nonfiction

Book Review: Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown

Finally! Finally, it’s warm out when I’m reading a book about foraging! Normally, it’s freezing and there are twenty feet of snow on the ground, a fact that never ceases to amuse me. Perhaps I’m just looking for a taste of warmer weather when that happens. This was more coincidence; Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown (New Society Publishers, 2013) had been on my TBR for quite some time and it was time to move it off of there. Thanks, interlibrary loan!

Eric and Wendy Brown, who live in suburban Maine, realized they wanted a more local, more sustainable way of life. They began to garden, they bought some chickens, they started to frequent their local farmer’s market. But they realized that this wasn’t enough, and that to supplement their diet, they needed to check out what nature was providing all around them for free. Starting with their own yard and branching out to the wide-open spaces around them, they began to learn the local plants that most people regarded as weeds or nuisances. Taking classes with urban foraging experts and instructors and learning from mycologists, they built up their confidence in identifying edible plants, fruits, roots, and mushrooms, and began to supplement their diet with items they foraged themselves.

This isn’t an instructional book. There are no, “Here are the plants that are safe to eat, here’s how you identify them and what you do with them once you’ve got them in your kitchen.” It’s the recounting of one couple’s adventures during a year of foraging in Maine. They talk about why they got started foraging (this part is a little doomsday-style depressing; it’s not necessarily inaccurate, just something to watch out for if you’re in a poor mood at the time) and their successes and failures, and all the reasons why urban foraging is a good idea. It’s not a bad story, but to be fully honest, I didn’t necessarily find anything new or inspiring in it, either.

I’m always impressed and a little bit baffled by people who live in the suburbs but who manage to find all sorts of wild-growing food. We have things like chickweed and common plantain and dandelions growing in our yard, of course, but there aren’t really stands of wild berries or apple trees growing nearby that are free for the taking. There are no empty fields where we can forage. All the forest preserves around us have signs all over explicitly stating that removing any kind of nature from the preserve is strictly forbidden. I’m very honestly unsure of where on earth we would find the kinds of things these authors are constantly stumbling across. There’s just not a lot of nature around us that we’re allowed to take things from, at least, not that I’m aware of. Maybe I’m just missing out. Our local community college did offer an evening prairie walk, pre-pandemic, where an instructor would walk with the participants and point out edible plants. I had planned on signing up for that, but, well, you know. I’m sure that’ll come back in 273489374923 years, when this is all over…

So this book was just okay for me. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and I didn’t find the writing to be terribly interesting. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it was no Stalking the Wild Asparagus, either.

nonfiction

Book Review: Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk

What does your pantry look like? Do you have a dusty can of beans from a year when One Direction was still together, a package of an ingredient you’ve never used and are too intimidated by to open, and not much else? Or are you like me, with a few months’ worth of food stashed away in various corners of the house? This past year has shown us the importance of being prepared for tough times- job losses, shortages, weather events that cut off power and access to stores, all that and more has plagued us (pun intended) as a society, and being prepared for these terrible events isn’t a bad idea. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk (New Society Publishers, 2009) has been on my TBR for a while; it piqued my interested because having a fully-stocked pantry has always been important to me (mostly because I’m lazy and don’t ever want to have to make an emergency run for a missing ingredient!). This seemed right up my alley, so I requested it via interlibrary loan.

Think about this past year, when toilet paper, hand sanitizer, yeast, garlic, and various other products were nowhere to be found on store shelves. How did you fare? Having a well-stocked pantry in trying times could alleviate stress and get you through rough patches caused by job loss, weather events, power outages, economic downturns, illness, pandemics, and all the other chaos that disrupts daily life and may make getting to the store or procuring sustenance for your family difficult or impossible. Changing your diet to one more sustainable to your location, gardening, obtaining food and supplies from more local and sustainable sources, and preserving this food in a variety of ways are all suggestions that Ms. Astyk has for creating a better-prepared life.

It’s a lot of work, true, but so is pretty much anything worth doing, she argues, and stocking your pantry is never something you’ll regret if things go sideways. With in-depth discussions on gardening, locating storage space no matter where you live, recipes, the ups and downs of various forms of preservation, and more, Sharon Astyk has created a basic primer for anyone interested in living a prepared life.

