Climate Garden: When Writing Takes a Village

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

Last November, I was at Mesa Refuge in California, where my only responsibility was to refine and write about my new idea, climate gardening. My dad had died less than a month before, shifting the framework of my life in ways I am still adjusting to. I spent my days quietly and simply: rising early, doing yoga, and then walking the rural roads near the Refuge as scrub jays and towhees and humans alike sleepily began going about our days. After breakfast, I settled in to read and write.

Most afternoons I walked to Point Reyes Station, just to get out and see what was happening in the world. Often Alia Malek, Syrian-American writer, NYU professor, and human rights lawyer--and my suite-mate at the Refuge--joined me. As we paced the mile to town, did a few errands, and walked back, we talked about our work. (If you've not read Alia's most recent book, the powerful and compelling memoir The Home that Was Our Country, put it on your list. You won't be able to put it down, and your understanding of Syria, the Mid-East, and the United States' role in the ongoing war there will be forever changed.)

Over dinner with Fred Bahnson, writer and Wake Forest Divinity School professor--our other Refuge-mate--we exchanged stories and ideas, thoughts about writing, books we were reading, people who inspired us, musings about the creative process and the state of the world. The time at Mesa was incredibly fertile time, and my climate gardening idea grew and deepened. 

Before we parted, Alia encouraged me to write a commentary from my book idea, and submit it to the New York Times. She thought the climate victory garden idea had a good chance there if I could frame it in a way that was compelling enough. She offered to critique what I wrote, an incredibly generous gesture from someone who was wrapping up her semester at NYU and preparing for travel to the Mid-East and beyond. 

Alia Malek reading from The Home That Was Our Country at Mesa Refuge. Photo: Susan Page Tillett

So back at home in Cody, in between packing up my household, fulfilling Dad's financial and legal wishes, and preparing to move to Santa Fe, I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote my commentary again. I had a rich conversation with Roger Swain, host of PBS TV's long-running Victory Garden show, and the idea flourished with his encouragement. 

When I had what I thought was a final version of the commentary, Alia looked at it, made some great suggestions, and pinged her editor at the New York Times for a name and contact info for me. I sent the idea out to other friends in the writing and gardening worlds, and they offered insightful comments and enthusiasm.

(Special thanks to fellow authors Priscilla Stuckey, Sharman Russell, and Sharon Lovejoy; botanist and author Marielle Anzellone; hydrologist and amazing science writer Sarah Boon; lawyer and UNC professor Thomas Thornburg; and horticulturists Pat Hayward, Jennifer Bousselot, and Irene Shonle. To my literary agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, who has graciously read and commented on many versions. And to the Literary Ladies group, who buoyed me with their excitement for the idea. You all are wonderful!)

With each set of comments, the idea and my ability to articulate it in a "next great thing" way grew and expanded. And so did my confidence. To the point that by the time I had gotten moved from Wyoming to New Mexico, and more or less settled in my snug condo here, I took Alia's challenge and sent the commentary off to the editor at the New York Times. When he responded to my email within the hour of my sending it, my heart practically stopped. 

I have never submitted anything to the Times, much less gotten an almost-instant response. The editor asked a couple of good questions, which I answered--though perhaps not to his satisfaction, since one answer involved saying that there wasn't data to bolster one facet of the idea. No matter, he said he'd circulate the commentary to his colleagues and get back to me the next day. 

That day passed, and another and another and another... I shared the commentary with a few more friends and colleagues. The idea continued to grow. I revised the commentary again with more data, and submitted a new version to the NYT editor. And heard nothing. So I figured it hadn't worked for him.

Once that would have been as far as my confidence extended, and I would have scaled back my expectations and submitted the commentary to the safe-but-smaller outlets that had already expressed an interest. But this idea has me by the throat. It has me dreaming big. As the current version says, 

The power [of climate gardening] lies in the numbers, in empowering each of us to make a positive difference, and in a cultural shift that begins with a simple idea.

I turned to the next outlet on my short list: I hunted up an editor at the Washington Post and submitted it to him. (I've never submitted there either.) And then heard back from the editor at the New York Times, who apologized for his delayed response and gave me a very gracious, "No thanks." I think it was one of the kindest rejection emails I've ever received!

The editor at the WaPo turned me down three days later. Frustrated, I messaged another writer friend, Susan Zakin, author of Coyotes and Town Dogs, and a frequent contributor to Medium. Susan is a powerful writer with an astute view of American politics. She read the commentary, loved the idea, and "took a whack at it," offering great suggestions on framing and wording. So the idea and the commentary have grown yet again, as has my understanding of my own belief in both. 

The support from my "village" of writers and scientists is a huge boost. I am usually a solitary writer, working over--and over--my words and ideas until I feel they are ready to share. But this idea is bigger than just me. It has given me courage to ask for help and advice, to reach farther and deeper. To dream big. And I have grown. 

Tomorrow, I'll submit the climate victory garden commentary again. I'm not sure where it's going yet. But I know this: I am determined to get it out there. I want to start a movement, one that will empower us all to dig in and combat climate change in our own yards and neighborhoods, and to heal our divided communities in the doing. As I wrote in the closing lines:

We need a new Victory Garden movement to help reverse climate change and restore our nation. Gardens build community, uniting us across political, cultural, class, and racial divisions. They add beauty and joy to our daily lives. 

Let’s grow a Climate Garden movement for our planet’s future—and our own. 

Wish me luck!