Tribute to Jean English

1988: Jean English with daughter Saima. From “Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA.”
Jean English in 2006

By Heather Spalding

Another big MOFGA transition is upon us and we’ll all feel it in a big way. After 31 years editing MOFGA’s renowned newspaper, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener (The MOF&G), Jean English is adjusting her busy schedule, retiring from MOFGA’s staff, and looking forward to more time finding beauty in her gardens.

Whenever The MOF&G arrives in my mailbox or in the office, depending on where I see it first, I go right for Jean’s editorial. I know it’s going to move me – usually to a smile and a chuckle, always to reflection, and occasionally to tears. Jean does what great editors do, but it’s hard to imagine many editors who embrace such breadth and diversity of policy, programming, research and community news, and weave together common threads with such grace and hopeful spirit. Jean is a treasure, and her writing is one of MOFGA’s great fortunes.

Pam Bell preceded Jean as editor of The MOF&G, and, in her end-of-1988 swan song, she assured the MOFGA community that the paper was in very capable hands. Pam knew that Jean, who, for three years, had written MOF&G articles on trees, would “carry on the tradition of a high quality publication full of useful information and imbued with sensitivity and concern for living in harmony with the land.” Pam urged the broader community “not to forget to keep your love for the land and its people, and for your own self, alive in your heart.”

Jean set a tone for herself with her debut editorial on what Henry David Thoreau might have learned from Mainers Walter Staples (on saving heritage bean varieties, specifically Bert Goodwin) and Phyllis Havens (on the nutritional benefits of beans and greens). Jean showed her aplomb for weaving threads through time, space and dimension, connecting dots, and, occasionally poking fun of people (even legends like HDT) while exhibiting awe, reverence and a dash of humor. For more than three decades, Jean has held fast to all of Pam Bell’s good guidance, never wavering in the slightest.

MOFGA has maintained a leading role in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement far beyond Maine’s borders, and much of the organization’s success is attributable to the consistent reporting that Jean has managed through the years. From the beginning she has written about the challenges of industrial agriculture and the benefits of organic management practices, soil erosion, climate change, biodiversity, gardening tips, Maine’s farm demographics, cooking and nutrition, seed saving, adverse effects of pesticides, food access, environmental and agricultural justice, no till farming, genetically modified organisms, and the critical importance of supporting the local farm economy. Though the issues persist and, in many cases, have become even more urgent, MOFGA has made and strives to make positive inroads on all of them. Thank goodness for Jean’s editorial contributions and leadership through the years, as they have tied our work together and inspired tens of thousands of supporters to find their way into MOFGA’s big tent.

I have often wondered how Jean kept up the pace with editing so many publications and writing so many articles year after year. I think her endurance comes from regularly taking looks around to see what beauty in the world applies to her daily life, and linking that beauty to issues of global concern. Jean sees an eagle soaring overhead and gives silent thanks to Rachel Carson. She notices a monarch butterfly chrysalis in a stand of milkweed she encouraged, or some busy juncos sheltering under an arborvitae she planted near her house, and she considers the potential for returning developed land to wildlife habitat so that we may live in harmony with nature. Jean sees the flourishing black pussy willows and elderberry bushes in her yard and propagates cuttings from them to raise funds for communities in El Salvador that are resisting multi-national mining operations and turning their own success into a national ban on foreign mining interests. Jean says that catching bits of wisdom from nature nourishes us, as does catching bits of inspiration and encouragement from one another. Jean’s wisdom, inspiration and encouragement certainly have taken MOFGA a long, long way.

Did I mention that Jean really knows how to connect the dots? One fairbook editorial from about 20 years ago suggested that the G8 meetings should be held at the Common Ground Country Fair so that summit attendees could get a clue about what is really important to the world’s economic and environmental health. On the news item that people living near the location of the G-8 Summit in Genoa, Italy were not allowed to hang their laundry outside during the event, Jean noted that if the world’s laundry-sensitive politicians were to go on meeting and conniving as they had in Seattle, Quebec and Genoa, Robbins Inc of Searsmont could really expand its indoor/outdoor drying rack market – maybe even go global!

Jean’s humility and gentle nature compliment her amazing intellect and quick wit. She seeks information from all reaches of the organization, taking time to listen to farmers, gardeners, researchers, educators, policy makers, health professionals and so many other stakeholders. She approaches all with respect and an open heart and mind,  emphasizing that “knowledge and connections gained over the years are like those regular, valuable additions to soil health. Every seed, every garden, every farm, every cover crop and every compost pile counts.” Jean is an endless font of knowledge and she never fails to credit the source of her inspiration – so often MOFGA presentations and workshops. Jean can break down complicated themes and serve them back to us in a form that we can understand and apply to our daily lives. And she generally sprinkles in some entertaining analogies and fun facts for good measure, such as, “Did you know that it takes about 5,000 caterpillars to raise a single nest of chickadees?”

We couldn’t begin to count the number of MOFGA staff members, volunteers, farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and other members who feel fortunate to have known and worked closely with Jean through the years. And the connections and positive impacts go far beyond MOFGA, as the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram noted when they honored Jean with the 2019 Pollinator Award. In addition to her enormous editing responsibilities at MOFGA, Jean engages in the essential solidarity work of MOFGA’s El Salvador Sistering Committee, often hostly monthly pot-luck suppers at her home and helping coordinate logistics for the Annual Empty Bowl Supper fundraiser. She also has a leadership role representing MOFGA in the Waldo County Trails Coalition, and serves as a county adviser for the Waldo County fund of the Maine Community Foundation. We hope that Jean’s new schedule allows her to pursue lots of new and exciting projects and can’t wait to see how she connects the future dots.

We wish you many days of finding beauty in your gardens Jean, and we send our love and our deepest admiration, appreciation and respect for all that you have contributed to MOFGA through the years.

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