A Tale of Two Projects

A  few years ago I was working on a book that took me to the west coast and parts of the Midwest to talk to people in the community resilience movement. I wrote a book proposal and shopped it around and had some mild interest from literary agents. I received a grant for research travel, and I was selected a trio of writing residencies, and I wrote a bunch of words.

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A photo from one of my sojourns–a Bloomington homeschooling cooperative based around permaculture principles.

I still have those words. Some of them have turned up in posts here and other places. (People seem consistently most intrigued by the Mudgirls natural building collective.) But I have yet to use them in some final-final form of Thrivalists. Every agent who loved the topic ended up declining because of my “thin platform.” They didn’t believe that I would garner enough readership, in other words, to make me worth the risk.

I began to disbelieve it myself. I added that to a bone-deep doubt that anything I could do would ever be good enough or come together coherently enough to produce a book.

I shelved the project, and began to work on another, supposedly interim, nonfiction book. It was supposed to be a six-month jaunt into something different-but-related: I would write of my own healing journey, and how it connected to the buried ruins of a 19th century women’s mental institution (“Seven Steeples”) where I was volunteering at a modern-day farm.

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Last week I toured a Traverse City, MI asylum of roughly the same era as Seven Steeples.

Two and a half years later…

Yeah.

Still working on that one. And I received a grant this year to further the project, which feels great! but also kind of heavy and dubious, since the first grant did not (yet) result in publication.

Next month I will hand my manuscript to a professional for editing services, thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission’s generosity.

In the meantime (while still freelancing in the farm profile arena) I periodically send out pieces of each work-in-progress to see if anyone is interested in publishing them as essays. Nope nope nope. (Though I’ve had a few very nice rejection notes!)

Till this month. To meet a shorter word count and fit a theme of “Roots,” I reworked a segment of Thrivalists about the role of fungi in rootedness. I incorporated some newer, slightly woo-woo material (sort of a mashup of both projects), and sent it to Topology Magazine. They published The Gift of the Fungi, which is ostensibly about what I learned at the Radical Mycology Convergence, but is also about coming to embrace a wider sense of possibility.

I felt a curious lack of enthusiasm for the news that the site would publish it. The old “any club that would have me as a member” dilemma? A sense that I could have snagged a higher profile outlet, if I’d persisted? Some of each.

Plus a sense of : “I went to California, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Ohio and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”

The end product is supposed to be a book, not a little online article.

Well, then a writing buddy reminded me of something Charles Eisenstein asked in a podcast : Would you write even if you had only one reader, even if you knew that that reader might take your words and change the world… but you’d never get credit for it? He wrote a piece about how this type of loyalty test first arose for him. An excellent read if you have time.

Why do we do what we do? What is our ultimate goal? If it’s about fulfilling our purpose, taking our place in the Divine scheme of things, then words like “platform” and “readership” are less important than resonating our truth.

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Spiderweb photo by Barbara Jablonski, taken at Eagle Creek Park

In the world we live in, money and fame are gods. What we have to offer doesn’t count unless it brings in income or gains huge exposure. Charles and my writing buddy and I refute that story, and I suspect we’re not alone in that.

Oh and by the way, some ideas are percolating about that old project as I hit the home stretch (?) of the new one. I haven’t seen the last of the inspiring Thrivalists that shared with me. I can tell because of the way my blood hums when I think of putting their stories in a wider frame.

Maybe I just needed to expand (not my platform but my being) before I could put the work out there. We’ll see.

“What Would Gene Stratton-Porter Do?”

After years of saying, “We should tour the Gene Stratton-Porter homes,” we finally visited two historic sites in the northeast corner of our state last week. We went to Rome City and Geneva to tour homes inhabited by Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th century author/conservationist/nature photographer.

You can be forgiven for not knowing her name, though she was beloved by our grandparents’ generation for her romance novels set against the backdrop of a disappearing wilderness. Even most Indiana residents are unfamiliar with the work of our state’s most widely read female author of all time. But in her day, she was embraced by enthusiastic fans all over the world.

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Portrait of Gene Stratton-Porter, via Creative Commons

Stratton-Porter married a well-to-do businessman who must have been a brave man to wed such an independent-minded woman. She “shed social conventions like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” to quote a book I’m reading about something completely different.

Hubby didn’t want her to explore the vast Limberlost Swamp, though they lived right on the edge of this intriguing wilderness. At that time the marshland (later to be drained for farming and drilled for oil) was dangerous uncharted territory—teeming with Massasauga rattlesnakes, boggy muck, swarms of insects, and the occasional unsavory character.

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Limberlost Cabin in Geneva, where Gene Stratton-Porter began her writing and photography career. Her many-windowed conservatory is facing us.

But Stratton-Porter’s love of the natural world compelled her, and in the end her husband relented, accompanying her on expeditions to photograph wildlife and collect specimens.

Her best-known book A Girl of the Limberlost, among others both fiction and nonfiction, brought this place to life for people worldwide. One of our guides told us that she’d worked out a deal with her publisher: I will write you a crowd-pleasing story as you require (heavy on nature details), and then I will write a nature book of my own choosing. Rinse. Repeat.

