WHAT TO READ by Tom Montgomery Fate

Tom Montgomery FateFriends of Ryerson Woods seeks to contribute to the development of an environmentally literate citizenry that has the skills, knowledge and inclinations to make well-informed choices that consider future generations. We believe environmental education extends beyond science to embrace human interaction with nature and its expression, including literature.  As such, we periodically invite individuals we respect to share a list of books that have influenced their thinking about nature and the environment.  As such, we invited our friend, author Tom Montgomery Fate, to share a list of books that have made an impression on him and his writing.  Some excellent food for thought here.  Enjoy!

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“What is religion?” Thoreau once asked in his Journal.  His response:  “That which is never spoken.”  He describes taking a bath each day in Walden Pond as a “religious experience.”  From William Wordsworth to Mary Oliver there are dozens of books by writers who attempt to explore the spiritual components of observation and engagement with the natural world.  That said, I can recommend a few in recent years that might be of interest:

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore

In an effort to make sense of the deaths in quick succession of several loved ones, Kathleen Dean Moore turned to the comfort of the wild, making a series of solitary excursions into ancient forests, wild rivers, remote deserts, and windswept islands to learn what the environment could teach her in her time of pain. This book is the record of her experiences. It’s a stunning collection of carefully observed accounts of her life—tracking otters on the beach, cooking breakfast in the desert, canoeing in a snow squall, wading among migrating salmon in the dark—but it is also a profound meditation on the healing power of nature.

The Force of Spirit by Scott Russell Sanders

Scott Russell Sanders reveals how the pressure of the sacred breaks through the surfaces of ordinary life-a life devoted to grown-up children and aging parents, the craft of writing, and the natural world. Whether writing to his daughter and his son as each prepares to get married, or describing an encounter with a red-tailed hawk in whose form he glimpses his dead father, or praising the disciplines of writing and carpentry and teaching, Sanders registers, in finely tuned prose, the force of spirit.

The Creation by E. O. Wilson

Called “one of the greatest men alive” by The Times of London, E. O.
Wilson proposes an historic partnership between scientists and religious leaders to preserve Earth’s rapidly vanishing biodiversity.  With his usual eloquence, patience and humor, Wilson, our modern-day Thoreau,
adds his thoughts to the ongoing conversation between science and religion. Couched in the form of letters to a Southern Baptist pastor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist pleads for the salvation of biodiversity, arguing that both secular humanists like himself and believers in God acknowledge the glory of nature and can work together to save it.

Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

Living for almost 40 years on a family farm in Kentucky has led Berry to place a high value on local knowledge born of a long and affectionate engagement of the intellect and imagination with a particular place. To readers of his poems, novels and essays, it will be no surprise that in his latest essay collection, he argues cogently and passionately against the proposition E.O. Wilson puts forth in Consilience, that our best hope for preserving the biosphere lies in linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines under the hegemony of the natural sciences.

Writing the Sacred in the Real by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Descended from the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alison Deming appropriately begins this philosophical autobiography along the shores of the North Atlantic – on Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy. Moving on to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then to Tucson, Arizona, and Paomoho, Hawaii, Deming describes places that are dear to her because their ways are still shaped by terms nature has set, though less and less so. With vivid ideas and passion, Deming writes about the importance of nature writing for these peripatetic times. Because people’s lives are materially less connected to the natural world, they are also spiritually less connected. Through the arts – through the story of the captain whose boat honors the Kwakiutl “Wild Woman of the Woods” or the fisherman who sacrifices his catch to save two whales – people fall again “into harmony with place and each other”; they write the sacred into the real.

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

In this eloquent volume, eminent biologist Ursula Goodenough reconciles the modern scientific understanding of reality with our timeless spiritual yearnings for reverence and continuity. Looking at topics such as evolution, emotions, sexuality, and death, Goodenough writes with rich, uncluttered detail about the workings of nature in general and of living creatures in particular. Her luminous clarity makes it possible for even non-scientists to appreciate that the origins of life and the universe are no less meaningful because of our increasingly scientific understanding of them. At the end of each chapter, Goodenough’s spiritual reflections respond to the complexity of nature with vibrant emotional intensity and a sense of reverent wonder.  A beautifully written celebration of molecular biology with meditations on the spiritual and religious meaning that can be found at the heart of science, this volume makes an important contribution to the ongoing dialog between science and religion. This book will engage anyone who was ever mesmerized–or terrified–by the mysteries of existence.

And if you prefer audio to print, here is a wonderful series exploring the relationship between science and religion from PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledgehttp://www.wpr.org/book/GOD/index.html

Tom Montgomery Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and the author of five nonfiction books.  The most recent is Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.  For more information on Tom’s work, please visit:  http://tommontgomeryfate.com/

Book descriptions drawn from Amazon.com.

WHAT TO READ by Marion Cartwright

As we are about to launch our 2012 programming wrapped around the theme Lessons from the Prairie, we’ve decided to offer a new aspect to our blog.  Several times a year, we will invite individuals from the conservation community to share their list of recommended reads with our readers.  Here read about the books that have influenced our good friend Marion Cartwright.  With vast experience in organic gardening, ecological restoration and environmental education, we are so pleased to share Marion’s list of must-read books.  Enjoy!

