Julia Watkins ’98 has a lot going on. She’s got bread to bake, greens to harvest, food scraps to compost, radishes to ferment, sweaters to patch, herbs to dry, salves to make and children to feed.

It might sound like a lot for one person to keep up with – but, for the 267,000-plus people keeping up with Watkins and her low-waste, back-to-basics lifestyle Instagram account @simply.living.well,
it’s an inspiration. (Which, of course, means she also has photos to take and content to post.)

Julia Watkins Simply Living Well

Photo by Julia Watkins ’98

“I’m just not someone who can sit around,” says Watkins, who is also the creative director for Lookfar Conservation, the nonprofit she and her husband started in support of organizations in Africa and Latin America. “It might sound like I’m all over the place, but I’m always coming from a place of curiosity and reverence – so it never feels like too much. Doing what I care about is energizing and inspiring for me.”

After majoring in marine biology at the College, Watkins worked for an environmental education program at an academic camp before joining the Peace Corps and working in sustainable agriculture in a small village in Guinea, West Africa. She went on to earn her master’s in environmental management at Duke University and to work in natural resource management for a USAID contractor. It wasn’t until she started a family and moved to Chicago that things really started coming together in a way that brought her true joy.

Julia Watkins Simply Living Well Garden

Photo by Julia Watkins ’98

“I started figuring out how to use my academic education in my personal life,” says Watkins, who stayed home with her children, fostering in them a “relationship with nature and with simplicity. I had my grandparents’ lifestyle in mind, and was thinking about the people in my village back in Guinea and how they live sustainably by virtue of living simply.

Julia Watkins' daughter Eloise

Julia Watkins ’98 has fostered in her children – including Eloise, pictured here – a “relationship with nature and with simplicity.” Photo by Julia Watkins.

“During that time, I was learning all of this stuff, and I was becoming the person who shares recipes and crafts and tips on Instagram,” continues Watkins, who started the @simply.living.well account after making a three-month commitment to going zero waste. When it was all said and done,  however, the Instagram account turned out to be much more sustainable than the zero-waste lifestyle.

“I think that you get a lot more done when you can sustain your efforts,” she says, referencing a Venn diagram with two circles, one representing what’s sustainable for Earth and the other what’s sustainable for you. “That little area where they overlap is where you should concentrate – that’s the sweet spot.”

And she certainly found her sweet spot.

simply living well book cover

“Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home” by Julia Watkins ’98 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020)

“I just started posting anything that I found joy in that fit under simple, sustainable living – and that engaged a lot of different communities,” says Watkins, whose popularity eventually landed her a book deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home in 2020.

Packed with recipes, DIY projects, encouragement and page after page of her own photography, “the book just wanted to be written,” says Watkins, who – with a book on kitchen gardening coming out next year – doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. Which is a little ironic, considering that she has come to identify with a movement known as slow living.

“Slow living just means being intentional, spending time doing things that mean a lot to you, not because they’re the right thing to do, but because you enjoy them,” says Watkins, who is certainly enjoying everything she’s doing. “I enjoy teaching myself how to do things, and this has allowed me to keep growing into myself. It’s been a good education. This is just who I am, through and through.”