Working From the Heart

by Marta Mulholland

I am consistently humbled by the generosity of energy and spirit that people bring to volunteer work.

This was evidenced in full when I received a call in July from Jeanne Jackson (JJ) McMinds, a Whidbey Institute friend and advisor for our Forest Stewardship Plan. She had been on the land a few days earlier and had helped work on a process called Shou Sugi Ban (or Yakisugi), “an ancient Japanese exterior siding technique that preserves wood by charring it with fire. The process involves charring the wood, cooling it, cleaning it, and finishing it with a natural oil.” (

These charred boards would be part of the new Commons building and I had just learned that instead of a few months to get the Shou Sugi Ban process finished, we now had a few weeks. 

“I can come up this weekend,” she said, “and bring my friend Brett to help you with the Shou Sugi Ban.” 

I was so grateful, but worried because we were not able to offer lodging on the land. JJ lives south of Seattle, and I was also thinking of the weekend ferry lines and hassle. By the time we talked again, JJ had taken care of all the details herself, securing lodging elsewhere. She and Brett Black were all set to come up the next evening so they could be ready for an early start on Saturday. 

I hoped that the three of us would be able to get 15 or maybe 20 boards done. Well, they didn’t mess around, stopping only for lunch and an occasional swig of water! (It was the heat of July, mind you—and we were working with open flames, constantly soaking the surrounding lawn to ensure fire safety.) After 6 hours, we had finished 30 boards. JJ and Brett burned wood nonstop, while I went in and out on project-related errands throughout the day. 

Covered with black dust and sweat, JJ cheerfully announced that they would be happy to come back the next morning to continue on if I wasn’t able to make it. I was so surprised, I stumbled over my words—then got out, “Of course I’ll join you!”

By the end of Sunday, we had finished 35 more boards—the whole pile! What I thought was going to take multiple work parties with multiple people, had taken one weekend with two dedicated and determined volunteers who were working from their hearts.

We didn’t just complete the Shou Sugi Ban process on 65 boards. More importantly, we talked, laughed, connected, and built relationship while we worked together, creating a collaboration unique to the three of us.

We had a multi-national team working on this project. I’m grateful to JJ and Brett, as well as Joel Shrut, with whom I learned the process, Ray from Jade Craftsman Builders who taught Joel and me, staff member Cathy Buller who oiled many of the boards, and other volunteers who jumped in with curiosity and enthusiasm! Together we completed the Shou Sugi Ban process on 85 boards which have become a stunning addition to our new Commons building.

Click below to view a photo gallery.

September 22, 2021