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.

P and D sawing

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.

web eagle creek park

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.

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.

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

After traveling for nearly a month, this homebody is glad to be back to my little haven of domesticity. This time I visited Washington State with a side trip to British Columbia.

If you follow the blog, you know a little bit about my adventures, but here are some more highlights.

In Bellingham I learned about Sustainable Connections’ Think Local First campaign. This ingenious program rewards local businesses for earth-friendly business practices by raising their profile in the community.

We decided to experience this local biz thing for ourselves.

Checking out goat cheese options (that's our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Checking out goat cheese options at the Bellingham Farmers Market (that’s our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Craft beer, ice cream made from local berries, a killer bookstore, and a festive Saturday farmers market showed us a bit of the region’s specialties.

Biggest raspberry evah

Biggest raspberry evah

From Bellingham we ventured north to Denman Island in British Columbia for the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

Then it was back to the U.S. for a two-week writing residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Shelton, WA. This experience was a bit different from previous residencies which I shared with other artist types: I was the sole resident of a lovely cottage nested deep in the cedar forest.

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place to commune with deer, birds, trees, and insects

The solitude gave me lots of focused time to write. I also learned how much I value having someone within hollering distance, as I had a few challenging moments in the intense isolation. I was thankful for the board, who kindly made sure I had some conviviality to balance out the quiet.

Other people's dogs, such as the director's Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

Other people’s dogs, such as the director’s Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

A high point: connecting with Olympia Mycelial Network, a group I’ve admired from afar. I helped them with an installation of bioluminescent mushroom mycelium, which was a thrill.

We gathered by the cob oven on the Commons at Fertile Ground. After a quick tutorial, we created a path from wood chips inoculated with panellis (bitter oyster) mycelium. The hope is that this path will glow in the dark as the mycelium gets established.

Peter McCoy, who blogged here about starting the Radical Mycology project, walked us newbies through the process for growing mycelium.

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

After that inspiring evening, I had to visit Olympia Food Coop, where the group earlier helped install mycelium that consumes petrochemicals.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to learn from such innovative people and projects. I’m glad to be back to my laundry-hanging, solar-cooking, dog-walking routine though. I have several fun writing assignments coming up that I’ll tell you about later.

Note: Speaking of solar cooking: We’re offering a workshop this Sunday from 2-3pm at Pogue’s Run Grocer on that very topic. RSVP here if you can make it!

Building with the Mudgirls

I spent part of last week at a workshop offered by the Mudgirls, a natural building collective in British Columbia.

The Mudgirls strive to live lightly on the earth while sharing skills among themselves and the wider community. And when it comes to resilience, building shelter from earthen materials is about as serious as you can get. This is a group that embodies the reimagined world, and a powerful DIWO (do-it-with-others) spirit.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

Collective member Rose hosted our workshop on cooperatively owned land on Denman Island. We camped in the forest by night and bartered our labor for instruction by day. About 15 others took part, bringing enthusiasm and good humor to the work.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Rose is converting an existing structure on the land into a home for herself and her family. Using temporary plywood forms, we packed the walls with insulating material called slip straw. We made this insulation from straw and a clay-and-water slurry.

Making "slip straw" to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

Making “slip straw” to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

In a few weeks the walls will be dry enough to plaster.

house

House with slip straw insulation in the walls. The plywood is temporary, just to create a form to pack the slip straw in.

A hand-laid stone foundation forms the base for a cob-walled addition. (The team that worked on setting the stone found it a lesson in patience.)

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

We all helped mix the cob, which is a blend of clay, sand, and water, with a sprinkling of straw. While clay has compressive strength, it lacks tensile strength–the role of the straw. We learned that the straw has a similar job as rebar in concrete, adding internal structure to the dense material.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Building the wall was perhaps the most exciting task.

Building the wall

Building the wall

Some people made it look easy. But I’m still not sure the section I worked on could be called plumb!

Room addition taking form, with window.

Room addition taking form, with window.

