Barbara Dean is executive editor at Island Press, a nonprofit environmental book publisher.

Monday, 20 Oct 2003

COVELO, Calif.

It’s another gorgeous autumn day on this remote square mile of Northern California. The morning sky over the hills across the river is turning from the gray of early dawn to clear brilliant blue. The oaks framing the meadow are just beginning to lose their leaves, and the hills are dotted with the red of poison oak. This season is muted in California, more subtle than the color-streaked autumn I grew up with in Michigan, but after 30 years here, I have come to love this western version.

Not bad for an office view.

This is the scene from my desk, where I settle with my cup of All-Day Breakfast Tea each morning. I boot up the computer first thing, so that I can click on a static-free version of NPR’s “Morning Edition” via my Internet satellite connection. Technology has changed my work life dramatically in the 25 years that I’ve worked for Island Press from this home office that is off the grid (to put it mildly — the nearest power line is 12 miles away). Over the years, I’ve traded in my car-battery-powered IBM Selectric typewriter for a solar- and mini-hydro-powered laptop computer, printer, and fax. The radio-phone has a more-or-less line-of-sight hook-up to a land line about 45 minutes away by road. Its service is clear enough that most people I talk with during the business day have no clue that I’m not calling from a high-rise office building.

No clue, that is, until I mention the wild turkeys that have suddenly appeared on the hill outside my window, or the bobcat that cruises the same hillside less frequently. This home office is perhaps the most tangible expression of the many connections between my professional and personal lives.

Island Press, as many of you probably know, is a nonprofit publisher of environmental books. Through cutting-edge publishing projects and innovative programs, we try to stimulate, shape, and communicate the ideas that can help to solve environmental problems at home and around the world. Within IP, my responsibility is the acquisition, shaping, and development of books in the “Ecosystems Studies” subject area. Three other editors are responsible for other subject areas, which I’ll describe later this week.

Thirty years of living on this wild and beautiful land — learning about the interactions of myriad life forms, watching the changes caused by human and natural forces — have fueled my personal fascination with all the workings of natural life, as well as my deep concern about the serious threats to biodiversity worldwide. I feel fortunate, then, that my professional life focuses on these same issues; my Ecosystems Studies list is driven by concerns for biodiversity — its importance, complexities, fragility, protection, restoration. I often describe my job as eternal graduate school, taking courses that teach me what I really want to know.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is how I ended up working in Covelo (actually, my home office is an hour’s drive over a winding dirt road outside of the tiny town of Covelo). The answer is easy: This is where Island Press started. Although our central office has been in Washington, D.C., since 1984, our distribution and customer service center is still in Covelo, and the other two members of my editorial group, Barbara Youngblood and Laura Carrithers, are also here. Overall, Island Press has 48 employees, the majority of whom are in the D.C. office, and a 16-member board of directors.

As you might guess, with a relatively small staff spread from coast to coast, we have become expert at doing business long distance. One of the first emails I check each day is the list of who’s where; since I can’t walk down the hall to check the schedule of, say, the production manager, that message is a critical piece of information. Later today, I have a meeting to review a cover design for a forthcoming book. I’ll call in to a conference number and my colleagues in D.C. will talk with me via the little black box on the table. All of us will be looking at the cover mock-up that has been posted on a website.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the effect of technology on modern life (no surprise, given my life choices), but there’s no question that it helps me work from this place that I love. And it also defines the pace of the world within which everyone who is working on environmental issues these days operates. When we look for new staff, our advertisements describe Island Press as a “fast-paced environment.” In truth, my work life is so intense that I am often breathless by 10 a.m. (which I mention just in case you think that home offices in remote locations are idyllic).

But then I look to the hill outside my window, where the morning shadows are pulling back to the edge of the forest, and I glance to the side of my desk, where a proposal for a book about Pacific salmon waits for my attention. Truly, I can’t imagine a better place to be or a more fulfilling job.

And there is just time to review this proposal before the cover meeting, so I’d better get to it …