Essential Reads

Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature
Edited by Daniel Imhoff and Jo Ann Baumgartner
Watershed Media/Wild Farm Alliance, 2006, $16.95

Crunchy Cons
Rod Dreher
Crown Publishing, 2006, $24

What if someone told you that a Dallas conservative would advocate shopping at the farmers market and strengthening laws against factory farming? Or that liberals and conservatives would quote the same man at length and with reverence?

These two books need to be read by anyone who eats and draws a breath. The essays that make up Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature are by turns stimulating, alarming, and inspiring. Too long have urban conservationists pitted the needs of agriculture and ranching against the sanctity of the wilderness while themselves benefiting from food prices lowered by plundering resources that nurture the planet and its wild denizens. Then again, who are these “wild” denizens? As Wendell Berry writes, “The world, we may say, is wild, and all the creatures are homemakers within it, practicing domesticity, raising young, seeking food and comfort.” Humans have hogged the lion’s share of resources available to the planet’s homemakers, snaring two-thirds of the earth’s fresh water supply, for instance, for agriculture.

Mono-cropping, the use of excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, and creating animal factories rather than pasturing livestock have reduced biodiversity and created dead zones all over the world. And with the current focus on viruses (exacerbated by animal confinement systems) and food security, universities are touting more separation from “the wild,” not less. Laura L. Jackson’s essay describes the conflict between Iowa State University and its Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a schism that finally led to the removal of the center’s director. Expect more violent conflicts between industry-financed research and those who favor an organic approach to life forms, wild and domestic.

Essayists range from the hopeful (Barbara Kingsolver, Rick Bass) to the practical (Scott McMillion on working with beavers, Baumgartner’s description of organic farming in concert with habitat restoration) to the downright scary (John Davis’ “Rebuilding After Collapse,” Richard Manning’s “The Oil We Eat”). In some cases, the authors contradict each other, which is not surprising, given the complexity of the issues. In each essay, you’ll read the truth, and it’s long past time we started telling it.

Which brings us to Crunchy Cons, and we aren’t talking over-crisped prisoners but Birkenstocked conservatives. When the National Review’s Rod Dreher discovered how good the produce was in his CSA boxes, he did some investigating in the face of his colleagues’ ribbing. His essay, which describes his dismay at factory farming and the assumptions of his work mates, provoked an avalanche of mail from fellow travelers. Turns out there are a lot of Republicans disgusted by giant corporate farming, irreverence for the natural world, war for Big Oil, and rampant materialism. Some might even vote Democratic, but they’re laboring under a misapprehension that Dems are in favor of spreading GMOs far and wide. (Which makes me wonder who is in favor of GMOs besides Monsanto and sold-our-souls-to-the-devil universities?) Read the crunchy con political agenda at the end of this book, and fall off that high horse. The tumble to the ground may not be fun, but wouldn’t you rather save the earth than have your prejudices proven right? By the way, that fellow quoted in both books is the above-mentioned Wendell Berry. Let’s install him as Secretary of the Interior. —Linnea Due

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
Sandor Ellix Katz
Chelsea Green, 2006, $20

Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, delivers bigger and better with his sophomore effort, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movement. The book is informative, educational, atypical, and diverse, taking the reader on an historic and educational jaunt through the grassroots food activism quietly taking place across America. Katz covers a broad range of issues, from farming to food safety and security; global agri-business and its effects on nutrition and health; and how-to foraging that ranges from backyard to bizarre, all the while eloquently illustrating the hypocrisy behind our food production systems and the urgent need to reconnect to the sources of our food and water. Chapters end with thoroughly researched action and information resources.

Katz, who lives in an intentional community in Tennessee, calls himself a fermentation fetishist and gives demonstrations and workshops across the country. His personal anecdotes add spice to an already engaging text. I found it impossible to read in sequence, often skipping around to find recipes Katz includes throughout the book. Reference manual, educational tool, history book, and cookbook all in one, it is a must-read. Revolution is a true gem, each chapter a little lagniappe of information. —Mary Vance

The Songs of Wild Birds
Lang Elliott
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, $19.95

It’s spring and the birds are singing—and hooting, twittering, clicking, thumping, rattling, and drumming. Lang Elliott’s new book/CD combination guides the reader/listener through the sounds and lesser-known natural history of 50 species of native birds. With full color photos and sonograms of bird sounds and songs recorded in the field morning and night, the text is numbered to correspond with the CD, which means you can read about the bird, see its gorgeous photo, and hear its repertoire of sounds, some of which are surprising. The common American robin, for example, not only sings its traditional “cheerio, cheerio, cheeriup” (or variations thereon) but also emits a thin, high-pitched whistle that alerts other birds to the presence of a hawk. The “bloodcurdling screech” of an immature great horned owl is caught by Elliott, as is the “moaning snore” of the Atlantic puffin. Elliott distinguishes the calls of the red-tailed hawk—a “hissy screech” many people mistake for the cry of an eagle—from the “big fat songbird chirp” of a bald eagle. Another fascinating fact is that migrating songbirds call during flight, particularly during the cover of night. Elliott has captured some of these subtle avian voices on the CD, for instance describing and differentiating the calls of four native thrushes. Covering water birds to hawks, owls, migrating songbirds, and the more common species in our backyards, Elliott’s book/CD will educate your ears and perk up your interest in our fine feathered friends. —Lisa Owens Viani