I asked Molly, one of the Mudgirls who helped with instruction, how the Mudgirls mission fits into the broader picture of ecological and societal upheaval. Beyond  her passion for natural building, she told me, what excites her is the community that’s being nurtured.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

The women of the collective have known each other for years and have a solid commitment to each other. They make decisions by consensus, taking the time to talk things out (though in recent years the talks are shorter as the big issues have been resolved). Members all know that they have each others’ best interest at heart, and each agrees to take responsibility for her own needs and desires.

Molly said that people who come to workshops often reconnect at later events, forming lasting friendships. So community extends beyond the core collective. She sees participants as pollinators, taking our inspiration beyond the islands of British Columbia.

Example of a finished cob house (actually this one's a hybrid).

Example of a finished cob exterior.

For me the experience was all about the freedom to try something new. I had to grant myself compassion for the learning curve, and work on forgiving my body its frailties. The Mudgirls’ supportive environment made that possible.

And it was thrilling to help build an actual home. These hands that spend so much time on a keyboard are part of Rose’s homestead now.

Meet the Mudgirls

I’m always intrigued by people who are able to take the more complicated aspects of modern life into their own hands. Maybe that’s because outside of your basic paring knife and garden trowel, my own hands are pretty fumbly. The realm of natural building just amazes me.

Round Cob House Built by the Mudgirls

Round cob house built by the Mudgirls

Natural building involves using materials occurring in nature (and sometimes recycled materials) to construct homes and outbuildings. For example, back in Too Many Tons I posted a video featuring a DIY builder from Indiana making bricks from mud. Materials are sourced locally—perhaps clay from a neighbor who’s digging a pond, sand from a nearby excavation, straw from a local farmer.

Recently I discovered a British Columbia-based women’s collective specializing in cob building (using a mix of clay and straw). Meet the Mudgirls.

The Mudgirls are a collective of women builders on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada

The Mudgirls are a collective of women builders on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada

For the past seven years they’ve worked together as independent builders, doing seasonal work throughout the Vancouver Island area. Though they started with only about 10 days of work in the early years, many now make their main summer income from this work.

They’ve build cob ovens, cabins, sheds, fences, and outhouses. They also take their craft into conventional homes, using earthen plaster with beautiful results.

Interior of a Mudgirl-built home.

Interior of a Mudgirl-built home.

As a consensus-run group, they are trailblazing in other ways as well, showing a more egalitarian way to operate than the dominant paradigm’s business-as-usual. And they offer workshops at the most affordable rates in North America ($200 or less).

Mudgirl Rose Dickson, one of the founding members, was drawn to the collective because of her outlook as a feminist/environmentalist/artist. From the photos,* it’s clear that the Mudgirls’ work offers a creative outlet.

Cob Oven Made by Mudgirls

Cob oven made by Mudgirls

And these round structures are built to last, as witnessed by many such homes in England, still standing hundreds of years after their construction.

Not too long ago, a four-ton tree fell on a Mudgirl-built cob house—crashing through a bump-up of windows and earthen plaster and stopping at the cob wall. Rose reports, “No cracks in the wall from impact, and the guy who came to clear it off said a wooden house would have been crushed by the tree.”

A four-ton tree fell on this Mudgirl-built cob home, stopping at the cob wall

A tree fell on this Mudgirl-built cob home, stopping at the cob wall

Cob building is physically demanding and sometimes uncomfortable work (imagine a chilly spring day when you’re working in cold mud from sunup to sundown). But Rose relishes the chance to be outside, away from a desk, making something with her hands in the company of her dearest friends.

Mudgirls at work

Mudgirls at work

“If the weather’s cold, it can be kind of miserable,” she admits. “But if you’ve got a couple friends there who you’ve known for years and you’re joking and laughing, it makes it. That’s actually one key with natural building is the community. It takes more time, so the labor is a factor. But that’s part of why people do it together.”

This strikes me as the ultimate in do-it-with-others (DIWO). Has anyone out there had experience with communal natural building? I’d love to hear about it.

*Photos provided by Mudgirls.