Riding a bicycle to school isn’t all that unusual. But when the classroom is a passive-solar, earth-sheltered, cordwood-masonry and rammed-earth greenhouse on 600 acres in the backwoods of Western North Carolina and home is in Portland, Ore. … well, that’s a commute of a different color. Green is one that quickly comes to mind.
The stalwart cyclist was making his way to the legendary Mother Earth Eco-Village in Transylvania County, which gave tens of thousands of visitors firsthand exposure to alternative-energy techniques and technologies in the 1970s and
80s. Jane Shuttleworth, co-founder of the Mother Earth News, and Ned Doyle, the founder and director of the Southern Energy & Environment Expo, were thinking back to those days recently, their memories sparked by the education center’s imminent revival after 22 years of suspended animation. And though the mission remains much the same, the educational approach appears to have come of age in the interim.
Doyle, who joined the Eco-Village staff in 1979 (the first year of summer classes), recalls his initial disappointment. “After the session, I was let down; I had only learned one new thing. Then it hit me: I had only learned one new thing! That meant I could work here! So I applied for a job.” Before long he was teaching and learning and building and hauling materials around the country for a touring energy-education program. “I had a commercial license, so I was drafted to drive a truckload of books from here to Minnesota in a blizzard. I ended up staying with the tour.”
The Eco-Village was disbanded after the magazine was sold in 1985. But Doyle’s work was just beginning. He built his own off-grid, passive-solar home and became the voice of Mother Earth‘s local successor, Back Home magazine, on WNCW-FM with a show called “The News from Back Home.” He created the S.E.E. Expo, an annual showcase of alternative-energy solutions that features dozens of classes. He crisscrossed the country speaking at workshops, symposiums and colleges, and he created a new weekly radio show, “Our Southern Community,” currently on WNCW. Most recently, Doyle has actively opposed Progress Energy’s proposed Woodfin power plant (see “Power Plant Lease Approved,” Jan. 24 Xpress), explaining why he believes it’s the wrong solution in the wrong place to address the wrong problem with the wrong fuel source (oil).
In short, Doyle believes it’s time for a healthy dose of REALITY.
Up from ashes and compost
In the 1970s, Mother Earth News became holy writ for back-to-the-landers and eco-warriors. Advertised by word of mouth and shared hand to hand, the homemade magazine grew—there’s no other word but “organically”—achieving a peak circulation of a million subscribers by the mid-
Jane and John Shuttleworth knew nothing about publishing, but they sensed that the scattered environmental community needed a way to connect, so they invented a magazine. “Because of that lack of experience, our approach was very different,” she explains. It was also a far cry from today’s computerized desktop publishing. “We laid it out on tables, and artists worked right on the originals,” says Shuttleworth. “What we turned in to the printer were the pages themselves. It was as much art as publishing. Because we were so alternative, we wanted to do it right.”
Part of the Shuttleworths’ formula for success was accepting stories submitted by anyone, whatever their level of writing skill. “It was a lot of work to edit that material,” Jane recalls, “but it meant that the articles were by people who had actually done the work, faced the pitfalls, solved the problems.
“We didn’t think in terms of competing with other publications; rather, we were collaborating to make a different world possible. Consequently, we became a sort of clearing-house for ideas from all over the world.” An army of sympathetic souls from far and wide unleashed a flood of passionate correspondence. “We got so much mail that we had our own ZIP code, and letters would simply be addressed to ‘Dear Mother.’”
The idea of actually creating an ecologically balanced community emerged in 1975. An architecture professor at Georgia Tech enlisted students to design a “green” village that would be home to 1,000 people. There was even talk of creating affordable long-term leases on land for homes. Plans for the residential component were put on hold due to philosphical conflicts, but the classes were jammed, and a demonstration eco-village flourished.
Staffers and volunteers tended an organic garden. Domes, yurts, a wind generator and a control tower for ultralight aircraft were built using native materials and plenty of sweat. By the early
80s, upward of 20,000 people were visiting the Eco-Village each year to learn about green living. Some visited for a day; others stayed for weeks.
