Category Archives: Autobiographical

Author Interview: Thomas J. Elpel

I was interviewed by Write Coach David Alan Binder. Here is a copy of the interview, originally published on Binder’s website.

Author Thomas J. Elpel

Author Thomas J. Elpel

How do you pronounce your name?  Elpel is pronounced El-pel, kind of like El Paso, but it is German or Lithuanian, not Spanish.

Where are you currently living?  I’ve been in Pony, Montana since 1989. My grandmother moved here before I did, and she mentored me in edible and medicinal plants and wilderness survival skills. Three years out of high school, I bought land a block from her house and starting building my own.

What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?  Use simple language. There is no need to impress anyone with big words. Any word that isn’t familiar to the majority of the population requires a definition embedded in the text, so that the reader can fluidly absorb the new word and continue reading without interruption.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.

What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk? I like to dedicate each book to a different person who is special to me and somehow connected with the book. The dedication and a photo of the person is included on the title page.

Foraging the Mountain West.

Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?  My publishing business, HOPS Press, LLC, started very out very slowly. As a young man, I was selling photocopied books with plastic comb bindings. Over time, the quality of my writing improved, and I started printing real books with paperback and hardcover bindings and ISBN numbers. The publishing business matured with my writing, and I really like being able to design and market all facets of a product on my own schedule, without anyone else dictating how they think it should be.

Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing? Most of our titles are rich with pictures and captions, so converting from paper to eBook can require major reformatting. We are tip-toeing that direction, but otherwise prefer traditional printed books.

Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?  The most important step is to write the book you want to write, not the one you think the market wants. Stay true to yourself, and you will build a deeper connection with your audience.

How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent?  Any tips for new writers on getting one?  I’ve never worked with an agent. Maybe I should. On the other hand, being my own publisher and not having an agent has necessitated learning and understanding how to connect with my audience directly, and I prefer that deeper connection.

Botany in a Day.

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?  A book is never done, especially a nonfiction book. It can take years to get a book ready for publication, yet a publisher may only market the title for six months or a year, then remainder or shred the rest. As my own publisher, I prefer to market a book until I’ve sold every copy, then revise, improve, polish, and print it again. Some of my titles have six editions, each a significant improvement over its predecessor, like wine that improves with age.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?  Writing continually improves with time and experience. When I finish a book I’m sure it is the greatest work ever written. But by the time I sell out and revise the book for the next edition, I am embarrassed by what seems like shoddy writing, and I wish I could buy up and burn the old books!

How many books have you written?  I’ve written seven books so far, plus I’ve produced several videos and a card game. Books include:

Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Direct Pointing to Real Wealth: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Money
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit

Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer?  Weed out the little words and make your writing more concise and to the point… Weed out little words for more concise writing. 

Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story? I write mostly nonfiction, which is easy, because it doesn’t have to be invented, just documented well. My children’s book, Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 is a fictional story, yet only on the surface. It uses mythology to teach science and botany. It is successful because the substance of the story is real, rather than invented.

What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?  I write about topics that matter to me and haven’t been covered adequately by others. There is a niche and a need, and I write the books I’ve been searching for myself.

Living Homes.

What are some ways in which you promote your work? My books sell through word-of-mouth. People like what they read and share it with others. The challenge is to introduce a new title, often a new topic, to a new audience, to entice enough people to read it and start talking to other people about it. Botany in a Day was the easiest book to market. I delivered review copies to herbal schools, and they recommended it to their students and have continued to do so ever since.

What is the one thing you would do differently now, concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating, and why? I get excited about a new book and print thousands of copies, when it might be smarter to launch new titles with print-on-demand and refine them for another year or two before doing a large printing.

Roadmap to Reality.

What saying or mantra do you live by? Carlos Castaneda once said something to the effect of, “Death is stalking you over your left shoulder.” I don’t want death to stalk up on me lazing around in front of the television. I seek to make the most of every day I have in this life. I try to keep pushing my own boundaries and limitations to do more and to contribute more to humanity and the natural world with whatever time I have left in this world.

