Ten books about the back-to-the-land movement in Maine, and elsewhere — that’s what we set out to give you. But our list kept growing and growing and changing and splitting in two, then three, then four. So for now, we bring you our top picks, favorite and must-read books about sustainable eating and living. We’ve included classics and new books, best-sellers and a few that we think have been unjustly, and puzzlingly, overlooked. Because we couldn’t name all the books that we think matter, we plan to periodically revisit the topic — the field (pun intended) is a fertile one.

As Ronald Jager wrote in “The Fate of Family Farming” (a book we include on this list), “Husbandry breeds literature. Forceful spokesman on behalf of agriculture are part of the American literary tradition…” For now, stay tuned for next week’s list of must-see films on a sustainability theme.

What books would you add to our list? Continue the conversation in the comments section below.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan, 2006

It came out in 2006, hit the best-seller list, made Pollan famous and opened eyes everywhere to the truth about where our food comes from. This is the food science book for people who don’t really like nonfiction, a smart read that flows as easily as novel, but instructs along the way, with passages on large-scale organic farming, truths about the food we find in the middle aisles of the supermarket — you will never look at corn the same way again — and the trials of trying to forage or hunt for one’s supper. Pollan has cranked out four books since then, but “Omnivore” is the place to start.

— MARY POLS

 


One Man’s Meat

by E.B. White, 1942

Before the Nearings, before the 1960s back-to-the-landers, before today’s deeply self-conscious farm-to-table movers and shakers, the writer E.B. White escaped life in Manhattan to live on a saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine. In “One Man’s Meat” — a collection of essays he wrote for Harper’s magazine — he examines his own homesteading efforts — raising turkeys, keeping chickens, birthing lambs, husking corn, routing rats from the barn. The war creeps closer, then arrives. His writing is, as always, witty and precise. There is not an extra word, and yet the book has a leisurely pace. It’s the very definition of a classic. I am reading it now, for the fifth or sixth time — it’s as perfect as it ever was, maybe more so.

— PEGGY GRODINSKY

 


Not Far from the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and he Orchards of Palermo, Maine, 1804-2004

by John Bunker, 2008

Bunker graduated from Colby College and moved to Palermo in 1972. His new hometown had about 600 residents, but as Bunker discovered, in 1850 there had been 1,659 people living in Palermo. Almost all of them lived on small farms. In 1880, half the farms grew wheat, most grew potatoes and every single one had an apple orchard. Many of those trees, or their offspring, lived on and as Bunker began to catalogue the varieties he found, he gradually uncovered a rich history, not just of apples in Maine but of the ups and downs of Maine farm living. A lovely chronicle of one man’s obsession that demonstrates how much nature can teach us about the past — as well as the future.

— MARY POLS


Harvest: A Year in the Life of an Organic Farm

by Nicola Smith, with photographs by Geoff Hansen, 2004

  In a relatively early and overlooked book in a genre that has since practically become a cliché, Smith spends a year following the struggles of a young couple in Central Vermont as they try to turn their dream of a small family farm into a living. The prose is lyrical and the photos beautiful, but it’s not a romanticized picture. As Smith writes toward the book’s end, “It had not been easy to halt and reverse the farm’s decline, but Jennifer and Kyle and Brad, and everyone who had ever helped them, had done so. You could call it a labor of love, but that would sentimentalize it. Labor, yes; love, not always. Tenacity, conviction, determination, begging, bartering, guile, charity, and pragmatism and idealism in equal measure: these were the things that had brought them through…” Full disclosure — Smith and Hansen are friends.

— PEGGY GRODINSKY
 


The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

by Wendell Berry, 1977

You can’t go wrong with any of Berry’s collections of essays. But this particular book gave the whole picture of American agriculture from a mid-’70s perspective. Berry traced the narrative from the industrial revolution through the advent of “agri-business” and the era of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Read it now and hear the clarion call Berry set for America then — get closer to our farming roots, buck the system that promotes convenience over quality — and see nothing less than the roots of today’s farm—to­­-table movement.

— MARY POLS
 


Diet for a Small Planet

by Francis Moore Lappé

Not as instantly familiar to those who grew up in the 1970s as the Farrah Fawcett poster, but this little paperback comes close. It sold 2 million copies and created a whole new consciousness about what it takes to bring meat to the marketplace. It was so popular that Lappe revised and released new editions in 1975 and 1982. She was inspired to write the book after discovering that every seven pounds of grain and soybeans fed to livestock in the United States yields only one pound of meat. The title, she admitted in retrospect, was a little misleading. Her issue was not that the planet was too small, but that we threatened to make it feel that way by straining our resources. Her clear outline of the meat production process in America and suggestions on meatless meals (with recipes) are still relevant today, although for anyone looking for the latest, in 2010, Lappé’s daughter, Anna Lappé, published a followup, “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.”