Berkeley Rocks: Building With Nature
Photographs by Jonathan Chester, text by Dave Weinstein
Ten Speed Press, 2006, $35

Take a close look at one particular subject and you’ll likely gain a wide perspective. Here you’ll encounter everything from geology to architectural history to picnic destinations. The title refers to those elephant-to-house-sized boulders jutting from the Berkeley hills, some surrounded by public parks but many more on private property. Photographer Jonathan Chester took a photo of a friend’s backyard rock. Chester’s friend was Ten Speed Press publisher Phil Wood, who liked the photo enough to suggest a book. Twelve years later, with the participation of architectural writer Dave Weinstein, Berkeley Rocks is complete.

And I mean complete. The story starts with the creation of California as the Oceanic plate slid under the North American plate, scraping the ocean floor onto the edge of the continent as it went. The scraped-up material was mixed and shaped and added to by volcanic eruptions and the movements of the San Andreas fault, which carried rocks and magma north and south along the coast. Volcanic ryolite rocks in Berkeley come from widely separated sources—one has been identified from an eruption near Hollister. Other Berkeley boulders are greywacke, a sedimentary rock that shows individual grains of sand, or chert, made of single-celled marine animals compressed into flat layers, or blueschist, common here but so rare everywhere else it puts Berkeley on the must-see lists of geologists.

Many of the big rocks were prominent landmarks in hills covered only in grass or spreading oaks. Pinnacle Rock, now hidden by eucalyptus trees and houses, could be seen for miles. Many rocks served as community gathering spots, as evidenced by deep mortar holes for grinding acorns. One rock along Baxter Creek in El Cerrito shows evidence of use that dates back 5,000 to 8,000 years. All this fascinating detail underlies the book’s main subject—residential development around (and on top of) the rocks.

Development of the hills was a characteristically Berkeleyan affair, a marriage of high ideals, reverence for nature, and creative entrepreneurship. At the turn into the 20th century, the politically astute women of the Hillside Club campaigned for an aesthetic of curving narrow streets bordered by trees, unpainted wood-shingled houses, and a ban on “factory-made articles.” Bernard Maybeck’s designs set the tone of rustic grandeur, and Charles Keeler’s 1904 book The Simple Home filled in the details. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, Berkeley became an overnight boomtown, and the club’s groundwork turned into marketing points for developers. Handsome photographs show homes built during this period still perched on their boulders, including the surprisingly con-temporary-looking studio built by Keeler in 1904.

In the hundred years since, the boom has never ended. Almost every hillside cranny has been stuffed with a house, in every fanciful style. Chester’s photographs reveal the mock-Tudor house with boulder-strewn yard, the Cape Cod Colonial with a lighthouse built on its rock, the 1950s ranch house growing out of a boulder. There’s something about these big rocks—and the skill of the photographs—that makes every house and rock combination look great. There’s a palpable sense, from the pictures and from residents quoted in the text, of how fiercely these rocks are cherished.

One chapter is devoted to the rocks that can be encountered in public parks, another to the art of rock climbing and the important role these rocks have played in advancing technical aspects of the sport. Locations are given for rocks on public land and for those visible in front yards along Berkeley’s hilly streets. At once a history and natural history, this book is a treat, while the rocks will be at once grander and more intimate whenever you encounter them. —Gina Covina

Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water
Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman with Michael Fox
Wiley, 2007, $27.95

The producers/directors of the award-winning DVD Thirst have teamed up with Bay Area journalist Michael Fox on a book that covers much of the same territory as the film, with excellent results. Fox writes in an accessible, unshrill voice about the corporate march to own the water we need to live. “Whether we believe in a Creator or not, no one is making more water,” Fox writes. “&We drink the tears of Leonardo da Vinci and wash in the saliva of dinosaurs.” Often delivered by private companies early in the development of the US, this life-giving resource turned to public ownership. Now pipes are getting old; according to a 2005 survey, mayors of 200 US cities, large and small, would consider privatizing water to “save money” on system upgrades. The fact that few win in these schemes besides shareholders is ignored in the short-focus desire to balance budgets and gain votes. Thirst examines the goals of a corporation versus those of a progressive city: more rate payers produce more profit, so developments kept in check by a cautious public utility are hailed by private companies. Cities engaged in privatization attempts are profiled; Northern California readers will be fascinated by the blow-by-blow cases of Stockton and Felton. Fox gives his characters, from California to Kentucky, Michigan to Massachusetts, plenty of rope to hang themselves and his heroes a stage to shine. Access to water is the issue of the future. This book is a primer that everyone needs to read. —Linnea Due

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