09 May 2013

Book Review: Gardening Time

For a little bit of lighter fare (lately my posts have been real "heavy furniture"), I have a great book for anyone who is gardening this spring.  I read the classic The $64 Tomato by William Alexander.   This hilarious, and often poignant, tale of one man's quest for the uber-garden is a very enjoyable read with a lot of important subtext.

The basic premise is that former city dwellers buy house in the "country" (here being defined as "anything north of Yonkers that also lacks sushi delivery"...oh NYC, don't ever change) and rehab the house then put in a monster of a garden.  The book is equal parts self-depreciating narrative and subtle hubris. The story culminates in Alexander's discovery that organic farming is not as easy, or cheap, as the crunchy-set would have you believe and that when you really break it down, small-scale farming is a pretty expensive way to save money on produce.

The whole tale plays out in an interesting juxtaposition of "man trying to conquer mother nature via the classic cycle of the hero" and "white people love to be farmers, only with more disposable income."  While Alexander's stories are very funny, well written and serve to educate readers on the ups and downs of serious gardening, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the undertone of privileged folly.  Yes, he did face the challenges shared by agriculturalists the world over, but for him it was never a determining factor in his families financial solvency, nor was there ever really a problem that was not fixed by merely throwing more money at the problem.  However, it did illustrate an often overlooked point: the self-righteousness that comes from "sustainable living" and "earth-friendly organics" quickly dissipates when you consider the astronomical resources required to generate food that way.  A $64 organic tomato sure required a awful lot of ecologically questionable resources.  I don't say this to criticize this man, his family or the good intentions behind the effort, just putting some perspective on the topic that maybe we can easily miss from our places of privilege.

I did learn a lot about gardening, and the phenomenon of a hobby suddenly owning you.  I also learned a lot of gardening history, Alexander artfully weaves historical references in to his narrative leaving you a bit more educated about why we garden the way we do.  Mostly I was left with a heartwarming feeling that yeah "we will try this garden thing every year because it is what we, as humans, do."  Those who garden get this, and those who don't well, don't.