— MARY POLS
 

 


The Seasons on Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

by Terra Brockman

 The “Henry” of the title is writer Terra Brockman’s brother. They live in Illinois with assorted siblings, spouses, partners and children on land that the Brockman family has farmed for five generations. “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm” is so deeply imbued with those fields, I almost expected to find my hands caked with good, rich soil when I put the book down. Brockman observes closely and thoughtfully, whether it’s the rhythms of the seasons (chapters are titled “Old Moon,” “Grass Moon,” “Planting Moon), controversies over plastic bags at the farmers’ market, corn sex (or duck sex), the farm’s annual field notebooks, hay bales or Frosty the cow. Amid marathon planting and picking days, Brockman introduces her family and weaves in observations from writers, botanists and philosophers. Henry James and Nabokov, Euripides and Proust — all seem quite at home on Henry’s small, diverse, sustainable farm. So will you. (Full disclosure: Life is full of surprising connections: 25 years ago, Henry, Terra and I lived in Tokyo, Japan, and worked together at a newspaper there. Henry returned to America to revitalize his grandparents’ farm.)

— PEGGY GRODINSKY

 


Living the Good Life, How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World

by Helen and Scott Nearing, 1954

The most obvious choice, given that young Maine farmers are still reading and being influenced by this book 60 years after its publication. In it the Nearings describe the values they consider essential to the good life “simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, and opportunity to be useful and to live harmoniously.” The radical homesteaders give helpful directions on such things as building a stone house, composting, eating in season (“there is something extravagant and irresponsible about eating strawberries and green peas in a cold climate, every month of the year”) without sounding too preachy. The book’s popularity took off after a 1970 reissue and functioned as a sort of “Happiness Project” for the Vietnam-era. Though the Nearings have their detractors (neighbor Jean Hay Bright questioned their finances in her own 2003 memoir, “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life”) even today, no especially today, it’s hard to argue with a philosophy that includes lines like these: “We took our time, every day, every month, every year. We had our work, did it and enjoyed it.”

— MARY POLS

 


Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter

by David Buchanan, 2012

This eloquently crafted book is part memoir, part food history and all delicious romp through the modern day renaissance of agricultural creativity and culinary adventurism sweeping the nation. Buchanan, who lives, farms and writes in Portland, takes readers along as he searches out a diversity of fruit and vegetable varieties beyond those that dominate supermarket displays. Maine readers familiar with the state’s robust food scene will spot many familiar names… in this tale, which is bound to appeal to those with an appetite for alternative food and farming systems.

— AVERY YALE KAMILA

 


Walden; or Life in the Woods

by Henry David Thoreau, 1854

A classic of American nature writing, Walden may be, to most readers, a distant high school memory. But its lessons are timeless. Thoreau explores the natural world, and our place in it, and his warnings of modern excesses help to keep the book relevant. (He even muses on the pitfalls of expensive mortgages.) Perhaps the most famous words from the book could have been written by any Maine homesteader yearning to live a sustainable and meaningful life: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

— MEREDITH GOAD

 


The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea

by Ronald Jager, 2004

Jager, a former philosophy professor at Yale, grew up on a small family farm so he knows of what he speaks. Now he lives in New Hampshire, where the book is set; its focus on small New England farms that specialize in apples, maple syrup, corn, eggs and dairy, will speak to Mainers. The book is dense, without feeling so. It eloquently and precisely weaves together strands of history, philosophy, linguistics and personal reflection with the practical, real life work of farming.

— PEGGY GRODINSKY

 


American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields

by Rowan Jacobson, 2010

The French word “terroir” describes the interaction of grapes, soil and climate to produce wine that sings of a particular spot. Jacobson, a Vermont writer, borrows the word to describe the “flavor landscapes” that produce some iconic and distinctive American foods. We chauvenistically think he should have come to Maine to write about potatoes (he goes to Quebec), maple syrup (he stays home in Vermont), and oysters (Washington State). But we forgive him because it’s a smart and very readable book (with recipes).

— PEGGY GRODINSKY

 


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, 2007

Early in the new millenium, novelist Barbara Kingsolver left her Arizona home of more than 25 years to move with her family to a farm in Appalachia. Paraphrasing Thoreau, the family planned to “eat deliberately,” to “align ourselves with the food chain” for a single year, eating only food they’d grown or raised or had purchased from neighboring farms. Kingsolver chronciles that year with friendliness, humor and joy. The book, like the year itself, is a family affair, the narrative punctuated with sections written by Kingsolver’s biologist husband (on food policy and science) and her teenage daughter (on recipes, meal plans and a young person’s perspective). “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” offers an engaging and excellent, if occasionally preachy, guide to a locavore experiment many in Maine are attempting.

— PEGGY GRODINSKY

 


Whole Earth Catalog

Technically, not a book or a magazine — but published regularly by Stewart Brand from 1968-1972, to the rejoicing of the back-to-the-landers and hippies everywhere and then sporadically until 1998. So what was it? It “offered an integrated, complex, challenging, thought-provoking, and comprehensive worldview,” according to its website (where you can view much of it in cool flip-book style, check it out at www.wholeearth.com). But also, recommendations for tools, tents, books, classes, anything anyone needed to be a better citizen of the Earth. It spoke to the counter culture. Steve Jobs described it as being “like Google in paperback form” in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech. It carried everything from essays by Wendell Berry to the art of R. Crumb and when it ceased publication, reminded its readers to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

— MARY POLS