Friday, December 5, 2008

Gardening Nude: Part One

I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting with Shawna Coronado. She's the author of Gardening Nude, and I recommend the book to everyone! We talked for a long time, and we have a long interview! So long in fact, that I will be posting it over two days. Get a cup of tea, snuggle in and enjoy the read and get to know Shawna Coronado.

Tell us a little about yourself.
Right now my family and I live in this beautiful little suburban town called Warrenville , Illinois . It is filled with all kinds of eccentric and wonderful individuals who I have grown to truly love. For example, across the street from our home is a grouchy old codger named Bill. Harry the Pug, our little dog and my “mascot” for the newspaper column and blog, is madly in love with Bill and tries to run across the street at every opportunity and drink a beer and have a cigarette (metaphorically) with our dear neighbor. Of course, Bill sneaks Harry bones whenever he can.

It is this type of crazy and wonderful relationship that made me realize how important being a part of a community is for my soul.

You were pretty sick for awhile, weren't you?

Over 10 years ago, before I started writing, I was very ill of health. A single Mom, I had endometriosis, combined with stress, lack of outdoor exposure, poor eating habits, severe allergies, high blood pressure, asthma, sugar and chemical sensitivities. All these things and many other pressures began to build in my life. Before I knew it I looked like a stick figure and weighed only 96 pounds. Worse yet, I had severe upper respiratory problems. I was always sick with bronchitis, stress triggered non-stop woman issues such as yeast and bacterial infections, and I frequently suffered migraines and head pain. My back would go out often so I would be left unable to walk for days or even a week at a time. I used to carry a heating pack with me to work every day. I worked and came home and rarely went out doors. At one point I took over a dozen prescriptions a day just to get survive.

What helped you get better?
During this time I was fortunate to meet my wonderful husband, Luis. He brought my daughter and I calmness, love, and support. Luis and I had a baby too, so now we had four. Before long we also adopted Harry the Pug and Kali-mazoo the Cat. We became a family. Happily, I began feeling better having a family community near me. We moved into our adorable tree-lined town and set up house. I still rarely got outdoors and often craved the farm where I grew up in Kokomo , Indiana . Then one day a surprising thing happened; I decided to actually step foot outside and build a garden on the city easement area around my front mail box. That was the beginning of an incredible journey for me both emotionally and physically.

Tell us about that "little garden".
Our new neighbors came out to greet me while I was building that garden. They told me, “you know… you can’t build that here. This is city property and they will come dig it up!” Not long thereafter a city truck came by and a city worker told me, “you know… you shouldn’t build that here, we can dig it up!” I listened, nodded, and smiled, then built it any way. Many years before I had run a small art firm and had been interested in plants and horticulture – I used my art to express my love for the natural world. Now I used plants and nature to express my creativity and artistic ideas. As I became exposed to the outdoors and increased my physical activity, I started feeling relief with all my health ailments. Better diet, exercise, and outdoor exposure was truly helping me to recover and feel as if I could live again. I became a fountain of information related to horticulture and started designing gardens for my neighbors and writing about gardening and greening in the local newspapers.

And yet, you had a setback. Talk about that please!
Tragically, Luis was laid off from work shortly after my youngest daughter was born, so I went back to the fast paced sales and marketing world, working long days to help support the family. Soon I had fallen off the health wagon. My old symptoms started going back – I was no longer working outside and practicing ways to reduce stress. Work started before dark and ended after dark. Family connections, community connections, and life in general seemed to fall away. I felt isolated and alone. Then the doctor told me I had severe anemia and he might have to give me blood transfusions. I realized I had to go back to an existence where stress and isolation – a condition many in the United States suffer from – would not smother me. One winter day after I had recovered from the anemia my boss asked me to work longer hours and there was only one thing I could do.

What did you do?

I walked off the job; it was the best thing I ever did.

Before long I was back on my health plan, started my own business doing landscape design and writing in the off-season. Essentially, I “down-sized” successfully and have been living a life that is still filled with life-stress and activity, but is now tolerable because I practice a healthier and greener lifestyle. Living this way helps me cope with stress better and in-turn it also helps my body tolerate my allergies and other conditions as well. I feel better and look better than I ever have – I’m thirty pounds heavier than I was ten years ago! It is still necessary for me to take prescriptions, but now I only take three per day instead of over a dozen.

I know you are a big believer in community and relationships. Give us an example.

I make time for the outdoors, which often means gardening since it is my love and passion. And this brings me back to what I was saying earlier about how building wacky relationships with wonderful people in my community helped me realize how important being a part of a community is for my soul – and for my readers souls. One of the gardens I have built is a community garden next to a popular bike path and walking sidewalk.

It is 120 feet long (see photo). While I dug up the grass to plant the garden, lots of my community stopped by to tell me what they thought. Mostly they said, “you know… you can’t build that here. This is city property and they will come dig it up!” The city workers got smart and realized I was not going to stop gardening – so they did not stop to talk about the issue. I listened, nodded, and smiled at the neighbors, then built it any way. Pretty soon I knew all those neighbors by name. And their dogs. And their kids. And their neighbors – neighbors would bring neighbors to come see my new garden and talk with me.

Cars would screech to a halt on the street that ran behind my “community garden” daily. Drivers yelled out their windows, “I love what you are doing!” Bicyclists of every age would shout as they rode by, “I love your garden.” Sweet old ladies would stop and hug me. Children became my friends. Crossing guards knew me by name. All of this amazed me – it is not a fabulously designed landscape creation, it is made up of donated plants because I did not have the money to buy them.

It is a garden built about and for the community. It is sloppy and overrun and filled with too many plants. Because of this garden, my community became more than my family and my little gardening mascot, Harry the Pug. That’s when I realized that having good health is not just about eating right and exercising, it is not just about exposure to the natural world, it is not just about practicing greening and conservation, it is about something more. Being mentally and physically healthy happens when you do the right thing both for yourself and for the community; giving to others is the icing on the proverbial cake.

What have you done to share this experience?

That moment is the moment I knew I had to write a book about this journey I lived. Imagine if others could be inspired to make a difference both for themselves and for others? I thought if I wrote a book that touched even one life the way my garden had touched hundreds, then I know this would be my destiny. It became my passion to bring community together and to teach people that it is possible to be energetic, healthy, and to live a life which is good for the environment and the world. It is possible to be less stressed, less isolated and more satisfied with who you are and the life you are living.

I know because my family and I are happily living it. The green life.
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