Jan 11, 2023
One Super-Cool Writer in Love with the Land
Sometimes, there’s a man, and sometimes, well, there’s a man who holds such deep mystery in his eyes, you just have to dig in and get to know him. That’s the case with creative, travel, and permaculture writer Jonathon Engels.
Having graduated with Jonathan back in the Nineties, I thought I knew where he was headed in his life, which, having briefly known him like I did, I was certain was towards something technical, even though I was aware he had creative interests and abilities. But, he proved me (and I’m sure plenty of others) wrong by moving on to secure a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, then on to embark on a hefty career abroad traveling, teaching English as a foreign language, and writing about it all.
Engels is from a suburb outside of Baton Rouge, La. He started out writing poetry at an early age, then developed an interest in writing fiction and playing music in his late teens in the Nineties. By his late 20s, he was tinkering with nonfiction in the form of travel writing and by 2014, he was focused on permaculture and on sharing his wealth of knowledge and worldly experience from a personal perspective.
In speaking about his year teaching abroad, he said, “That adventure led me to write about the world I was discovering. I started getting published as a travel writer first (in 2011), became a staff writer for One Green Planet and Permaculture News (in 2013), and expanded from there.”
Today, Jonathon is back living in the States and has been busy with his wife, Emma, building their homestead, which is made predominantly out of recycled materials in a wholesome effort to become one with the land.
He stays busy writing non-fiction articles and essays that are so insightful, educational, humble, and direct, it’s as though you’re right there with him experiencing what he’s talking about or he’s with you as you’re reading. His words are a gentle guide through certain necessary human processes, of which we should all be more aware.
Engles hooks you with his writing, drops you right in the middle of what he’s talking about, and presents you with something more than just a story to read; he presents you with an undeniably human truth worthy of consideration. He guides readers through the depths of each journey to ensure you stay on track and, most importantly, have an enjoyable ride. His candid use of humor reminds you not to take yourself or what you’re doing so seriously that you miss the beauty of life unfolding right before your eyes.
Jonathon kindly took some precious time away from his land and work to chat with me about how he fell into this path, where he has been, what he has written, and what he’s up to today. I highly recommend checking out his work, especially if you are interested in or are considering traveling abroad, learning how to live as one with this great land, and writing about it.
MaM: How did you foster your creative talents?
JE: I wrote poetry here and there when I was a young teen, but when I started going to college (Louisiana State University), it just exploded. I wrote constantly, mostly out of a need to do it rather than a fine-tuning of a craft. I experimented a lot in the form. [I] still do when I occasionally attempt writing poems. Prose became my main concentration in graduate school (U of Memphis) when my sensibilities didn’t quite mesh with the poetry crowd there. I concentrated on fiction, again playing with form a lot, exploring different ways to piece a story together.
Engels is also a musician—a guitarist, to be exact, which no doubt fosters his creative abilities and has been a source of release and entertainment over the years.
JE: I’ve played music a lot on porches with friends. Mostly, I play guitar and sing. I played regularly at a bar/coffee shop when I was at LSU. I [also] worked at a guesthouse off and on for years in Guatemala and played a lot while there, often entertaining guests and occasionally plugging in for shows on weekends. I’ve never really tried to do it professionally or even develop my skills to that level. I like to play and sing and have a laugh with it. I also have ukulele, which I mostly play when someone else is playing guitar and singing in order to add a different sound to the mix. I have a picked a banjo from time to time, but I don’t [own] one.
MaM: Do your write your own songs?
JE: I’ve done it but didn’t feel that I was particularly good at it. So, mostly I just play music from artists that I like: Tom Waits, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bob Dylan, Devil Makes Three, The Band, etc.
MaM: Are you playing anywhere?
JE: Just at home and with friends.
Some friends have encouraged me to do an open-mic night in town, but I’ve not as of yet.
MaM: Take us through your time abroad and how life began to unfold for you as a writer.
JE: Travel writing began when I lived in Korea (2005-2008), working as an EFL teacher. From there, I traveled and worked abroad for another 10 years. It seemed natural to write about my adventures, and it gave me the plot I always struggled to find when writing fiction. Though it started as a creative pursuit, my travel writing is now sometimes practical (for which I get paid) and sometimes creative (for which I get to say I’m literary and receive no money).
The travel stuff morphed into more non-fiction avenues when I found opportunities to write for One Green Planet, a vegan/environmental website, and Permaculture News, a permaculture site. I’ve also written text for permaculture courses. These two outlets, as well as Green Global Travel, Transitions Abroad, and Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide, are how I’ve made a modest amount of money writing. Even so, I have continued to seek out avenues to be creative. I did some of that on Permaculture News, and I’m on the masthead of Panorama, a literary travel journal. I write a minimum of 12-15 articles/stories a month and have done so for about 10 years now.
