Key West

A few photos from around Key West. We have Chrissy and me eating breakfast and then Key Lime pie, separate places. Last is me at the very end of US. 1.


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Mangroves: Edge Ecosystems

Edge ecosystems are often among the most diverse, since they combine two or more environments. They usually punch well above their weight and are crucial to the larger ecosystem they join.

Among the richest of these sorts of ecosystems are mangrove forests. Mangroves are amphibious trees that grow between high and low tide. They are sensitive to frost. In the U.S., they grow only in south Florida, and a few places in Louisiana so we went to see some in the Florida Keys.

You can see in my pictures how & why they do the jobs. The tangle of roots and branches help hold soil and protect the coast from erosion and storms. They also provide cover for fish and other wildlife to breed.

There are dozens of species of mangrove in parts of the tropics, but in Florida there are only three: black, red and white. Red mangroves grow in the inter-tidal region where their roots are always under water, even at low tide. If you see a clump of mangroves in the water at low tide, they are red mangroves. Black mangroves’ roots are under water during high tide, but exposed during low tide. White mangroves grow above high tide, but in places where their roots are always wet.

The keys, BTW, are are the end of a chain of barrier islands the stretch all the way from Canada. Barrier Island are interesting ecosystems with or w/o mangroves. A barrier island is temporary thing. They are more than sandbars but less than real terra-firma. In an instant of geological time, they are born and disappear and they are always moving. Storms play a big role in determining what grows on barrier islands. Most of the vegetation is small because storms blow down bigger trees. Where some hardwoods can establish, they are called hammocks. These are not big trees as we would expect inland, but they are forests.

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Keepers of the Flames

The best thing about the Nature Conservancy is the way they bring ostensibly competing interests together in pursuit of common aspirations. What is now the Disney Wilderness Preserve near Orlando was a cattle ranch slated to be developed into another subdivision. Today it is an essential part of the Everglades ecosystem with 3,500 acres of restored wetlands that act as nature’s “sponges” in the landscape capturing rain, filtering out nutrients and replenishing our ground water. All this based on the cooperation of NGOs, private firms, individuals working in voluntary association and government. This means that TNC preserves are usually managed better than public parks, are more better integrated to greater ecosystems than most private lands, provide ecological services to human communities and provide individuals with places of peace and renewal.

You can visit this and most other TNC properties. We did this today. I was interested in seeing how the longleaf restoration was coming. It is good. You see on my photos that the understory is largely saw palmetto. This is something we will not get in Virginia longleaf forests.

I have supported TNC for thirty years. It is the only charity that I have never failed to remember. If you study the details of conservation in the last sixty years, you cannot help but be impressed by the consistent role TNC has played. It has not been through overt political action or even through the wonderful work they did buying and protecting land, but rather through the development of theory and theory in practice of conservation. For example, TNC was literally the keeper of the flame, keeping alive and viable principles AND practices of prescribed burning when “only you can prevent forest fires” was the official mantra and the generally respected consensus

My photos are from the preserve. Notice the pine and palmetto, as well as the evidence of frequent fire that keeps this fire dependent ecosystem in balance. What looks like dead trees in the background are bald cypress, that lose their needles in winter, hence the name bald.

I also note that while my photos show the trees I love, the sky is a big player in the pictures. In that, it reminds me of Brasilia.



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Forestry Book of Days

January 11 – 1887 –  Aldo Leopold is born on this day in 1887.  Considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast. Among his best know ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. Leopold’s collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, sold more than two million copies and has become one of the most respected books about the environment ever published.