Author book links:  HOPS Press, LLC | Personal Website | Amazon.com | GoodReads.com

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For the Love of a Woman

Katie and Flint       I am not a self-indulgent person. I don’t need coffee or tea to wake me up in the morning. I don’t need a beer to wind down in the evening. I don’t need fancy clothes, and I am content driving a rusty bucket of bolts. I don’t own a smart phone, a cell phone, or even an iPod, although I might change that one day. I like background music, but usually tune it out. I am admittedly addicted to chocolate. But otherwise, I can rock ‘n roll from four or five in the morning until ten or eleven at night, and few people can keep up with me. I have a thousand grand dreams and epic projects to make a positive difference in the world, and there is only one external substance I really depend on to keep me going: the love of a woman.
Katie Silhouette       People often say that it is important to be self-sufficient before getting into a relationship. Be comfortable in your own skin and follow your dreams in life, and when it is meant to be, the right partner will come along. That may be true, but somehow it doesn’t resonate with me. I am already about the most self-sufficient person I know. I have designed and built houses from the ground up, including doing the wiring and plumbing. I write books, produce videos, and often do every part of the process from rough drafts to layout, graphic design, publishing, marketing, and even hand-coding the HTML for the website. I don’t need help, nor do I need to be entertained. Television and movies are often tedious. Bars are boring. Most people are uninteresting. I am almost content with nothing more than the company of my own thoughts, but I do have my limits. It is difficult to achieve emotional self-sufficiency in a vacuum.
Tom with Rock Cairn       As with many introverted people, I am most content in a relationship with an extrovert. I like being in the “fun bubble” of a woman who knows how to have a good time. For me, it is a way to get out of my own head, and it is like a passport to enjoy social events that I would otherwise find alienating and stressful. It is a normal form of co-dependency for a lot of introverts in the world.
      In addition, my best work is often tediously demanding and emotionally draining. I am content hiking and camping alone, and I enjoy teaching and being around people. But as a writer, being alone in my head 24/7 is much like being locked away in solitary confinement. It doesn’t matter how many people are around me, I live confined within the walls of my own head. I find it necessary to put words to paper, and the end result is usually satisfying and sometimes potentially world-changing. The process, however, can be infinitely tedious. Writing a book, for example, requires a single-minded devotion to the end product and thousands of hours of solitary, introspective thought and writing. But solitary confinement is often used as a form of torture. Locked away by themselves, people eventually go mad.
      The only escape I know from the solitary confinement of my writer’s brain is the playful presence of an extroverted personality. I don’t need a lot. I just need to get out of my head from time to time to shift emotional states, to wrestle, tease, laugh, and play. My last relationship was all teeth and claws as we engaged in epic battles. I am so cerebral that I crave that kind of play. With nothing more than the love of a woman, I am inspired, empowered, and energized to do great work and make a positive difference. Sometimes I feel so energized and empowered that I am sure I can change the course of the world. But take away the love, and suddenly I question if the world is really worth saving. I lose interest in my dreams, goals, and ambitions. All I want to do is hang out and ride my horse.
Tom and Katie Shadows       Maybe I should learn to be more emotionally self-sufficient and keep plowing forward, working to make a difference in the world, but I’m just not sure what for if there isn’t someone special to share the journey with. I don’t need much in this world, and I definitely don’t work for money, although I often get paid. But I do need to get something out of it for me. I can work miracles on a hug and a smile. Take that away and I would rather go on strike than continue working. And so, when my love life falls apart, so do all my dreams of making the world a better place.
      I have often said that the greatest obstacle to creating a sustainable civilization is that people are too wrapped up in their petty personal lives to see what is right in front of them. We have all the knowledge and technology we need to create a functionally sustainable civilization, and we can achieve it with less work and less cost than the way we are living now.
Elpel House       As a young married man, I found it relatively easy, even without much for money or job skills, to buy land and build a passive solar home without a mortgage. With the basics covered, I have had the rest of my adult life free to work towards making a positive difference in the world. But as my marriage and family began unraveling six years ago, I found myself in the same boat as everyone else, too distracted by my personal life to focus on saving the planet. It wasn’t until I found a new and seemingly sustainable relationship that I was able to pick up where I left off, and start working for the benefit of others. But her path ultimately took her away from me and left me alone again.
      I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe my path would be easier if I had smaller dreams or worked a steady job that was independent from my love life. I don’t know. I’ve only been in two romantic relationships in my life, and both were so intertwined with our mutual goals and enterprises that disentangling the relationships unraveled a lot of other dreams in the process.
Tom with Moe       What I have learned, however, is that it is essential to prioritize relationships first. Strangely, it doesn’t matter if climate change is spinning out of control, our forests are dying, species are going extinct, our government is corrupt and nearly bankrupt, or that our kids are losing touch with nature and physical reality itself. Without love, nothing else really matters, not even the fate of our planet. And so, here I am again, looking for love.

