Essential Reads

Building Commons and Community
Karl Linn
New Village Press, 2007, $29.95

Landscape architect, child psychotherapist, and local treasure, Karl Linn had completed half of this retrospective survey of forty years of his literally groundbreaking work in community building when he died in 2005 at the age of 81. Like so many of his projects, this one continued without him, brought to fruition two years after his death by the publishing arm of an organization he co-founded in 1981 (Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility).

West Berkeley residents can hardly avoid familiarity with Linn’s projects—three community garden commons, the EcoHouse, and the Ohlone Greenway Natural and Cultural History Exhibit—all clustered between Northside and Peralta off Hopkins Street. Chapters on each provide colorful pictorial histories, while Linn’s straightforward narrative makes the often difficult and always complex development process seem like a breeze.

Linn, who trained as a psychoanalyst in Switzerland, always kept his eye on the prize, undistracted by obstacles and mindful that visions can take many years to fully manifest. This shows particularly in the account of the EcoHouse, begun by Linn in 2001 and taken over by the Ecology Center after his death. Though Linn oversaw the initial repairs, green renovations, and permaculture garden plantings, much of his original vision for the educational nature of the project remains a tantalizing potential.

Linn’s projects, carried out in his own neighborhood, could be seen as something of a retirement activity—if that term can possibly be used to describe the always-in-motion Linn and his constant networking with neighbors and nonprofits. At least the scale was smaller and more intimate than his earlier projects (Linn helped found a kibbutz, the national Neighborhood Renewal Corps, and the Urban Habitat Program, among many other activities). The book’s other chapters hint at Linn’s earlier life as a landscape architect/peace and justice activist/visionary social planner, though only by inference. The focus remains on projects—from the first inner-city neighborhood commons Linn orchestrated in Philadelphia in 1960, to temporary commons for events and conferences. The description of projects and attention to detail makes the book a practical resource as well as an inspiration.

Linn’s genius lay in engineering introductions of people and projects, in transmitting enthusiasm coupled with the urge to action, and in setting events in motion that took on lives of their own. This book, with a foreword by ecophilosopher Joanna Macy and an afterword by environmental justice leader Carl Anthony, continues that expansive legacy. There could be no more fitting memorial.

—Gina Covina

World Made by Hand
James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008, $24

Best known for two works of nonfiction, The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, this is Kunstler’s tenth novel, the fictional cousin of Emergency.World Made by Hand takes place a couple decades in the future, in a USA without fossil fuels, electricity, or a functioning government. In a small town in upstate New York, survivors of recurrent waves of flu grow vegetables, scavenge through the landfill, fish the rivers, breed horses as fast as they can, and fill in the blanks of power. As the novel opens, a religious group buys the local high school and settles in, and much of the story concerns the longtime residents’ efforts to make peace with the outsiders. Well they should: their own lives are bounded on one side by a landlord who lives like a laird with serfs he houses and feeds, on the other by ne’er-do-wells who’ve taken over the landfill. Safety nets are nonexistent, and every group in town tries to recruit our hero, a quietly competent leader. Remaining free—and everyone in Union Grove realizes how lucky he or she is to be out of the war zone of most of the nation—proves harder as alliances and power shift. A try at magical realism goes nowhere, but the rest of this novel, replete with unforgettable scenes such as a fraught trip to Albany, is hard to resist. Take a look at the future—and plant your garden.

—Linnea Due

Weather Shamanism:
Harmonizing our Connection with the Elements

Nan Moss with David Corbin
Bear and Company, 2008, $16

At first glance this may seem an obscure oddity—and okay, it is a practical resource for shamanic weather-working, by all standards an esoteric subject. But Moss (with Corbin) starts with the truth that weather affects us all, and the belief that creating a conscious relationship with the forces of weather is an essential part of restoring balance in the world. As she says in the introduction: “This book is not about how to control the weather; it is about changing ourselves&The greatest and most important change we can make is to begin to accept a broader worldview: one that is supportive of an intentional relationship with Nature, a partnership that fosters the reality of an alive and vital Earth.” Suddenly it’s a book for a general readership.