February 7 – 1958 – On this day in 1958, Tall Timbers Research Center is established near Tallahassee, Florida.  Now called the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy (TTLC), it  is a widely regarded information resource for fire ecology, game bird management, vertebrate ecology and forestry. The Research Station is recognized as the home of the study of fire ecology and is an advocate to protect the right to use prescribed fire for land management. The Land Conservancy is recognized as one of the nation’s leading land trusts, and protects traditional land uses in north Florida and south Georgia by conserving more than 128,000 acres in this region through conservation easements. (Ref –


February 24 – 1889 – Herbert L. Stoddard is born on this day in 1889.  Stoddard was one of the most important southern conservationists of the twentieth century.  He developed a method of forest management in the longleafwiregrass region of Georgia that is still widely practiced today.  Known as an authority on the bobwhite quail, Stoddard advocated the reintroduction of fire as a land management tool to improve habitat, at a time when scientists and officials were trying to eradicate fire from forests. Along with his friend and colleague Aldo Leopold, Stoddard also helped establish the wildlife management as a profession.  Stoddard was among the first to advocate an ecological perspective to land management.  (Ref –


June 12 – 1941 – The first official tree farm is dedicated in Montesano, Washington on this day in 1941. Washington Governor Arthur B. Langlie delivers the dedicatory address. Owned by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, the 120,000-acre Clemons Tree Farm was established to demonstrate fire control and reforestation practices.

October 8 – 1871 – The most devastating fire in United States history is ignited in Wisconsin on this day in 1871. Over the course of the next day, 1,200 people lost their lives and 2 billion trees were consumed by flames. Despite the massive scale of the blaze, it was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which began the next day about 250 miles away. (

October 24 – 1947 – On this day in 1947 Virginia certifies its first twelve tree farm units. Governor William Tuck presents the first certificates at a meeting of Virginia Forests, Inc., in Richmond. The first certificate is awarded to M.M. Jones of Purdy.

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Material driven expression in timber

The National Building Museum is sponsoring a series of lectures by architects and engineers doing innovative building with wood, specifically with cross laminated timber (CLT).  This goes with their Timber City exhibit showing wood as the once and future building material. I attended on a lecture by Architect Andrew Waugh, who talked about using cross laminated timber and his Murray Grove project (once the world’s tallest modern timber residential building) back in September. Last night, I went to a lecture by Susan Jones on “Material Driven Expressions in Timber.”

Wood: great for building and the environment

Ms. Jones started her lecture by talking about the timber that goes into timber construction. She pointed out that wood is not only a great building material but also a great material from the ecological point of view. Wood is the most ecologically appropriate construction material. It is a building material that is grown, not manufactured. As it grows, it takes carbon from the air and provides beauty, protection for water and soils and a habitat for wildlife. Compare a forest to a cement manufacturing plant or a steel mill and you will see what I am talking about.

We live on a timber rich continent and Virginia is a timber rich state. We should use this renewable resource more. 

Jones pointed out that the relatively new construction with cross laminated timber borrows a lot from construction with concrete and the “Dom-Ino” houses advocated by the famed modern architect Le Corbusier. These were simple houses that took advantage of the capacity of reinforced concrete and steel to span large spaces. This allowed an open floor plan, since there were fewer load-bearing walls. This was not possible with wood until cross laminated timber, which provide strength in both compression and tension, i.e. it can bear significant weight pushing down and can span significant space without bending or breaking.

New opportunities with cross laminated timber

A big advantage of CLT is that it can be cut to order and assembled quickly. Since it is light weight and flexible, it can be used in various ways not possible with other building materials. Jones built her own home with CLT. She showed photos. It is good to know that she walks the walk as well as talks the talk. Living in what you advocate is the ultimate testimonial.

Jones says that architects should be advocates for ecologically more benign construction materials, such as wood. The challenge is cost and codes. Cost will not remain a problem for long. Construction using CLT is already cost competitive with concrete and steel and prices are coming down. A bigger problem is availability.  CLT has been used in Europe since the 1990s and they manufacture it there. In the U.S., there are only two firms making CLT: D.R. Johnson, a firm in Riddle, Oregon, is making CLT out of local Douglas fir and Smartlam in Montana was first in the U.S. to make CLT. These are far from the East Coast.  It is costly to move and we need local sources.

How about a CLT plant in Virginia?

We need a CLT manufacture in Virginia. We grow lots of southern pine and researchers at Virginia Tech has shown that yellow poplar, which grows in glorious perfusion in our Blue Ridge Mountains, can also be used for CLT.  But this is another story, an aspiration that I hope will soon become a reality.