This is a pretty good book for anyone starting out on the journey of planning and stocking their pantry. She lays out some pretty compelling arguments for the need for keeping your larder stocked, and a lot of the scenarios she frets about have actually taken place in the years since the book was published. Her pleas to her readers about the necessity of storing water don’t seem so wild after this year’s devastating winter storms in Texas that saw residents without running water for ages, and storing pantry food isn’t at all far-fetched after seeing the shortages on grocery store shelves during this past year. (I keep at least two full boxes of toilet paper from Sam’s Club in the basement at all times; it wasn’t even something I had to think about last year as I watched people all over the country scramble for even the rough stuff. The only thing I lacked was an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, but that’s because it wasn’t something I normally use. Now, though, I’ll always have some on hand!) Some of the Goodreads reviews seem to view her as a kind of out-there prepper, but I have to wonder how those people handled the crises this past year.

If you’ve been serious about storing and preserving for a while, there’s probably not much to learn here, but this is a great resource for anyone who has realized that maybe it’s not so bad to keep a three-month (or longer) supply of food on hand. Ms. Astyk covers all of the why, along with some of the how, and provides a few recipes along the way. This was a nice reminder of why I shop the way I do, and why my kitchen resembles a small overflowing grocery store.

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

I’ve always been a big secondhand shopper. Even as a kid, I recognized the value in buying something for less money, and as I grew older, I appreciated that used items were less taxing on the earth’s resources. Yard sales and thrift stores have always been my jam. That’s why I was so excited to read Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). What exactly happens to the items we drop off at the thrift store? What happens to the items that don’t sell? Where, exactly, does all this stuff go?

Adam Minter travels around the world, from the US to Japan, from Malaysia to West Africa, following the stream of secondhand stuff, from thrift store drop-offs and rejects, to items cleaned out from homes where the residents have died or left for nursing homes or assisted living. Our lives are full of stuff, and all that stuff has to go somewhere at some point. Japan has excelled in the creation of businesses meant to deal with possessions after the death of their owners; West Africa has done an amazing job of creating industries that repair and refurbish outdated technology, including laptops, computers, and televisions rejected by Americans. The problem of used clothing, which includes fast fashion made from cheap fabric, is a little trickier, however.

While I enjoyed this, I did find it a little dry from time to time, but I will fully admit that this may have been a personal issue due to the timing of my reading (could anyone focus well on anything the first week of November?!?!?). His criticism of planned obsolescence (one of the dumbest concepts ever created) and companies that deny their customers the right to repair the products they’ve purchased is perfection (as is his spotlight on iFixit.com, a website crammed full of repair manuals for products whose companies don’t necessarily offer them). Far too many societies have adopted an attitude of disposability,  and that’s obviously a major, major problem. Adam Minter does an excellent job of focusing on this problem without condemning the reader, who has likely been guilty of these behaviors and attitudes at some point in their life, throughout the text. There are problems, yes, but there are solutions, many of which readers can actively engage in.

I’m careful about the clothing I buy- I stay away from fast fashion (especially after having read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline; I cannot recommend this book highly enough); I don’t buy dry-clean-only clothing; I make sure what I do purchase (which is almost always secondhand) are things I can repair if necessary (I’m trying to learn how to darn socks, but so far I stink at it. I am, however, awesome at patching over holes and stains, and I’m working on my embroidery so as to make visible mending more aesthetically pleasant), but Secondhand has definitely inspired me to keep going with all of that. The amount of secondhand clothing in the stream is too high for us to do anything other than take good care of what we own.

Visit Adam Minter’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life- Jenna Woginrich

I have hobbies other than reading. (I hear you all gasping. I know. It’s scandalous.) I knit- nothing fancy, but hats and mittens and scarves and baby blankets and whatnot are all in my arsenal. I do a little crocheting- I’m still slowly plugging away at that giant blue blanket. I’m working on a cross-stitched table runner that my grandma had started before she passed away. I do a little sewing, we’re planning on expanding our garden this year, I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I bake, I play a few different musical instruments (I mean, not professionally or anything, but I do okay). Basically, I enjoy a lot of the same things my great-grandparents did, aided by lightning-fast internet videos to grow my skills, and it’s because of this that Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2008) ended up on my TBR. One of the greatest pleasures of my life is reading books by or about people who are different than me in some way, but sometimes it’s nice to read books by or about people with whom I share something in common.

