Life and Books

I haven’t been posting as often these last couple of weeks; life has taken some twists and turns, as it often does.  Many gardening/homesteading bloggers drop off a little this time of year, and we understand–we’re all swamped by the harvest and the preserving that usually goes along with its peak.  Or at least that’s what it sounds like for those in the East.  For me here on the west coast, the peak hasn’t really hit.  We’ve been eating some ripe tomatoes everyday, but we’re far from overwhelmed.  I’ve been collecting a handful of beans every couple of days, and I pinched off the first of the big-enough zucchinis yesterday.  No cucumbers to speak of; the onions and garlic are cleaned and curing.  I am picking about a pound of raspberries a day and have been for a couple of weeks.  It’s been a lesson in our soil–which has a ways to go–and in the benefits of the diversity in the small garden.  It’s been a lousy summer for many crops here, but we’ve still had lots to eat everyday.  Which, I remind myself, is the point!

So I haven’t been lost in the harvest; instead it’s been life’s transitions taking up my attention.  When we moved to this property a year ago, I had a strong sense that life was pulling me in a new direction.  I said to friends and family, “It will be so interesting to see where we are in a year or two; this is such a momentous change for us that I’m sure it will ripple through to other parts of our lives.”  I said to another friend recently that it’s impossible to make profound changes in many parts of your life without those changes–at some point–catching up with and impacting all of your life.  Some of those changes are now unfolding for me.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading.  I’m a writer and a scholar, and books are my constant companion.  I did a PhD in English (Canadian literature) and yet I’ve hardly read a work of fiction in the last couple of years!  Instead, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been reading non-stop about gardening and food production, and I’ve been hungry for stories about people living with the cycles of their lands.  I thought I’d share a few of the ones I’ve finished recently, and I’d love to hear of books that have sustained you too!

Jenna Woginrich’s sweet book, Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life was a quick, pleasant read.  The book jacket advertises that this is the story of a young, urban web designer who becomes a homesteader, but that’s not exactly true.  Instead, Jenna is passionnate about learning to homestead, but is also happy in her design work.  So the book shares her experiences as she learns skills and then puts them into practice in small-scale ways that work for her life at this stage.  She works her way through gardening, cooking, rabbits, chickens, sewing her own clothes…all kinds of things.  Her coverage of these is fairly basic, though entertaining.  But there were a couple of chapters I really appreciated.  In one, she encourages readers to learn to play even a simple musical instrument.  She argues that music is sustenance when you are homesteading; it is life, joy, community, beauty, and companionship and distraction on lonely nights without tv.  She makes a compelling case, and almost made me pick up the viola that I haven’t played in 15? years but that I continue to hold on to!

The second chapter I appreciated was one on buying used.  Or more specifically, buying vintage.  She encourages us to shop at thrift and antique stores both for the alternative pattern of consumption and as a boycott of the contemporary economy, but mostly, she reminds us that when we buy products made before the early 1960s–and preferably long before–we are inheriting objects that were built to NOT be replaced.  They are made to last forever and to be repaired easily if they wear out.  I will definitely be on the lookout for these!

I didn’t learn much from Made from Scratch, but it was sweet and a nice way to spend a few hours.  I’m glad I borrowed it from the library, though.

By contrast, Jon Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible, on Less Land Than You Can Imagine is one that I wasn’t sure I should buy, but now I will.

This is the bible of biointensive gardening for North America (or as they refer to it thoughout: GROW BIOINTENSIVE).  Jon Jeavons learned from Alan Chadwick, the man who brought French Intensive gardening from Europe and began tweaking it in California in the 1970s.  Jeavons was blown away by the transformation of the soil and land that Chadwick was working on, and he has continued the legacy ever since, refining it regularly.   The work that the Ecology Action Group has been doing in California ever since stands as one of the longest running food production experiments in North American food culture, and it’s worth paying attention to.  It’s a proven, very specific system of food production, but it can also be a little daunting, and it does raise some questions for me.

The book’s goal is to teach us how to produce all the food we need plus all the crops we need to improve the soil each year, all on about 4000 sq ft per person, which is much less land than North American food production currently uses per person!  Jeavons lays out the whole system to do this, which is great.  But what if you don’t have the space or the time to do this?  (Jeavons says that when you get experienced, each 100 sq ft bed should only take 15 minutes a day to deal with.  A reader in my library copy pencilled in the math–15 mins times 40 beds= 10 hrs per day!) What if you have a little livestock–even a few chickens–that help you improve the soil and provide some substantial calories?  What if you have a family of 4?  What if your community has waste that needs diverting from the landfill?  Or a farm that will produce the grain crops and we can exchange?  The book seems to push for us to be individuals responsible for ourselves, rather than on becoming interconnected members of resilient communities, which would be my goal.

All that aside, though, there’s tons of good, practical information here, and I’m going to start with some small tips right away–like layering some soil into my compost, to bring in more microorganisms and help to break down the woodier portions of my piles.  Well worth reading.

Lastly, I just finished Joan Dye Gussow’s memoir, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. I heard about this one because Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver both cite it as a highly influential and important book.  It isn’t what I was expecting; it’s a rather straightforward memoir with just a few sections where she explores some deeper issues of our food system.  But she’s a beautiful writer, and the book is very moving.  And it’s lovely to spend time in her company.  It’s good, too, because Gussow was born in the 1930s, and so has a very different experience of the changes in the food system over the many decades since.  I always find it moving to read and/or listen to those who lived in times not so preoccupied with consumerism.  It reminds me that it is possible, and that the strange times we live in now are really a blip in human history!  The memoir was published in 2001, and most of the analysis that she offers about the food system are a bit self-evident almost 10 years later, but her experiences of growing all of their own produce for many decades is rich, grounding, and inspiring.  Also well worth reading.  Comes with some recipes too!

So what books have inspired you lately?


3 thoughts on “Life and Books

  1. I have been reading way too many dystopias and depressing thrillers lately: Oryx & Crake, The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I just bought Goat Song, which should be a real change of pace! Thanks for adding a few additional titles to my reading list.

    I know what you mean about feeling impending change in your life. I started putting the process for significant change in place a few years ago and should be ready to make a major leap in the next year or so. It’s both scary and exciting at the same time.


  2. I’ve been reading “Trauma Farm” by Brian Brett who is a farmer and activist and poet on Salt Spring. It’s a great book and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I think I’ll be switching to sailing reads from here on in though because reading about a farm as we leave it is heartbreaking. It’s an important step in my grieving process I think.

    Thanks for sharing your book choices.

  3. Thanks for those great titles, ladies. Sandy, I have had Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood sitting by my bedside for some time now, and have been too happy to put myself through them as yet! 🙂 I just bought Girl with the Dragon Tatoo thinking it would be better escapism, but I haven’t started it yet. Good luck with your life changes!

    Amanda, I’ve been really wanting to read Trauma Farm, especially since it’s been winning awards. But I haven’t quite been up to splurging on the hardcover, and the library wait list is LONG. But I will get there eventually. Let me know if you find some good sailing books; the ones I’ve read so far get me dreaming about tropical breezes and fruity drinks and don’t make for such good reading now that the weather is turning here :).

    There must be something in the air with all these life transitions going on, eh? Courage and deep breaths to us all…

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