We need more science and testing to show how CLT can be used and how it can be used safely. Currently, most building codes do not allow building in wood of more than six stories. This made sense in the old days but maybe not more. Wood indeed burns, but it does not burn rapidly unless there is kindling. Try starting a log on fire with a match. It forms a char layer and does not easily burn. Recall that at high heat concrete does not burn, but it crumbles and steel bends. Mass timber can provide similar fire resistance and with a few modifications, such a gypsum skin, can do even better.

Wood is the once and future building material

I look forward to wood taking its place in tall buildings and in beautiful architecture.  Talented architects like Susan Jones are leading the way.

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Virginia Urban Forestry Roundtable, December 8, 2016

I attended the Northern Virginia Urban Forestry’s Roundtable on “Home Owner’s Associations: Strategies to Increase Tree Canopy” at NOVA’s Loudoun County campus.   An urban forest may seem an oxymoron, but as urban areas expand and urban style living creeps into the country, urban areas are the new forestry frontier.  I wrote an article about that for Virginia Forest Magazine earlier this year.

You can see the agenda here. The room was full with a diverse group of people.  Some were foresters, many represented HOAs, there were developer representatives and several “tree stewards,” who made it their business to protect and preserve individual trees.  What we all had in common was love of trees. I was interested in this program because of my tree interest but also because I am now on the HOA board, so I thought I might learn something.

The first speakers talked about how HOAs deal with their trees.  It is complicated in Northern Virginia because there are lots of rules and even more stakeholders.  The speakers talked about some of the challenges.  One of the most important was lack of consistent planning.  Much of this problem stemmed from instability in HOA boards.  Sometimes one board makes plans that the new people don’t want.  The speakers gave a prosaic example of a board that had planned to plant a grove of trees, but when new members came in the plan was scrapped because dog owners on the new board preferred the open space for their dogs to run.

A bigger challenge than dog runs is budgets.   HOAs tend to budget for obvious expenses such as periodic repair and replacement of roads, paths and equipment, but they tend not to think about trees, or when they do they think about them as part of nature.  Of course, trees are a part of nature, but they are also valuable infrastructure and they require both routine maintenance and sometimes replacement.  Trees live a long time, but they do not live forever.   After about twenty years, some of the trees will begin to die off.  HOAs with neighborhoods built in the 1950s and 1960s are now beginning to see significant numbers of their trees decline and die.  The HOA budget needs to plan for this sort of natural attrition as well as the more spectacular events of trees being hit by lightning or being blown down in storms.

We had a talk by Chris Fields-Johnson from Davey Tree Services.  He gave a very good presentation about caring for trees and shared on online manual on how to do things right.  I was happy to see that they mentioned Tree Farm.

Another good presentation came from Jim McGlone from Virginia Department of Forestry.  He writes forestry plans for HOAs and he does it for free.  He can give advice about deer, invasive plants, risky trees and the value of trees in general. He pointed out that it is good to use native plants and trees, but that native to the area does not mean native to your back yard.  The precise soils and conditions make a difference.   He also made a good quip about people complaining about rats and snakes, joking that if you have snakes at least you probably don’t have rats.

There were also presentations on storm water and some case studies from various HOAs. I have more notes, but I am getting tired of writing.

I think it is a good idea to go to these meetings.  I learn something every time and I learn things I didn’t think I was looking to learn.  It is also a good place to meet neighbors and get some impressions of what people are thinking.

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Lobbying (Again)

Went up to Capitol Hill to meet with staffers for Virginia’s Senators and Members of Congress.  We met Republicans and Democrats, all of whom were broadly supportive of tree farming and the principles of sustainable forestry.  It is an easy sell because we are representing fundamentally good practices and the great idea of sustainability.

It was interesting to make this foray into lobbying.  I was teamed for all appointments with Paul Howe, who represents Virginia Forestry Association and on some also with Benita Ring, Virginia State Forester.  Since I was “the Virginia landowner” I got to do much of the talking. Paul stepped in with details of actual legislation and Bettina talked about important concerns such as funding to fight wildfire and landscape wide programs.