Mostly memoir but partly how-to, Jenna Woginrich moved to northern Idaho for a job, but also in search of a more handmade life, one where her food, her clothing, and her entertainment were more of her own creation and not store-bought or piped directly into her house via internet or cable. Gardening, baking, chickens, rabbits, bees, musical instruments, all of these and more became part of her daily routine. Leaning on neighbors and new acquaintances for help, Jenna learned new skills and the hard lessons that come along with living closer to the land (look away for a few minutes during the chapter on rabbits, animal lovers; all-natural lives aren’t always pretty. Though never delving in to gory details, Jenna has to put a rabbit down and it’s obviously not easy for her).

I’m not allowed to keep chickens where I live (and I’m not totally sure I’d personally want to- I have enough living creatures in my house to stress out about already, thank you) and I have no desire to keep rabbits or sled dogs, but I enjoyed this book, both the chapters that resembled my life and the ones that weren’t necessarily pertinent to my interests. Ms. Woginrich is very thoughtful and deliberate about her journey towards a more authentic life, never foolishly jumping in too deep, always venturing step by step down every new path, seeking the advice and tutelage of others who have gone before her. If you’re just starting out, wanting to learn what a more simple life might look like, this is a lovely introduction. I’ve been engaged in a lot of what’s included in this book for years, so while I didn’t necessarily learn anything new, it’s always nice to take a peek into what someone else’s life looks like, and to remember that all these things I’m doing have value. It can be hard to remember that when I’m stressing about what to make for dinner or putting off that pile of mending in order to get more reading done, but those are worthy projects as well, so I’m grateful that these books exist to help me remember that.

Some of the links in her section on research are now outdated and non-existent, but I’m sure anyone looking for more information can spend a few minutes on Google, sorting through links on whatever topic it is you need.

One important note: Ms. Woginrich began her journey to a more simplified life as a single woman with no kids (but employed full-time). Her free time and ability to learn, for example, to play fiddle and garden, is going to look very different than someone who has a spouse and a toddler and older child and all the errands and responsibilities that come along with that. I’m assuming she could do whatever housecleaning she needed and then her house would stay clean and not look like a Category 5 hurricane blew threw every time she turned her back for more than three seconds (LOOKING AT YOU, FAM), and thus had more time to spend enjoying her chickens and playing the dulcimer in the backyard. I’m on a pretty tight schedule around here and spend more time yelling at my daughter to PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY FOR THE LAST TIME PUT YOUR SHOES ON OR YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL BAREFOOT EVEN THOUGH IT’S NINETEEN DEGREES OUT (actual conversation we had last week), which seriously eats up any free time I could be spending to spin yarn, so my life looks a little different than hers. Don’t feel bad or like you’re not doing enough if you read this and wonder how you’re going to shoehorn in *more* things to do. Do what you can, when you can, and realize that you and the author may be at different places in your lives right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I mention this because there was a time in my life where I would have needed to hear this message. My mom and I went on a tour of local houses once when my son was about two and I was super busy all the time. One of the houses had on display the wife’s collection of quilts that she had sewn, and it was a large, large collection. She wasn’t that much older than I was, and I was feeling horrible about myself, wondering how on earth she had time to DO all of that, and when I said as much to one of the people running the tour, that person happened to mention that the homeowners didn’t have children, and I nearly sobbed with relief, because THAT’S why they had that kind of free time. I felt like I’d totally been mismanaging everything up to that point because I didn’t have stacks upon stacks of homemade quilts!)

This is a lovely little book, a quick read about what a slower life might look like. If you need a little inspiration, you might find some in between these pages. 🙂

Visit Jenna Woginrich’s farm’s website, Cold Antler Farm

Follow her on Twitter

nonfiction

City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing- Lorraine Johnson

So, remember when I said in August’s Monthly Roundup that my TBR blew up thanks to adding a bunch of books on urban farming? City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing by Lorraine Johnson (Greystone Books, 2010) is one of those books (and I believe the list that I dug it up from was here on Goodreads, if you’re interested in searching for other books on permaculture and homesteading). It just so happened that my library had a copy, so into the stack it went a few weeks ago when I was there, searching for books ON MY OWN. I’m still jazzed to have uninterrupted time to myself while my daughter’s in school; one of these days, I’ll even go- dare I say it?- browse the library bookshelves with no particular book in mind. That’s it, just browsing in hopes of stumbling upon my next great read. It’s been years since I was able to just go browse at a leisurely pace; I’ve had an exact list, complete with call numbers, in hand on every library visit for years!

