This post marks the beginning of a series that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Breaking Bread. Learn more about the Breaking Bread volume here. Click this link to order Breaking Bread and previous volumes. See also our profiles of Trust contributors and profiles of Metamorphosis contributors.
When Lettie Stratton saw Whole Terrain’s call for submissions on the topic “Breaking Bread,” she knew what she would write about: a week she spent at the Possibility Alliance. Perhaps you have heard of this approximately 200-acre sustainable homestead in Missouri. A combination of several like-minded projects in the area, the Possibility Alliance is coordinated by Ethan and Sarah Hughes, and offers a living example of a cultural revolution in sustainable community. It is off the grid, using no electricity or fossil fuels. Alongside core team members who live there year-round, individuals can visit, help out, and learn interpersonal and practical skills. Stratton visited the Possibility Alliance in May 2015, after she heard a podcast featuring Ethan Hughes while Stratton was working on a farm in New Zealand. Stratton wrote a piece for Breaking Bread expressing a range of responses to her time at Possibility Alliance, from rosy optimism about the ideals it represents, to feeling overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of the week, to questions about the location and type of sustainable living toward which she is personally drawn. To learn more about Stratton’s experience and thoughts, read her essay, “Slow Living,” in Whole Terrain volume 23, Breaking Bread.
After growing up in Vermont, Stratton is now a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID, practicing a unique combination of environmental action and reflection. She writes children’s curriculum books, and her writing also appeared in Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, a collection of essays inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir. Last summer, Stratton and her partner started a small organic farm near downtown Boise, Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm, feeding their neighborhood while building community. We recently spoke with Stratton to learn more about her writing process and to hear about her unique farm.
Whole Terrain: Tell us about yourself as a writer. How did you get into writing?
Lettie Stratton: I got into writing in college, kind of by accident. I took a required course called Intro to Nonfiction Writing, and after the first class I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I ended up being a creative writing major. Since then, I’ve had a variety of jobs: farming is one of them, as is teaching skiing in the winter. But even when I’ve had jobs that are not geared toward writing, I’ve always done freelance writing on the side. Right now, writing is my main job. I write children’s curriculum books for the American Reading Company. These books go into classrooms all over the U.S. I just wrote one about firefighters, and before that I wrote about the sport of soccer.
WT: Can you please share with us a bit about your writing process?
LS: When I’ve written something that’s worth anything, it usually starts with me sitting outside somewhere with my journal, writing by hand, and then I’ll get excited and go to the computer. I feel like whenever I go and sit down at the computer first, it turns out to be worthless.
Sometimes I write about experiences that are interesting or unique, and sometimes I just write about my everyday life. When life is going how I want it to go and I’m doing the things that are really important to me, even if they’re really small things, then I want to write and I feel like I have things to say.
WT: Tell us about the piece you wrote for Breaking Bread. How did it come about?
LS: I saw the theme “Breaking Bread,” and I thought, “This really fits!” I had wanted to write about that experience for a while, but I like to take some time between having the experience and reflecting on it in writing. I’d written about it in my journal while I was there. It was interesting to go back and check on what I had said when I was actually there, compared with how I remembered it when I was writing for the call. It took me a while to sort out what I thought about my experience there, and so this was both a creative writing piece as well as an emotional process of reflecting on what really happened.
I remember the first draft I sent you was very different from how it turned out by the end. In the first draft I was really positive and saying, “This was so amazing!” and then the more I thought about it, I realized, “Actually, that’s not the whole truth.” So, it was an interesting journey.
WT: Now that I’m thinking back, I do remember the first time the editorial board reviewed “Slow Living,” we were a little concerned that you were just giving it a “rose colored glasses” sort of look. We liked the writing style and your stories, but wanted a bit more grit. Then after some edits, we had to add back in some of the more positive things!
Part of Whole Terrain’s goal is to help us all do that kind of reflective work, where we dig a little below the surface and ask ourselves some harder questions about our environmental practices. I wonder what that process was like for you. What did you notice? How did your thoughts and emotions in your original and final drafts compare with your journal entries while you were at Possibility Alliance?
LS: My journal entries from when I was there were much harsher than what came out on paper, even in the final draft. At first, I was reading through my journal and I was thinking, “Why was I being such a party pooper about this? What an amazing experience! It has all these things that I love and that I want my life to look like!” My first draft reflected that sentiment: that I need to be appreciative. And so I wrote what I thought I should feel about it.
What I tried to get across in the final version was that, yes, it was very amazing, but it didn’t feel right for me. I had kind of built up this experience, like this was going to be a blueprint for how to live sustainably. I arrived and realized, on paper that’s true, but it doesn’t feel right for me. Then I melded the two for the final draft.
WT: Are there things from that experience that impact the way you live now?
LS: Yes, to a certain extent. There were aspects of being there that I try to be mindful of as I go about my days. For example, during a long day of work—I think I said something about this in my piece—they have a bell of mindfulness at the Possibility Alliance that tolls four times throughout the workday. It’s a chance for you to take a step back, center yourself, take deep breaths, and try to be really present in what you’re doing. That is something I try to do during my workdays. (I don’t always remember.) But I thought that was a really powerful practice and one that I really liked.
And then also, on the theme of Breaking Bread, I try to be grateful before eating food, remembering where it came from and everything that went into it, because I know how much work it is to get a simple loaf of bread—it’s not simple at all.
