Book Review: Nature’s Garden.

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Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer. Forager’s Harvest Press 2010.

Sam Thayer is my favorite foraging author, and so far, this is my favorite of his books. That is no insult to his other book, The Forager’s Harvest. This one just happens to have plants that are more common and widespread. I recommend Nature’s Garden for beginners because it lays down such a great foundation of knowledge, is accessibly written, and also covers each plant in so much detail. I also recommend it for advanced and intermediate foragers, because it corrects a lot of myths that have been repeated in many other foraging books, and because it helped me to move beyond just foraging, to wanting to learn about how people, plants, and other organisms all interact.

Nature’s Garden has a great line up of plants, but it would be worth the price of the book for the 50 page chapter on acorns alone.

The book starts out with introductory chapters that encourage best practices in plant ID, and put foraging in context. After that, each of the chapters features a different plant. They begin with a quick story from Sam’s life, then proceed to cover all aspects needed to confidently learn how to interact with the plant.

A true gem, the only complaint I have heard are that is doesn’t cover as many plants as some books, but this is a situation where quality is more important than quantity.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

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Beyond the War on Invasive Species.

Photo of the cover of the book Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion.
Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion.


Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion, Chelsea Green Publishing 2015.

So I have a new favorite Permaculture/rewilding book! I know this book covers a controversial issue, that tends to incite strong emotions, but I just had to review it. There have been a few authors over that last 10 or so years that have challenged the status quo view on invasive plants, and I respect them for putting their reputations on the line, but their books have maybe gone a little too far and almost glamorized invasives, and they haven’t offered many solutions. This is not that kind of book.

When I 1st got into plants, I bought strongly into the standard notion that native always equals good, and non-native always equals bad. It seemed pretty straight forward, and I could see the pattern all around me in the woods. As I was exposed to more nuanced views, I reacted like many people do, with anger. As I read more about Permaculture, I slowly warmed to the idea that weeds could play an important role in healing the disturbances that modern humans have caused, however I still held firm on my opposition to invasives in later succession or less disturbed areas. Finally a couple years ago, when I was exposed to the critique of the ties between Monsanto (and other chemical companies) and some of the larger organizations that encourage large scale chemical control of invasive species, I flipped and went to the rah rah invasives are the solution to all our problems end of the spectrum. Since then I have continued to evolve a more balanced and nuanced view, and started to develop an approach to invasives that I feel is solution based, and should work no matter what the ultimate truth is about these controversial beings.

That is where Tao Orion’s book comes in. It basically lays out everything that I was trying to figure out how to put out there, but it does so in a much more compelling manner that I would have, and it comes from someone who is not only more well read than I, but also has much more hands on experience with managing invasives. Tao got her start in the ecosystem restoration industry, but spent years using less conventional techniques on her own organic farm.

This book lays out a strong critique of the war on invasive species, but just like you don’t have to naive about the problems with drugs to be opposed to the war on drugs, the same is true for invasive species and the war that is being waged on them. Tao delves into the issues that come from viewing all ecological change as “harm”, what happens when the chemical industry and environmental groups share economic interests, the poor quality of safety testing on many herbicides, and the lack of systems thinking in our approaches to invasives. This critique is important and well laid out, but much more important is the positive vision that is put forward. While there are specific techniques offered, the main strength of this book is that it it refuses to get caught up in laying out universal solutions, and rather focuses on how to see what might be causing invasions, and whole system solutions to the problems.

My favorite section comes in the last chapter, when Tao gives an example of a Permaculture solution to an actual situation near where she lives. The example is of a park that is filled with a tall invasive grass, that is not only changing the local habitat, but also providing cover for homeless people. The park’s current strategy is to spray the grass with large amounts of herbicides, but Tao asks, what if instead the homeless people where allowed to build themselves small homes, using invasive species (including the grass) as construction materials, and allowed to live there in exchange for managing the land.

Yes, I know this scenario is not likely to be taken up in most towns in this country, but what does that say about us? What if we stopped forcing homeless people to be homeless? What if instead of declaring war on all our problems, we started living into them? What if we moved away from spraying ecosystems with industrial chemicals, and instead learned how to provide for our selves and our communities from them? What if the most abundant and competitive species were the best ones to use for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter?

I don’t know, but I am glad this book is out there reminding us to take a step back and look at our problems with new eyes.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation.

Photo of the cover of Enduring Seeds.

Enduring Seeds by Gary Paul Nabhan, University of Arizona Press 2002.

I just finished reading this, and had to review it. I got this from the library thinking that I might be able to glean some good information from it. I ended up reading it cover to cover, and more importantly it has really helped to expand my understanding of indigenous land management.

Nabhan refuses to see the world in simplistic terms, and does an excellent job of advancing the case that traditional land-based cultures and their agricultural practices are vital to both the future of agriculture as well as the health of the planet. He critiques many of our current attitudes as well as showing the great value of wild plants and indigenous crops, while avoiding black and white answers to the problems we face.

Each chapter weaves together compelling stories of the author’s experiences with different cultures and crops, with many fascinating details and complex traditional land management concepts.

