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Blair Pollock: Stories that inspire

August 9, 2013 

Blair Pollock

This is a time when we need inspiration.

The world feels like it’s going backwards under our state’s new brand of politics, from the encouragement to arm ourselves to the teeth at all times to the total denigration of our public schools and university system to the denial of sea level rise, voting rights and health care.

Lyle Estill’s new book “Small Stories, Big Changes” (New Society Publishers 2013) provides a dose of optimism through the stories of people who have led environmental change or been change agents. A disclaimer – I wrote one of those chapters at Lyle’s request, but mine is far from the most interesting story.

Eight of the 14 authors are local, and you’ll know a lot of their names – along with me are Elaine Chiosso, long time director of the Haw River Assembly; Eric Henry, the organic T-shirt guy; Rebekah Hren, solar engineer, author and urban pioneer; Gary Phillips preacher, auctioneer and all-around-activist; Tim Toben, one of the developers of Greenbridge; Megan Toben, founder of Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute; and Anne Tazewell, North Carolina’s purveyor of alternate transportation fuels. Lyle, being the peripatetic, persuasive guy he is, also convinced Bryan Welch, owner of Mother Earth News; his brother Glen; daughter Jessalyn and three others to contribute. We each got paid 10 books.

The loose theme of the book is that we are a collection of agents of environmental change; the fascinating part is the alchemy in the stories that brought each of us to the work we’ve done.

I like David Orr’s language in the Forward where he likens our collective evolution to a quadratic equation, saying, “you have to get each part right to arrive at the correct answer. The parts in this case include the core idea ... combined with the spirit, which is the force behind the idea, plus the help of a few believers, supporters and friends ... and last is the stubborn refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer. And then there is the mystery no one understands, the emergent properties that come into play when the Universe works in one’s favor.’

For me the most wrenching and powerful story is Tim Toben’s simply entitled “Greenbridge.” No matter what else Tim does in this life, he will be known for building the first environmentally efficient high rise and going broke doing it. While he did go bankrupt, he also found his heart, as he eloquently and forthrightly put it. After having built and sold a $175 million company whose profits helped finance Greenbridge, Tim now concludes, “green capitalism was not the solution to the ecological and social crises facing the world. Our form of capitalism was in fact, the central problem.” His and wife Megan’s solution is striving for eco-system restoration.

Twists and turns

There were lots of surprises in the book too. Anne Tazewell’s intense family-based saga of having a largely absent father who was first a CIA spy then an agent for bringing cheap Middle East oil to the U.S. for large profits was certainly a secret from me. Now, not so ironically Dr. Freud, his daughter is also influencing what the world drives and where they get the fuel to do it.

Rebekah Hren has designed and installed some of the largest solar photovoltaic arrays in the state and is a nationally known expert, teacher and speaker on solar and electrical code. Her terse, funny chapter is filled with the constant questioning hence its title, “More Questions than Answers.” She and first husband Steve built a “zero-carbon” house in central Durham and in their book about it “The Carbon-Free Home” they modeled the absolutes in what our low-carbon future might look like, but she constantly brings a philosophical and personal humor to her journey saying at the start, “This chapter leans more towards a crisis of faith, towards doubters in need of companionship, towards the weary and wondering.” After a brief narrative of her adventurous life in the sustainability arena in which she questions each seemingly eco-responsible decision she’s made, Rebekah ends with her own solution, “So I’m going to lie here on the beach, go whale watching, day dream, enjoy the moment, think about the beauty still left in the world.”

Gary Phillips’ chapter wins my prize for best writing , no surprise coming from this poet and man of the cloth who’s also a favorite local auctioneer. Gary’s a braver soul than I’ve ever been in the struggle; his foray into Chatham politics having led to threats against him and being told by the local Ruritan Club, when running for re election in 2002, “Gary we can’t vote for you this time because you just don’t know how to act like a white man.” His discourse on his family, particularly his grandmothers Lily and Etta, is so finely wrought that you want to know them and yet in less than one page you do.

There are 10 more stories of individuals who have tried for years to make some difference in our world. Lyle’s humorous insightful introductions to each are a joy to read in themselves. True to his slogan, ‘better self-promotion than self -deception,” Lyle has lined up a series of book talks, reading and salons up and down the eastern U.S. to promote this, his fourth book. Perhaps we’ll see you at Fearrington Barn at 2 p.m. today, Aug. 11, or Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Aug. 29. See more on and you can contribute your story there.

Blair Pollock can be reached at

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