The photos are quality, the writing is quality, the idea is quality; this is
a book we should publish, but were not going to.
Thats how Jan Reynolds describes the response she got from an executive at
Scholastic, a top childrens book publisher, when she tried about 10 years
ago to pitch a book about sustainable farming.
I dont know if people are going to get it; I dont think we can make money on
this book, the executive told Reynolds.
The book, Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life; A Story of Sustainable Farming, is
about rice farming in Bali, Indonesia. After finally going into print this
spring, it won the coveted Parents Choice Award.
The book shows how farmers on the Pacific island have shared limited
resources to create an environmentally sustainable, organic and thriving
rice harvest for thousands of years and how modernity and so-called
improved technologies, almost derailed the delicate system.
Reynolds, 53, lives in Stowe with her husband and two sons. She has traveled
the world, has lived with indigenous peoples, has made record-setting treks
on skis and in hot air balloons, and her writing and photographs have
appeared in the likes of National Geographic, The New York Times, and
Outside Magazine. She has also written several childrens books, which aim to
teach the next generation about other people, places and cultures.
To her knowledge, Cycle of Rice is the first childrens book with the word
sustainable: in the title. Where 10 years ago, publishing houses wouldnt
touch it, this year Scholastic and others were rushing to get Reynolds to
sign on the dotted line.
Lee Low Books Inc. won out, and published the book.
Since the 1990s, awareness about sustainability and environmental depletion
has certainly grown. When Reynolds described the concept of sustainability
to the Scholastic people a decade ago, an executive said, I sort of get it
like the New York City brownout?
Reynolds blames the Bush education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, for
putting U.S. children at a disadvantage on cultural and environmental
In my opinion, it left every child behind, Reynolds said. No one was
teaching environmental sustainability or cultural tolerance. There were no
environmental childrens books being published anymore; kids were not
learning about the outside world.
Reynolds credits Al Gores An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, for
bringing sustainability issues to the mainstream.
It broke up the logjam there was so much information that many people knew,
but it wasnt mainstream.
Not fair to the kids
During the 10 years Cycle of Rice was in limbo, Reynolds published it on the
Web, supported by a donation from the James Robison Foundation. All the
pictures and text could be projected from a computer in the classroom so
teachers could share the information with students.
Reynolds also goes to schools in New York, Boston and Vermont, talking about
sustainability and using the rice farmers of Bali as an example.
She also works with Stowe Elementary School children through the
Conservation Connections program she helped create, which gets students
planting, composting, taking water samples, promoting energy efficiency and
even building habitat for native creatures.
Reynolds believes a cultural shift away from materialism and mass
consumption must occur to put humans on a more environmentally sustainable
She thinks the next generation is key, and she wants to reach them while
they are still developing habits that will stick with them for a lifetime.
This needs to get out there. Its not fair to the kids, who have to rectify
the mistakes weve made, to not have something in their basic education to
prepare them for whats coming, she said. If we (Americans) are all dunces
about the environment and other cultures, thats dangerous for the world.
I was more free
Reynolds practices what she preaches. She bought and modified an old
Mercedes that runs on used cooking oil she gets from local restaurants; she
isnt afraid to dig in the Stowe Transfer Stations free room for a new coat;
she buys local food whenever possible.
I want to be an example for kids, she says.
Growing up in humble means, as one of seven children on a dairy farm in
Middlebury, had an enormous effect on Reynolds career and worldview.
She was always outdoors, had enormous freedom to explore when youre number
six of seven (siblings), no one knows where you are half the time and
learned quickly that you dont need a lot to be happy or stay entertained.
I was born curious, which trumps everything else; it trumps money, it trumps
status, she said of her rise to prominence as an adventurer. Growing up in a
basic setting and not having a lot made a huge difference. I was not
attached to material possessions or trappings; I was more free in a lot of
Reynolds went to the University of Vermont and was one of the first students
in its environmental studies program. She was a talented Nordic skier and
spent her sophomore year studying and skiing in Norway, her first trip
outside the United States.
When I got out of school, I had no idea what I wanted to become. I wasnt
shooting for anything specific, she said. I knew what I didnt want to do,
what I couldnt do.
She abhorred office work, and couldnt sit still or be inside for more than
So, after graduating from UVM, she taught cross-country skiing at Trapp
Family Lodge. There, she hooked up with a group of guys who taught skiing at
the lodge by winter and rock climbed at Yosemite National Park in summers.
They were keen adventurers and had lined up companies to sponsor
ice-climbing and skiing expeditions around the world.
Because she was a more talented skier and photographer than the others in
the group, and because she was one of the few woman doing adventure
exhibitions at the time, sponsors were happy to fund her trips.
Reynolds became the first women to traverse the Southern Alps of New
Zealand; she broke the high-altitude skiing record by climbing and skiing
down 25,000-foot Mt. Mustagata in China, and became the first person to
circumnavigate Mt. Everest.
Not to mention crossing the Sahara Desert by camel, a solo crossing of the
Himalayas, an attempted hot-air balloon trip over Mt. Everest, and a stint
on the U.S. biathlon team.
Reynolds is also a member of the University of Vermont Athletic Hall of Fame
and was inducted into the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame in 2008. This spring, UVM
gave her its Alumni Achievement Award.
Her easy nature helped her get on well with locals in remote corners of the
world, and she found a love of people and cultures.
The fact that she could shoot high-quality photos, write good prose and had
the physical skills to travel wherever was needed to get the story made her
a valuable free-lancer for National Geographic and other publications.
From there, she went on to write childrens books, including the series
Vanishing Cultures, in which she went to live with for months at a time with
indigenous people around the world. The books show children how other
cultures live and how people of all kinds and cultures share more
similarities than it seems.
We are all the same, and Ive been saying that same thing over and over in
all of my books, she said when asked what shes learned about people on her
travels. Its all the same. A wedding is a wedding is a wedding. People all
love their families; we all eat, drink, dance and celebrate. There has never
been a culture in the history of the world that didnt create art.
When children learn these facts like a photo of an African child in ritual
costume, juxtaposed with Reynolds own sons at Halloween you can see in
their eyes the shift in thinking.
Now, Reynolds wants to shift longstanding mindsets that threaten the health
of the planet. Like the rice farmers in Bali, she envisions a future where
people and the land work in unison to the benefit of all a society focused
on sustainability, not reckless consumption.
It is time for us to re-evaluate and make a few shifts in our thinking.
Is there still time?
Im an irrepressible optimist, Reynolds says. Too many times I thought races
were lost, yet hung on only to find everyone else had troubles, and not only
did I fare all right, I won.
And in the worlds highest peaks, there were times I thought we could be
goners, and an avalanche would suddenly shift course, we would manage to
climb ice like rock without any ice tools, and not peel off, or something
outrageously unbelievable would happen jet stream winds would abate just in
time for a quick summit bid.
So having these experiences makes me never say die, just carry on and we
just might be OK.
But we better start making ecological amends real darn quick.