Experience is a wonderful teacher, but our scope is limited by factors like geography, age and gender. Good writing takes a reader back in time, sailing with Columbus aboard the Santa Maria, rationing during the Great Depression, watching as the Great Wall of China falls. Readers feel cultural isolation by proxy, inviting them to be more compassionate. They stroll through undisturbed nature in Thoreau’s clear prose, helping to develop deeper relationships with the wild. Each book has the potential to alter a reader in innumerable ways.
Sometimes the change is as small as learning new words, and certain books are written with the intention of inspiring innovation. Reading enriches my life and broadens my mind in many ways; however, there is one book in particular that has changed my life.
I discovered Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few years ago during a typical college weekend. Taking a needed study respite, I poked around Bloomsbury Book (before I was lucky enough to work there) hunting through rows of paper treasures. I drifted to the non-fiction section, smiling as I brushed passed familiar titles, and paused to explore pages of new finds. One such discovery was a work by Barbara Kingsolver.
I first encountered Kingsolver’s work in the sixth grade, when my teacher assigned, The Poisonwood Bible, as homework, and I continued nurturing a love for her writing.
When I slid the innocuous green paperback off the shelf, I was unprepared for the revelations tangled among Kingsolver’s vegetables. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle introduced me to a wonderful literary sub-genre, gardening memoirs, which continues to shape my life.
Similar to autobiographies, which are pictorials of an entire lifetime, memoirs present slices of an author’s experiences.
Kingsolver dropped me in the middle of her family’s garden in southern Appalachia, where I learned that a tomato straight off the vine tastes like a very distant cousin to the pinkish globules stacked in supermarkets (a lesson I tasted later that summer).
I began speaking the language of canning, the clink of glass jars reminiscent of summer afternoons in my childhood when I helped my mother put up apricot and blackberry jam. Window sills were suddenly potential miniature garden plots, and January of that year found me pouring over seed catalogs with the intense concentration I usually reserved for my statistics text-book.
By vicariously living a year of food life with the Kingsolver-Hopps, I realized how disconnected I had become from what I ate. As a student, both my food and time budgets were tight. I sipped cups of inky, hot coffee while I studied, and regularly munched sugary, vending-machine trail-mix between classes.
Even though I grew up with a small garden, and was taught appreciation for unprocessed, whole foods from a young age, I became caught up in the whirl of study and working. I slotted food at the bottom of my priorities totem-pole until I changed my outlook on nourishment, and everything began between the pages of a book.
My bookshelves are now crowded with gardening memoirs, manuals and manifestos, each with unique qualities.
The Kingsolver-Hopps have planted the original seed of thought, but they also encourage temperance. I have found that treating my body and the earth with respect is not a dogma and drinking a cup of coffee, or cooking with imported olive oil, will not de-rail positive intentions. I adore Kingsolver’s family and appreciate her dry sense of humor.
Joan Dye-Gussow’s journeys described in This Organic Life, and Growing Older are soothing companions during grief, which illustrate how living close to the earth and laughing maintain a connection to those who have passed on.
Brad Kessler’s, Goat Song, has a tang similar to the home-made cheese his story centers on. Flavored with wit and vinegar, Kessler’s tale of raising goats alongside his garden is as artisan as the chevre he makes.
Prolific and pertinent, the list of wonderful gardening memoirs is too long for a mere blog entry. Trying to discuss the intricacies of how books change lives in a last paragraph feels like an insult to a complex topic as well (more fodder for other entries).
Reading inspires and makes more complex people. Enjoying a garden via an excellent storyteller’s words doesn’t automatically mean starting a compost bin and tilling soil, but gaining a new understanding and appreciation for any topic helps cultivate rich lives.
Other Reccomended Gardening Memoirs:
The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
COOP by Michael Perry
$64 Tomato by William Aslexander
Second Nature by Michael Pollan
The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker
And I Shall Have Some Peace There by Margaret Roach
Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin
Everything I Want to do is Illegal by Joel Salatin
Growing a Farmer by Kurt Timmermeister
Farm City by Novella Carpenter
The Blueberry Years by Jim Minick
Cultivating Delight by Diane Ackerman
Made from Scratch by Jenna Woginrich
Grow the Good Life by Michaels Owens
Deep in the Green by Anne Raver
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Goat Song by Brad Kessler
This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow
Growing Older by Joan Dye Gussow
Into the Garden with Charles by Clyde Wachsberger (Available for purchase 04/10/12)