Permaculture became a daily part of life during a work-trade trip from Guatemala to, though we never reached it, Patagonia. My wife Emma and I spent about four years traveling around Latin America and Spain trading labor and knowledge for room and board. We also did quite a lot of volunteer work.
Now, I live on a permaculture homestead, which means I practice it every day. We built our off-grid home ourselves, maintain a big garden and orchard, and both write about permaculture topics for One Green Planet. We also grow organic vegetable and flower gardens for a living, as well as volunteer doing it at a community music school in our nearest town: Elkin, N.C.
MaM: That’s cool, man—both of you doing what you love together, then writing about it for others to absorb. Take us through your journey that led to a writing degree, multiple publishings, and a life rich in travel and culture.
JE: I started LSU as a chemical engineering major because I’d been a good math student in high school, and my father was an engineer at Exxon. By the second semester, I was skipping Physics and Chemistry classes to go bowling, and Calculus had bowled me over. I wrote poetry all the time on my own time, so I started taking more writing and English classes. I switched my degree to English and that was that.
[From there] I went to graduate school in Memphis. I moved there, got a job waiting tables, and applied to the University of Memphis the next year. Luckily, they took me. After I got an MFA in Creative Writing, I decided to teach for a year abroad. That turned into over a decade abroad. That adventure led me to write about the world I was discovering.
MaM: Any creative writings currently in the works?
JE: Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature published a piece at the end of November [last year]. I wrote it in September-October while I was in England. It’s about an experience in Guatemala. The journal, which I’ve written a few things for, went on hiatus for a couple of years, and this is the relaunch issue.
[Click the image below to read Jonathon's story.]
Otherwise, I still write (practical stuff) for One Green Planet every week, as well as a website called Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide. Neither of these are creative work, but they keep me busy and leave little space for other writing.
MaM: Tell us about some of the creative works you’ve written and where they are published.
JE: Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature:
- There’s No Place – about finding a home after living out of a backpack for about 12 years. Published by Panorama.
- From Texas to Turkey and Back Once More – about my father coming to visit me in Istanbul while I was teaching there. Won 2nd place in Expatriate Writing Contest on Transitions Abroad.
- Living the Homesteader Dream: Everything Works Out, and Works, Kind of” – about the woes of off-grid living. Published on Permaculture News.
I was a featured author in a print journal called Poiesis Review. The issue (#7) has five of my stories, including “5 Miscues in Packing: Hard-Earned, Largely Ignored Advice from a Vagabond,” “The Bibimbap Man,” “The Other Side of Texas,” “10½ Lessons in Misadventure Travel,” and “On Motorcycles with Milkshakes.” I’d actually submitted these to a different publication, “Go Read Your Lunch,” and through some connection, the stories got passed over to Poiesis. The editor contacted me wanting to do the featured author thing. Dumb luck.
“Go Read Your Lunch” did publish one piece: Another Cup of Tea: A Personal Survival Guide to England. It’s about my first trip to England with my British wife Emma, and that involved a lot of having to pee because of the overabundance of tea and being unable to find a public restroom anywhere in the country.
MaM: Let’s talk about permaculture. Dish about it and your specific approach and why.
JE: Permaculture is a way of designing human habitats and habits, from personal spaces to communities, so that we work in harmony with nature, each benefiting the other. Most people, including me, come to it via gardening, but it is much more involved than that. It includes how we build homes to fit our surroundings, how we collect and distribute water, get/use power, interact with others, and more. To truly practice permaculture is life-altering, much more than putting in a raised bed garden, with which it is often confused.
My approach to permaculture has been to use what’s around as opposed to buying in new materials. For example, we dismantled a shed and [some] two-hundred-year-old, dilapidated homes to get the lumber to build our house. We built our fencing from limbs and such that I scavenged from work when we had to clean up trees. The gardens are made from pond bottom that was excavated when digging our pond, and we have used leaves, hay, stones, wood, and so on that we’ve collected from various sources that had deemed them refuse. This has also been the case with many of the plants, particularly flowers, growing on the property. There is something rewarding and pure about doing it this way. It takes longer, but I feel it stays true to making a minimum, or even positive, impact on our immediate environment. Plus, the improvisational nature of using what’s there keeps the design process creative and innovative.
To some, this approach has seemed extreme at times, but there are many out there doing a much more thorough job of it. We did buy some new stuff, mostly because we had to in order to pass our building inspection.
MaM: What drew you to permaculture?
JE: I was volunteering on a farm/eco-hotel in Nicaragua. The owner turned me on to it. From there, I read some books, visited a few more farms, and started seeking it out. Within the year, I’d read a bunch of texts, was developing a property in Panama, and actually began writing articles for Permaculture News about what we were doing.
MaM: What has been and is your current relationship with the land?
JE: We are in love with each other.
*images provided by Jonathon Engels
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