Walking the Green Path: Support for the Journey

Geese flying in formation

By Daniel Swenson-Klatt | Updated March 27, 2023

A few overhead honks have turned my gaze skyward recently, watching the otherwise quiet, graceful V of geese moving across the blue.  It’s the kind of event that is a timely reminder that our summer has indeed moved into that transition period; something is changing, fall is not far off.

This fall, my efforts to gather a staff at the café led me to imagine how geese find a way to gather into their formations.  What leads them to a specific grouping? What natural instincts are at work, allowing them to trust each other so completely that they risk their lives for others to lead them from a summer home to a winter home so far away?  Do they recruit strong flyers to take their lead?  Do they reject ones that might hold them back or would require more attention?

I also try to imagine the challenges they face as a team: of sticking together, of taking turns at the lead, of depending on each other’s strength, of way-finding, and of just finding food and safe places to rest.  How is it possible for these geese (not what I’d consider the most intelligent of creatures) to make a journey like this twice a year?  I certainly relied a lot on technology and the built environment to get me from Minneapolis to Maine and back on a long road trip this past summer.

The V formation itself is a thing of beauty.  I understand that on long journeys, one person cannot be expected to carry the full weight and responsibility.  When it is shared, the burden is lighter, the investment is deeper, and there is a benefit to having a range of experience to draw upon.

And yes, it helps me to let others have that front spot in the V, to swing to the back, ride on another’s updraft, and become a follower instead of a leader for a while.  After a bit of time away, the return to the front is something I look forward to, instead of dreading. Once back up front, I try to be aware of the others who carried the load during my time in the back and let them find their own way to drop back and get some relief.

I’m also aware of how institutional memory becomes a part of how we make the journey from year to year.  This year, several staff with many years of experience at the café moved on to other adventures.  With them, a sense of history, of how the journey moves from season to season also left.  But part of their story stays with those they worked with and now is built into how the shop continues to operate.

As each new employee begins, I provide that story as well, taking each on the journey with me and planting some of the history into how they see the present day café.  This sense of history is built into geese, where most groupings are family related and tend to last as long as mates stay together.

Geese are also known to drop out of their migratory formations to stay with an injured goose until it is ready to return to flight.  This sense of concern for the group provides an added layer of protection for each goose.  It’s also been shown that groupings of geese that leave early tend to have the strongest individuals with the highest chance of arriving at their destination.

Ones that are less able, tend to wait until later, resting up, and going more slowly, and as groups prepare to leave, those who are ready at that point tend to be able to fly together at the same pace.

At least within the restaurant industry, some self-selection happens when employees choose places that might match one’s level of energy and activity.  And as I’ve become aware, our level of concern for each other and our ability to hold each other up has made us a place that feels noticeably caring and welcoming.

While family, loosely, is how I started this journey, the additions to my café’s team are always told that they should consider themselves part of the family.  In that way, I see my work as a journey, our ability to form a tight-knit, cohesive group helps when the work gets tough, challenges or conflicts arise, or when someone is in need of extra care.

Now, as the fall season begins, I gather up a new grouping of staff and start the journey out again.  Our chattering with each other in the kitchen or swapping out spots at the register might remind you at times of a group of geese, honking to each other and flying their V formation as well!  Just know that on this journey, your happiness is our destination.

I look forward to sharing the journey with you along this Green Path and will gladly share the front of the V with you.

Walking the Green Path is a series of stories by Daniel Swenson-Klatt, the owner of Butter Bakery Cafe, about what it’s like to run a small business focused on sustainability and building community.

Daniel Swenson-Klatt is a writer, community activist, and owner of Butter Bakery Cafe located in South Minneapolis.

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