May 26 2011

Good Read: “Grow The Good Life”

rebetsky

I just did an amazon.com book search on the keyword “gardening” and it returned 46,951 results.

The way I see it, the vast majority of those 46,000+ gardening books fall into one of two categories: documentary and how-to. The documentaries showcase great gardens and garden styles, and many that I’ve browsed are a joy and inspiration. On the other side, there’s a how-to on just about everything: tomato books, flower books, small garden-big garden books, compost books, etc., etc. If it grows or shows, there’s a book about it.

I recently and happily added a new book, though — a “why-to” book — to my garden collection: Grow The Good Life, by Michele Owens, one of the founding mavens of the hugely popular blog, Garden Rant. (If you’ve never checked it out, you should, at www.gardenrant.com.) I’m a big fan of the Rant’s inclusive, eclectic topics and good-natured, irreverent, sometimes boisterous style. Much of what I like about the Rant carried through to Owens’ book, only more so, and better so.

Owens’ book is an entertaining and informative read for everyone from the “live to garden” die-hards (ahem!) to armchair types whose garden is a single potted plant on a windowsill. It’s a worthwhile read for soil-deprived urbanites, too, as well as for people totally devoid of interest in growing anything, but who nonetheless share the basic human need for food and at least some dim flicker of desire to have a habitable planet at least for a lifetime or so.

“Thanks to my garden, I can take a stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization and propose my own more lively alternative.”  — Michele Owens

Owens makes a methodical, chapter-by-chapter case for the (mostly American) vegetable garden, going at it from the angles of money, superior flavor, health (exercise), beauty, right on up to (or down to) fundamental happiness. She brings in enough scientific and anecdotal data to make her arguments convincing, and in signature Rant style, the pace is lively and the language at once personal, clever and to the point — styled enough to be enjoyable without any excess.

There’s hardly anything Owens doesn’t touch on, wrangling connections near and far like a pumpkin vine gone awry. She reaches into history, biology, folklore, urban/suburban planning, big ag and big chem, the government, physiology and exercise science, her mother’s upbringing, you name it — all to make a compelling case for the backyard vegetable garden. And from cover to cover, the emphasis is on sustainable, organic practices. Even if you’re not a gardener, you’ll come away with renewed appreciation for your CSA, or find yourself giving more business to the organic growers at your local farmers market.

Now, Owens was not born a gardener, and the zealousness of the convert shows. Even though the book is a “why to” and not a “how to,” like any gardener, she can’t resist slipping some of her favorite tips, tricks and techniques in the back door. I found many to be welcome ideas.

Much of Owens’ practical advice tracks four general principles: “First, take care of the context in which it all happens, the soil. Second, diversify to avoid disaster. Third, pay attention to timing. And fourth, be a little Zen.”

My strongest endorsement of the book is that she really got me thinking about my own approach, which is pretty well-developed after some 40+ years in the dirt — I think I’ve had some sort of garden in just about every place I’ve lived, without exception, even when I lived off-campus in college.

Thanks to Owens, though, this spring I made much lighter use of my mechanical tiller, forgoing it altogether in a large portion of the garden. I’m more committed than ever to my mulch system, though I was surprised that, evidently based on advice of her upstate-New York gardening neighbors, she forgoes grass mulches. I cover every exposed inch of my garden with grass clippings, heavily; it does a fabulous job of keeping the weeds down and continuously enriches the soil. I’ve never felt that it’s made the weed population any worse.

The other thing she’s gotten me focused on is timing, which is always a challenge for me. I started our peppers indoors too late again this year, as usual, though my tomatoes were right on schedule. Everything else is late, thanks in no small part to an interminably long and wet spring. Our second season, planting for the Fall, is always late, too, but this year I’m determined.

It’s all a process, this growing your own food, from how you care for the soil to picking out the seeds, to timing the planting, to feasting in summer and canning for the cold weather and starting all over again. And Owens celebrates the process, in a big-picture way.

Woven through the book, in every topic, is a sense of gratitude for being able to grow food and enjoy it, tremendous respect for the ecosystem that makes it possible, and an acceptance of responsibility to leave the earth better, or at least no worse, for our use of it.

Those are values that resonate deeply with me. This is a book that makes us all better gardeners not necessarily in a technical sense, but dare I say in a moral or spiritual sense. It is a good life, indeed, when we tend our gardens — and thereby ourselves and our human family — with care, respect, and deep affection.

In the final paragraphs of the final chapter of her book, Owens succinctly and eloquently captures the spark that lights my own passion for gardening: “…there is a lot of pleasure to be had in reshaping the little piece of earth that is under our control. Thanks to my garden, I can take a small stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization and propose my own more lively alternative…There are few things lovelier than a vegetable garden at dusk, and few things more satisfying than going out in the evening to pick the food you’ve grown before dinner with family and friends. To share the fruits of your labor is to give your love to the people you care most about.”

Sorry. I’ve given away the ending. But like a true classic, this is a book that can be savored even if you know how it ends.