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Thomas J. Elpel
August 29, 2013

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Gratitude: Thanks for a moment in time

Katie and Equines       I owe my life to the compassion and kindness of the most amazing woman in the world. She believed in me when everyone else abandoned me. She reached out to me when I was in pain. She gave me a hug when I needed healing. She gave back my life after I had lost everything.

      It is hard to believe it has been only three years since I showed up on her doorstep, five hundred miles away from home, with nowhere to go and nothing to return home to. My marriage had gone sour. My relationship with my kids was terrible. Their relationships with each other were no better. We lived in constant crisis mode. The issues were rooted in dynamics of my marriage, but I was the one who got the blame for everything that was wrong with our family.

The Gulch       It is ironic, given that I worked every day of my life to make a positive difference in my family and in the world. Yet, all that blew up in my face. In the breakup of my family, I lost everything I ever worked for, cared about, or believed in. I was totally alienated and utterly alone with no one turn to, except for the kindness of this virtual stranger.

      Actually, Katie told me not to come. Twice. I just didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was drawn to her on raw instinct. We had met a couple times before and emailed back and forth a bit. She understood the depth of my problems at home. She was the only person who cared enough to really listen.

      Thirty miles away from her house in central Washington, I called and left a message. I didn’t know what I would do if she didn’t return my call, or if she told me to leave and go home. I considered driving back east to walk the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to run away and start my life anew. Returning home seemed like a death sentence.

      Fortunately, Katie returned my call and allowed me to come to her home, albeit, reluctantly. She understood that I needed help, and she responded with compassion. Besides, her hired help failed to show up, so she needed a dumb bloke to help build her corral.

Katie Corral       I stayed for a week. We built the corral. We talked. She listened to me when no one else would. She believed in me when no one else did. She gave me a hug when I was all alone. And there began a turning point for me to regain all that I had lost. In the ashes of my failed marriage and family, Katie was the angel who helped me carry onward. She gave me strength to deal with the issues at home. She helped me believe in myself again.

      Over time, I would prove that I am a good and competent father. My sons flourished at home and at school. My adult daughters gradually thawed towards me. I have grown to cherish my role as Dad, and I enjoy being a happy home-maker. I have kept my business alive and growing through the trials and turmoil of divorce from my ex. And I still try every day to make a positive difference in the world.

Tom and Katie       Katie and I progressed to become friends, partners, and lovers. We found great joy in our life together, and we proved ourselves to be an amazing team. I helped her achieve her dreams and goals, and she helped me achieve mine. More than anything, being with Katie filled me with gratitude. Life is short, and relationships are shorter, and one never knows what tomorrow will bring. But in the three years that we had together, I learned to love life again. As I often told her, “Thank you for this moment in time.” I am greatly sorry to lose her as my partner, yet eternally grateful for the time that we shared together. Katie gave my life back to me, and for that I can never thank her enough.

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Thomas J. Elpel
June 29, 2013

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Would you Vote for a Guy Who Eats Dumpster Food?

I spent my entire life polishing my public image and resume so that I could get into politics and make a positive difference in the world. But that ended when my twenty-year marriage went down in flames, along with pretty much everything I ever worked for, believed in, and cared about. The experience radicalized my worldviews, and reduced me to scraping by, scavenging for food in dumpsters. Well, not really. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy dumpster diving, and I treat it as a sport. Screw public perception. I will live my life however I want, and if I ever do get into politics, I will proudly put “dumpster diver” on my public resume. But would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

These are some of the goodies we picked up from grocery store dumpsters on our latest run.

