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Read ’em and reap. February 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben had an old friend over for supper the other night, and he asked me to recommend a few good books. Now, this friend will remain anonymous for his reputation’s sake, since his exact words were “I’m sick of reading about gardening and birding”–gasp!!!–“and want to broaden out.” Of course, our friend Ben was happy to oblige, and I think some of the books actually weren’t about gardening or birding. Well, let’s say they didn’t have gardening or birding in the title, anyway.

Thinking about these books cheered me up, so I’m going to give you a short list that will cheer you up, too, should you choose to read them. They’re not only good reading, they’re life-enriching. So check ’em out! I’ll save my overtly garden- and bird-oriented favorites for another day.

  • Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle describes her family’s adventures after they decide to eat locally for a year, limiting their food choices to within a 100-mile radius of their rural Virginia home. (Of course, she takes a few trips cross-country to check out others who are eating locally, and also travels to Italy for food and fun, and we get to tag along.) If you have a hard time getting through the self-consciously “writerly” first chapter, just keep going: Barbara soon loses herself in her story, and so will you. I really enjoyed this book, and I know you’ll find it as inspiring as I did: If you haven’t started eating locally, it will be just the push you need, and if you’re already making a conscious effort to eat locally, it will have you checking the organic milk cartons in your local store to find the brand that’s made in your state, or better still, heading for that Mennonite-run raw milk dairy a few miles down a backroad. (Or, like our friend Ben, once again obsessing about getting a couple of dairy goats.) 
  • The Plain Reader is a collection of essays about the virtues of small-scale, meaningful, consumer-averse, morally aware, community-based living. It includes pieces by some of our friend Ben’s favorite authors–Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, David Kline–and is about as far from the self-conscious preciousness and consumption-driven values of glossy hypocrisy like Real Simple as it gets. (“Go green! Throw out all your non-PC possessions and replace them with these fabulous, environmentally correct pieces for only…” Gag.)
  • Speaking of Wendell Berry, his novels are some of my favorite books of all time. They follow many generations of farmers in the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and they speak powerfully to the value of place, and of one’s history within that place. Having spent many happy hours with my maternal grandparents in small-town rural Kentucky, riding horses and hunting fossils on their farm, our friend Ben finds these characters and the place itself totally authentic and familiar, but even if you don’t, I defy you not to love these books. Start with The Memory of Old Jack, and you’ll have many hours of reading pleasure ahead.
  • Now that I’ve managed to cunningly work fossils into the dialogue, let me recommend an entirely different kind of book, Trilobite. As its title suggests, it’s a journey of discovery, following these endearing fossils from the present to back in the long-distant day when they ruled (or at least dominated) the seas. If you love fossils like our friend Ben, you’ll get a kick out of this quirky book. And, like the other books in this list, it will make you look at the land in a whole new way.
  • Donald McCaig’s book An American Home Place traces the history of the farm he and his wife bought in Virginia back as far as he can go, and it’s a marvelous reverse-travel trip. (He’s also the author of a truly great travel book, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, about his adventures in Scotland looking for a Border collie for his farm.) Reading it will make you want to find out more about your own place, and following the McCaigs’ own story on their place is a lot of fun. But the poignant loss of farmers and farmland underlies the tale, and the McCaigs’ increasing isolation reminds our friend Ben of the experiences of Scott and Helen Nearing homesteading in Vermont in the 1930s.
  • Which of course brings us to Scott and Helen Nearing, the founders of modern homesteading. If you haven’t read their classic books, Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, shame on you! Run out and get them right now. These wonderful true tales of how a couple of city sophisticates moved to the backwoods and made a go of it inspired the back-to-the-land movement of the Seventies. The books are interesting and inspiring, but also endearing because of the Nearings’ collectively prickly character and evident foibles, such as their need to justify every personal like and dislike on moral grounds. (If they liked potatoes, growing and/or eating potatoes was virtuous; if they didn’t like carrots, there was something morally suspect about growing and/or eating carrots. The unintentional humor in this approach lightens up the didacticism which tends to distract one from what great books these really are.) The Nearings’ books, along with Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine, were our friend Ben’s favorite escapist reading in graduate school. They remain a pleasure to this day.

Okay, that’s plenty for one day. It’s time to head out and feed the chickens, fill the birdfeeders, water the greenhouse, walk the dog, and do all the myriad chores of daily life that have to happen before the “real” day’s work begins. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite book, please share it with our friend Ben. I’m always looking for uplifting, informative reading!      



1. Sarah - February 26, 2008

This is fabulous (recommendations and blog). I too, enjoyed Animal, Miracle, Vegetable. And will check out some of the others. I think both our old friend and Ben would enjoy Oak: The Frame of Civilization. William Bryant Logan’s fascinating natural history of the oak (though some of the writing is a bit overwrought). And as a soon to be beekeeper, I found Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees entertaining.

Thanks, Sarah! Our friend Susan gave me Oak for Christmas–now I just have to read it! As for bee-related books, my favorites are The Queen Must Die and Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees. I’ll check out Robbing the Bees and see if it won’t bring me closer to putting out a hive in my micro-orchard!

2. Laura Evers - March 3, 2008


Thank you for mentioning us on your Web site. We’re glad your friend Ben loved Mother Earth News.

Keep up the good work on the blog. Great post on the best books to read.

Laura Evers
Mother Earth News

For more great reads, check out our new Web site for some great suggestions.

My pleasure, Laura! Cheryl and the rest of the team are doing such a fantastic job that it makes me glow with pride. Everyone who loves gardening, homesteading, and our beautiful world should read Mother Earth News!

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