Lorraine Johnson covers a lot of bases about urban farming in this book, including the fact that city farms actually end up being more productive- yes, MORE- than country farms, for multiple reasons. While growing your own food isn’t anything new (and she covers this by recounting a bit of the history of gardening, including the victory gardens of World War II), the ever-expanding popularity of farming in the city is, and thanks to gardeners and teachers and agitators, it’s growing more mainstream each year.

Ms. Johnson takes the reader on garden visits to Detroit, Toronto, Guelph, Chicago and beyond, visiting cement slabs covered in containers bursting with tomatoes, balconies dripping with herbs, tiny backyards that house a handful of chickens, and boulevards planted with beans. It’s not always easy, or even legal: plenty of cities have had to be talked into the benefit of growing food (both in public and privately owned property- I’m sure you’ve heard stories of home owner associations who don’t allow gardens or clotheslines, and some cities have hosted angry town hall meetings where people protest apple trees, even when groups are volunteering to do all the harvest and donate the apples to a food pantry. What a thing to to get angry about…), and fights still go on all over the world about this. It’s even local to me: a few towns over, a city banned the presence of hoop greenhouses in residents’ backyards (I find this incredibly stupid, but this is a REALLY snobby town, so. Local groups aren’t giving up, though, so stay tuned!) There are so many interesting stories and so much great information in this book about what growing your own food in the city looks like or could look like if we just open our minds about what our surroundings are supposed to look like.

The sections about gardening as a form of food security really struck me as deeply practical; Ms. Johnson quotes one source that states that Americans no longer grow enough fruit to serve everyone their recommended servings per day, which is…unsettling at best. All it takes is a small disruption in the food supply chain, which could happen due to weather, an accident, crop failure, *huge sigh here* politics, and suddenly, we’re out of dietary staples. While I don’t quite have a full year of food on hand, I do keep a well-stocked pantry that would leave us okay for a few months, but books like these make me well aware of the need to produce more of what my family needs on my own quarter-acre, and we’re planning on it (we planted one of our cherry trees the other day! As per our local arboretum’s suggestion, the other will spend the winter at my mom’s house, safe from my cats, and that way, we’ll have a backup if the one we planted doesn’t last through any of our heavier snows. Currently, we have an apple tree, a plum tree, and now a cherry, none yet fruiting, and most likely we’ve got years to wait). We’ve got three butternut squash on the counter right now, grown in our backyard, along with two small tomatoes- our tomatoes did terrible this year, but that seems to be the norm for around here. Just a bad year for tomatoes, I guess. We do have a few kale leaves sprouting in our new front yard garden patch, though!

My only beef with this book is with ME- why do I always pick fall and winter to read gardening books??? They make me want to plant ALL THE THINGS and I found City Farmer so inspirational. If so many people can grow so much more, in spaces so much smaller than what I have, I need to get a move on- and I will…once it’s actual planting season. Until then, I’ll plan and dream and read on.

For a short bio on Lorraine Johnson, click here.

nonfiction

Living More With Less- Doris Janzen Longacre

Sometimes reading one book brings another to mind, and that was the case with my last read that featured an Amish woman as a main character. The descriptions of her routine and the simplicity she incorporated into her daily life reminded me of a book on my own shelves, one that I’d started reading a few years ago but hadn’t finished. It was time to pick that book up again. Doris Janzen Longacre is probably better known for her More With Less Cookbook, the iconic cookbook that taught people to use meat more as a flavoring or an ingredient, and that soybeans could be satisfying when cooked well (I own a copy of this too!), but she also wrote Living More With Less (Herald Pr, 1980), an inspirational book that seeks to aid the reader in simplifying their life and feeling the better for it.

Published posthumously after Longacre’s premature death from cancer, Living More With Less is written primarily for a Mennonite audience, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading. While religious belief and practice is woven throughout this book, its goal isn’t to convert or proselytize, more to remind its reader of their responsibility to their fellow humans. Why should we have so much when so many have so little? Regardless of your religious belief or lack thereof, it’s an important question that will have you thinking twice about what impact your every decision has upon the earth and your neighbors.

