Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Inspiration for Living Local

This weekend I raced through the book This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow, never even getting the chance to mention it in the books section to the right.

What I thought was going to be the story of an older couple getting back to the land (which it sort of is) turned out to be an inspiring tale of how two people, long committed to the ideals of self-sufficiency and relocalization, gradually came to grow almost all of their own food, to learn more about the ups and downs of farming, and to share their knowledge with others.

Amidst all the anecdotes about buying a house that eventually needed to be torn down and rebuilt, Joan Dye Gussow brings her training in nutrition education to the story to emphasize the importance of what she and her husband Alan tried to do. She points out that foods shipped from all over end up having less taste and nutritional value and incurring more environmental costs than foods grown locally, and she can make her case pretty bluntly at times:

The high water content of [most fresh fruits and vegetables]... and their tendency to rot if they get warm, means that we are, in effect, burning lots of petroleum to ship cold water around. Because of the value of unfettered global trade is unquestioned and petroleum is artificially cheap, these sorts of costs are not being examined (p.82).

(And if you think about even that one point, knowing that gasoline and crude oil prices continue to rise, that should make you deeply concerned about the state of our food system and make you want to support local foods even more.)

Of course, it's rare that anyone is completely convinced of an argument based on negative factors such as these, and Gussow shares the delight she takes in working in her garden, preserving and cooking with the homegrown produce (she even includes recipes), and points out other attractive reasons for local eating:

Meal planning is simply more exciting and less bewildering when you wait for fruits and vegetables to come into season, eat them steadily when they arrive, and say a reluctant good-bye for another year when their season has passed. When you've done this for a while, you lose your taste for out-of-season produce (p.220).

I can definitely attest to that!

While Gussow and her husband went to great lengths to plant a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in order to fill as many of their dietary needs and desires as possible, growing many plants that most people wouldn't think could possibly be grown in the Northeast, they also found that every harvest was different, based on the weather and the events of the year. Gussow offers this gentle reminder:

If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try to adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year (p.107).

While the author readily admits that she can be somewhat militant in promoting local foods and expressing her dismay when others buy foods out-of-season, she maintains a good sense of humor and a balanced awareness that we all make our own choices. She just wants to point out that we need to understand the choices we make. For example,

Vegetarianism may be a wise and moral personal choice. But not because it does not involve death. One could live one's whole life as a vegan... yet animals and sometimes even people will have died on one's behalf. You can't control nature without inflicting pain. We have been shielded from that pain by distance. Unless we know where every mouthful of our food comes from, and none of us does, we have to be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that its production has at least indirectly involved killing (p.162).

As a vegetarian myself, I appreciate her gentle but forthright reminder that no one way of eating is superior and that we all can stand to examine the hidden costs in our food system. She's not an absolutist by any means –- she does acknowledge the desirability of some food trade of "exotics" such as citrus, coffee, tea, chocolate, spices, though in more sustainable quantities -– but she does definitely want us to open our eyes to what filling our plates involves.

I found this to be a truly inspiring book, forthright and funny in capturing the ups and downs of homeownership and attempting to fulfill a dream, and I recommend it to anyone looking for more reasons to eat local foods or ways to become more self-reliant in food production.

As for me, I'd like to find a little homestead of my own.

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