Dumpster diving is a sport I primarily engage in on road trips, especially along regular routes, where I already know a few good stops along the way. It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get. One dumpster can be empty, but the next a bonanza with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. Driving home from Washington through Idaho to Montana this week, we hit up six dumpsters en route, and came home with less than usual, but still with more value than what we spent on gasoline getting home. Actually, we only hit two good dumpsters this time, but this is what we got:

4 – 7 oz jars of almond stuffed olives
7 – 6 oz containers of Greek yogurt
1 – 24 oz tub of Greek yogurt
3 – 32 oz chocolate soymilk boxed drinks
1 – 16 oz Synergy kombuchia drink
5 – 32 oz jars of Knudsen blueberry juice
1 – 20 oz ranch dressing
1 – 12 oz organic ranch dressing
6 – 12 oz boxes of granola
2 – boxes of 6 chocolate biscotti
1 – 4 oz apple pie snack
12 – jumbo chocolate cookies
12 – jumbo peanut butter cookies
12 – loaves mixed breads and buns
24 – 16 oz containers of caramel dip

Everything else we left behind, due to lack of space in the car. But we also picked a nice supply of apricots from feral trees along the way, plus 2 ½ gallons of blackberries. All in all, foraging turns a tedious drive into a fun adventure!

One time we arrived home from a five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. We don’t go out of our way to do this. We only stop at dumpsters along the way to other places.

What we find varies tremendously every time. Sometimes we bring home lots of dairy, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Sometimes we bring home lots of fruits and vegetables that are just slightly overripe. Sometimes we find a dumpster full of perfectly fresh meat, and have to go in the grocery store to buy ice to keep it cool until we get home. Sometimes we come home with a bunch of cookies, cakes, cream cheese platters, and other junk food that we really don’t need, but eat ourselves silly before giving the rest of it to the chickens. In one record-breaking run, we finished the five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!

“One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!”

In general, big grocery stores in big towns usually have trash compactors, making them the least likely targets for dumpster diving. But once in awhile you will find a grocery store or bakery that still uses an open dumpster. Really small towns with Mom and Pop grocery stores typically have open dumpsters, but seldom waste anything. Medium-sized towns are more likely to have grocery stores with rich dumpsters and no trash compactors. My friends and I try to be minimally stealthy, not so much because we fear being chased away, but because grocery stores are more likely to put locks on their dumpsters if they perceive a problem. We are very careful to avoid making a mess, and sometimes even clean up trash around the dumpsters.
The groceries we bring home are perfectly good, just discarded because they reached the “sell by” date stamped on the products. This food could and should be donated to local food banks, but isn’t. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage grocery stores to donate surplus groceries to food banks and other non-profit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. The law acknowledges that foods can be safe for human consumption after the sell by date and protects grocery stores from liability in the unlikely case that someone should get sick from donated foods.

“It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get.”

The need for donated foods is great. According to the Foodbank Network, 30 percent of the population here in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, food insecurity is “The inability to access food in a consistent and socially acceptable manner to meet the family’s nutritional needs. Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.” In the face of that, grocery stores still discard hundreds of tons of perfectly good food in trash compactors and garbage cans. It seems like a crime!

I typically get about half of my winter heating wood for free, already cut to length, without having to start my chainsaw, just by picking it up at the dump.

My own interest in dumpster diving is rooted in the pragmatism of my grandmother. Shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s as a teenager and young adult, she didn’t believe in wasting anything. She taught me how to skin and butcher road-killed deer. She ardently believed in recycling and reusing materials and refinishing old furniture. I doubt that Grandma ever dug in a grocery store dumpster, but one of our favorite pastimes together was going to the town dump to dig through everyone else’s garbage for treasures to bring home.
The individual town dumps around here have all been shut down since then and replaced with big dumpsters that are hauled to a regional landfill, but the principal is the same. I stop and check the county dumpsters any time I have an excuse to drive by one. Every year I haul home hundreds of dollars worth of good lumber, insulation, PVC plumbing, garden hoses for my irrigation system, fence posts and wire, bales of straw and hay for mulch, uprooted flowers, free firewood, cleaning supplies, as well as scrap metal for recycling.

“By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center.”

Part of my interest in dumpster diving stems from my interest in sensible resource management and policy. Copper, for example, is quickly becoming a precious metal as demand soars and resources dwindle. Every electrical cord tossed in the dumpster effectively makes copper more scarce and raises the cost we all pay for new copper wiring and plumbing. By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center. By recycling assorted scrap copper, brass, aluminum, and scrap iron, I earned more than $500 last year – and only engaged in the hobby when I happened to be driving by a dumpster anyway. Add in the value of free food from grocery store dumpsters and the building materials obtained from scrap piles at local factories, and my total take in freebies adds up to thousands of dollars per year. By being thrifty, I have managed to live a successful and prosperous life, without being dependent on a regular job. And although I may be a packrat, I am also a neat freak, so I actually put all those treasures to use. Frankly, I think my thriftiness would look pretty dang good on a political resume, and if I were ever elected to office, I would definitely be serious about cutting costs and waste.

