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Stephen Morris
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Sustainable Living
A big idea from a small-town publisher

September, 1998

Chelsea Green Publishing Company in White River Junction, Vermont, specializes in books for sustainable living. They have one of the best selections of environmentally friendly, thoughtful, and hopeful books of any publisher we know.'s Mark A. Hetts recently had a chance to talk with Stephen Morris, Chelsea Green's publisher, about this unique and innovative publishing house. Stephen, Chelsea Green has always had a special place in my heart. You publish exciting how-to books like The Straw Bale House and The Whole Foods Companion, but also whimsical books such as Gene Logsdon's The Contrary Farmer. Can you tell me how Chelsea Green began?

Stephen Morris: Chelsea Green was founded by Ian and Margo Baldwin in 1984. The Baldwins had escaped the Manhattan rat race by moving to a leaky old farmhouse on the town green in tiny Chelsea, Vermont. Their first book was a new edition of Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees. In many ways this book set the tone for the company. It's a lovely book, and a great start! Can we talk about the basic concept of sustainable living? I think that sometimes people get the idea that making choices about environmentally friendly living and "walking softly on the Earth" can be intimidating, confusing, or simply too complicated to realize in their own lives. Are they right?

Morris: The first people to talk about the subject of sustainable living often did so within a context of overwhelming, impending environmental disaster. Unfortunately, as individuals, we are limited in our ability to combat global warming, overpopulation, or the collapse of the ocean fisheries. We have tried to remove the high-minded (although well-intentioned) agendas, and to emphasize instead the "living" side of the equation. We publish books that show people ways to live that are sensitive to the issues of sustainability, but are fun and delightful. Eating right, living in a well-designed home, growing your own food, and managing your health add up to a lifestyle that is desirable, not just necessary. We think you can be aware of environmental dangers and still be able to laugh. I recall a quote I can't attribute, something to the effect of, "If there's no dancing in the revolution, leave me out of it." I've always thought that making positive changes should be a joyous experience. Can you tell me about some of the biggest misconceptions people have had about Chelsea Green and/or sustainable living? Any funny stories?

Morris: You can't be involved in subjects as quirky as ours and not have a few colorful stories. One of my favorites is when we went to the national booksellers convention in Chicago and decided that we would highlight The Straw Bale House by building our booth out of straw bales.

It was no mean feat to locate straw bales in metro Chicago, but we did it. Then we worked through the various bureaucracies and got everyone to sign off on everything, only to arrive to set up the booth and find the fire marshal, a no-nonsense woman, telling us that there was no way she was going to put a hayfield in her convention hall.

She was a very tough sell. When we showed her pictures from the book and pointed out that the technique is more fireproof than conventional construction, she looked at us as if we were from another planet. But it must have captured part of her imagination, as she finally relented as long as we agreed to soak the bales in fire retardant. She came back for a final inspection of our still-dripping bales one hour before showtime and gave us the thumbs-up. We smiled when she asked if she could keep a copy of the book! Next time you need hay bales in Chicago, I have a good contact there! I'd be interested in knowing how you got involved with Chelsea Green and what it means to you personally to be in this line of work. Is this a hopeful time, or perhaps a somewhat desperate, "last chance to straighten up and fly right" time?

Morris: I've spent my entire professional life working for companies trying to provide environmental solutions. In the 1970s and '80s I worked for Vermont Castings, a woodstove company that was spawned in the wake of the Arab oil embargoes. In the 1990s I worked with Real Goods Trading Company to get people to understand the unlimited potential of power from the sun.

While with Real Goods, I helped engineer a co-publishing relationship with Chelsea Green that helped me to understand that ideas are more powerful than merchandise. Here at Chelsea Green we get to work with great thinkers who have wildly innovative ideas, many of which are delightful rediscoveries of things that we used to know (such as building houses with straw bales, a common technique in the Midwest in the 1800s), but managed to forget during this very brief time when the Western world has been awash in cheap oil.

I don't see anything desperate about the ideas in our books. I see them as providing entertaining and useful guidance in how to live a more enjoyable and fulfilling life. I certainly agree with that! Your recent release of John S. Taylor's A Shelter Sketchbook is a case in point, a delightful, beautiful book of earth-friendly building techniques from ancient times to the present, many forgotten in the present day, yet completely appropriate.

Chelsea Green publishes wonderful how-to books, but also a selection of nonfiction books like The Man Who Planted Trees and Loving and Leaving the Good Life. How do these books fit in with your mission of sustainability?

Morris: The Man Who Planted Trees actually is fiction, but fiction or non-, the types of books you mention are the ones most likely to inspire you to adopt personal philosophies that enrich your life. Loving and Leaving the Good Life, for instance, is much more about life than death. It is the autobiography of one of the most remarkable women of this century [Helen Nearing]. Reading her story in her own words helps you to understand that death is a natural process that you can bring under your own control, a logical conclusion to the process of living.

I probably think of this book on a day-to-day basis more than any other Chelsea Green book. It is a beautiful and moving book. I know exactly what you are talking about.

Finally, Stephen, there are other publishers who print books about the environment, techniques of sustainable living, organic farming, and much more. What distinguishes Chelsea Green's perspective from that of the rest of the publishing world?

Morris: I think that our sense of humor is unique, but also our willingness to take on any subject, no matter how large. This spring we will publish a book about a tiny town in South America called Gaviotas. This town, in the midst of a barren savanna, has had to develop and employ sustainable living strategies for every aspect of life -- their food, energy, social systems, economy. And they are doing it successfully! What they have accomplished there is truly the reinvention of the world. No major publisher would touch a story like this. They'd say, "Little village? South America? No celebrity hook? NO WAY!"

So it falls to Chelsea Green to make the story public, and I promise you, we will do it very well. In my mind this is what publishing is all about.

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, Michael McCurdy

The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon

interview Copyright and disclaimer © 1996-1998, Inc.

Stephen Morris

Stephen Morris Marketing Associates
100 Gilead Brook Road
Randolph, Vermont 05060

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