Prophets of Bloom: An Evening with Joan Gussow, Michele Owens, and James Howard Kunstler
Civil Eats - March 31, 2011
On Tuesday, authors Joan Gussow, Michele Owens, and James Howard Kunstler joined Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally in a conversation about the state of our environment, our national politics, and our natural landscape. “Prophets of Bloom” contextualized these topics within our present political climate and debated the possibility for a return to a more sane and happy existence.
“Prophets of Bloom”—instead of doom—suggests that the greater systemic problems with our environment and our food system can be confronted and opposed by more sustainable efforts to keep our lifestyles reliant on local economies and land use. That’s the suggestion at least, but for the panelists of this evening’s conversation, the current reality was undeniable: We’re facing a progressively “disabled culture,” to use the words of Kunstler. Each author shared an opinion on how to navigate within our larger societal framework.
For Gussow, navigation is about balancing the reality of our societal choices with a personal curiosity for combating them. Through gardening and the education that comes with it, the spirited 81-year old explained her life mantra: “Accept the state of things and act as if you believe that.” Her question to the room, then, “What will it be like to convince people to abandon the supermarket,” was memorable for its genuine concern. As Gussow herself puts it, we grapple with our “existential grief” when we consider how large of predicament we find ourselves in these days. But by accepting grief, Gussow seems to challenge it with personal motivation—a trait that helped her to become the true pioneer of the organic movement that she is.
But, says Kunstler, “life is tragic.” Airing on the side of doom, Kunstler challenged the younger generation to demonstrate competence in combating “the failure in leadership” currently plaguing us. “Delusional thinking will rise in proportion to economic distress,” Kunstler predicted. To navigate the current climate, he spoke about the necessity of a coming peak oil and resource shock–a tipping point that will awaken our nation’s understanding of just how severely disabled our society really is. In this future time, successful leaders would be characterized by their ability to steer systemic change toward a more sane landscape. Towns, urban neighborhoods, and small communities would operate on local trade and transportation. In Kunstler’s opinion, when we next define hope, it should be the product of responsible action and “purposeful activity.”
While Gussow and Kunstler narrowed their focus to personal curiosity and larger political change, Owens revisited the actual location for such a revolution: the garden bed. “Perhaps I’m too much of an optimist for this group,” Owen said, but her appreciation of the “redemptive power of a home cooked meal” is a strong navigational tool. The landscape around us may be gloomy, but in Owen’s opinion, “the root to happiness is through a vegetable garden.” I think Gussow and Kunstler would agree.
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Joan Gussow Talks About her Garden’s Recovery (VIDEO)
Civil Eats (via EcoCentric) - March 18th, 2011 - By Leslie Hatfield
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.
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Joan Gussow Addresses “Growing Older on a Changing Planet” at Healthsource Food Speaker Series
Fletcher Allen Hospital Blog - February 14, 2011
On February 9th I had the pleasure and privilege to introduce the first in our Healthsource food speaker series, Joan Gussow. Joan is a widely acclaimed nutrition educator who is credited for sharing her insights about sustainable food decades before it became a popular tableside topic. She has also been called the Localvore Movement Matriarch – a title that she says is heavy but one that I think fits her extremely well.
Joan began her talk by sharing that she felt slightly intimidated (imagine, Joan Gussow intimidated?) at the prospect of speaking in Vermont. Why? Because Vermont is at the center of the sustainable food movement, and Vermonters understand that healthy food actually has a lot to do with health. She applauded not only the work that we are doing here at Fletcher Allen to provide healthier food, but also all of the hospitals across the state that are working hard to make changes.
Next, Joan moved on to talk about how, early in her career, she was proclaimed an extremist when she described, – in her words, “eat less meat, less fat, more vegetables and whole grains and a little dairy.” She does make it sound simple – which is a good lesson for both health care professionals and the public. She reflected on the preponderance of new products entering the market, and the impossibility of being able to stay abreast of exactly which products claim to have which nutrients — another reason to follow her basic advice to eat wholesome, whole foods instead of focusing on nutrients.