These hoses and soaker hoses found in a dumpster were mostly new or only needed simple repairs.

Implementing an effective recycling program is definitely a bigger challenge in rural areas than in cities. Collecting the recyclables is only one challenge. Shipping recyclables hundreds of miles to a processing center is another. The gas and labor can far exceed the value of the recycled materials. Therefore, recycling rates are typically much higher in urban areas. San Francisco, for example, achieved a record-breaking 77 percent diversion rate by 2010, diverting that much of the city’s trash to recycling, composting and re-use – all while saving money and creating local jobs.

Bread baked from bagel dough scavenged from a bakery dumpster.

Our local recycling rate might be closer to 7 percent. We do have recycle bins for such things as aluminum and tin cans, scrap metal, glass jars, and mixed paper. Yet many people drive right past the bins to throw their recyclables in the dumpster. Tragically and comically, some people even sort their recyclables before tossing them out with the trash. It is not uncommon to find a whole garbage bag full of nothing but beer cans, as if the drinker wants to recycle, but doesn’t quite have enough brain cells left to figure it out!
Insofar as policy goes, what I have learned from digging in dumpsters is that most people are basically brain dead and utterly unaware of resource issues and depletion. Sorting cans, bottles, and plastic requires too much thought and effort. Sadly, most people are willing to use up everything on the planet in this generation and leave nothing for the next. It would take a huge rise in social consciousness to significantly boost recycling rates around here. It might be far more simple to mandate that all plastic or paper food packaging sold here be manufactured from 100 percent compostable and biodegradable materials. Instead of asking people to sort out seven different types of plastic for example, they could just brainlessly discard the packaging with their food waste, and yet it would all be compostable. People would still need to learn to separate out cans and glass bottles, but less is definitely more attainable. We could conceivably reach a point where most of our trash is composted and then screened afterwards to separate out any remaining garbage. I also wonder if it would be sensible to employ minimum security prison inmates to help dismantle electronic waste for recycling. It is something to consider.

“I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources.”

As far as food waste goes, I don’t believe in penalties, rules, and regulations. Yes, it seems like a crime for grocery stores to discard perfectly good food when good citizens are going hungry. But rather than penalize them, it would be better to create a competition to see which stores can donate the most food to food banks and to publicly acknowledge and reward them for their actions.
I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources. I might even tell the viewer that they are brain dead if they can’t separate out their recyclables from their trash. I’m just not sure if I could really get elected that way. What do you think? Would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

Interesting Stuff? Dumpster diving is included in the culture and curriculum at Thomas J. Elpel’s Green University® LLC. Learn more about Tom’s efforts to create a better world at www.Elpel.info.

Also be sure to watch this news clip about the growing popularity of dumpster diving:

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Filed under Autobiographical, Conservation, Economics, Politics, Recycling, Sustainability

Work versus Play

Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?

      I love my work. I’ve had a passion to make a positive difference in the world since I was a child. The schism between economics and the environment was a particularly compelling issue to me. I often watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and there was a constant debate between the need for jobs versus the need to protect the environment. I wanted to help. I wanted to know if it were possible to create a sustainable civilization. I wanted to know how to do it, and I wanted to come up with a plan to help get us there. It was my singular mission in life, and for a while, I thought I had it all figured out.

      Creating a quasi-sustainable lifestyle was the easy part. I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck in a job because I had too many dreams to live, and my own mission seemed too important. I theorized that a good path to success would be to save up a small nest egg, waste nothing, and build a low-cost solar home on cash, to avoid paying monthly expenses such as rent, a mortgage, a big utility bill, or college loans. Then I would have a secure home base and the freedom to focus on the mission.

      Although it took a few years longer than anticipated, the theory largely worked. I found a partner in high school, got married, and saved up a small nest egg. We bought land, moved into a tent, and built the American Dream for about the cost of a new car. We eventually added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, zeroing out our already meager utility bill. It also looked really good on my resume. I figured that I could really change the world if I could just build up a sufficient resume to get into politics and have a platform to speak to the American public.

