Some 10 years after writing her first memoir, “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader,” Joan Dye Gussow has written another, a very personal story about aging, grief and life in her riverfront vegetable garden in Piermont. “Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables” has just been published by Chelsea Green. Like the first book, this new memoir is funny, wise, passionate and deeply political.
Since the 1970s, Gussow has been a national leader in the organic- and local-food movement. She grows all her own food, freezing lots for winter but mostly eating what’s fresh and in season. For meat and dairy, she turns to local farmers.
(photo by our Tania Savayan)
Very active in her Piermont community, Gussow was elected to a fourth term on the village Board of Trustees earlier this month.
Here, she sits down to talk about her new book — and what’s growing in her garden. And speaking of gardens, it’s good to learn that she talks to her plants on a regular basis — we do, too. Here’s a link to an earlier post, about a summertime visit to her great garden.
Q: What did you learn about grief when your husband, Alan, died in 1997, and what did you learn all these years later as you wrote “Growing, Older”?
A: As you know from reading the book, I was completely stunned to discover myself experiencing little grief after Alan died. I assumed for a while I was in denial — nothing else seemed to explain it. But in fact, I turned out not to be in denial; I was just happy, which seemed totally unacceptable. It took me a very long time to understand how I could have assumed I had a happy 40-year marriage and not be devastated when it ended. What I finally realized was that I had had a happy life, but that it had had much less to do with Alan than I had imagined, and so it continued after his death.
Q: In the book, you write about “being alone without being lonely.” Any advice for others?
A: I think the secret of being alone without being lonely is to have your mind filled with things that interest you and to feel a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. You also need to work at friendship — to welcome people into your life, to always offer your spare room if someone can stay over, and to listen to what they are concerned about. And, as I say in my new book, I realized at some point that part of the reason I didn’t feel really lonely after my husband died — when there was no one living in the house with whom to share my thoughts — was because I had such a deep relationship with the living things in the garden, plants, animals, insects. As you know if you have read the book, I do assume that plants can express pleasure — or sulk, and I do talk to them.
Q: What are your favorite foods right now? What are you growing that the rest of us should have in our gardens?
A: My favorite food right this instant is raspberries — Heritage raspberries — of which I had an entire bowlful tonight. It is so amazing to be eating raspberries when it’s November, and they’ll bear until frost. I’m still eating ripe tomatoes, too — I had an amazingly sweet one two days ago. Right now I have chard everywhere and I love chard. For serious winter eating, I have two beds of Brussels sprouts which are even now filling out with sprouts along their stems. I have picked Brussels sprouts in March! There’s lots of parsley to make pizzaiola pasta and the peppers are still bearing. Oh, and I just dug 26 pounds of sweet potatoes.
Q: What’s your current take on the whole local food movement? Are we doing any better?
A: Of course we’re doing better than we were 10 years ago. And compared to 30 years ago when I began promoting local eating, the positive changes have been astonishing — farmers markets everywhere, CSAs, (community supported agriculture), farmers trying all kinds of season extension.
But the concentration of power in the food system is very sobering. It is very doubtful that the movement to restore power over food to the people who produce and eat it is strengthened when Wal-Mart begins promoting local food.
The year after a farmer sells her whole crop to Wal-Mart, they come back and say “lower your price,” she won’t have other markets left. So we have to keep insisting that the answer is not cheap food, but reasonable incomes and healthy, local food priced at a cost that allows the farmer to make a living too.
Q: After years of battling Hudson River floods in your riverfront garden, this spring you undertook a major overhaul to raise the whole thing up a couple of feet. Was it worth it?
A: Absolutely. It’s marvellous! I consider it amazingly generous of Mother Nature to have clobbered me during the only time in 100 years or more that I actually had access to my yard to bring in dirt. I had always known I should do something like that because the yard was a bathtub and both heavy rains and high tides filled it all too regularly. But I was closed in on both sides. Then the house next door was bought and torn down in January and the owner didn’t intend to start building until April, so we opened the fence and his lot was used as a staging area where my trees and shrubs were set down while the trucks came in and dumped dirt.
It was a huge amount of work — I was putting in 12 hour days for a while, but now that it’s done, it’s as if I’ve lanced a boil on my foot that I had been walking on for years! I don’t flood!
Q: Is there anything you’ve tried and tried to grow, without success?
A: Until a couple of years ago, asparagus. It didn’t like having wet feet. Now it’s happy. I’m also not very good at radishes!
Q: You’re 81 now. What’s next?
A: Oh, more of the same I think. I’ve joked that my next book will be called “Starting Over at 81” (I’m actually 82 now — I just had a birthday) and will be the story of the resurrection of my garden. Obviously there will be political and social morals to my stories — as there always are.
But at the heart of my ongoing optimism, I’m sure, is my garden. I am very touched by the epigraph I use in the fourth section of my book. It is from Frances Hodgson Burnett who wrote “The Secret Garden. She wrote “As long as one has a garden, one has a future. As long as one has a future, one is alive.”