Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor of Natural Home & Garden magazine, answers questions
What’s your job title?
Editor in chief, Natural Home & Garden magazine.
How does it relate to the environment?
Working under the tagline “Living Green, Living Well,” our magazine’s mission is to show mainstream America that living lightly doesn’t mean giving up a thing — that they don’t have to go live out in the hills in a yurt or a home built out of mud — and that in fact there’s a lot to gain by creating an environmentally friendly home. We want everyone to see the benefits — what’s in it for them — of a green lifestyle, so we present information, inspiration, and resources to help them achieve this.
Basically, we’re spreading the word about the beauties of living green, but we’re very careful not to preach or present it in a way that alienates anyone. At the same time, we don’t want to dilute the message that the way we live in our homes has a tremendous impact on the state of the planet’s — and our own — health. So we’re walking the fine line between keeping the environmental “choir” on the cutting edge of what’s happening in green design and healthy living and also providing starting points and baby steps for the uninitiated.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m doing a ton of radio, TV, and print interviews to promote the relaunch of Natural Home as Natural Home & Garden. As the official “voice” of the magazine, I’m stepping out into the world to manifest our mission in a more personal way. It’s fun.
I’m also overseeing the design of the May/June issue, agonizing over when I’ll get a chance to edit the articles that are going into the July/August issue, and planning photo shoots. Because we have a small editorial staff (myself, a managing editor, an assistant editor, and a part-time senior editor), I’m still doing a lot of the editing and art direction for the magazine in addition to promotion and overall visioning. I travel to all the houses we feature to work with local photographers, and I work closely with our freelance designer on page design. I have to admit, I really love that part of the job — it keeps it all real for me — but eventually I’ll need to let some or all of it go.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
It took me a long time to find this ideal combination of passion and proclivities in my career. I lived in quiet desperation for many years as I covered business (computers, then advertising and media) in New York as a young journalist. It felt empty and shallow, but I was convinced that people just did what they did to make a living, then lived out their dreams elsewhere. I think that came from growing up with a dad who was an incredible furniture maker and wood carver but worked unhappily by day in a bank. He was doing what he had to do to feed four kids, but my idea of “career” was based on watching him put on that suit and tie every day.
It was only after I’d moved to Boulder, Colo., and had my son, Stacey, that I realized work and passion didn’t have to be separated. I wanted to continue to write and edit, but I wasn’t willing to spend time away from Stacey if I didn’t feel that what I was doing was making a difference. Having kids also cemented my always-strong environmentalism in a more personal, selfish way: I want them and my grandkids to have a planet to live on.
I worked for several years as the editor of a high-end home magazine in Denver; it was fun, and I learned a ton, but I had to content myself with sneaking in my environmental message. I implemented an “environment” department, featured straw-bale and other alternatively built houses, and generally tried to make readers more aware of the importance of being green. Still, I was often disgusted with the excess of the homes we featured — mega-mansions eating up virgin mountain land, second homes the owners visited maybe twice a year. As much as I loved many parts of that job, ultimately I couldn’t get past that it was, at its core, irresponsible to promote this kind of living.
When I learned that a magazine about green building and lifestyles was being launched up in Loveland, Colo., (of all places!) I knew I’d found my dream job — amazingly enough, just 45 minutes from my home in Boulder. I joined the company just as Natural Home was getting under way, and I came on staff as the architecture editor with the third issue. By the fifth issue, I’d taken on the title of editor in chief — and I’ve never looked back. I’m still blown away that I’ve found my dream job — in every way, the perfect job for me — right here in Colorado, which isn’t exactly a mega-center for magazine publishing. Makes me think I did something right in a past life.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
56. I work from home most days, so email is both my lifeline and the bane of my existence. It’s such an easy diversion when I don’t feel like focusing on writing or editing — I check it way too often.
I’m trying to apply the “touch-it-once” rule to emails as I do to the paper that crosses my desk, but all too often I read emails and think I’ll deal with them later … then find that they’ve sat in the mailbox waiting to be dealt with for far too long. Currently I have 25 folders for sorting emails that I might need later. My goal is to never print out an email — I still believe in the paperless office, even though it’s become a joke.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now I live in Boulder, Colo. I love it here. My mom says it’s the weirdest town she’s ever been to.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I worked at the daily newspaper for all four years while I was in college, and when I graduated I thought I was burned out (at the ripe old age of 21!), so I “sold out” and took a job in the public-relations department at MCI in Chicago. I was basically a secretary (despite what the job description said), and one day I had to write memos from my boss to all the department heads about distributing baseball tickets. When I got to my boss’s name, I figured I could just walk into his office and hand him his tickets — but he told me he needed a memo, too (for the files). So I found myself printing out a memo that said “To: Ed Herbert, From: Ed Herbert.” It was a silly yet quintessential moment for me, as I stood looking at that wasted paper and thinking, “Is this really what my life is for?” I quit soon after and took a lesser-paying job on the night desk of a newspaper.