Joan then shared with us the real reason that she started to garden, which is based on her belief in the importance of eating in season. At one time she really didn’t know what local food she could eat from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley in January. Finding out became a lifelong journey of discovery.
For many years now Joan has grown all of her own vegetables, and some of her own fruit. Her disappointments and pleasures in the garden have been many, with some of the more memorable encounters described in both This Organic Life, and her latest book, Growing, Older. In Growing, Older, she describes in somewhat brutal honesty how, after the death of her lifetime partner, she finds companionship in her garden – a companionship that had been there all along. She feels that she is never alone in her garden.
As an avid, but only a somewhat successful gardener myself, I found the last lesson of Joan’s gardening experience to be especially meaningful: “Hope is the lesson that nature keeps teaching me.”
Diane Imrie is Director of Nutrition Services at Fletcher Allen.
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BBC Gardening Blog - February 6, 2011
I've been reading the wonderful Joan Gussow's 'Growing, Older'. Gussow is, I guess, the Joy Larkcom of the American organic movement. She's a nutritionist and gardener. This book is her autobiography about losing her husband, her passion for the environment and her Hudson garden that floods regularly, but still provides her with all her food. She is 82 years old and makes growing old look like one of the most pleasurable activities. The book has some wonderful passages. It's truly hard to put this one down and yet I have that feeling that comes with all good books that I'd like to eke it out for as long as possible.
Anyhow there's this bit where she's wondering why she doesn't feel alone after her husband has died. That sort of hit me. I think anyone who loves their garden, however big or small, will have had one of those moments, so hard to explain to non-gardeners. That the garden, in its whole sense, is so much more than just a bunch of plants in the soil, that it literally roots your sense of well-being to the world around you. Joan:
"That no such loss occurred, that I didn't fell bereft of interaction puzzled me and became another mystery to explore. After years of self-examination, I stumble across another reality that had been staring me in the face all along. As a gardener, I had life all around me. It's just that most of it was not human. As it turned out, the many other species - especially those that appeared invited or uninvited in my garden - were central not only to the maintenance of the planet but to the happiness of my life."
I doubt this book will get many reviews here as Gussow unfortunately is just not known about, but I urge anyone with a love of the earth to read this one.
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Nature Pulls You Forward–Joan Gussow's Organic Life
Cheery Observations - February 7, 2011
Joan Gussow exhibits a multitude of consistent character traits that I can only one day humbly hope to possess. Perseverance, honesty, a sense of humor, humility, strength, and a strong sense of morals: Gussow embodies each of them. I was lucky to see Dr. Gussow speak last Tuesday at the 92nd St. Y about her work and hew newest book, ‘Growing, Older‘. Dr. Gussow succinctly stated a moral philosophy: “As long as one has a future, one is alive.”
I first learned of Gussow’s name about a year ago, shortly after moving to Brooklyn. As I began to consistently read food blogs and publications, as well as work with local food organizations, her name was always surfacing, paired with lavish praise describing Joan Gussow as the pioneer of the local food movement. Michael Pollan has said, “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought; then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.” Noted Chicago chef, Rick Bayless, has even declared himself a “a Joan Gussow groupie.” ...
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Edible Business Trip: Joan Gussow Calls us Monks, Plugs Brooklyn and Kicks Off the Edible Institute
SANTA BARBARA–It was a trip well worthy the icy roads, airport delays, crummy hotel stays, and jetlag, because it was a balmy, sniffles-drying 75 degrees on the southern California waterfront where more than 70 Edible magazine publishers gathered for their annual powwow. And also because our guru Joan Gussow kicked off the event, the 2011 Edible Institute, calling the Edible magazines around the country “the monks of the middle ages, as people who are recording and saving what is sustainable and rational and loving—and delicious—from the catastrophes that are to come.”
Yes, Gussow played her “familiar Cassandra role”–which we profiled this past spring–listing the many ways in which the food system, “outside our food utopias of local eating,” was at risk of destroying us. But she also enticed the packed room, who had been supping on nose-to-tail tacos from Lilly’s on Chapala Street, with the vision of those things that now give this octogenarian hope...
