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Our Hero: Joan Dye Gussow

The following article was written by Leslie Hatfield of EcoCentric, a blog about food, water, and energy – where this piece originally appeared.

Like many of the women I admire most, Joan Gussow has a bit of an edge to her.  One gets the impression that she doesn’t gladly suffer fools.  But as an avid gardener and longtime professor of nutrition at Columbia University’s Teachers College, she is also a world-class nurturer and a mentor to many, including Michael Pollan, whose quote on the back of Joan’s latest book, Growing, Older, reads:

“Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought, then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.”

Joan is also a practice in dichotomy – though she bemoans new media for its “misinformation pollution” and is known best for her expertise in that old-timey tradition of subsistence farming (though on an extremely small scale), she is also an unrepentantly radical thinker and the first person I ever heard speak coherently about nanotechnology.

For the uninitiated, Joan Gussow is known as the matriarch of the local food movement.  She and her late husband Alan began growing most of their food in their backyard decades ago. She wrote a memoir about the experience that included recipes but also told the story of our broken food system — never too preciously — in a way that connected it to her life, but also couched it in the context of larger environmental and economic systems.

The first time I met her (in 2008, I think), Joan had agreed to host a group of food activists at her home.  I was thrilled to finally lay eyes on the garden I’d spent so much time picturing while reading her first book, This Organic Life, and I was struck by how close the reality of it was to my mental images — a testament to her descriptive prose. (We made a short video that day, you can view it here.)

One year ago this week, Joan’s garden was devastated by a massive storm and flood.  It wasn’t the first time; the garden, shaped like a bathtub and fenced in on each side, had flooded each year since she and Alan first broke ground on the edge of the Hudson River. The damage was more serious than ever before, but this time, she could rectify the situation. Her neighbor had torn down his house and had yet to build a new one, so for the first time since she’d owned the property, there existed a land-based route to her backyard that wouldn’t involve thousands of wheelbarrows full of dirt, and thus existed the potential to fill in the bathtub-ness, once and for all.

Maybe it’s Joan’s connection to the garden and its inhabitants, which, as she notes in this video, “always seem to hang in there.” Or maybe Joan Gussow is just a tough old bird (or more aptly, a phoenix) who really does have a bit of an edge to her.

After last year’s storm – and anyone who has ever tended a garden could guess this – Joan was devastated. Foodies rallied. My good friend Kerry Trueman and her husband Matt Rosenberg built this website, where donations — monetary and in-kind — were encouraged and her legion of fans expressed their support. McEnroe Farms generously donated a great deal of high quality top soil. Soon, Joan had the resources to rebuild her garden and raise it by several feet. Joan saved what she could of what was in the ground and hired a local landscaper who had the machinery necessary for what was turning out to be a major undertaking. A skilled group came from the Stone Barns Center and in the style of an old-fashioned barn raising, put everything back.

Continue reading the full article at EcoCentric.

Joan Dye Gussow’s Growing, Older is available now.


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