But the magazine’s explosive growth and the stress of management took their toll on the Shuttleworths, who sold the magazine to three employees intent on continuing the venture. A recession brought hard times, however, and the magazine was sold again to a publisher with deeper pockets and longer experience in the field. The land went with the business, and the new owner nixed the education program.
Doyle and many other staffers felt betrayed. “It had finally made a profit in 1985,” he laments. “The business model worked, but the new owners simply were not interested.”
In the course of settling debts, the land came back to the Shuttleworths. After their divorce, Jane bought out John, and the village reverted to hay fields for Jane’s horses. But she did what she could to keep the diverse structures in good repair—an alternative vision caught in amber, awaiting some tectonic or perhaps geopolitical shift to set it free.
Meanwhile, Mother Earth-ers spun off and out. When the new owner moved the magazine upscale and out of state, Back Home sprang up to take its place. Based in East Flat Rock, the bimonthly publication reaches homesteaders worldwide.
Another alumnus, Fairview resident Pat Stone, founded GreenPrints: The Weeder’s Digest. Others formed solar-energy companies, installed wind or hydropower systems, founded seed companies and experimented with biofuels. Then there was Doyle’s expo, launched in 2001. And though none of these progeny were as big or as visible as Mother, they variously grew and evolved.
In its heyday, Mother Earth News was a significant force, a standout in a period that witnessed, in a little more than a decade, the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act and the Wilderness Act. But those laws became tough acts to follow, particularly after Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House early in his presidency, rolled back federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and slashed funding for enforcing environmental laws.
But while the ideas championed by the Mother Earth crew could be ignored for a time, the underlying science didn’t change. Pollution increased, the ozone holes opened, the globe got warmer and U.S. oil production peaked and fell. In 1992, Unity College in Maine acquired Carter’s solar panels from a government-surplus warehouse, and they remained in use until 2004. That same year, President Bush installed solar water heating and photovoltaic panels to warm the presidential swimming pool.
A classroom of one’s own
The S.E.E. Expo had demonstrated the continuing demand for information about energy alternatives. The hourly classes held over an August weekend each year consistently filled up, as did the half-day, intensive workshops. Green building had taken off, and the war in Iraq had raised awareness about the costs of foreign oil.
What was needed, Doyle felt, was an educational center that could teach people who already had construction skills the extras needed to shift from business as usual to going green. Half-day workshops might get someone’s feet wet, but a more intensive class could give plumbers, electricians or carpenters specific knowledge and methods they could put to use on the job. Doyle sought Jane Shuttleworth’s cooperation, and the Rational Earth Actions Learning Institute (Thank You) was born.
Beginning this May, REALITY will offer weeklong classes on a range of alternative-energy topics. “Blue Ridge Biofuels will offer a track, the WNC Green Building Council will do a session, and the N.C.S.U. Solar Center will offer its diploma series here,” Doyle reports. “REI in Boone and Appalachian State are on board. We’ll do classes in wind, solar heat, photovoltaics, permaculture and other areas. Classes will run about $1,000 per week, which includes a site for those who want to camp on the grounds.”
The idea, says Doyle, “is not to cast a wide net, but to educate that percentage of people who really want to learn. We want to educate 80 people each year who really want to dig in.” And though he hopes to expand in the future, “Our target is to offer one series each month during the first year,” he notes. For now, that looks to keep him plenty busy. Rolling his eyes, the indefatigable Doyle shakes his head, adding, “And I’m still doing the expo.”
Standing next to the first passive-solar composting toilet in the state—still functional after 27 years of weathering—Doyle grins. “The inspector gave us a temporary permit and said we’d have to wait a year for final approval,” he recalls. “It was designed for a family of four, but by the time he came back, 10,000 people had used the Mother crapper. He had to agree that it worked.”
For more information, visit REALITY’s Web site, www.rationalearthactions.net