Ten years ago, I studied German at a small Pennsylvania state university and attended a study abroad program in Duisburg, Germany. I graduated with honors, clueless about how to practically apply my foreign language skills. I spent the next decade working desk jobs in Pittsburgh and generally wasting my time. I would, on a good day, give, oh, maybe half of my energy, work ethic and attention to whatever office chair I happened to be occupying.
It all sounds very boring, and it was, aside from my social life, which has always been a driving force in my life. It’s not all bleak, though. I met my lovely wife Liz while I was working in Pittsburgh and I was, in fact, at one of these jobs when I stumbled upon the graduate program that would prepare me for the next phase of my life. I like to call this my adult phase. Although I have been an adult for many years, I have often felt that I was only an “adult,” a poser or imposter, someone who could act the part when needed but was really just killing time until friends came around or something fun was happening. I shirked responsibility and tried to keep things easy.
This was the old me.
I recently earned my Master of Science in Sustainable Systems (MS3) degree from another, smaller Pennsylvania state university, where I worked as a graduate assistant for the Pennsylvania Center for Environmental Education. I studied ecology, sustainable agriculture and soil science, green design, environmental issues and grant writing. I interned on an organic farm, I built a vermicompost bin, I dug holes in the earth to examine soil samples, I designed brochures for urban beekeepers and permaculture enthusiasts, I created an Integrated Pest Management plan for a friend’s farm. I attended workshops and seminars on environmental education, beekeeping, and agriculture. Everything that I did was so different from what I had previously done that it was closest thing to a rebirth that I have encountered. I learned, and am still learning, and made wonderful friends along the way.
I discovered that I had a passion for agriculture and gardening, knowledge with which Liz was already somewhat familiar. We began making plans for our back yard garden in Pittsburgh and experimenting with sustainable ag techniques. We discussed farming on a larger scale without the use of fossil fuels, going to market, ideas for niche marketing and diversifying our farm. But from our home in Pittsburgh, a lot of this discussion felt far removed from reality.
I began looking for jobs in January 2009, when I still had a semester of classes left. I was sure to look several times a week for postings, applying to positions in the familiar territory of Pittsburgh and to multiple unfamiliar dots on the map. I found listings in places like Boone and Pittsboro, NC; Bar Harbor and Unity, ME; Millbrook and Ghent, NY; Bennington and Brattleboro, VT, and I applied to all of them. Each of these jobs related to food sovereignty or agricultural issues, the field on which I had set my sights several years prior while sitting aimlessly behind a PC monitor. My only goals were to live in an area and work at a profession that allowed me to connect more with the natural world, preferably in a location not too far from my family.
Then a funny thing happened. I received an email from a publishing company in Brattleboro requesting a telephone interview for the position of Editorial Intern. During my graduate studies, I volunteered for the East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh, writing profiles of local farmers and food purveyors who sold to the co-op. I would visit farms, talk to the farmers about their agricultural endeavors, take some photos and do a quick 400-800-word write-up for the newsletter. I was able to directly connect customers to the folks who were producing their vegetables, health and beauty products, cheese, eggs and more, and I found it all extremely gratifying, as it allowed me to network and continue learning, and to creatively express myself. When I saw the ad for the editorial position at Building Green, I applied on a lark, submitting my co-op articles and a grant proposal as writing samples, never really expecting to hear anything.
The first interview went well and a second was requested, despite a glaring mistake that I had inadvertently sent to the interviewer regarding the Question of the Week, my primary responsibility at the PCEE in Slippery Rock; horribly embarrassing stuff. However, after engaging in the second interview, I was certain that I would be offered the job. Liz and I talked it over and we decided that I should accept, regardless of the meager wage it offered. This was a chance for me to hone my writing and editing skills and learn about sustainable building, a subject largely absent from my graduate studies. The new job also affords me the opportunity of earning a graduate certificate in green building from the Boston Architectural College, free of charge, which I fully intend to do. After all, I am the new me.
So here I am.
Liz and I took the big plunge, leaving our home and friends behind and starting fresh in the small town of Walpole, NH. We are living in a house that was built in 1832, on a street that was named for our neighbors’ family long ago. We delight in the back yard garden. We walk to town to get freshly baked breads, locally raised meat, dairy products and beers. We stop by the library. We walk “the loop” in the evenings, a 1-mile round trip trek on a beautiful country road. We plant flowers and vegetables and drive to nearby towns to explore different parts of Vermont and New Hampshire. We visit the co-op in Putney, VT and the farmers’ market in Bellows Falls, VT. We visit with neighbors and find ourselves feeling as though we are becoming part of this wonderful community.
Most importantly, we stop to smell the flowers. This is something that seemed to always escape us in the city. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see or to have drinks with (not that I don’t love a drink with friends). Life was seemingly nonstop running around. Now it is just creating and being at home. It is living well and enjoying good food, and nature, and life and all of the things on which modern American living is not based.
I am going back to the office, the desk job, and the computer, but everything is different this time. Not only do I have a long-term goal of starting something great with Liz, but I have a genuine interest in the work that I produce. This is not the final stop in our personal evolution, but I can say without doubt that I am home.