I was particularly interested in the idea put forward that not only are small scale indigenous farmers more knowledgeable about the ecosystems that they live in than large scale commercial farmers, but maybe also many hunter-gatherers. The farmers do have to have long unbroken agricultural traditions and still rely partially on hunting and gathering for this to be true.

I strongly recommend Enduring Seeds to anyone interested in wild plants, indigenous cultures, ecology, plant breeding, or heirloom crops. another good read.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

Gardening: Cultivating Wisdom.

Photo of book cover.

Gardening: Cultivating Wisdom edited by Dan O’Brien, from the series Philosophy for Everyone edited by Fritz Allhoff, Wiley-Blackwell 2011.

So here I am, the wild food proponent, reviewing another gardening book. How did that happen? Well sometimes one thing leads to another. After reviewing The Resilient Gardener, I was offered for a review copy. Considering it covers gardening and philosophy, I was pleased to read it.

While this isn’t a super specialized foraging or permaculture how to manifesto, like I often read, it is a very good book that would be of considerable interest to anyone who wants to learn more about people’s relationship with the natural world, especially in the context of the garden.

The book is comprised of numerous essays by different authors, each with their own unique angle. I am very impressed that Permaculture is mentioned at least once by name, and hunter-gatherers, foragers, and horticulturalists, are discussed in many of the essays. Also, each author brings their own definition of gardening, and some of them are broad enough to include the most cutting edge forest gardens as well as many primitive peoples’ land management techniques. Even the essays with a more narrow view of what a garden is had interesting thoughts of our interaction with plants and how that impacts us philosophically.

Of special interest to me were the essays grouped together in section two. These four deal with the political and hierarchical nature of gardens in specific times and places. They cover a range of topics such as how early the British and early Mediterranean Empires used gardens as tools to maintain social inequality to the effect of urban allotments on the level of political engagement of the working poor in the United Kingdom.

Another essay that I found enlightening was about the attempt of Epicurean philosophers to replicate the positive aspects of primitive peoples’ lives, while continuing to benefit from the security provided by the cities of their day. Their critique of society and their understanding of history are remarkably similar to current Primitivist thinkers.

Anyway, these are just a few examples among the many thought provoking essays in this quality book.

Just a quick personal note, now that my first photography show has come and gone, I should be able to post more frequently again. The plants have been coming to life so fast that I am at risk of developing a serious backlog. I’ll try to keep up, but get out and see for yourself what is happening all around us in our yards, our gardens, and out in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.

Photo of my copy of The Resilient Gardener.

The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe, Chelsea Green Publishing 2010.

Why would someone as passionate about wild food as I am choose a gardening book for their first book review? Well, when it comes to The Resilient Gardener, there are a bunch of reasons. For one thing, as much as I love foraging, I believe that small scale cultivation of staple crops will be an important part of any sustainable future. This book is also well written, thoughtful, and actually discusses the authors experience foraging large numbers of black walnuts and hazelnuts during one of her “hard times”.

The book walks you though ways to cultivate your life to be more resilient when difficult times (personal or global) happen, and how to make your garden an asset instead of a burden. Unlike some similar books, it manages to remain calm and upbeat, never descending into simplistic ideology, fear mongering, or individualistic survivalism.

While The Resilient Gardener is a far more useful “how to” book than many books that largely fail because they attempt to cover every possible garden plant, it is more than a “how to” book and every bit as much about the gardener as the garden. It is full of compelling stories from the author about her challenges with health, diet, and caring for her sick mother. Deppe’s personality really shines in this book. Her writing is thorough, precise, and scientific without losing the human touch. In fact this is one of the most human books that I have ever read. I am impressed that the publisher didn’t make her edit out some sections where she examines some of the minutest details of her dietary issues and health concerns. While there were points at which I was incredulous at the degree to which she studies herself and her bodies reaction to various components of what she eats, it is a more complete and authentic work this way.

The first half of the book looks at gardening and resiliency in general, delving into a wide variety of topics including climate change, traditional Native American agriculture, seed saving, food preservation, ecology, soil fertility, gluten intolerance, and a whole lot more.

The second half offers an in depth look at five different staple foods. These are potatoes, duck eggs, squash, beans, and corn. These five profiles tell you how to breed, cultivate, harvest, preserve, and prepare each crop. As well as offering tips on selecting varieties, and ways to obtain a good yield even in those times that you can’t afford the time or resources to pamper your garden the way you might like.

Photo of cornbread that I baked, based on a recipe in the book.

Each profile has several recipes. The picture above shows my version of Carol’s Skillet Cornbread. The only difference is that I use one sixth the amount of butter, and still get excellent results. This is a cornbread with no wheat to hold it together, yet it crumbles less than most cornbreads that I have tried. Deppe has such an obvious love of good food that by the end of the book, I almost forgot that it wasn’t just about enjoying homemade meals.

So why did I chose The Resilient Gardener as my first review?

I guess ultimately the biggest reason is because it is the perfect gardening book for a forager to own. It gives you a whole lot of good information on getting the most healthy and usable calories with the least amount of toil. Combining the knowledge in this book with that of a few good foraging books, could put you on a path towards better food security and a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. I just wish that I had this book last growing season, maybe my garden would have produced something worth what little work I put in.

Once again, thanks for reading. Comments and questions are appreciated.

Nate