The American Forest Foundation gave me a list of what they considered priorities for landowners.  I could choose which ones to emphasize and how to do it. I could also add in concerns that I thought important, which I did when I started off by talking about our new Virginia Tree Farm Foundation, launched last week.  My biggest challenge was repeating essentially the same short presentation five times in the same day.  I did vary it a little in to go with what I perceived as the concerns of the audiences, but I tried hard not to just change it to make it more interesting for me.  I didn’t speak from a written test, but had top-line sentences written in my little green book.  I will elaborate a little here to describe what I said and add a little of what I recall from what Paul and Bettina said, but I don’t claim that I will be doing justice to their complete positions.

After the usual introductions, I started each presentation with a discussion of the new Virginia Tree Farm Foundation.  We went over basic facts and promised to send along more detailed information. I am paraphrasing below.


We have come to talk about sustainable forestry in Virginia and specifically about the Virginia Tree Farm System.  The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) was founded in 1941.  The first twelve Virginia tree farms were certified in 1947.  Virginia tree farmers have been growing wood sustainably ever since.  Today there is more timber growing in Virginia than there was in 1947 and we can continue doing this.  Virginia today have 1304 tree farmers.  We recently reduced the total number as we cleaned up our lists.  We intend to increase the numbers again.



Let me start off with some news. We have formed a new Virginia Forestry Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) corporation to encompass the Virginia Tree Farm Committee and do more.  I cannot fill out too many details now, since we just did it last week and still have to work out exactly how it will work.  We envision the Foundation to raise money and determine policy for tree farm, but also as a network organization that will bring together tree farmers and various stakeholders such loggers, mill workers and hunters, as well as young people who we want to help understand the nature of sustainable forestry.   We would like to invite Senator/Representative to take advantage of our network for information and contacts.


We would talk about this depending on the questions asked and then move on.


As I said, Tree Farm was America’s and I think the world’s first system of forest certification, but it is not the only one.  In the 1990s others were created, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FCS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).  I have studied forest certification and have concluded that their on-the-ground effects are very similar.  They all are good.  FCS is more of an international organization and it is appropriate in places like Papua or Indonesia, since it includes provisions for protections of indigenous rights.  SFI is more common in North America.  Tree Farm is certified with FSI and I am morally certain that we are doing a good job in protecting our habitats, water, soil and ecological diversity.

Last year, the EPA recommended that government purchase certified timber and specified only FSC wood.  We think this is absurd. More than 70 percent of all certified forests in the United States are certified under the SFI or ATFS. This means the wood products that come from most certified, sustainable forests in the U.S.-including most Virginia forests are not included.


I would ask that the Senator or Representative consider this and address this with EPA. All agreed.


Next we talked about the Timber Innovation Act.  This would provide research into improving and using timber products, especially innovative new products such as cross laminated timber. I told them what I believe, that this is as near a perfect bill as anyone could conceive. It has no aspects of compulsion.  We do not advocate that anyone be forced to use wood.  Wood will not replace steel or concrete, but it has many advantages and this would create options.  I explained that new techniques and sustainability concerns make timber the material of the future. It costs 10-15% less to construct a building out of cross laminated timber compared with a glass and steel building. Beyond that, they can be 30-50% faster to build. They require fewer deliveries and it is much easier for plumbers and electricians to make cuts to install their pipes and wires. A wood building also weighs less, so it requires less of a foundation and can be built on some sites unavailable to heavier structures. There is more.  Wood is the most benign building material from a total lifecycle ecological perspective.


We would discuss this depending on the questions from our interlocutors.  Everyone was interested and supportive.

At this point, I was mostly done.  I shared some photos of my tree farms and invited everyone to ask for more information and contacts.


Bettina would then talk about stewardship programs and wildfires.  Wildfires are much in the news.  We need to address the problem.  Currently more than half of the U.S. forestry budget can go to fighting fires. This takes money from other worthy programs, including doing things that can prevent fires in the future.  A better organized system would improve results.

At this point we were mostly done, at least we had exhausted the attention span of our hosts, so we would finish.  Tonight, and tomorrow I have the tedious but immensely important task of writing up thank you cards and follow-up emails.


