In Praise of Problem Solving
Life poses problems. And problem solving starts at once. A turtle must break out of its shell and crawl from its sandy nest to water. A chick opens wide its beak in hope of food. A fawn unfolds its legs and struggles to stand.
Such problems occur naturally. More troubling are the problems brought on by ourselves and other humans-the ones that seem unnecessary, avoidable. Sometimes we bristle at the very idea of having to deal with them. It might have been this sentiment that prompted a Volunteer reader to leave an anonymous message on my answering machine. Unhappy about reading letters of complaint or criticism, he asked that we stop publishing letters altogether.
Problems get a lot of negative press. Even the word problem has been deemed problematic by some eager positive thinkers. A computer systems analyst once told me about a new euphemism in his corporate office. Problems, his supervisor advised, were really challenges. Hence, the analyst said he no longer had problems that could not be solved: He had "insurmountable challenges."
Of course, that's one problem with problems: They can't all be solved. Or, at least, they can't be solved for all time. Peruse past issues of this magazine and you will soon see that conservationists have been grappling with some of the same problems for decades. For example, 31 years ago editor John McKane wrote "Twilight of the Hunter" in an issue chock full of stories based on the problem of how to maintain hunting traditions in the modern world. Hunters are still puzzling over this today.
Some problems arise again and again as part of on-going relationships. The hunter's relationship to the environment and society will always give rise to questions, conflicts, and problems. And that's not a bad thing; it's necessary. Any important relationship has problems. Can you imagine a marriage without problems? Likewise, child rearing is a daily exercise in problem solving.
Problems make us creative. I first realized this years ago as my husband and I stood in front of one of his recently completed paintings and he said, "I think I've solved the problem." I was surprised by his satisfied remark. Until then, I had not considered that an artist might actually go looking for problems to solve. Problem: solution-a summary of the creative process.
In this issue, writers discuss wildly different problems and solutions. Jason Abraham tells how DNR Fisheries has been customizing fishing regulations to tackle problems associated with catching certain species of fish in particular lakes. In his story aimed at aging baby boomers, Greg Breining asks, "How can I backpack on creaky knees?" He turns to orthopedic experts to find a way. Tom Dickson outlines the problem of storm-water runoff and reports on one trendy solution: rain gardens. In "Golden Opportunities" Gus Axelson chronicles the history of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota. He lauds the ingenuity of a loosely organized band of lawyers and other professionals who first identified a potential problem (call it a challenge or an opportunity, if you prefer) and then acted with resolve.
Successfully solving a problem begins with careful analysis. Acting on impulse, the overzealous problem-solver risks throwing out the baby with the bath water. Instead, one must identify both the proper problem and the appropriate problem-solver. Parents, for instance, are notorious for jumping in to fix problems that rightfully belong to their children.
Paradise may not be a problem-free world, but it may be a world where people are free to work out real problems.
Kathleen Weflen, editor