Moss presents her ideas as she and Corbin experienced them, allowing readers to move gradually with the authors from the materialist viewpoint that is our dominant cultural norm into the far more interesting realm of sentient weather spirits with whom we humans can communicate. Fascinating examples abound, full of awe, transformative power, and surprising gentleness and humor. A particular tornado, for instance, has this to say: “You humans work well together in crisis, well in chaos, so go and work well together—here is your crisis.”

I started reading Weather Shamanism thinking of the possibilities for moderating the extremes associated with global warming. There are plenty of stories included of rerouted hurricanes, rain during drought, and pockets of well-timed sunshine surrounded by storm. But as I read further, I came to appreciate the authors’ experience: “As we grew into our relationships with the forces and spirits of weather, David and I were surprised to experience a diminishing desire to try to change anything.” More often, Moss and Corbin realized the forces of weather acted to heal and balance the living earth, even in cases that seemed destructive. Their shamanic work became a matter of aligning with the weather forces, and then requesting adjustments—a rain shower here, a gentling of the wind there—to suit their communities’ needs while remaining true to the weather’s own intent. I came away from the book with a profoundly deepened trust in the weather, and that alone is plenty to recommend Weather Shamanism for these meteorologically challenging times.

—Gina Covina

Reusing the Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling
Carol Steinfeld and David Del Porto
Ecowaters, 2008, $24.95

If you want step-by-step suggestions for creating graywater systems, this is your guide. From two bathtubs in a backyard to Arcata Marsh, from aquaculture to art, Reusing the Resource covers the territory with photos and explanatory text. The book contains over forty examples of creative uses of recycling wastewater. The publisher, nonprofit Ecowaters, depends upon the sales of its books and plans to continue its global water-saving mission. As money comes in, the books are translated and distributed to communities around the globe. The process must have been rushed in the final go-round as typos and formatting glitches mar the text of this otherwise well designed and photographed book. That doesn’t overshadow its inspiring message; readers worldwide will say, “I can do this.” If enough of us follow these simple instructions, water won’t become the next oil—and if it does, you’ve just put a derrick in your backyard. —Linnea Due

Farm Sanctuary:
Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food

Gene Baur
Touchstone, 2008, $25

Equal parts touching and horrifying, Farm Sanctuary is an inspiring and sometimes harrowing read. Gene Baur, president and cofounder of Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s first farm animal rescue, protection, and rehabilitation facility, delivers his story in a welcoming style that makes the occasionally gruesome account easier to bear.

These details from the frontlines need to be heard. Baur takes us through his organization’s beginnings: he and a few other activist renegades visited stockyards, factory farms, and feedlots, talking to workers about the deplorable conditions surrounding animals used for food, and performing guerrilla rescue operations. Their goal was to change the industrial farming model, to end the suffering—and, at times, torture—that animals are forced to endure on the road to slaughter.

Writers from Upton Sinclair to Eric Schlosser have aimed to educate via shock value, but Baur’s intent is to prevent cruelty and improve factory-farming conditions by encouraging activism—and responsible dining. Why would you want a diseased animal on your plate?

Tales of victory and justice in the form of new legislation and policies inspire hope, and the profiles Baur includes of rescued animals now happily grazing at one of Farm Sanctuary’s two locations are a delight. The book includes an appendix listing various advocacy organizations. Consider this book a helpmate as you campaign for the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act on the ballot this November. —Mary Vance

Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front
Joel Salatin
Polyface, Inc., 2007, 23.95

Leave it to Virginia farmer Joel Salatin to self-publish what amounts to 24 rants on subjects such as organic certification, conservation easements, farmers’ market managers, and most frequently and devastatingly, the USDA. Salatin portrays the federal agency as peopled by evil or misguided bureaucrats required to enforce absurdities. You will never eat another egg from factory farms—and it won’t be because you’re upset by the treatment of hens, though that’s reason enough. You may also change your mind about other regulations you’ve never considered deeply, and you’ll know on the deepest level just who our government serves—and it isn’t you. Salatin writes in an intimate, chatty way, as if you’re sitting across the table. Reading this Christian libertarian, you’ll find yourself cheering one moment and groaning the next. The best thing about Salatin is that his logic carries him to conclusions most of us prefer not to ponder, and whether we agree with his reasoning or not, the discussions are vital. Folks, Salatin would say, time to open our eyes; things have come to such a pass that we no longer have the luxury of remaining ignorant. —Linnea Due

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