Joan Gussow's new collection of personal essays, Growing, Older, is a free-ranging exploration of a wide number of issues: the loss of her husband of forty years and her reassessment of her marriage; her experiences of growing her own food in the garden of her Hudson River home; her concerns about climate change and resource depletion; and her thoughts about entering into her ninth decade. Gussow knows what she's talking about, for she developed the nationally acclaimed Nutritional Ecology program at Columbia Teachers College and was one of the earliest writers to speak out about the dangers of industrialized agriculture (Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce, and Agriculture, 1991)—a subject that has been recently popularized by the likes of Michael Pollan, Paul Ford, and Barbara Kingsolver. Growing, Older is a lively book, energized by Gussow's straightforward, often blunt observations that are by turns witty, argumentative, cranky, and funny—but always interesting, enlightening, and provocative.
The collection opens with the death of Gussow's husband, her reaction to his loss (she "simply didn't miss him"), and her difficulty in sharing this truth with people who asked how she felt. What she actually felt was a "strange liberation," she says, "from things I hadn't known I was imprisoned by." (Some readers may find this measure of her marriage startling and perhaps even uncaring, but it is honest, direct, and authentic, qualities we value in a memoir, and which are characteristic of all Gussow's writing.) But if she is not devastated by her husband's death, there are other issues that do bring her nearly to despair: the frenzied consumerism of our culture, the media's "furious silence" about peak oil, the hidden costs and the obvious vulnerabilities of our food system, and climate change.
But Gussow is by temperament an optimistic and hopeful person, as well as a determined gardener, and she never despairs for very long. This trait becomes clear as she describes her skirmishes with the Hudson River, which regularly floods her garden, requiring her to rebuild and replant. But she sees these battles as simply part of her "self-provisioning adventure," for Gussow is resolute in her determination to grow as much of her own food as possible and to continue to live in the home she loves as long as she can. Hence her wonderful chapter called "Potatoes and Escape," in which she meditates on the tendency of the potato to "stay put," and her own conviction that everyone should stay home and work on making the places they live livable. "If the planet is to remain inhabitable," she writes, "we can't give up on the homes and communities we live in, but must turn them into places where our hearts rejoice."
And that, for me, is the great virtue of this book. Now in her eightieth year, Gussow, a natural-born teacher, shows us by her example how we can live in an endangered world without losing hope; how we can learn and practice skills of self-reliance; and how we can coexist with our often-annoying fellow journeyers (the skunks, woodchucks, and muskrats, for instance, that regularly raid her garden). While we might not agree with all Gussow's practices, we have to admire her spunk, her determination, and her courage. "Did I get what I wanted?" she asks herself, musing on the challenges of a long life and years of hard work. "I'm pretty sure I did," she answers. Which seems to me to be a very good way to sum up a life.
Joan Gussow is a highly acclaimed nutrition educator who has demonstrated that year-round eating from 1,000 square feet in a suburban riverfront village is possible, life-sustaining, and delicious. She is the author of This Organic Life and The Feeding Web and is Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita and former chair of the Columbia University Teachers College Nutrition Department. She lives on the Hudson River in Piermont, New York. Her website includes photos of her garden, in bloom and in flood.
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