By Anne Raver
EARLY one morning a couple of weeks ago, I helped Joan Dye Gussow, 81, lug three bags of topsoil to the riverbank, before it became too hot and humid to work in her garden, which sweeps down from her house to the Hudson River.
It was hard to get a grip on the heavy plastic bag, but Ms. Gussow, a nutritionist and matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement, is amazingly sturdy for an octogenarian, and she marched me down the wide clover path toward the river.
“It likes being walked on,” she said of the white clover, as we trudged past her tomato cages full of ripening San Marzanos and Sungolds, self-seeded rainbow chard, sweet potatoes, newly planted peas, Malabar spinach and many other vegetables that make up Ms. Gussow’s year-round food supply.
More than 35 years before Fritz Haeg started his Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn project in 2005 — his effort to turn the country’s lawns into vegetable patches — Ms. Gussow and her husband, Alan, an artist, were already in that mode. They laid down trash, kitchen waste and weeds, covered with newspapers and salt hay (killing the grass and making compost at the same time) on the front lawn of their Victorian in Congers, N.Y. Their goal: to grow food for themselves and their two young sons, Adam and Seth.
They farmed that lawn for more than two decades before moving here, to do the same thing, in 1995.
Ms. Gussow had gone back to school in 1969 to earn a doctorate in nutrition at Columbia University, at a time when nutrition was all about vitamins and chemistry, not how food was grown and where it came from. She began connecting the dots between what Americans were eating and how that food — be it factory-farmed chicken or Twinkies — was produced.
She created a legendary course, Nutritional Ecology, which she still teaches today, with a former student, Toni Liquori, who as director of School Food Focus, a nationwide program, works with school districts to buy more healthful, locally grown food.
Because Ms. Gussow dared to talk about energy use, pollution, diabetes and obesity as the true costs of food, she was initially viewed as a maverick crank, but her connections inspired the work of people like Michael Pollan, whose book “In Defense of Food,” echoes many of her revelations.
“She has been a powerful influence on the food movement,” said Mr. Pollan, adding that he admires her “clarity of thinking” and her ability to cut through complex issues to the simple truth: “We all know nutrients are important,” he said. “But Joan says, ‘Eat food.’ That’s the kernel of ‘In Defense of Food.’ ”
Ms. Gussow’s thinking, like Mr. Pollan’s, has always been grounded in the garden.
That muggy morning, as temperatures headed for the high 90s, we dumped the bags of soil near the boardwalk, where, only a few feet away, mallards were paddling peacefully in the quiet water. It was hard to imagine that in March a storm had brought the river surging over the boardwalk, tearing up its boards and pilings, ripping raised beds out of the ground as it moved toward the house, burying the long narrow garden — 36 by 100 feet — under two feet of water.
You can read the story on Ms. Gussow’s Web site, joansgarden.org: “I found myself quite numb — not hysterical as I might have expected. I think it’s age,” she wrote, after sloshing about in her rubber boots the morning after. “There’s absolutely nothing I could have done to prevent it.”
The day of the storm, March 13, had been a momentous one: she had finished the revisions to her new book, “Growing Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables,” published by Chelsea Green, and due out in November. And for the first time in her long writing life — she has written, co-written or edited five books — she was about to get an advance.
The morning after, finding herself blocked by the debris of what used to be raised beds and the boardwalk, she went inside to call Dave Avdoyan, the landscaper who had built the boxes for those beds, as well as a low stone wall on the north side of the garden, which in recent years had blocked river water rising in a storm. Now it, too, was submerged.
She figured her plants, including her beloved fruit trees and azaleas, were a total loss. But Mr. Avdoyan surveyed the wreckage, looked over the fence at the empty lot next door, which had better drainage and wasn’t as flooded, and proposed a radical solution: using the lot as a staging area and trucking in enough fill to raise her bathtub of a garden two feet.
Joan’s new book, Growing, Older, will be available this October in our bookstore.