The circle of life is enriched by sharing

Two words we like are “synergy” and “symbiosis.”

Once a week, one of our reporters enters the Enterprise time machine — actually, it’s our former darkroom where we’ve hooked up a microfilm reader to peruse our old editions so as not to touch the crumbing paper in the books stored in our attic.

We do this to produce our “Back In Time” column that relates events in our environs from a century ago. We pick up tidbits from these long-ago editions that change our lives in small ways.

For instance, we learned that Susan B. Anthony — the social reformer and leader in the movement for women to vote — attributed her health, in her old age, to always running — not walking — up stairs. We’ve adopted this practice ourselves, perhaps in hopes of living so long or so well.

One of our reporters found, in a 100-year-old column, a description of a bird perched on the back of a sheep. We had learned about symbiosis in biology class and recall the example of an African crocodile having its teeth cleaned by a plover.

But here was a close-to home example: The bird, presumably, was eating ticks, which kept the sheep healthy, and in turn, was getting fed.

How wonderful to have two beings help themselves while benefiting each other.

The word “symbiosis” comes from the Greek for “living together” — the way people do in a community — and first got its biological meaning in the late 19th-Century when Albert Bernard Frank described the way lichens mutually get along.

“Synergy” is also derived from the Greek — for “working together.” It describes the way elements come together in a system to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of the separate parts. Synergy plays out in the physical world, for instance, in the way that oxygen and hydrogen become water.

Synergy exists not just for bees or wolves, but for people, too. And it doesn’t mean we all have to agree in order to prosper. On the contrary. Jay Hall did studies showing that groups that disagree at the start of a discussion are more effective than those who, from the outset, adopt a common view.

Too much group cohesion results in what scientists have termed “group think.” Irving Janis, for example, has maintained that the failure of America to anticipate the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was because of the cohesive nature of committees advising and making decisions.

These favorite words jumped into our brain recently when we published a letter from John Elberfeld encouraging our readers to visit the Voorheesville Public Library. Elberfeld lives in Knox. Why in the world would he be encouraging people to go to the Voorheesville library?

Because a group of local historical groups had gotten together for an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cold Harbor. The library collaborated with the 125th New York Volunteer Infantry, the Capital District Civil War Round Table, Uncle Billy’s Balladeers, the Knox Historical Society, and the Helderberg Quilt Barn Trail project.

Civil War tunes enlivened the library setting. Bob Mulligan, dressed as a Union soldier, used a model of Cold Harbor to show how the battle played out. Knox’s hometown hero, Lieutenant Michael H. Barkley, had received a fatal wound in that battle, and an exhibit detailed his story.

Elberfeld and his wife, Jane McLean, have launched a project to bring attention to historic quilts and local barns, by creating giant painted quilt squares people can post on their buildings. They used the Voorheesville event to highlight the importance of quilts during the Civil War, both for soldiers’ bedding and in fund-raising for wartime supplies.

A synergy was created at the event — the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

We commend the effort and urge other local organizations to use it as a model. Week in and week out, we post the worthwhile events hosted by local historical societies, libraries, senior groups, and more. We are in no way disparaging any of these individual efforts. We recently spoke at the Guilderland Historical Society about the 130-year history of our newspaper and had a ball.

But sharing ideas, as well as venues and resources, can be good for all.

Elberfeld wrote in his letter that Robert Weible, New York’s State Historian, has charged the historic community with sharing resources as a way to offset diminished funding.

Certainly the governor has been pounding the drum of consolidation to save taxpayers’ money. We can understand why municipalities or school districts may not want to merge; many fear losing their identities.

Weible’s call is different, though, because each community group would continue to maintain its own identity but could benefit — through shared ideas and greater attendance — by combining for events like the one at the Voorheesville library.

Following Weible’s call, the historical societies in Albany County have resolved to meet quarterly to find ways of cutting overlap and collaborating. We commend them on their resolve and hope to see the results.

Our Hilltown reporter, Marcello Iaia, learned from Weible that he and others have delivered the message of cooperation for decades.  Since the 1960s, Weible said, the appeal of spending public money on history and the arts has waned and historical organizations developed as unnecessary competitors, where museums would build programs around their own collections.

Last month, in his State of the State’s History address, Weible suggested historians work to develop tourism in their region. This would be a welcome economic boon for our area, which is so rich in history and natural beauty.

Weible had an important caveat, though, which all would be wise to heed. He stressed that the history involved be accurate and meaningful.

“Bad history leads to bad policy, leads to a bad future,” said Weible.

The synergy need not be restricted to historical groups. We’re running a story next week on a project called “Suitcases of History,” the result of a collaboration among historical societies in Berne and Knox and the curator of the Altamont archives, Marijo Dougherty, to teach schoolchildren about their history by bringing artifacts to their classrooms.

We hope these kinds of symbiotic relationships become as natural and lasting as that between the sheep and the magpie. We hope that, 100 years from now, someone will look up these words and remark on the success of that synergy.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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