We have made the breakthrough and now we need to finish the job.  I was pleased with the interim results.  I enjoy this sort of thing.  It is a lot like my old work in the Foreign Service. I have real passion for the forestry.  I think that this helps my credibility that I am a true believer and I am living what I believe.

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Lobbying – American Forest Foundation Fly-in

See note on day 2

Went to the prep sessions for the American Forest Foundation “Fly-In,” where small forest owners like me come from around the U.S. to lobby our Federal representatives. Tomorrow, I have appointments with staffers from Barbara Comstock, Robert Goodlatte, Rob Wittman, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner and my own representative Gerry Connolly. It was nice that the sessions were held at the Holiday Inn – Capitol, the old USIA Building. Like coming home.

We discussed the major issues affecting forestry. I have the option of choosing which ones I want to emphasize.

Not in order of importance, the first issue is the Energy Bill and how it treats biomass. The EPA may treat the burning of biomass the way it treats fossil fuels. This is silly, since biomass is essentially carbon neutral. The growing trees absorb carbon and it is released when the biomass is burned. It is not like this would stay around anyway, since the biomass would release carbon when it decays and if left as slash might even burn in a forest fire.

That brings us to the second and maybe most urgent problem, wildfires. Each year wildfires get more expensive. There are lots fo reasons for this, including more homes built in forested areas, land use changes and climate change. But a big one concerns management. The Forest Service is now using 50% of its budget to fight fires. This leaves less for other programs. and ironically less for activities to prevent fires.

One that I find annoying personally is a proposed EPA standard for Federal purchasing that would require the use of Forest Stewardship Council wood. Tree Farm wood, my wood and that of the majority of small American landowners, is not included in this standard. Ours is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. I have looked into it. If you are concerned about forests, water, soils and wildlife, there is no significant difference in the standards. Certification by FSC is more expensive and included details unrelated to actual forest health. Anyway, it is a political issue that should have no place in a discussion of forest health. That is what I will tell the staffers and that is what I believe with moral certainty.

Some forest owners are interested in the estate tax. I am not very passionate about this, although I can understand the issue. Currently $5 million is exempted from tax. This seems a lot, but recent IRS rulings are making taxable value higher than it should be. A piece of land owned by several family members may be difficult to sell and so have a lower market value. IRS is treating this like a single owner, which may result in taxes owed.

The problem with taxing forest land is that it is an illiquid asset. You cannot just take off some of it. Heirs might be forced to sell the land, or part of it, just to pay the taxes. Maybe we don’t feel sorry for rich heirs, but consider the effects on forest fragmentation, which we should care about. Forest and farm owners are often land rich but cash poor. It is often a public policy interest that their land remain in farm and forest.

I doubt that I will push this particular factor very hard.

A subject I am interested in is the Timber Innovation Act, that would provide research into using wood in new ways, things like tall buildings using cross laminated timber (I have written about this before). This is a good use of resources. It does not require that builders use wood, but it provides more options and shares techniques & technologies. I have linked to my note about the use of cross laminated timber.

Finally, is a relatively simple one. This is the 75th Anniversary of the American Tree Farm System and we would like a resolution honoring that.

Anyway, my lobbying day starts at 8am tomorrow. It should be fun. I have studied innovative use of wood, forest health & wildfires, so I will talk about those. I will also share with the staffers news about the new Tree Farm Foundation.

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You didn’t build that – the logic of vines

“You didn’t build that” is a accusation sometimes made against the successful and it is correct as far as it goes, which is not too far. But I was thinking about successful strategies in general when I was attacking vines in my woods.

If you count up all the hours I spend working in my woods, probably the most total hours are spent fighting vines. After the first thinning, I will be able to use other means, but now it is up to me. It is fairly labor intensive and I never will win. I don’t mind doing it because it is decent exercise and I get to be in the woods by myself with the quiet to think. And I was thinking about vines.

Vines are semi-parasitic and opportunistic. They tend to show up most where there has been a disruption. They do not bother to build an infrastructure like a tree does. They just climb up and/or lay on top. At best they are mostly harmless, but usually they cause some trouble for the tree, especially if the proliferate.