Ms. Janzen begins with chapters on ideals- doing justice, learning from the world community, nurturing people, and so on- then follows up with stories, anecdotes, and suggestions from others who have discovered how to incorporate these principles into their lives in sustainable, caring, and beneficial ways. While Amy Daczyzyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette, though partially outdated (yet still invaluable!), will give you a better rundown on thrift for the sake of thrift, Living More With Less is more about adjusting your entire attitude, a kick-in-the-pants, if you will, for your mindset about your relationship to this planet and all the people on it. Why do you need a fancy new car when there are people who have to walk miles in the burning sun in order to procure a day’s clean(ish) water? Why do you need ten pairs of shoes when there are people who struggle to afford one? How is it justice that you have more food than you need when your neighbors are starving?

While every suggestion compiled by Longacre isn’t going to fit your needs (you probably aren’t in the market to build a geodesic dome house, for example, although I’ve seen a few of these and they’re pretty cool), it’s enough to read and consider how to implement the theory behind these suggestions into your own life. Could you walk more? Carpool? Implement a brown-bag lunch day with friends instead of spending money on restaurant food? Make your clothing last or trade with friends instead of buying new? There are hundreds upon hundreds of ideas and recommendations in this book that something is sure to strike a chord in you, that will make you sit up and think, “You know, I could be doing that a little better…” One suggestion even talked about making ice outside when the weather is below freezing in order to not force the inside freezer to work so hard, and I sat back in my chair, wondering why I’d never managed to consider that before. Cripes. What else am I missing???

Doris Janzen Longacre was a visionary before her time. So much of what she includes in this book could come straight out of any hot-off-the-presses new release on simplicity and sustainable living. While some of the statistics in Living More With Less are surely outdated, the odds are that things have only become more dire, with more need to cut out, reuse, repurpose, and cut back so that the resources can go where they’re needed. Much like the recent, heartbreaking death of Rachel Held Evans, the world lost something special when Ms. Longacre passed away far too early.

This is a book that will have a permanent place of honor on my shelf, and I feel like I’ll turn to it when I need an attitude adjustment, to remember why I do the things I do. We have a Mennonite church in my town (right across the street from the community garden, as luck would have it! They’re Mennonite USA, as opposed to the groups who are one step up from the Amish, and are indistinguishable in dress from anyone else in town), and it warms my heart that there’s a group of people nearby who are so committed to the ideals and principles in this book, which I live by as well. Always nice to better understand your neighbors. 🙂

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. Goodreads claims it’s out of print, but you can purchase a used copy on Amazon. I bought mine for a dollar from a used book store several years ago (the previous owner left the receipt in the book; they paid $10.95), and it’s still available at several branches of my local libraries. If you’re looking for a mental wake-up call as to the whys of simpler living, this is the book you’ve been looking for.

Two quotes I found significant in the book:

‘That way of living makes other people poor.’

‘The hard facts are that in order to raise significantly the standard of living of the many poor in the world it is necessary to lower the living standards of the rich. This means giving up some of the advantages the rich and powerful have in favor of the poor. It means a kind of political action and courage that has not yet been shown among nations.’ -Gordon Hunsberger

And I’ll leave you with a story which has vastly made me consider and reconsider what resources I’m using, why I’m using them, if I could use less, and how I could use everything more wisely:

‘In 1952 I was studying the Hindi language with my teacher Panditji. From his philosophic mind, which probed the meaning of events and circumstances, I learned more than Hindi.
I especially remember one lesson. It was Christmastime and as I awaited the arrival of Panditji, I quickly opened stacks of delightful cards, discarding the envelopes in the wastebasket. When Panditji entered the room, he sat down soberly and studied the situation. Then he solemnly scolded me in perfect English with these words, “The reverberation of this wasteful act will be felt around the world.”
Stunned, I asked, “What do you mean, Panditji?”
“Those envelopes,” he said, pointing to the wastebasket. “You could write on the inside of them.”
Chagrined, I apologized and began taking them out of the basket. He carefully helped me, almost caressing each one. For every Hindi lesson he taught thereafter, I took notes on the back of an envelope. Our class also began sharing envelopes with his growing family, for he could not afford [paper] tablets for his children. Today I still carefully save paper in my home and office.’