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  • When the first pioneers reached this region, they described the prairie as a vast sea of grass. You see, the prairie cordgrass (spartina pectinata) was known to grow as tall as 10 feet and when the wind blew, and boy, did it blow, the wind would cause waves across this beautiful, shimmering plain.

    It was said that, even on horseback, it was easy to get lost on this smooth land with endless horizon and limitless possibility.

    This was special grass. It’s network of scaly, stout, woody underground stems called rhizomes formed a dense, tough mat beneath the group that created some of the deepest and most fertile topsoil on our planet. This network of underground rhizomes could independently reproduce and create a new plant, which meant this diverse sea of individuals blades of grass was really one, complex, collaborative and co-dependent organism.

    The French philosopher, Deleuze, spoke of a philosophical concept or image of thoughts also called the Rhizome. He had a conception of knowledge and experience that was connected and dynamic with no end or beginning only the middle. He described sense of mutualism that allowed different species or concepts to interact together in a special way that formed an entirely new and dynamic organism.

    He believed that culture and knowledge and indeed design spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards into gaps, always seeking. Limitless possibility.

    He contrasted rhizomes with trees. Independent, singular and autonomous with deep roots, but no diversity. These structures had a clear chronology and organization, a beginning and end. Limited.

    This morning, I sat for coffee with a philosopher, a technologist, a book publisher, and an educator. All of them designers, though none in the classical or professional sense. And, as usual, the conversation was incredibly lively.

    We talked about how design and creativity have become like a tree. Limited in their definition and scope and participants. Strong, but not collaborative or diverse. Design and creativity are now limited to the drafting table or the artist’s studio, but what if design could be something more. What if here, on the prairie, design could be like the native cordgrass?

    Imagine a place or system or process of design where ideas of all sorts, formal and informal, rigid and relaxed, from all sorts of people and perspectives could come together around ‘design.’ What would our streets look like if the bicycle had the same voice as the automobile? What would our schools look like if parents and politicians shared the same table to imagine them? How might architects or artists change their work if farmers and fast food cooks were part of their process?

    What if just a little bit of design, a little design on the prairie, better reflected the nature of our context and place and heritage?

    I recently enjoyed a design collaboration of this sort. Robert Thunderhawk was unlike any of my other relationships. We met on a snowy, November morning when he knocked at my front door. He had taken notice that my sidewalk needed shoveling and was there to help. Robert, a native of Pine Ridge and homeless resident of Sioux Falls, and I would develop one of the most unusual and dynamic of friendships over the next two years. We couldn’t have been more different in our mix of prestigious college degrees and hard won wisdom. He’d ask me about Facebook or tell me about the Kardashians and I’d share a bit about a logo or a recent trip to a far away place. Our conversations would happen weekly at times and have gaps of months at others. Our unspoken deal was simply that I’d buy him clothes or food or such if I could and, over time, he’d give me a deeper appreciation of my wife, and daughter, and immensely good fortune. I took this photo, my only one of Robert, during a hopeful chapter that included secure work and his own apartment. I'll never forget the way he walked that day. The sense that he was going somewhere. When I spoke to him for the last time, he took the opportunity to tell me how thankful he was for our relationship and how he always wanted to just keep his end of the deal. He did that and more. There was deep topsoil under Robert and I. Fertile ground that will lead to great harvests for generations. And like the prairie grass, and design, I like to believe that the collaboration has no beginning or end, only the middle.

    This type of collaboration, diversity, strength and shared destiny has a place here on the plains. It really always has. It has a place in design as well. Can’t you just imagine the possibilities?
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