I can just find and cut the source of the vine and just let them die back and fall off, but I often pull them down. It is the exercise part. Some people in the gym pull on ropes. This is like that. It is interesting to see how far a vine goes. Some of the grape vines can lay across a half dozen trees. When you pull, lots of dead branches and needles fall. It is fun to watch. None are so heavy as to hurt if they hit me. One reason I am fighting the vines now is that they form fire ladders. The vines catch dead wood and needles, forming near perfect kindling to take a fire on the ground into the crowns. This condition also precludes the use of fire as a management tool until after the first thinning (or I) knock down most of the vines.

Being a vine is not a bad strategy. You can get as high as the trees w/o putting down much of an investment.

There are vine-like strategies in our economy as well as our ecology. Food trucks jump to mind. They don’t spend money on chairs, garbage removal, dining rooms etc. Like the vine, they can impose those costs on others.

New network organizations often follow a vine strategy. Think of Uber or AirBnB. Like vines, they just crawl up existing structures, taking no responsibility to build much of anything beyond the connection. The connection is indeed value added, presuming somebody else builds the frame.

This will be a big challenge to our economy. It is already. It impacts the income differential. It used to be that to build a business you needed to build something physical and hire people. Today a few people can run a massive operation with almost no investment in plant, equipment or people. They are like vines.

Vines are a part of nature and a useful one, as long as there are not too many. When we see whole forests covered in invasive vines, such as Chinese wisteria or kudzu, we know things have gotten out of hand. It is dangerous if we get a kudzu economy.

My photo is from yesterday. I try to walk a more or less straight line into the woods, cutting and pulling down vines as I go. You can see some of the pulled down vines in the picture. I am trying to do a grid pattern and I use market paint to keep track. I am actually making decent progress through persistence if not speed. Not all trees get attacked by vines, but when you find one, you usually find lots and different species. They seem to grow up in places where hardwoods have come in among the pine. Most of the vines do best when they can climb lower branches. The pines provide fewer opportunities at this stage. But I do not think that the hardwoods are causing the problem, at least not entirely. The hardwoods likely have colonized the parts of the woods less dominated by the pines, there is a little more sun and more disturbance, so what brings the hardwoods also brings the vines. It is correlation not causation.


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Virginia Tree Farm Foundation

Attended my last Virginia Tree Farm Committee in Richmond today. The Committee is no more, but it is not gone. Rather it has evolved into the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) entity able to raise money and possessing a wider panoply of advocacy tools. I am now a charter member of the board. We currently have only six members, seven when you count the ex-officio member from the Virginia Department of Forestry. We need to organize ourselves and get others involved.

My tasks will mostly involve outreach and fundraising, as well as participating in public events. It sounds a lot like my public affairs work in my previous incarnation. I guess there is a pattern to every life and we try to do what we do well.

This is a real blue sky proposition. The board must define its role and I can define my own within very broad parameters. Ecology is my passion and I am delighted to have a vocation to go with it. I do not underestimate the challenge. I know that if I do nothing, nothing will happen, i.e. I cannot wait for somebody to tell me what to do.

The general goal is to improve the state of forestry in Virginia, to grow forest products profitably while maintaining and improving the quality of the soil and water, habitat for wildlife and places of beauty and tranquility for humans. We build on a very good base and we have lots of allies. This is good.

To move forward on this, I envision my part as network building and connecting. Lots of people are involved with tree farming and we share the common aspirations discussed above. We can help each other systemically in a kind of human ecology. The connections change the nature of the reality and the combination is greater than the sum of the parts.

I always make grandiose plans and I never achieve all my goals. I understand that it is easy to make fun of my enthusiasm. This makes me sad, but not for long. I think we need to think big even if we achieve small. We get farther that way and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, after all.

My advantage is that I am unaffiliated. As a gentleman of leisure, I answer to nobody, expect nothing can do things w/o conflict of interest, real, imaginary or implied. But within our network, we have lots of affiliated people who can help make the connections and supply the expertise we need. I think this is an auspicious combination.

I am now reading, rereading, thinking and rethinking about aspirational networking. What are we part of and how can we work with others to produce something really worthwhile?

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