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She helped build this low stone wall around Limberlost Cabin, with openings for wildlife.

We learned that she wore what was considered mannish clothing, that she served her husband dandelion and horseradish stew with hambone (he dubbed it “fodder”), that she organized a bucket brigade the night her husband’s businesses were threatened by fire while he was away. This woman was, in modern parlance, fierce.

I went on this trip mildly interested in her as a part of Indiana’s literary history, having read A Girl of the Limberlost sometime back. But I came away as full-on fangirl. I jokingly told a friend that my new philosophy should be “What would GSP do?” (except for the ironic not-driving thing—apparently she was afraid to drive, and in fact was killed in a car wreck at age 61).

So, what would she do?

  • She’d hyphenate her name as her nom de plume, well before the time when women commonly retained their family names.
  • She’d drop out of high school, but attend Chautauqua meetings for her own edification.
  • She’d monitor all the bird nests on her family’s farm as a child, honing her powers of observation and her connection to wild creatures.
  • She’d teach herself photography, developing early box-camera pictures in a bathroom that she converted into a darkroom.
  • She’d purchase a piece of land on a mile of lakefront, and design her own home, and supervise its construction, rowing across the lake every morning to check on the workmen. (Husband came on weekends.)
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Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake, the house that she designed and used as creative workshop.

  • She’d collect stones from her friends’ travels, from all then-48 states, and build a fireplace using them, creating images in the stonework’s artful placement.
  • She’d sleep with cocoons, so as to be ready when the butterfly emerged. She’d live in a houseful of winged creatures. (Later, she would write of her realization that the only ethical way to interact with these creatures was in their native habitat, so presumably she no longer kept them indoors.)
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Where she slept with cocoons. Note them hanging from the bedframe and gathered on her bedside table.

  • She’d be exacting in the execution of her creative vision. If a photograph didn’t come out right, she’d return as many times as it took to get the one she wanted. No matter how treacherous or buggy the territory might be.
  • She’d carry on with her work even as literary critics and scientists alike dismissed her; she’d see herself as a defender of the places and animals she loved.

From What I Have Done with Birds:

“This is the basis of all my field work—a mute contract between woman and bird. In spirit I say to the birds, ‘Trust me and I will do by you as I would be done by … I shall not tear down your home and break your eggs or take your naked little ones from the nest before they are ready to go … I shall come in colors to which you are accustomed, and move slowly and softly about, not approaching you too near until your confidence in me is established. I shall be most careful to feed your young what you feed them; drive away snakes and squirrels, and protect you in every way possible to me. Trust me, and go on with your daily life. For what small disturbance is unavoidable among you, forgive me, and through it I shall try to win thousands to love and shield you.’”

I found loads more information on this fascinating figure in an Indiana Historian article. And of course we bought several books that I’m looking forward to diving into.

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In the shadow of Wildflower Woods cabin, looking over Sylvan Lake.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I don’t very often blog about my personal writing project(s), but the terrific nature writer Katherine Hauswirth nominated me for a “blog hop” (writers sharing about their work). So, bear with me as I answer a few questions…

What is the working title of your book (or story)?
Thrivalists: Reimagining the World in an Age of Crisis is the working title of the nonfiction book I’m currently “shopping.” It’s in research/pitching phase, and in the meantime I’ve started work on another project, as yet untitled. Also, some of my articles and essays are linked here.

Where did the idea come from for these books?
Thrivalists came about when I realized how little media attention goes to the people who are pulling together to make a major shift on our planet. I’m so inspired by the community resilience movement and all its permutations. My goal with the book is to shine a light on folks working toward greater ecological/economic/social balance. (Secondary goal and total bonus: to get to rub elbows with fun people and learn all kinds of mad skillz.)

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

The second project is a work of creative nonfiction exploring my 15-year recovery from fibromyalgia, culminating in emergence of my own healing abilities. Part of my inspiration came from Seven Steeples Farm, where I’m helping to grow produce right where an 1880s-era women’s mental institution once stood.

What genre do your books fall under?
Creative nonfiction, tending toward memoir on the new project. Thrivalists is closer to immersion journalism, still with an element of memoir, and the book would be shelved under Green Living/Activism.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m thinking Julianne Moore could play this Mudgirl, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten on that question!

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oof. Can I buy a sentence?

During a season of tending crops at Seven Steeples Farm, where the tomatoes and peas grow from ground that once held a 19th century mental institution for women, Shawndra Miller explores the turn in her own life from a 15-year bout with a debilitating mind/body ailment. While working the land she reflects on a wider societal transformation embodied by Seven Steeples, where something new is growing on the shell of the old.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m open at this point. My book proposal for Thrivalists has been making the rounds of agents and small presses. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the process of discovery on the new project, while continuing to explore and highlight the community resilience movement.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The original Thrivalists book proposal, with a couple sample chapters, took about six months, but I keep adding to it as I travel and research, so it’s a moving target. The new one is still very young.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Thrivalists is a bit like Omnivore’s Dilemma in the way that the author’s process of research and discovery pulls the reader along. In subject matter, it’s close to Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

It’s hard to say on the new project since it needs more time to bake, but it might be compared to When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m inspired by Charles Eisenstein’s work, in particular The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Without a massive consciousness shift, no amount of environmental activism or social change work will alter the bottom line of a culture built on dominance, control, and fear. That’s part of what I want to explore in the new project.

