Tag Archives: zugenruhe

Before a Great Migration

GeesetakingoffAs I fly back to Minnesota to be with my family for Thanksgiving, I think about looking out on the lake I grew up next to. At this time of year, the last leaves have fallen, the temperatures drop into the 20s and everyone is anticipating the first ice on the lake. Overhead, geese are flying south.

I recall a story about their annual migration … 

Imagine you’re a Canada goose swimming about in a marsh in a northern lake. It’s been a beautiful summer. You’ve been enjoying eating on minnows, insects, seaweed and grasses. The days are getting shorter, though, and you’re not happy about that. In fact, with each passing day, you’re feeling fidgety, even anxious. You notice your brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles are all a bit edgy. You don’t know want to do. The marsh is such a fine place. All your friends are here. The food is good. But you’ve got this nagging urge for a change of scene. You need to leave. At one point this feeling of agitation overwhelms you … you open your wings and take flight! Now, up in the air, you realize that everyone in your family had the same feeling and are flying next to you. In fact, the whole neighborhood, no, the whole town has taken flight simultaneously and you’re all flying in the same direction! You’re not alone!

This amazing phenomenon is repeated every year by migrating birds all over the world. Germans have a term for the feeling of agitation and restlessness these birds display prior to a great migration: zugenruhe. Jason McLennan, an architect and founder of Living Future Institute, wrote a book by this title, suggesting that humanity is experiencing our own zugenruhe moment. A lot of us are feeling agitated. Whether it’s the increasing divide between red and blue, the unrest in the Middle East and Europe, or the reports of the Greenland ice melt, something is up! It’s about time to act. But where is our south?

I imagine that the urge to fly — now! and in that direction! — feels like an itch, a very personal impulse. Yet the moment of taking off is a collective action of the entire flock. There is no confusion — acting on self-interest WHILE acting in consort with the whole. It’s a paradox.

If only we were geese. We’re wired to act more out of self-interest and less on behalf of the whole. How deeply is this outlook rooted in our nature? Can we act as individuals AND with the whole of our human community in a collective migration toward a more equitable and sustainable living world? The agitation of zugenruhe is felt all around. How can we know the moment to act? How do we know which way to go?

Serving Ourselves / Serving the Whole


When building a wall to buffer their house from the public sidewalk, these owners incorporated a bench for passersby to sit on.

I had an engaging conversation recently with Sally Fox, a podcaster and leadership consultant, covering a range of big ideas. We talked about zugenruhe moments of restlessness, finding our passion and right work, navigating cultural shifts, the Beauty Mind and our antenna for sweet spots, the makeup of thriving communities, Christopher Alexander’s theories about wholeness, and more.

As it emerged, the theme came to be about the paradox between serving ourselves while serving the larger whole. It’s a both/and proposition. As we feather our own nest (or as designers, serve our client’s needs and desires), how is it that we connect and contribute to making the surrounding neighborhood better/richer/more alive? It’s tempting to take a position of hunkering into a view that says, “I’ve got property rights. I can do whatever is allowed by law.” That may be so, but then we’re left with disconnected patchworks of personal compounds.


The principle of Site Repair urges us to leave the most beautiful places alone and to build on the ugliest, thereby “mending a rend in the existing cloth”.

As I write this, I’m reminded of Pattern 104 Site Repair, from Alexander’s A Pattern Language. When choosing a site for a house, or any building for that matter, it seems natural to locate it in the most beautiful spot, with the best view, the healthiest trees and easiest slope to work with. From an individual perspective, this is the most obvious and sensible thing to do. But from a wider view, this site has a condition of ecological health and wholeness. Building in this location will diminish this health, while leaving other not-so-nice parts of the site unchanged. Will there be money and energy available to clean up the corner where old building materials are buried, or cultivate the stony slope where no plants are growing? And what about the small beautiful things that don’t register on a site survey—trillium flowers covering the forest understory in spring, the favorite path meandering across the meadow, the weathered paint on the old barn? These precious details are expressions of the wholeness of a place that take many seasons to mature, and that are easily lost in the shuffle of building. Alexander urges us to leave the most healthy places alone, and to “treat every act of building as an opportunity to mend some rend in the existing cloth, (thereby making) the ugliest and least healthy parts of the environment more healthy.” This is the principle of site repair.

In the context of our conversation, efforts to make something better for ourselves can be opportunities to make the larger world a better place.Ross:Sally Conversation

The conversation is in two parts. Enjoy a listen!

—Ross Chapin