Gussow has been running away from labels for decades now. She no longer calls herself a nutritionist–perhaps because she helped redefine and enlighten the entire field of nutrition. And she no longer calls herself an environmentalist–even though she helped show us all how food is an excellent gateway drug to serious environmental issues.
But for a self-declared non-foodie, Gussow sure knows how to paint a picture of a good meal. She left the entire room in smiles and giggles when she closed her talk with a passage from her new book, Growing Older, in which she describes the homegrown meal she prepared after a late September garden flooding episode from which she rescued figs and raspberries, brocolli and apples, and paired those with pasta, homemade pesto, and a beer. “Why does everybody laugh when I say, ‘opened a beer’?”
Gussow’s speech, a recap of other Edible Institute panels, as well as images from the local food and drink gala organized by Edible Santa Barbara will be available in the coming weeks at ediblecommunities.com.
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Powells.com Original Essay
October 28, 2010
Kiwis and Hope - by Joan Dye Gussow
It must have been sometime in the early 1970s, not long after the then-exotic kiwi was introduced into the United States from New Zealand, that my sister sent me as a Christmas gift, a box of those fuzzy egg-shaped fruits whose elegant pale green slices with their decorative black-seeds have since brightened so many salads, desserts, and buffet tables. The realization that this succulent treat was available in December and lasted through January seemed potentially life-saving as I began to ask myself whether choosing to eat locally — and mostly what I grew — meant that I would have to forgo fruit entirely in winter.I knew that the traditional kiwi was not hardy; like so much of our produce they all seemed to be grown in California, so the vines wouldn’t survive mid-Atlantic winters. And even though I had learned to keep citrus alive and producing by moving them in their giant pots into the house for the winter, I knew I couldn’t handle an aggressively vigorous kiwi vine.
But I had noticed that one of my garden catalogs offered a hardy kiwi that produced grape-sized fruit guaranteed to be as good-tasting as the original. The plant’s only drawback was that it didn’t produce fruit for seven years. But what the hell, my husband and I agreed; we were in our 50s. We could wait.
We immediately ordered two plants — a male and female were required for reproduction — and planted them on either side of an arbor we had set up in the middle of our shallow oak-shaded back yard. The vines grew vigorously from the start, so vigorously that they threatened to climb a nearby tree; but spring after spring as we waited for a sign of a bloom, there was none. In 10 flourishing years, neither of the plants ever produced a flower, to say nothing of a fruit.
When we left our giant Victorian house and moved 12 miles south to Piermont, New York, to live and grow vegetables, we tried to take the kiwi with us. But after we had dug a trench 20 feet in one direction without coming close to the end of the root, we gave it up. I imagine the vines are still there since the new owners have paid little attention to the yard.
Had we succeeded in digging up the kiwi I’m not sure where we would have put it. When we arrived in Piermont, we quickly realized that we had to be very careful what we planted in a yard only 36 feet wide. We didn’t really have a place for what promised to be a sprawling vine because in the only place suitable, we wanted a grape.
We didn’t get a grape right away. In fact, it wasn’t until two and a half years after our move, shortly after my husband died, that someone offered me a nursery pot with a grape vine in it, which inspired me to have an arbor built. The grape was planted and flourished, if vigorous vegetative growth can be thought of as flourishing. After its first tentative year (it had been heeled in while other activities were going on in the yard and it was initially and understandably miffed) it yearly sent out vigorous canes that quickly ran to the other end of the 13-foot-wide arbor, set bunches of grapes, and even ripened some.
But it wasn’t long before trouble set in. After a couple of years, each season’s leaves began to unfurl with odd thorny growths on their undersides and although the vine flowered and set grapes, these unfailingly blackened and fell off before any significant number had ripened. And then, every year, when fall came, I had to cut the vine back to manageable proportions, feeling guilty about not building clever garden furniture with the prunings, and wait for next year.
Read the full post at Powells.com.
Out of the Loss of a Garden, Another Life Lesson
The New York Times
August 18, 2010
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.