What’s been the best?
Every minute of my job as editor in chief of Natural Home & Garden. It’s my dream job; I couldn’t ask for anything more.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
When the Bush administration announced that we weren’t going to sign the Kyoto treaty, I was stunned. I’m just so blown away by our unwillingness to deal with global warming. What’s it going to take for our society to see that we’re on the verge of catastrophe?
On a (much) smaller scale — but perhaps just as aggravating to me — I get incensed every time I find myself behind an SUV with a “Love Your Mother” bumper sticker on it. There seem to be an inordinate amount of those here in Boulder.
Who is your environmental hero?
I meet and mingle with environmental heroes every day — they’re everywhere. From my son’s fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Mohseni, who’s teaching the kids about composting and recycling (and spearheading a zero-waste project at their school), to my neighbors who ride their bikes everywhere, to the readers of Natural Home & Garden, who hold themselves, each other, and us to such high environmental standards, there’s no shortage of people who are walking the talk out there.
That said, I’m holding out hope that the environmental movement will soon spawn a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. We really need someone with that ability to move the movement — to enroll the masses in the urgency of taking a stand for the planet.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. When he was reelected this year, I was so tempted to just hang it all up. I wondered how I could go on telling people that not flushing their toilets or changing their light bulbs made a damn bit of difference in the face of the devastation that’s to come in the next four years. It’s not only his policies I abhor but the co-opting of language in initiatives such as “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” Evil.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’m constantly amazed at the generosity and cooperative spirit of the green building community. When I first started as editor in chief of Natural Home, I knew very little about the movement. I just started calling around to the movers and shakers, and everyone I contacted jumped in to help without hesitation. You know, they really could have responded with a “who the hell do you think you are?,” and not one of them did.
Catherine Wanek, an author who founded The Last Straw newsletter about straw-bale building, spent hours with me on the phone, telling me the ins and outs and giving me phone numbers of more people to call. I cold-called the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas, and got Pliny Fisk on the phone late one afternoon. He invited me down to Austin, and he and his wife, Gail Vittori, have been personal friends and professional mentors ever since.
The people behind this green-building movement are what make this job so spectacular. I like nothing better than photographing green homes because I get to spend the day really getting to know the people who built them. It’s great to know before I’ve even met someone that we’re going to be like-minded, and I always learn so much (about everything from building to spirituality to politics) from these amazing pioneers.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I believe individual action and cultural change will inevitably lead to political change. My motto comes from Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa University in Boulder, who once said that “the only way to implement our vision for society is to bring it down to the situation of a single household.”
If we begin our quest for a clean, healthy planet at home — where we have control and will see success — I believe we’ll feel empowered to go out and start lobbying for bigger, community-wide, systemic change.
What’s your environmental vice?
Skiing. I know all the atrocities associated with it, and I still love to do it. And eating meat. I fell off the vegetarian wagon when I was pregnant with my daughter, and I’ve never been able to get back on. And again, I know all the atrocities associated with that. And I still love a good free-range, hormone-free, organically raised steak.
What are you reading these days?
Aside from the huge stack of magazines (from E to Metropolis), I always have three books by my bedside (and in my carry-on bag — I live in fear of being stuck on an airplane without enough reading material!) — one spiritual or growth-related (navel-gazing), one work or passion-related, and one novel. So right now I’m reading The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts; The Restoration Economy: The Greatest New Growth Frontier, by Storm Cunningham; and I’m just finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Waiting in the wings are The Essential Ken Wilber; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; and Old School, a novel by Tobias Wolff.
My favorite book of all time is The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. I try to re-read it once a decade, and it’s always relevant.
What’s your favorite meal?
Depends on the time of year and where I am … I love connecting to the season and to place through food. There’s nothing better to me than biking to the Boulder Farmer’s Market and creating a meal out of what’s available there. One of the highlights of my annual visits to my hometown in Iowa is a summer meal of thick Iowa pork chops, green beans cooked all day with bacon, and just-picked sweet corn and tomatoes. I know eating all that pig isn’t politically correct, but God, is it good — and totally Iowan. (My mother-in-law’s authentic Italian lasagna is a great reason to visit family in Chicago.)