May 25 2011

Gardening (&) Empires

rebetsky

Jamaica Kincaid, novelist, gardening columnist, and writer who’s written for the Village Voice and The New Yorker, says, “Most of the nations that have serious gardening cultures also have, or had, empires. You can’t have this luxury of pleasure without somebody paying for it. This is nice to know. It’s nice to know that when you sit down to enjoy a plate of strawberries, somebody got paid very little so that you could have your strawberries. It doesn’t mean the strawberries will taste different, but it’s nice to enjoy things less than we do. We enjoy things far too much, and it leads to incredible pain and suffering.”

Our labor in the garden is free, but it’s sweet, hard work. I concluded a long time ago that we pay far too little for our food. Kincaid offers an interesting perspective on why this is so. I’m sure I can speak for many gardeners when I say that nothing tastes as fine as what comes from the garden. It comes at a dear price, but one that I am happy to pay.


Jul 26 2009

Review & Thoughts: Hunting From Home

Roger

I just this minute finished Hunting from Home/A Year Afield in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which Natalie picked up for me for $4 at the Green Valley Book Fair, itself in the Blue Ridge near James Madison University.  I’ve been nursing my way through it these four days at the beach, wanting to stretch it out, not wanting it to end.  I’m inclined to send Christopher Camuto, its author, the $20 difference between the cover price and what Natalie paid, but realistically, I’ll probably buy another of his books instead.

This book is a year of intense observation, basecamped around the 200-acre Highland Farm in the southern Blue Ridge.  Camuto is intimidatingly learned and apparently, natively intelligent.  His writing, from my view, is full of profound thoughts and observations beautifully, and frequently poetically, captured.  I have to admit my bias to his subject matter, though.  Woods and birds and trout and deer, stars and seasons, time and mortality — well, I suppose in a sense he covers everything.  My one complaint is that the title is somewhat misleading.  It starts with grouse hunting, but then spends a long stretch on trout fishing, and on birds, before moving to trees, back to grouse hunting, and then the welcome climax of hunting deer with longbow and muzzleloader.  I’m no fisherman, but I enjoyed those parts very much, and I am not and doubt I ever will be a birder; I complained a bit about the detail there, but still it was enjoyable reading.

This was one of those books that makes me wonder why I would ever try to write generic cialis online best price.  A bit of the feeling I get from reading Faulkner.  Better than I think I’d ever be able to achieve.  (Take the compliment please, Mr. Camuto, but you know as well as I — Faulkner, that’s a stretch.  But it’s the same idea.)

Had I not met the love of my life, I would be easily seduced by the solitary life Camuto describes.  Just him and his bird dog, Patches, a cabin and a woodstove, 200 acres to learn and love, hunting, doing the work of living, writing…(sigh).  Natalie thinks we could work it out.

Hunting from Home
A Year Afield in the Blue Ridge Mountains

by Christopher Camuto
W.W. Norton and Company
2003
Buy it on Amazon

Footnote:  Just googled Camuto and found that he’s on the faculty of Bucknell University now, the school that was at the top of my daughter’s list, but she didn’t make it in. :-(


Apr 22 2009

Paper, Scissors, Stone

Roger

OK, I know it’s a stretch, but it does mention gardening in the first stanza, and it seem so appropo for these times.  Swiped from this morning’s Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keilor, used without permission.

Paper, Scissors, Stone

by Tom Wayman

An executive’s salary for working with paper
beats the wage in a metal shop operating shears
which beats what a gardener earns arranging stone.

But the pay for a surgeon’s use of scissors
is larger than that of a heavy equipment driver removing stone
which in turn beats a secretary’s cheque for handling paper.

And, a geologist’s hours with stone
nets more than a teacher’s with paper
and definitely beats someone’s time in a garment factory with scissors.

In addition: to manufacture paper
you need stone to extract metal to fabricate scissors
to cut the product to size.
To make scissors you must have paper to write out the specs
and a whetstone to sharpen the new edges.
Creating gravel, you require the scissor-blades of the crusher
and lots of order forms and invoices at the office.

Thus I believe there is a connection
between things
and not at all like the hierarchy of winners
of a child’s game.
When a man starts insisting
he should be paid more than me
because he’s more important to the task at hand,
I keep seeing how the whole process collapses
if almost any one of us is missing acheter cialis sur internet.
When a woman claims she deserves more money
because she went to school longer,
I remember the taxes I paid to support her education.
Should she benefit twice?
Then there’s the guy who demands extra
because he has so much seniority
and understands his work so well
he has ceased to care, does as little as possible,
or refuses to master the latest techniques
the new-hires are required to know.
Even if he’s helpful and somehow still curious
after his many years—

Without a machine to precisely measure
how much sweat we each provide
or a contraption hooked up to electrodes in the brain
to record the amount we think,
my getting less than him
and more than her
makes no sense to me.
Surely whatever we do at the job
for our eight hours—as long as it contributes—
has to be worth the same.

And if anyone mentions
this is a nice idea but isn’t possible,
consider what we have now:
everybody dissatisfied, continually grumbling and disputing.
No, I’m afraid it’s the wage system that doesn’t function
except it goes on
and will
until we set to work to stop it

with paper, with scissors, and with stone.

“Paper, Scissors, Stone” by Tom Wayman from The Face of Jack Munro. © Harbour, 1986. Reprinted without permission.