Our History: the Question Quilt

The Question Quilt
Submitted by Stuart Adams

The Question Quilt was conceived in Washington, D.C. in 1994, but its origins date back to about 1983 and a story about cow embryo transplants. Everyone I've told the cow story to has been fascinated by it -- partly because it's about connecting disparate elements, partly because it contains the seed for the entire project, and partly because it's a good story.

The cow embryo story was one that came in over the transom when I was running a rural Alberta weekly newspaper. Myself and a couple of reporters used to each write around 4,000 words a week about everything from agriculture and school events, to wild wells in the oil and gas fields (it took Red Adair to put one well out, and Boots and Coots to shut down the other).

Some of the writing was tedious -- there aren't many exciting ways you can cover curling bonspiel -- but when a farmer named Ken Mackenzie came in with his story about taking a herd of cattle embryos to New Zealand, he caught my attention.

He and his family had decided to uproot and start a new life raising cattle in New Zealand. There are certain logistical problems to such a project, including the fact that New Zealand is about as far away from Alberta as you can get. And Ken didn't want to take just any cattle, he wanted to take what is referred to in Alberta as an exotic breed of Blonde d'Aquitaines. I can't recall what exact part of Europe they come from, but Ken had raised them in Alberta, and wanted to take them to New Zealand. His solution to the problem is what surfaced in Washington.

In order to transport live cattle he would have had to go through a logistical nightmare, including a lengthy quarantine in New Zealand. So, what he proposed was to simply take a suitcase of fertilized Blonde d'Aquitaine embryos, frozen in liquid nitrogen. Then he would implant the embryos in host cows in New Zealand, which would carry the embryo to maturity and give birth to a pure-blooded Blonde calf.

The practice is common in the cattle industry, but what I learned and found so striking is that the calves acquire the local immunities of the surrogate cow. So, by virtue of having been carried by a New Zealand cow, the embryonic calf gains the mother's resistance to whatever fevers and diseases are indigenous to the country.

Now, jump ahead to a small group in a large, chilly meeting room in the Washington Hilton. Perhaps seven people have gathered for the second of two sessions to develop Guiding Principles. The discussion revolved around the difficulties of establishing a set of principles which could be applied worldwide.

Our conversations wandered for a while until someone asked, 'Why are we discussing this subject?' An innocent question, but one which forced us all to sit back and focus our attention and rethink our purpose.

A little while later, a consideration was brought up by Larry Aggens, "How do we apply our Guiding Principles on a global basis". Citing some of his international experiences, he offered something to the effect of, 'There are places on the planet where we would be shot for having this type of conversation.'

That point, illustrating the need for a universally-applicable approach, coupled with the demonstrated power of the question was what spawned the concept of using questions to produce principles.

The quilt idea arrived the next morning, and I transported them back to Alberta. We were in the process of forming the Wild Rose Chapter at the time, and I introduced the idea at our first debriefing session in Edmonton. Not everyone understood where we were going, but a small group agreed to work together to explore the Question Quilt as a possible Chapter project.

The rest will hopefully become a legacy for the chapter and the organization. And possibly there's a lesson, as well -- about cow embryos, and questions, and even stilts.