I also did take a step toward my farming dream. I don’t know if it was exactly because of this experience, but it was inspired by it. I started an urban farm this past year, and had a great first season, with plans to continue. The lessons I learned at Possibility Alliance are definitely ingrained in my life.
WT: We would love to hear more about your farm!
LS: It’s called Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm, and we’re in downtown Boise, about five minutes from the center of town on an open lot right in our neighborhood. My partner, Fiona, and I run it. It’s about a quarter-acre. We have one lot, which you can actually see from my kitchen window. Then a few family friends have offered us their yards to work with, so we have a compilation of about three different lots within close biking distance.
Last summer and fall, we did Sunday farm stands. Every Sunday we set up our booth. It made for a really great community by the end of the season, just all these neighbors coming out. If they weren’t interested in the food, they were interested in what these strange people were doing, standing on the sidewalk, selling tomatoes. We did all different veggies and herbs and some corn. It was small-scale, neighborhood style, but it was fun and a really cool way to feed people and meet the neighbors.
As young beginning farmers, it was really helpful to have access to land right in our neighborhood without having to get the capital together to buy or lease it. The man who owned our main lot, the biggest one, is an older gentleman whose family has history with that property for years. Every now and then they’d throw some onions in there or something, but hadn’t used it on a large scale. He was really excited to have people really doing something with the piece.
WT: Why did you opt to sell the produce in your neighborhood rather than at a farmer’s market?
LS: Originally we were going to be at the farmer’s market, but then just decided, at the scale that we were doing, and with all the unknowns, especially with our first year on a new piece of land, we didn’t want to take on that extra stress.
It seems like people were glad to have another option. Not everyone wants to go to a really busy Saturday market, or maybe they’re not free on Saturday, so I am of the opinion that it would be awesome to get to a point where all places have more than one option for local food, like all sorts of little mini markets all over the place. That seems better to me than one huge market at one set time per week.
WT: Do you think you’ll continue that model next summer?
LS: I think we’ll continue with the model. It was fun, small, and low-key. There are plenty of other people selling local food at the Boise Farmers Market.
WT: Did your farm impact the way you feel about your connection and sense of community in your neighborhood?
LS: I live in a great neighborhood in Boise. People are always out walking around, so it’s nice to walk around and know people by name: “Oh, there’s Janet and her two dogs, and there’s Mark and Gemma, and there’s Sheila—she loved the tomatoes.” We made all sorts of connections, and that makes it a really nice place to live. I feel far more connected and involved and motivated and inspired to keep doing what we were doing and to keep that process going.
WT: What are you working on next, in your environmental practice or your writing?
LS: One thing I am hoping to implement this year, in my personal life and in the farm, is making a pledge to not drive much. That involves building a bike trailer to deliver goods, and committing to do everything for the farm without using a motor vehicle. I love biking because it’s better for the environment, but also, it gives you a chance to slow down and soak in what’s happening around you, to stop and say “hi” to your neighbors or pet a dog.
WT: In what ways do you feel like this and your other environmental practices reflect the theme of “Breaking Bread,” in the sense of sharing food and in the sense of working to heal the broken places in the food system?
LS: One thing that made me want to do this little farm is, I think we have to make it really easy for people to make good choices. People are going to choose what is easy, which is not driving to a Farmer’s Market to buy one or two things and then going somewhere else to get the rest of what they need. If we eventually have a lot of small, local options that remain affordable but are high quality, that’s going to make it easier for people to choose those options.
We need more farmers everywhere, no matter how small, or how little they’re doing.
And I really feel like that’s not a small thing. If everyone was growing lettuce in their window boxes, that would be great. Or, maybe one person in the neighborhood grows tomatoes and one person grows basil, and then you can trade with your neighbors. I think that would not only help the food system, but also help community. In my opinion, that would be the way to go, and that’s what has inspired Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm.
WT: Bringing that back around to your piece, the model of the Possibility Alliance seems like jumping off the deep end into sustainability, doing everything at once. It sounds like you’re trying to take a more step-by-step approach and getting people on board who aren’t ready for jumping off the deep end.
Do you feel any resistance in yourself for not going all in right away? How do you navigate those questions?
LS: I think my time at the Possibility Alliance was actually really important for that question. I talked about it in the piece, but the founder said something to me along the lines of: “You have to take yourself where you’re at in the process and not get too bogged down by feeling what you’re doing isn’t enough, because if you do that, then you just freeze and you don’t do anything.”
After listening to him and being there, I try to just be okay with what I’m doing, and work on maybe one or two things I can do better. I try not to freak out and be like, “Oh no, my lights are on, the heat’s on, I own a laptop—shit!” The one step at a time thing feels good to me. There is always more to do and there are endless ways to improve, but I think I’ve reached a point where I’m not only worried about what I’m not doing. Instead, I’m appreciating where I am, and I’m trying to put more positive energy into the steps I am taking.
Bio: Lettie Stratton is a farmer and writer from Vermont. She holds a B.A. in creative writing from St. Lawrence University and enjoys writing about travel, food, farming, and music. She is starting an urban farm in Boise, Idaho with her partner and, consequently, spends most of her free time chasing quail away from the crops. When she’s not on pest patrol, however, Lettie enjoys cycling, cooking, playing music, and practicing yoga. She co-authored a book for Scholastic Canada titled Earth Action: How can we make better choices to help the earth? and was a contributor to the New York Times best-selling Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It. To read more of her work, visit www.lettiestratton.com/.