      It is not so much that we need a bunch of new regulations and red tape to tell people what they can and cannot do. I do have the aptitude and attention to be a good policy wonk, to get into the details of good legislation. But that’s not where change happens. Change happens when individual Americans get a new idea and run with it. As I saw it, my “job” was to introduce new ideas, new memes, to the general public, to illustrate potential paths to sustainability. Politics offered the promise of regular airtime on the microphone to get the message out.

      I focused on my writing to better flesh out cutting edge ideas about building sustainable homes, connecting with nature, prospering in the green economy, and reflecting on our place in the universe. I liked to imagine that getting into politics would be a good way to market my books, and I could invest any income in further making the world a better place.

      But in order to be a serious political candidate, I would need more than just a pretty house and a few books on my resume. I also needed business and leadership credentials, and I had about fifty different green businesses and products that I wanted to launch. I wanted to demonstrate green prosperity, that it is possible to make a living while making the world a better place.

      A logical next step was to start a publishing company and print my own books on fully recycled paper. From there it was natural to start a retail bookstore and sell my own titles and other quality books and products. In addition, I was already teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills part time, which expanded into separate programs for youth and adults. I started a nonprofit organization to promote conservation and recreation on our local Jefferson River. I also built a couple more houses to refine my theories and designs on low-cost solar construction, with the hope of eventually starting my own construction company. I was continually looking for partners to help launch some of my other business concepts as well. With half a dozen different careers, I was spread too thin to give any one area the required attention, but I managed to keep them all moving forward a little bit at a time. It all looked good on my resume, and I thought I might be minimally qualified to try my hand at politics.

      The other thing on every politician’s resume is family. For better or worse, a politician is judged by his personal life, and I was acutely aware of that with my wife and kids from the very beginning. For example, I genuinely wanted to raise children, and I felt that I had a lot to offer. I felt like I was making a positive difference in the world when we adopted our first three children and later had a baby. My love for them was and is sincere. In addition, I was equally aware that my family looked really good on my resume. Indeed, my family represented everything I believed in and worked for. I can think of at least two other couples who were likely inspired to adopt because of our experience, and I hoped to inspire many more as a public figure.

      Through twenty years of marriage I tried to win my wife’s support for a political career. But she never wanted a public life, never wanted anyone to know we existed, and objected to my efforts to market my books. With these issues, and our very different emotional needs, our marriage eventually crumbled and our family fell apart. I not only lost any chance of launching a political career in any foreseeable future, I also lost the one thing I believed in promoting most of all – family. For the first time in my life, my focus shifted from the world’s problems to my own, as I have struggled to resolve the past and mend broken relationships with my children.

      Fortunately, the last couple years have been really good to me. I have a new love, and she understands me in a way my ex never did. We laugh, growl, and play a lot, which is a completely new experience to me. The transition has been hard on the kids, and my relationship with my older daughters remains rocky, but my relationship with my younger boys is better than ever. We go on some great adventures together, such as canoeing and carp hunting. We are currently building a small castle for my youngest son, Edwin. He and I are both taking fencing lessons. We have a lot of great battles. And while my political career hangs in limbo for the foreseeable future, I am enjoying indulging in my hobbies. I am currently writing a book about foraging wild foods, and I could easily spend the next ten years just writing about things that interest me.

      But with the present state of the world, I often feel like we are merely dancing on the decks of the Titanic, steaming towards an iceberg as if we are invincible. Dancing is good for the soul, yet I wouldn’t count on it altering the course of the ship.

      I hear the call of duty, and I know that for our children’s sake we must make an all-out effort to create a sustainable civilization now, not later. I sincerely believe that I have the skills and aptitude to make a significant positive difference in the world, and yet, I am merely hanging out, playing games, and having fun.

      My ex and I were fortunate in that we owned two houses, two business, and two cars to ease the pain of splitting the estate. However, I am definitely rebuilding my personal life, my businesses, and my resume, and I feel that I am a long ways from being ready to enter politics. Strangely, I find myself in less of a hurry now than before, if only because I see little choice but to take time out and find footing again. Yet the need is greater than ever before.

      The Titanic was considered unsinkable, and that is our attitude today as a nation. We are steaming along as if we can just ram through whatever lay in our path. But the iceberg I could see ahead of us as a child seems to loom overhead today. The captain is off taking a break, and nobody seems particularly interested or qualified to take the helm and steer us in a new direction. I would gladly do my duty and serve my country in any way possible if I had the opportunity. I’m just not sure I can rebuild my resume in time to do any good.