Thanks to Katherine Hauswirth for tagging me with this assignment! I nominate Julie Stewart, writer-and-farmer-in-residence at Urban Plot, to do the next blog hop.

Love Where You Live

I asked for a magnifying glass in my Christmas stocking this year. I’d just read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent book Crow Planet, in which she advocates becoming a “citizen naturalist.” I aspire to that: to take the time to look closely at nature, right here in the urban habitat. (She takes up a similar theme in The Urban Bestiary, which I enjoyed just as much.)

I wish I’d had the magnifying glass with me the other day when I was walking my dog and spotted the first yellow crocuses popping up. I could have fallen on my knees in front of them. I love the beauty of winter, but after days on end of white/gray/black/brown, that splooch of color just about knocks me out.

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry has written of the importance of “backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong.” As we make this shift, he says, we also move our focus from an abstraction called “the environment” into the places where we actually live.

This makes sense. When I co-founded the Irvington Green Initiative some years back, we settled on the tagline “Love Where You Live.”

The notion was echoed by my friend Maggie Goeglein Hanna, executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center. In a recent conversation, she said:

“I feel like you can’t really expect people to care about the natural world if they have no investment in their own place … In my mind, environmental solutions aren’t going to come if we’re only concerned about the pandas in China or the rainforest in the Amazon. Those are important things, but so is our own place, and it won’t ever get better if we all don’t take care of our own place.”

She went on to say that organic gardening in a community setting, as at Fall Creek Gardens, is a way of “opening up the conversation.” Finding earthworms in ground that used to be compacted dirt, watching a family of mockingbirds, planting seeds—all of these root us in the soil that nurtures us.

So with spring officially just hours away (wahoo!) (at least in the northern hemisphere), I’m doing more than planning this year’s garden. I’m renewing my commitment to enjoying the place where I live, and to observing the creatures and plants that share it with me.

What about you: What does it mean to love where you live?

Wild Geese Wisdom

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” comes this steadying stanza:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

I found his poem in a new essay collection called Sustainable Happiness, edited by the staff of Yes! Magazine. It reminded me of my introduction to the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…

This was my first Mary Oliver experience years ago: having this poem recited just for me by my Rolfer while he worked the fascia of my feet to smithereens. (Rolfing is a super-intense type of bodywork that pairs well with poetry.)

I give you the lovely Mary Oliver, reading her poem.

The Steps We Take Now

“We can indeed transform the world, and we are each called to take part in this sacred work.”

—Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword of Random Kindness

It seems that every day brings news of another horrific act of violence. The level of cruelty reaches appalling levels. Where are we going and why are we in a handbasket, as my mother would say?

But recently I got my hands on the reissue of this beautiful book, and it is like an inoculation against hopelessness.

Are we moving “closer and closer to a world where everyone is dead for no reason,” as the book describes one possible scenario? Or are we waking up to the fact that “we’re all making the soup we’re all eating?”

I first learned of this fabulously illustrated work from my sister Mesa Refuge resident Paloma Pavel, who is a total powerhouse. Years ago she started working in the anti-nuclear movement with Joanna Macy (my idol!), and she hasn’t stopped advocating since.*

Paloma coauthored the lovely little book expanding on the saying Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. Her coauthor, Anne Herbert, originated this statement, and the two originally collaborated on Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

An artist named Mayumi Oda (the “Matisse of Japan”) illustrated the book in a traditional folk art style based on 12th century Japanese picture scrolls. Frogs, cats, monkeys, birds, and rabbits play the part of humans on a dual path—will they (we) choose destruction, or delight?

Historically in Japan, this type of folk art used animal representations to spread subversive messages. It seems an apt medium for a book that proclaims, “We are all leaders now.”

The 20th anniversary edition has just been published. I had the thrill of hearing Paloma read its lyrical text on our last night at Mesa Refuge, a full year before the book was reissued.

Myself, Sierra Murdoch,  Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

Myself, Sierra Murdoch, Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

So beautiful:

“The steps we take now
Make new earth grow beneath our feet.”

“In every moment we live
We have the choice
To find the fight
Or make delight
We have power.

To hear Paloma read the full text aloud was just magic.

I borrowed the book from the library for now, but I plan to purchase my own copy. All royalties will be donated to antinuclear advocacy and community resilience across boundaries.

*Check out more of Paloma’s work at Earth House Center and Breakthrough Communities.

Inhaling the Universe

Andromeda Galaxy, by Cestomano, via flickr Commons

Andromeda Galaxy, by Cestomano, via flickr Commons

“What thrilled me the most was the fact that millions of meteors burn up every day as they enter our atmosphere.

As a result, Earth receives 10 tons of dust from outer space.

Not only do we take in the world with each breath, we are inhaling the universe.”

—Terry Tempest Williams, in When Women Were Birds