Essential Reads

Our Valley. Our Choice.
Building a Livable Future for the San Joaquin Valley

The Great Valley Center
HeyDay Books, 2007, $17.95

If, as predicted, the San Joaquin Valley’s population doubles to 7.9 million people by 2050, we need to start taking a hard—and much more thoughtful—look at how that growth could be accommodated while at the same time conserving what’s left of natural and agricultural areas. Our Valley makes it clear that now is the time to address these issues. Instead of allowing yet more piecemeal, ad hoc development, we must plan and develop in smarter ways. The book argues for a big-picture vision, for planning for a “great place”—a la Paris or Washington, D.C. That includes planning for a healthy environment, building strong neighborhoods and communities that work together, celebrating cultural and ethnic diversity, and providing incentives for developers to build better.

This compact, colorful book provides a schematic of how some of these things could be accomplished. Statistics—on immigration, jobs, air quality, traffic, and residents’ opinions about quality of life in the valley—are presented in easy-to-read graphics. But it is the photos that really tell the story. Satellite images reveal the incredible geological features that make up the valley while photographs from the late 1800s show the lush wetlands and vernal pools that once covered the landscape. Unfortunately, present-day images show much of that same land covered with ticky-tacky suburban developments.

A disturbing photo depicts a new housing development built right up against an almond ranch, where a sign warns that “spraying, harvesting, mowing, fertilizing, and flood irrigation” will take place. That one photo encapsulates the valley’s issues—land use conflicts, traffic and air quality problems, and an enormous and important agricultural economy. More photos present alternatives from around the state of sustainable, solar-powered, urban as opposed to suburban development—that easily could be implemented in the valley. Our Valley is an urgent call to action. What happens in the valley today will affect the future of California and beyond, and we can’t afford to fiddle while acres disappear under the ‘dozers.
—Lisa Owens Viani

Grassroots Gardening
Rituals for Sustaining Activism

Donna Schaper
Nation, 2007, $13.95

Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, is the author of 28 spiritual books, including this one. Put up with her free-association style and you’ll find wisdom in these essays, some original for this book, some reworked sermons. Between her own and her husband’s careers, Schaper moves frequently, leaving much-beloved gardens. Her essays on letting go are inspiring to those who spend time looking behind. In a piece on the slow food movement (“Imagine having to organize politically for the right to eat slowly and well”), she uses an example from her congregation to show how fast food equals bereft souls. Two essays, “Teaching My Daughter to Mulch” and “Three Women” should be read in every school. Both address privilege, longing, and spirit; Schaper is not afraid to call it as she sees it, but she’s no scold. She understands that each of us pines for what is missing. Read this slim volume for big-picture, non-polemic commentary on capitalism, activism, and our relationship to spirit and the earth. —Linnea Due

Designing California Native Gardens
Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook
University of California Press, 2007, $27.50

A Northern California gardener is more likely than ever to come home from a shopping expedition with native plants—more interest has resulted in greater availability. But what then when faced with the probably crowded slate of your own garden?

This beautiful and densely packed book picks up where other resources leave off. Authors Glenn Keator (native plant expert extraordinaire) and Alrie Middlebrook (native plant garden designer) present an approach that will not only make gardeners’ efforts more successful with particular plants but should result in beautiful sustainable habitats that support local fauna and truly feel like home.

The key is the book’s organization. Each varied California plant community has its own chapter: redwood forest, coastal sage scrub, desert, oak woodland, grassland, chaparral, mountain meadows, mixed evergreen forest, riparian woodland, bluffs and cliffs, wetlands, and the distinctive flora of the Channel Islands. Though the authors suggest paying close attention to the plants that are (or used to be) native at your exact location, their philosophy is not about purity but celebration. You’ll find ideas for incorporating several different plant communities into one site’s microclimates, as well as helpful suggestions for the inclusion of favorite non-natives.

Each chapter includes three outstanding features, in addition to a clear overview of the plant community. Middlebrook’s garden design examples are playful and detailed, with schematic illustrations that manage to be delightfully fanciful while imparting a lot of information. The listings of particular plants for each community are concise but thorough; included are propagation methods, pruning requirements, and notes about congenial companions. Each chapter concludes with an inspiring section on places to visit the plant community in question.
—Gina Covina

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