      It is possible, and perhaps likely, that I will never accomplish the mission that called to me since childhood. I gave the mission everything I had for thirty years, and I feel as though I am now starting all over. But if the iceberg is unavoidable, and nobody else takes the leadership to do anything about it, then at the very least, I intend to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. I will be dancing on the decks of the Titanic with everyone else. It is not my preferred choice, yet for the moment, it seems to be my only choice.

      If you, however, want to change the future, if you want to work together to chart a new course and a new destiny, then by all means, speak up. Let’s talk. Let’s make a plan, let’s make a difference, and let’s do it before we run out of time.

Thomas J. Elpel
June 15, 2012


Mr. Elpel,

Today I was offered, and I accepted a job as a research assistant for a Canadian politician. Before being informed about the interview this last week, I was certain I would be on my way to Montana come end of October. That said, I won’t be joining you this November for an internship.

I want to thank you for taking the time to write back to me so quickly and with such detailed information. I recognize that you’re likely very busy with e-mail and writing and work etc. I’d like to express my appreciation for you taking the time to communicate.

In your article ‘Work versus Play: Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?’ you say you feel like we’re ‘dancing on the decks of the Titanic’. I can’t tell you how much and how often I think similar thoughts – whether it is even possible to change the world or if our actions are ultimately futile, simply wasted energy in the big picture. This has been a big part of my thought process and has resulted in a contemplation of two major life paths:

1) Keep on dancing on the decks! Prepare myself and those close to me for coming change, but make little attempt to influence others’ lifestyles and actions. The ship is sinking anyways, might as well have fun, or as Joseph Campbell says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”

OR

2) Try my damnedest to make as big of an impact as I possibly can – fight the good fight and hope that our tribes’ collective actions will be successful. Heed Margaret Mead’s advice, “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I have not concluded which, if either, choice is valid / correct. For now, option 2 seems to be the better for emotional and spiritual well-being. At least here there’s a place for hope.

I’d like you to know I’m all-in for option 2. Hopefully my new job will allow me to have influence on major decisions, in large or infinitesimally small ways. It will also help me, should I decide to run for office at some point.

I feel compelled to tell you all this to let you know that I’m on board to make a difference. I hope to keep in contact, and have no doubt that I will come to intern with you or participate in one of your workshops in the future.

All the Best,

Dustin

P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Participating in Nature. While reading your narratives and learning about your philosophy, I felt like I was reading a much clearer, more organized and focused version of some of my own thoughts and ideas. Thank you for sharing and showing me and others like me that we’re not alone.

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Governor Wannabe

"It is an interesting contradiction to have the absolute confidence that I could change the world, while on the other hand, being too shy and socially awkward to walk through the halls at high school."

As a teenager and young adult, I was never interested in hot rod cars, loud speakers, getting wasted, or hanging out at the mall with a pack of friends and doing nothing. Instead, I had a passion for botany, wilderness survival, sustainable living, and getting into politics and changing the world.

Physically, I spent most of my youth identifying flowers, hiking and camping, and practicing my survival skills. Mentally, I was seriously distracted by a nonstop inner dialogue about pertinent social, economic, and environmental issues. I developed an early appreciation for holistic thinking and the idea that there was a win-win-win solution to every problem – we didn’t have to give up jobs to save the environment, we didn’t have to sacrifice quality of life to live sustainably. Although the media always seemed to frame issues as this-against-that, I found that there were typically third alternatives – options that would enable us to build a clean and green society, one that made people both richer and freer.

I hiked miles and miles through the mountains, exploring my backyard, while processing ideas such as low-cost, high efficiency house construction, sustainable farming practices, launching green businesses, holistic management, foreign policy, reducing the national deficit, designing more fuel-efficient cars, biogas plants and swamp filters for treating city sewage, revamping the educational system, and on and on…

I wanted to change the world, but I was just a kid with a lot of big ideas and no credentials. If anyone were to ever listen to me, first I needed to walk the talk and demonstrate that living green was indeed the path to prosperity. But to do that, I needed a partner.

It is an interesting contradiction to have the absolute confidence that I could change the world, while on the other hand, being too shy and socially awkward to walk through the halls at high school.  If the weather permitted, I walked from class to class around the outside of the building. At lunch, I sat at a table for other social misfits who had nowhere else to sit, and there met my first love. Being a holistic thinker, I believed that any relationship could be made to work; I just needed a partner who believed in me.