Now, looking about at her ebullient plants, many resurrected from the flood, Ms. Gussow said: “I’m not religious and I’m not superstitious, but I really feel that Mother Nature took care of me. This was the first time in 100 years this lot was open. The owner took down the house in January, and was not going to rebuild until April.”
And she had the advance to pay what ended up costing $10,000 for the materials and labor. “It feels like a gift to me,” she said. “This amazing event occurred, and gave me the opportunity to do something I’d been wanting to do for years.”
Over the next few weeks, friends from the city picked up lumber, and a neighbor stacked bricks and pavers from the paths on the boardwalk. Former students helped move hundreds of plants, stashing them in the driveway, on the deck, any corner they could find. Mr. Avdoyan and a helper rebuilt the boardwalk and friends replaced the filter cloth behind the rocks to keep soil from washing out with the river.
Then, on March 30, a high tide flooded the garden again.
Another week went by, and finally, Mr. Avdoyan set to work with his Caterpillar, forklifting plants like the still-blooming peach tree, the low ilex hedges and the azaleas right out of the ground, and trundling them over to the empty lot, where they were set in mounds of donated soil and compost.
After Mr. Avdoyan trucked in 200 yards of fill, a crew of 17 staff members from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., came down to spread 30 yards of soil and compost from McEnroe Organic Farm, in Millerton, N.Y., donated by Helena Durst. Then they laid down pavers and bricks for walkways that now lie flush with the vegetable beds.
“I’m so happy the wood is gone — it wasn’t pretty,” Ms. Gussow said, referring to the planting boxes, as we walked down the cross paths, admiring her crops.
“It was a lot of work,” she said, recalling how she singlehandedly repotted hundreds of plants, including precious lily bulbs.
I loved the soft, wide path of white clover, which rarely has to be mowed, and made a mental note to plant one in my own garden. Ditto for the perennial arugula, which was thriving beneath the trifoliate orange tree given to her by Barbara Kingsolver, who also lives off the land. The arugula, which returns year after year, was given to her by Larry Bogdanow, an architect and gardener, at the Just Food benefit held at Sotheby’s on April 25, where 300 locavores toasted and roasted Ms. Gussow, as the mother of their movement.
Other flood victims were thriving here as well: The kiwi vines, lifted out of their root-bound urns by the flood, are now climbing their trellis. The peach tree, relocated in a sunnier spot, bore 75 peaches in late June.
I had been in this garden in 2001, when Ms. Gussow’s first memoir, “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader,” was published. That book chronicled the constant floods and the battles with woodchucks and neighbors that she and Alan had begun waging six years earlier, when they moved into their 150-year-old house, a former Odd Fellows Hall that sat right on the street. But its backyard faced east, toward the sunrise, and ran right to the river. The house turned out to be so rotten they had to demolish it and rebuild. Alan had only two and a half years to enjoy it before he died of cancer, in May 1997.
“Growing Older” picks up that story, beginning with Ms. Gussow’s revelation that, to her surprise, she did not miss her husband, or even grieve for him.
“I kept experiencing it as a strange liberation from things I hadn’t known I was imprisoned by,” she writes. Such honesty is characteristic of Ms. Gussow, whether she is discussing intimate relationships or the one the United States has with oil.
In a recent speech before the Society of Nutrition Education in Reno, Nev., she did not mince words. “Your children’s children will never see an iceberg,” she told the audience. “They will never see a glacier. There will be no penguins, no polar bears.”
And here we stood in her garden, which was simmering in a week of high humidity, with no rain. The morning news had told of wildfires burning up the forests in Russia, and of hundreds of people dying from the heat.
We came inside, because it was too hot to work, to make a breakfast of those luscious Marzanos, simmered in a little oil and cumin, and eggs.
“If we work out there in that sunshine, we would die,” Ms. Gussow said, pulling the label off the little plastic bag that had held the cumin, so she could use it again for something else. (Is cumin good for you? I asked. “I have no idea,” she replied. “I tend not to eat for that reason.”)
Her hero is Bill McKibben, the environmental activist whose latest book, “Eaarth,” will be a key text in her course at Columbia this fall.
