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A Legacy That Shall Endure

by Darryl Birkenfeld

A trio of amazing Directors departed OC’s Board this month. Their service over the years has been exemplary, and yet their time seemed to pass quickly. Surely this experience is shared by many who are work passionately for the common good. But when a term comes to an end, a question is worth pondering: what kind of legacy should we desire for the organizations that we care about?

One Director whose term has ended is Tom Giessel, a lifelong farmer from Larned, Kansas. In summing up his years of OC service, he shared these inspirational reflections. As a young farmer, Tom was told that “you farm to the weather,” meaning you must change and adapt to the circumstances if you want to survive and grow. Giessel remarked that he has seen this happen with Ogallala Commons, and especially in 2020, the organization dealt with “the weather” and did it well.

Going further, Tom offered a suitable goal for any OC Board member to strive for: to grow an oak tree. He borrowed much of this symbolism from his Farmers Union organization. The first step that Tom noted is that to grow an oak tree, you must become a nut (acorn)! It is a small and slow start, but over time, you can grow a tree as mighty as a fully-grown oak. Delving deeper, a tree trunk must grow strong so that it can bow and bend, but not break. New branches are added as an organization gains new partners, new projects, and new communities—a symbol of generativity. Most certainly, the roots of the tree must be anchored in the commons (in OC’s case, the 12 Key Assets of Commonwealth), and in time, the entire tree will become part of an ecosystem that reveals a distinct sense of place.

Without cutting down the tree, it is essential to find a way to examine the tree rings—a living record of the life and cycles that the oak has lived through. When we closely examine the growth rings of our tree—we will notice the variances and cycles of each year represented by varied bands of different widths (the ebbs and flows), but all wrapping around each other to form the tree trunk. Interestingly, the thinner the ring the less growth of that particular year, but the thin rings are also the strongest!

Tom offered one final gem. He remembered a poem he had once heard at a Farmers Union meeting and he paraphrased it like this… “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.” Mr. Giessel explained that the work of Ogallala Commons is to grow people, and that he has enjoyed his experience being a part of that with OC over many years.

If you would plant for a year
Plant grain
Yours shall be many an ear
Of gain
If you would plant for a decade
Plant trees.
Yours will be olives and shade and
If you would plant for Eternity
Plant men.
Eternal harvest shall be
Yours then.

John W. Holland,
(From “The Farmers Wife”)

Tom Giessel and his wife Sheryl live northwest of Larned, TX, along Ash Creek, in the Pawnee River Watershed. The other members of the trio of departing OC Board members are Doug Wilhelm and Kristin Bingham.

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