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. I had a bumper sticker on it for a while, right after 9/11, that said, “Real Patriots Drive Hybrids.” I’m a little bit obsessed with my car being a political statement.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
There are so many. The high desert serenity of the foothills just behind my house in Boulder. The lushness of Iowa in August. Both coasts — in particular, the cliffs near Point Reyes, Calif., and the craggy shores south of Boston (Marblehead, Mass., is probably my favorite spot in America).
The coolest — and perhaps hardest — part of my job is that I get to travel to so many amazing places to direct photo shoots. (And yes, I’m bothered by the effects of that travel on the environment … and I still love it!) For a while, I wanted to move to every place I visited — awesome towns like Austin, Texas, Charlottesville, Vir., and Lawrence, Kan.; the West Texas border town of Presidio; San Francisco … My poor husband would just roll his eyes when I came home full of plans for our new life in some cool new place. And then I realized that my home town of Boulder has pieces of what makes all those places great — liberal people, a decent amount of culture and music, and a five-minute walk into incredible mountain trails. It’s such a relief to find myself — finally! — content with where I am.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I believe we’re just beginning to reach beyond the “core” — the choir — and bring others who could help us into the fold. I’m happy to see organizations like Global Green USA tapping into Hollywood star power to get the message out. I think we’re beginning to see that it’s OK to use whatever muscle we have available to us — that we’re not being shallow or pandering by making our message palatable and desirable to the mainstream.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it improve?
We need to have more fun. Our message is so often dour and somber and sincere. We all know that global warming and pollution and water shortages are major, important issues — but no one’s going to buy into doom and gloom. Most people really don’t want to take on suffering and sacrifice to be an environmentalist.
I had an epiphany about all of this one day last October. I spent the day at the Sustainable Resources conference here in Boulder. It was a great conference — full of very committed people accomplishing great things. But it was so serious; in the end, I just wanted to escape and enjoy a glorious Indian summer day. That night I went to see Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at Red Rocks, an outdoor amphitheater near Boulder. Michael was right on track with the same message, but I absorbed it into my soul while I was dancing and jumping and singing. I left feeling rejuvenated and inspired and alive — and so did my kids. We need more of that kind of delivery — to make this whole movement fun, alive, and something everyone who’s hip just has to be a part of.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would reverse the current system of financial incentives and tax breaks, eliminating subsidies for pollution-producing industries and products and implementing them for sustainable alternatives such as solar and wind power and hybrid and fuel-cell cars. We can talk all we want about the hidden costs of subsidizing the oil industry, but the bottom line is that most people will change their ways when it saves them money.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
I’ve always had really eclectic taste in music — and my favorites rarely make it onto the Top 40 charts. When I was 18, I was listening to Bob Marley, Oingo Boingo, Willy Nelson, and lots of old Joni Mitchell.
These days I’m all over the indie charts. My favorites include Wilco, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Jolie Holland, the Gourds, and the John Butler Trio (I can’t get their new album, Sunrise Over Sea, out of my CD player!). I’ll forever have a soft spot in my heart for Billie Holiday, and whenever I’m feeling blue, I pop in Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, awesome renditions of Woody Guthrie lyrics.
Because I spend so much time in the car with my two kids, we’ve had to come to terms with our music preferences (Britney isn’t welcome there). We agree on Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Citizen Cope, and Andre Tanker (we’ve been playing his song “Food Fight,” about Spam, lamb, the Bush-man and Saddam over and over and over again these days … ).
What’s your favorite movie?
It is, and always will be, The Graduate.
What are you happy about right now?
My kids. They’re amazing, spiritually clear beings who will change the world. I look at them and their friends, and I know there’s hope for all of us.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Recently I tried to talk the NH&G staff into creating a campaign to have everyone stop flushing their toilets every time they go. They thought I was crazy, but it seemed to me a light-hearted yet impactful “starting point” — something we could have fun with. (Nobody but me thought it would be fun to recite “if it’s yellow, let it mellow … ” in public.)
I think other InterActivist interviewees have said this, but I absolutely do believe that doing something small, simple, and even silly to lessen your impact every day is key. Stop flushing your toilet every time (my family saves more than 1,000 gallons of water a month this way). Change your incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents and use three-quarters as much electricity (400 fewer pounds of coal, 32 fewer gallons of oil, or 4,300 fewer cubic feet of natural gas). Lower your heat by a couple degrees, and turn down your hot water heater. Buy wind power.
Sometimes the big global picture is so overwhelming that we stop believing that our daily actions make any difference. But if change doesn’t begin incrementally with us, who will it begin with? If we’re not completely in integrity with how we live our lives, why should anyone else be? I want to end every day believing that I did something to decrease my still ridiculously large footprint — even by just a toenail.