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This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader

This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader
Joan Dye Gussow
Chelsea Green
Publication Date: 

cloth, 273 p., $22.95

Joan Dye Gussow brings to this book a depth of knowledge about the environment, organic food movement and the relationships between farmers, consumers and the economy. She goes beyond the labels on foodstuffs to caring where and how food is produced. Her book is a wake-up call to those who want to know more about their food — what, if any, additives are included and whether its production is environmentally friendly.

This Organic Life is organized around journal entries describing the author's move to a large gardening area and questionable dwelling in a deteriorating mill town on a flood plain along the Hudson River in suburban New York. She discusses her successes and failures in the garden and with an ancient building, eventually gutted and rebuilt. One might fault the author for spending a little too much time on her adventures with that building, but at least it is humorously presented.

Ms. Gussow's challenge in the yard is to create an environmentally sensitive and self-sufficient garden to feed her family. With canning and preserving, her labor in the garden provides year-long sustenance (and for readers' sustenance she includes a rich crop of recipes). Yet This Organic Life is not another manual on organic gardening. It is instead a celebration of the toil to produce food from a degraded riverside lot, an homage to a productive family vegetable and fruit garden. In the course of this effort, the value of growing food is emphasized for its health benefits as well as energy savings.

As the story gathers momentum, the author chronicles local interest in her produce garden. Inevitably, the question of animals arises, from wasps to rabbits to crows and rats. Not an organic question, the author recites her adventures as she deals with scavengers from the wild who, like her family, are looking for their next meal.

Responsible eating; strained energy resources; the collapse of local farming and fisheries; the deterioration of soil, water and air; and politics are all addressed in Gussow's funny yet wise narrative.

— Elaine M. Juhl, Master Gardener and Volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden