This Organic Life

This Organic Life

I haven’t had a chance to read Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Animal Vegetable Miracle yet (it’s still out at the library, which I’m trying to use more because if I fail at living small, it’s on the book front), but the sheer volume of press it’s getting has had me thinking that it was time to revisit Joan Dye Grussow’s earlier book on the same subject, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. One of the things that sold me on this house was the big, if fallow, vegetable garden in the back yard. Eight children grew up in this house, and she fed them out of that backyard — and it was This Organic Life and Michael Pollan’s Second Nature that convinced me that I could actually grow and put up a significant portion of my own food every year.

This Organic Life was published in 2001 and tells the story of Joan and Alan Gussow’s decision to leave the big Victorian they’d lived in for 40 years and buy a smaller house. Since they were lifelong gardeners, and since Joan has long been a voiciferous advocate of eating locally, much of the story involves how they built a new garden of their own while simultaneously starting a community garden on an adjacent plot of land. Their renovation was something of a nightmare — they wound up spending nearly two years trying to renovate an old Odd Fellows Hall that they eventually had to tear down, but like all renovation stories, it has its charms for those of us who spend a lot of time wondering whether or not we can pull out a wall. Unfortunately the story also encompasses Alan’s death from cancer, but Grussow is old-school, and while her sorrow is clear and omnipresent as those sorrows are, she’s absolutely devoid of self-pity.

What I love about this book, and why I keep going back to it is the wealth of practical information, and Joan Dye Grussow’s cranky voice. She yells at a neighbor who swipes an onion out of the garden in front of her:

While Alan and Joe are talking, Barry walks over to the onion bed, pulls a red onion, and wipes it off on his sleeve. I react like i was burned. “Barry, don’t you dare take that.” He looks straight at me and begins to pinch the root off, adn I leap across the bed and grab it away from him. “Damn it Barry,” this is our food. We grow onions for the winter. When we run out we don’t buy them. You’re taking food out of our motuhs. You can’t just take what you want.”

He trails off down the yard … and when they come back I am pulling the rest of the onions. He stands there and I start in again. “I really resent having to pull these onions, Barry. They’re not ready to be pulled and i have to do it.” “Why?” he asks. “Because I can’t trust you. … I can’t trust you not to take them. … This is my work. I make money teaching and giving speeches about food and growing it.” ….

Which would be sort of insufferable if in the next sentence she didn’t admit, “Of course, I bought onions when our crop ran out, but I had lost my sense of humor …” Renovation will do that to a person.

It’s the “Eating My Yard” chapter that seems particularly apt these days. I’ve been seeing articles like this one about how much food Americans managed to grow for themselves during World War II or this one about the Edible Estates project in which Fritz Haeg is installing fruit and vegetable gardens in place of the typical suburban lawn.

While I’m still a long way from the goal of growing enough food to feed myself out of my yard, This Organic Life is the book I keep going back to for practical advice about what to grow, how to put food up for the winter (I keep trying to figure out how to configure a root cellar that won’t freeze my pipes), and for general encouragement that it is indeed possible to eat locally and well.

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