April 23, 2011

Lost in a book

Guess what my favorite hobby is? Silly question, I know. Of course it’s gardening! I can spend hours in any garden—working, walking, or just reflecting—and totally lose track of time.

But Wisconsin winters are long. And our springs (especially the current one) are often cold and rainy, and not exactly conducive to “enjoying” the garden. So, a Wisconsin gardener needs other hobbies to preserve his or her sanity.

My other top hobby is reading. I try to read at least one book a month, sometimes more depending on my schedule. My book club supplies a constant stream of phenomenal reading material. We read a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, and whenever I finish a book I can’t wait for the next “fix.”

So when Hanni at Sweet Bean Gardening tagged me to participate in The Sage Butterfly’s Earth Day Reading meme, I was thrilled! I’m a little late getting this post up, but the rules of the meme say the deadline is midnight on April 23, so I’m squeaking by.

Part of the reason it took me so long was the difficulty of winnowing down the list to just three books that inspire me to live sustainably. But these "three" are definitely at the top of my list:

1. Just about any book written by Willa Cather. I first read “O Pioneers!” in high school. Since then I’ve read just about all of Cather’s books, and most contain an element of appreciation for the land and the beauty of the American landscape. Whenever I read a Cather book, it takes me to another time and place, but one that is close to home and a part of my ancestral heritage.

Nothing says it better than the opening lines of “O Pioneers”: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky.”

Or this passage from “A Lost Lady,” describing the character Captain Forrester: “Anyone but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass, and twinkling willows along its banks…” I can get delightfully lost in a book like that!

2. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. While I’ve learned a ton from every Pollan book I’ve read, “Omnivore” probably made the biggest impression. It’s the first of his collection that I read, and it caused me to really think about every type of food I eat.

While much of the information was not exactly new to me, Pollan goes into great detail about the origins of corn and how it became such a staple (probably to excess) in the American diet; the history and current state of American farming and animal husbandry; and the pure joy of foraging for berries, mushrooms, and other edibles in the wild. (I don’t trust myself yet in identifying the mushrooms, but I’m learning.)

3. OK, I’m cheating a bit with this last one. Just about any gardening book from Rodale Press offers loads of suggestions and practical guides for sustainable gardening and living. But most of what I’ve learned about organic gardening has come from the magazine of the same name. I’ve been a subscriber for most of my adult life.

Every time Organic Gardening appears in my mailbox, it’s a highlight of my day. I really can’t say enough about how much I enjoy it and how much it has taught me over the years.

At this point, mainly because of techniques I’ve learned from the magazine (and tips from friends and trial and error), my garden is 99% organically grown. We use corn gluten meal as a natural fertilizer/herbicide on the grass, beer to catch slugs and earwigs in the veggie/flower garden, and companion planting to avoid the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

I don’t want to be preachy. Going organic was simply a personal choice for me, and it hasn’t really been that hard with all the great information available today.

Thanks, again, to The Sage Butterfly for hosting this meme! Fortunately, I’m posting too late in the process to have to select three other bloggers (click here for the meme's rules). You’re all great sources for information and inspiration!


  1. love the choices ...I wouldn't be without Organic Gardening...I will have to look at the Pollan book..many have recommended it...Happy Earth Day

  2. Willa Cather is inspirational no matter what she writes. She must have loved nature dearly to have written so beautifully about it. Organic Gardening magazine has guided me as well and taught me lots on the subject. Thank you so much for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project and Happy Earth Day!

  3. Loved reading this, Beth! --ahp

  4. Love this post, Beth. One can tell you truly love these books. I've not read Willa Cather, but I'm inspired by Pollan's books. Thank you for sharing and Happy Easter!

  5. I love Willa Cather! I really loved My Antonia. I haven't read The Omnivore's Dilema, but am ultra conscientious about my food and rarely eat corn or processed food. Have you seen Food Inc? After watching it, I began buying as much meat that is humanely raised and organic. I also love Organic Gardener! Choosing to be organic is so much easier than people realize! :o)

  6. I would like to read 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' as I've heard a lot about it. I don't usually subscribe to magazines, but I will definitely look into 'Organic Gardening'.

  7. Oooh, I just read The Omnivore's Dilemma a few months ago and very much enjoyed it. So glad you shared your lists! :)

  8. @Donna: Yes, Pollan's books are great. I admit I still have my guilty pleasures regarding food, but I appreciate fresh fruits/veggies, locally grown food, and foraging even more since reading "Omnivore."

    @Sage Butterfly: Great idea for a meme! Thanks! This post reminded me that I have a couple of Cather books yet to read. Yay!

    @Ann: Thanks! Remind me to ask you something about the market. :)

    @Diane: Happy Easter to you, too! If you like novels that describe people and places, Cather is a good choice.

  9. @TS: Interesting that Cather requested her novels not be made into motion pictures. They all seem like they'd be great movies. "O Pioneers" and "My Antonia" were both made into TV movies, and I thought they were pretty good. Yes, I did see "Food Inc." and it confirmed what I read in "Omnivore."

    @Holley: I think you would enjoy "Omnivore" and Organic Gardening magazine. Both are very thought-provoking.

    @Hanni: One of the things I really want to follow up on regarding "Omnivore" is learning to ID mushrooms. Do you forage for mushrooms? Thanks for inviting me to participate. Happy Easter!

  10. Good book choices, I am with you on the first two! And I am sorry it took me so long to follow your blog, I was sure I did it ages ago and somehow just kept missing your posts :(.

  11. Great choices, I can exactly see why those first books would deepen your love for the place you live and your desire to help steward it. That looks like a good magazine. I should look in to whether we have an equivalent.

  12. It’s a very rainy Spring day so I thought it would be a good time to check in on you and the other Blogs I follow. Can not be out in the dirt so I am here at the computer. You are Oh so right when you mentioned that Winters here in Wisconsin are looooong. I walked the beach yesterday just to see if anything is turning green. I am glad to report things are starting after all the snows this Winter. Posted a few photos this morning just to have a record of it happening. Soon it will be time to be out in the gardens once again and enjoy the season of blooms. Jack

  13. @Masha: No worries. I didn't have a Google Friend Connect widget up for a while since I was connecting with folks more through Blotanical and Facebook. But now they're all up and running. :)

    @Janet: "Omnivore" would probably be interesting to most people in most countries. It includes some U.S.-specific info, but also covers universal human food topics.

    @Jack: I checked out your photos, and realized I want to make sure to walk the Lake Michigan shoreline at some point this summer! It's a gem of the Midwest. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Great choices! Although I'm an avid reader, I primarily enjoy fiction, so I had a hard time coming up with three books for this meme. But I also thought of so many great books like Willa Cather's that you wouldn't think of as dealing with environmental issues. Yet it's true that her writing about the open prairie as well as other authors on a similar vein inspired me as well.

  15. @Rose: I know what you mean. Sometimes when I think back to things I've gravitated toward over the years, I start to see patterns that make sense when I "put it all together." Many of my favorite novels over the years have had gardening and nature themes. Happy gardening and reading!