BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,
BTRIPP
btripp

A personal journey into cultural change ...

This one came into my hands via a slightly circuitous route ... my associate in the worm biz had this recommended to him, and mentioned to me that it might be something that I'd be interested in reviewing. After having first contacted the publisher of another book with a very similar title (oops!), I got in touch with the good folks at Spiegel & Grau (a Random House imprint), and requested a review copy of Jeanne Nolan's From the Ground Up: A Food Grower's Education in Life, Love, and the Movement That's Changing the Nation, not really knowing much about it except that it deals with “the sustainable food movement” and how that's been developing in Chicago.

This is the sort of volume that might well be “irritating” in other hands … it's basically (in its story arc) an autobiography, but one that serves as a seed bed for a florescence of in-depth information about many things Green. I really want to say “about urban agriculture” (an obvious interest of mine), but that would be misleading, as that is only a minor (albeit significant) aspect of the book, with the general thrust being for organic farming in various contexts. As frequent readers of these reviews will recognize, I tend to prefer books that “get to the point”, but Nolan does such a skillful job of weaving the “industry info” in with her life story that they work as an organic whole (yeah, “ouch”).

Perhaps what drew me in here as much as it did (far more than most biographical works) were certain parallels between the author's background and mine, from seeking out “counter-cultural” experiences in our teens to having worked with the late Abby Mandel (for whom I'd managed a PR project back in my early agency days, a long, long time ago) … as well as hailing from the Chicago area.

The book begins with her return (with her toddler daughter) to her parents' home in Winnetka, IL in 2004, after 17 years of being part of the Zendik Arts Farm, an itinerant ecological commune (one that could easily be labeled a “cult”, although it seems to have been more of a “cult of personality” around the founding couple who started the project in the heady days of 1969, but was still pulling in naïve yet earnest kids well into its fourth decade). She then details her early years, being a bright, promising class leader in her high school, until encountering a “tortured soul” boyfriend who incited a 180° shift in her attitudes and goals … leading her to all-but dropout of school, and go off in search of a more meaningful existence than she saw being offered in sterile suburbia. She eventually encountered an ad for the Zendik group, and ran off to save the world.

One of the aspects that gives From The Ground Up its gravitas and poignancy is that Nolan did not just run off for a rebellious year or two, but spent seventeen years as an integral part of the Zendik Farm, as it moved (seemingly at the whim of its leaders) from California to Texas to Virginia. Unlike other groups (which were similar enough to assorted descriptions here that I had to Google “Zendik” to make sure it wasn't simply a euphemism standing in for a different organization) that had ranges of functions, it appears that the Zendik folks were primarily organic farmers … if ones whose day-to-day existences and (familial and intimate) relationships were being mirco-managed by group leaders … so she had a LOT of experience with growing things in various environments when she found herself back in suburbia as a single mother with a high school education and no resume to speak of and a lot of shattered expectations of what she was “supposed to” have been.

It was her mother's wise request for her to start a garden on their property that started Nolan's new life. This enabled her to use those years of experience to create something impressive, and family friends (who happened to be on the board of Green City Market) mentioned that Abby Mandel was looking for an assistant … a lead she followed up on, and eventually got the job. Green City Market was the brainchild of Mandel, and is a continuing fixture of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, happening weekly spring through fall on the Clark St. facing of Lincoln Park, from its move there in 1999 to the present day. Nolan was not the ideal assistant for the project (having missed the “computer revolution” while being at Zendik), but was in the perfect position to take over the program that was associated with the Market across the way at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Between the work on the demo “Edible Garden” farm in Lincoln Park, and the gardens she was helping to develop for family contacts, the idea of starting her own business began to crystallize … eventually materializing as “The Organic Gardener”, a service that would set up and manage organic mini-farms, initially out in the suburbs. She traces the growth of her company from the first few installations to such high-profile projects as the famed roof-top gardens of the Uncommon Ground restaurants, and setting up a vegetable garden for Mayor Emanuel's family.

Now, what I found most attractive about From The Ground Up is how much information is woven through the biographical story-line. There are historical sketches of the organic movement, of urban farms and their predecessors (like how Paris used to have enough city lots producing fruits and vegetables that they not only provided all that the city needed, but were able to export the excess!), and descriptions of the leading lights of the assorted related movements, organic, urban, and small-farm, along with listings of resources. Also featured are many nuts-and-bolts issues like lead levels in the soil (from houses with generations of lead-based paints), sunshine necessary for assorted types of plants, and even what sort of fencing will keep out rabbits, deer, or (on city rooftops) those notorious moisture-stripping Windy City winds.

This is a mash-up of a personal story and an over-view of an evolving industry (along with a guide for where one can find what is needed to make these sorts of projects happen), in a reasonably seamless whole (the caveat “reasonably” here is due to her also adding on a very useful appendix, “Ten Lists of Ten Essentials for every Aspiring Gardener”, outside of the narrative). While much of the biographical material reads like a border-line soap opera (her personal life is “complicated”, coming out of the Zendik world, but she manages to make it work to a rather remarkable degree), the depth and breadth of the agricultural material that is grounded by the life experiences she shares is worth the read for anybody interested in organic, urban, or alternative farming.

Of course, I am currently involved in the “urban agriculture” niche, so it is possible that I found Nolan's From the Ground Up more exciting than somebody with only a passing interest in such things, but I'm recommending this “for all and sundry” for it being an engaging personal story that still manages to convey large chunks of knowledge about the emerging new agricultural movements. This has only been out a month or so at this point, so should be available at most better-stocked local book vendors, but the on-line big boys have it at a bit more than a quarter off of cover (it's presently only available in hardcover and e-book formats) if you can't find it at your handier surviving brick-and-mortars.


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