumerable pathogens. Regardless their environment, trees document their travails in their annual growth rings. These concentric increments, made of light and dark cells, indicate the amount of wood added in one season.  

The mechanics of trees, so orderly and resilient, fascinate. Let’s take a moment to peel back the bark and appreciate what comprises a tree and its growth rings:

  • Bark: this outer layer protects the tree from extreme temperatures, certain bugs and diseases, and even fire.
  • Phloem: also called the “inner bark,” the phloem transports sap produced in the leaves down and throughout the tree. Compare this role to that of the sapwood (xylem).
  • Cambium: amazing layer of thin cells that produces inner bark (phloem) on one side and sapwood (xylem) on the other.
  • Xylem: sapwood conducts water and necessary nutrients up the tree, versus the phloem which transports ready sap down the tree. When looking at the cross-section of a tree, the relatively youthful sapwood is lighter, partly because it has more water than the…
  • Heartwood in the middle of the stem, which is comprised of older, inactive cells that provide structural strength. 
  • Pith: central core of the tree and in twigs.

In most of North America, the growing season for trees starts in the spring when the cambium produces larger cells with thin walls that form lighter-colored “springwood” or earlywood. Growth slows later in the summer when trees produce the smaller and thicker walled cells that for the “summerwood” or latewood that is the darker part of each annual growth ring.