Together, we built an epic story. We walked across Montana, then returned home, got married, bought land, moved into a tent, and built the house of our dreams on a shoestring budget.  We avoided the mortgage trap and the job trap, not by earning a lot of money, but by avoiding the need for it in the first place. Although we were poor by any reasonable standards, we had few expenses, so we went on exciting wilderness adventures, and we installed a photovoltaic system to produce all of our electricity from sunshine. It wasn’t that difficult to do.

Along the way, we started a family, I wrote books and produced videos, taught survival skills, built my own publishing company, bought a business and started a bookstore, and founded the nonprofit Jefferson River Canoe Trail.  I built houses, testing out energy-efficient design concepts and alternative methods and materials.  I bought a diesel truck and attempted producing my own biodiesel from waste French fry grease from restaurants. I launched our fledgling Green University® LLC and began to explore an alternative approach to higher education, mentoring young people in sustainable living and green business development.

The inner dialogue never shut off in my head, and I never wavered in my belief that I could change the world. I built up a resume that, while sparse in some areas, was at least minimally adequate to launch a political career and run for governor of Montana. The one thing I still needed was the support of my partner.

From the beginning, my marriage was predicated on the belief that there was a win-win solution to any issue.  No two people will agree on everything, but there is always a workable solution if both parties are willing to consider all the alternatives. That belief held my marriage together for nearly twenty-one years, despite our differences.

I wanted to change the world. I felt compelled to help create a sustainable civilization for the next generation. My wife just wanted to raise our family and live our lives. I wanted a public life. She didn’t want anyone to know we existed. I wanted to pounce on her and play and wrestle. She wanted me to sit still and talk. On the one hand, we got along great as friends, we seldom fought, and we were together 24/7 for most of our marriage. And yet, we never resolved our differences, and we never bridged the emotional divide between us.

My marriage was sustainable as long as I believed we could ultimately resolve our differences. It just took me twenty-one years to admit defeat.  I experienced the last three of those years as a string of chronic panic attacks at the prospect of ending my marriage, breaking up our family, and losing everything I had ever believed in, worked for, and in a sense, campaigned for.

As I start over with a new life and a new relationship, I find myself optimistic at times, but also greatly shaken.  Emotionally, losing everything shook me into rubble.  I lack the inner confidence I always had – that I could change the world, that I could learn or do whatever was necessary to accomplish that mission, even stretching far beyond my otherwise quiet and introverted self.

Challenges that once seemed easy, now often seem insurmountable. Rebuilding my personal life, my enterprises, and my resume often seems like too much work and too much trouble, and I don’t presently have the emotional spine necessary to endure a political life. More than anything, my outlook is darker, as for the first time in my life, I have acknowledged that some problems have no winnable solutions.

By any reasonable measure, I could be immensely successful if I would just focus on any one topic and make a career out of it, as most normal people do. I am sufficiently well-versed in at least a dozen different subject areas, any one of which could become a full-time career. And yet, there is nothing that I am willing to give up, and so I find myself stumbling along, scattered in so many different directions that sometimes I feel ineffective at accomplishing anything.

More than anything, there is still that inexorable pull to keep flowing in the same direction that I always have. Working to make a difference in the world is the only vision I have known since childhood. It is this big dream of changing the world that inspires me, and nothing less seems worth working for. Trying to look at the bright side, losing my marriage has at least made me a little more human, and I can better relate to other people and their circumstances.

I don’t know if I will ever run for governor, but at least I may run for a local house or senate seat and see what happens. In the meantime, I have started this blog to begin articulating my resume and vision – if not for the reader, than at least for myself, as part of the process of getting back on my feet and starting over. Or, maybe I am just getting eccentric at an early age, and I can spend the rest of my life pretending to be governor.

If you like what you see on my websites, and want to be part of it, then please ask away. Being introverted and solitary by nature, I have often tried to do it all myself – everything from writing or filming, editing and formatting, publishing, marketing, and often packing and shipping my own books and videos, to handwriting all of my own HTML, to designing and building my own solar water heaters and developing new construction techniques.  I have tried to be an institution unto myself, seriously understaffed and underfunded for the scale of the projects I undertake. Thus, I am seeking partners who want to make a difference in the world, anyone who thinks we might have even one thing in common and wants to work together to make it happen. Drop me a note. Let’s see where it goes. [Read More…]

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