The Dirt Diva

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Winter reading for Ecologically-Minded Folks & Gardeners


Just some of the reads I’ve devoured so far this winter.

Winter gives me a much needed break from physical work and time to catch up on everything else in life: family visits, dinner parties with friends, TV binge watching, blog writing and of course reading! I am a voracious reader when I have free time, and have been plowing through books since closing up shop around Thanksgiving this year. Since I rely on recommendations from other folks to narrow down the millions of choices of what to read, (Judy and Kim you are both invaluable for this!) I thought I’d share with you some of my fave reads so far. One is garden related, most are not. (Yes, I have other interests ;)) Disclaimer, the links will take you to my Amazon Affiliate page where I’ll earn a lil something if you purchase, but of course it’s not necessary to buy, just read on! 

My good friend Christine recommended I check out the work of Amanda Palmer, a street performance artist, 1/2 of the early 2000’s Boston punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls and solo artist as of late, who wrote her memoir The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (2014, Grand Central Publishing) I ordered the book after watching her TedTalk (over 11 million views) on the subject of trusting strangers, asking fans for help, and the controversial phenomenon of crowd funding an album. I was hooked. I’ve never heard her music or her name before now, but after watching her talk and reading her memoir I am a huge fan of her life philosophy! I have yet to check out her music, but plan to check out the free playlist she produced to tie in with the book. 

Speaking of memoirs, have any of you read local author Jason Tougaw’s The One You Get:Portrait of a Family Organism, (2017, Dzanc Books) yet? It was strange to read the personal story of someone I know in my own community, and that definitely heightened the emotional factor for me. I mean, when you write a memoir you make yourself vulnerable to the world of readers, an act of bravery to bare it all for an audience, known and unknown. Jason, I didn’t put your book down until I finished it! Well done!

The 3rd memoir I devoured this winter was Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House,  (2019 National Book Award Winner, Grove Press). Thanks Judy for turning me onto this author, she’s a new fave! The author and I share a birth year (1979), but that’s where the similarities end. Born and raised in East New Orleans and the youngest of 11 children, the author’s story takes you through the generations of her family history, starting with her  grandmother’s generation, which is the furthest back she can trace given the reality of the slave trade in America. The story revolves around the family’s relationship to its house and home, to the city of New Orleans, how their circumstances shaped each generation, and when a house no longer exists, how a family is supposed to stay anchored to a place and what that does to a family’s identity.  

I devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things , (2014, Riverhead Books) a fascinating 528 page novel set in 18th and 19th century Philadelphia about the Whittaker family, headed by Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes his fortune in the South American quinine trade to become the richest man in Philadelphia. His daughter Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist who falls in love with mosses, the mysteries of evolution, and a man named Ambrose Pike. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. 

If you liked Signature of All Things, you will love Lily King’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret World (2016, Greystone Books) Officially I am still reading this book, gifted to me at Christmas in 2018. What I’ve read so far has changed how I view the forest ecosystem, at home and beyond. It has made me relate to trees as if they were other human beings. The author Peter Wohlleben is so thorough in his descriptions of the intimate relationships of trees to each other, their environment and the ecosystem, that I can’t just plow through the pages like I could a work of fiction. Each page blows my mind to the point that I have to re-read them over, just to be sure I’ve read correctly. You will never view a tree the same again after reading!

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (2019, Milkweed Editions) Is a deep dive into selected coastal communities affected by rising seas and recent storms of 2017 & 2018. Author Elisabeth Rush travels to and interviews residents of Staten Island, NY, Isle de Jean Charles, LA, and Pensacola, FL to learn how the changing coastline has affected the human communities established there, while analyzing the effects of human interference and climate change on the ecosystems in some of the most populated places in North America: New York City, the Gulf Coast, Florida panhandle, Bay area of California. Its heavy and emotional, and is best digested in parts so the words can be absorbed. 

Lastly, something for the Permaculturist or ecological gardener: Gaia’s Garden (2009, Chelsea Green Publishing) Over the last few years I’ve seen a significant rise in the demand for “ecological” or “native habitat” gardens, which fall under the umbrella of Permaculture. Traditional landscaping (reliance on pesticides herbicides, fertilizers, foreign plant species and gasoline) is resource and labor-intensive and I believe Permaculture principles/ecological gardening will be the way to bring our landscapes back into balance. Knowing what I know, I cannot continue to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, and I strongly encourage my clients not to give in to the fake promises of these damaging products. The book has beautiful photos of landscapes rescued from desolation, lots of helpful illustrations to highlight Permaculture methods so even a novice can implement them on a scale that makes sense for their property. In the words of Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia’s Garden): “Ecological gardens meld the best features of wildlife gardens, edible landscapes, and conventional flower and vegetable gardens. They are based on relatively new concepts such as Permaculture and ecological design, yet use time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration biologists, organic farmers, and cutting-edge landscape designers. These gardens combine low environmental impact, low maintenance once established, and high yields with elegant aesthetics.”

What are your favorite books lately? Have you read any of the above? Do tell!

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