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The Garden at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, a recent project of Marion Cartwright’s.

The current 5-year Farm Bill is set to expire this September 30 and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are working on recommendations.  Now is the time to write your members of Congress.  What do you want to tell them? What will you recommend be kept, dropped, changed in this next farm bill?  How much can any of us be expected to know about how our food is raised, transported, processed, made safe for consumption?  How much say do we have about soil and water health in our country? What is a healthy American diet anyway, given the way recommendations keep changing over the years?  How many U.S. citizens don’t have access to the healthy foods?  How are other countries dealing with agricultural policy and practices?  Big picture questions.

Then there are the personal, in my backyard questions.  If you want to grow more of your own food and flowers following organic practices, how do you go about that, in the place you live?  What if you want to raise chickens for eggs or goats for milk and cheese?  What if you want to take out the Scotch pines and Norway maples and plant native trees?  Do you know what pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers your neighbors and local government agencies are using? Is your soil and water healthy?

These questions have been front and center for me both personally and professionally for 35 years.  I have read a lot, attended lectures and conferences and town meetings, started gardens at schools, grown gardens for my own family, and created 1-2 acre organic market gardens in more than one place.  I have also spent over 10 years working to restore degraded native woodlands, prairies and wetlands and delivering environmental education focused on keeping native ecosystems healthy.  The need to read has been intense.   Here are a few of my go-to sources, the ones that provided either inspiration or factual information to guide me.

Older, but also wise, and still relevant and inspirational today:

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, Ballantine Books, 1966

If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time.  If you have, this in one book to read again (and again) ‘nough said.

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The Albrecht Papers: Soil Fertility and Animal Health, by William Albrecht, Acres, 1975.  A soil consultant recently summarized the life and career of soil scientist Albrecht by saying, “Everything this man ever wrote is 100% correct.”   The health of plants and animals on a farm (and ultimately human health) are dependent upon the soil health.  We hope to breed plants to tolerate diseases, but if plant nutrition is deficient that will remain a vain hope.  Why didn’t more farmers and university professors and U.S.D.A. and extension service staff study read this book?

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Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation, by J.Sholto Douglas & Robert A de J. Hart, with  a foreword by E.F. Schumacher, Rodale Press, 1978. Agriculture in mountainous, rocky or dry regions is a disaster and is happening more and more with the pressure of overpopulation, but trees are salvation, providing food, clothing, fuel, shelter, soil retention, water cycle balancing. This book will lead you to read more about Permaculture.

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The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry, Sierra Club Books, 1996. Wendell Berry is an articulate and knowledgeable advocate for family farms, local economy, the value of human work, and the cultural and spiritual life of farming.   A distillation of years of Berry’s thought can be found (on-line) in his April 2012 address for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He was selected this year to give the annual Jefferson lecture, the most prestigious honor the national government bestows on academics.

More recent:

Reclaiming The Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue, Yale University Press, 2001.   Helpful example about how a community can organize and support a local farm (with animals) for the local community and also harvest a local woodland for syrup and wood for the community. Still going strong today in Weston, MA.

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How To Grow More Vegetables (and fruits nuts, berries, grains and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons, Ten Speed Press,  1974 first edition, 2006 7th edition.  A primer for the backyard gardener with limited space.  Though I don’t find the need to double dig my beds as frequently as Jeavons, there is a lot of helpful information to help you with a garden plan and an extensive bibliography and supply catalogue list.   Jeavons is all about soil sustainability and encourages gardeners to grow their own compost crops rather than bring compost in from the outside (robbing Peter to pay Paul as he sees it).

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The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, by Sandor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006.  Chock full of facts and figures on where modern industrial agriculture and the food industry have gone awry and ideas for positive change, both at the policy level and in our own homes. Each chapter includes a list of Action and Information Resources.  For people interested in taking more direct responsibility for their own health and nutrition, this book goes into detail about how to grow it, forage for it, ferment it or cook it yourself and it gives lots of examples of how food was grown and prepared “traditionally” for years.

And even if most of you have already heard about these or read them, my personal list just wouldn’t be complete without them:

In Defense of Food (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), by Michael Pollan, Penquin Press.

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is Pollan’s simple, clear message in the former.  It’s all here: how we produce and market food and learning how to eat healthily again.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Pollan provides an inside look at industrial farming and organic, sustainable farming practices.  You will also go on foraging and hunting trips with Pollan.

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Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture by Wes Jackson, Counterpoint, 2010. Agriculture has gone through an Age of Monoculture.  And it is not sustainable.  If we hope to continue providing food in perpetuity, we must transition to the Age of Perennials. Jackson has been doing research since 1976 at his Land Institute in Kansas to help us make this transition.  The new farm bill needs to support this research and effort.    Write your government representatives and senators.  Come to the Smith Nature Symposium at Ryerson Woods on May 19th to learn more from Wes Jackson himself, the keynote speaker!

Marion Cartwright is a long-time member of Friends of Ryerson Woods and previously a member of the Board of Directors. Thank you, Marion!