She summed up his message: “It’s too late to live on Earth. We have to figure out how to live on this new planet. It’s not the planet we grew up on.”
Every year, she tries to prepare her students for the despair they inevitably feel as they consume the readings she has compiled on the world’s population, poverty, hunger, pollution, disease, loss of habitat and farmland, melting ice caps, oil spills and the like.
“All you can do is say: ‘You can’t be optimistic about the state of the world — what you can be is open-minded. You’re going to look for solutions, and you’re going to make your own life mean something. You can no longer think that accumulating money or the biggest house is the answer,’ ” she said.
She is encouraged by all the young people going into agriculture.
“In this unreal world of electronic communication, they want to do something real, with their hands,” she said. “It’s very creative and very intellectually challenging, despite what people think.”
Ms. Gussow figures she has a good 20 years, at least, to garden in this watery paradise. But time is finite.
“Would I be down to 15 springs before the pawpaw tree I planted as a seed finally began to bear?” she writes in “Growing Older.”
She is already at work on her next book. It’s called “Starting Over at 81.”
How to Keep the Crops In and the Woodchucks Out
HERE are some tips for vegetable gardeners from Joan Dye Gussow.
Make your own sweet-potato slips by suspending a sweet potato, speared with toothpicks, over a glass jar filled with water. It should form roots in a week or so and begin sprouting from the top. If it doesn’t, turn it upside down; roots will grow from the bottom and the top will sprout. When sprouts have leaves, snap the shoots off at the base and root in a glass of water.
Keep woodchucks, rabbits and other varmints out of the broccoli and cabbage patch by placing a piece of construction wire, curved in a hoop, over the plants, along the length of the bed. Add a layer of chicken wire. The mini-hoop house offers support as plants like brussels sprouts grow, and critters cannot get to tempting crops.
Use 16-inch-square pavers, edged with brick, to make a path two feet across, wide enough for walking or rolling a wheelbarrow. The path gives a crisp look to the crops in the beds on either side, which, in Ms. Gussow’s new garden, are now flush with it, not raised and edged with wood.
Ms. Gussow used to start her own chilies, eggplants and tomatoes from seed, but now she orders plants from Cross Country Nurseries (908-996-4646, chileplants.com), in Rosemont, N.J. The company ships live plants nationwide from April through June, and fresh chilies from September to frost.
To preserve chard, de-stem the leaves, then roll them up to julienne and lightly sauté. Put cupfuls on a tray and freeze. Place frozen cupfuls in a plastic bag, and stash in the freezer, to be used as needed.
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Profile in Audacity: Dr. Joan Gussow
August 4, 2010
As I was finally getting around to listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Edible Radio, I heard an incredible interview of the indomitable Dr. Joan Gussow. A young 81, Dr. Gussow is THE pioneer in the locovore movement, THE pioneer in connecting food to everything – energy, health, climate change – in short, one of the inspirations for me to go and be audacious, quit my job, and start Zomppa.
I first met Dr. Gussow as a doctoral student when I decided to take her class in Nutritional Ecology class she and another audacious leader in the school food movement, Toni Liquori of Liquori & Associates. This was the class that finally made everything *click* for me. Six months after her class, I found myself on an organic farm, writing my dissertation in the evenings after my chores were finished. Some people thought I was crazy.
But then again, lots of people thought Dr. Gussow was a little crazy when she decided at the age of 40 to learn as much as she could about our food system and to shake things up. Shake them a lot.
Check out these great articles about this “dangerous woman.”
I am not the only inspired by Dr. Gussow. Folks, like Michael Pollan, credit her for paving the way when there was no way. She wrote about issues (i.e. energy crisis and food) thirty years ago, issues that still ring true today. She spoke out before it was trendy to talk about organic food, local farmer’s market, and CSAs. She still grows all her food in a small plot in her New York home, which I had the privilege of visiting.
Hear this fantastic interview of this audacious pioneer, gardener, professor, educator, writer.
It will be well worth your time.
Dr. Gussow has and continues to inspire hundreds of thousands of people and has helped to drive a whole movement. Let’s honor her boldness.
Read the whole article here.