Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006). One of the most important books on food, agriculture, health, and public policy of the past decade. It helps us understand how profoundly food has changed in the age of industrial food, becoming in the process more enemy (to our health, ecology, and future) than sacred gift.
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). A must-read exposé of the realities behind fast-food franchises and other purveyors of food for our fill-‘er-up lifestyle; the manipulation of the consumer (especially children) by advertising; the trickery played on our palates by chemical engineering; and much more. The chapter on conditions in the industrial slaughterhouses is an excellent update on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Schlosser’s explanation of why meat in the marketplace has become so hazardous is quite simple: “There is shit in the meat.”
The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows and Raw Dairy Products, by Ron Schmid (New Trends, 2003). Reading this book revealed that almost all of what I thought I “knew” about the history of and the “need” for pasteurization was completely inaccurate. Chapters re-examining milk as a vector for the transmission of disease; the nutritional qualities of raw milk as opposed to heat-treated milk; and the disastrous results of the industrialization of milk; all are essential reading.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green, 2003). An excellent introduction to transforming all sorts of foods with microbes; fermented vegetables like krauts and kimchis, dairy foods like yogurt and cheese, sourdough breads, beverages like beers, wines, and meads, and traditional soy foods (the only ones we should be eating) like miso and tempeh. Eat live-culture foods-become more of a community! “Is American Agribusiness Making Food Less Nutritious?” by Cheryl Long and Lynn Keiley, Mother Earth News, June-July 2004. An overview of the evidence that the nutrition in the national diet has been steadily declining for many decades. Available at either Organic Consumers Association or Mother Earth News Library.
Understanding and Working with Soil
Dr. Elaine Ingham has done more than perhaps anyone else to enlarge our understanding of soil life. She helped shape the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s Soil Biology Primer, an excellent brief introduction for those new to the concept of the “soil food web”.
Building Soils for Better Crops by Magdoff and van Es is a useful overview of soil ecology and soil care.
If vermicomposting, which I have recommended enthusiastically at many points in the site, is new to you, you might check out Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up & Maintain a Worm Composting System, by Mary Appelhof. Something of a classic in the field, with information on worm biology and setup for using earthworms to recycle kitchen “wastes”. The basics are quite simple, though you could easily find all the information you need through an online search engine. Start small and work up to vermicomposting on any scale you like.
Reading books on gardening is like reading books on cooking: One can read many cookbooks filled with hundreds of recipes, or one can read only a few, which give one a grounding in the fundamentals of foods and their properties, and the principles of cooking. I prefer the latter approach. Having attained a grasp of the fundamentals and an intuitive sense of the integral whole, one doesn’t need to go on amassing endless “recipes”. From that point, one’s own continuing experience is the most important guide, experience that is honed as much by failure as by success. Of course patience and perseverence are essential, and time. A lifetime should suffice.
I like the two fine books by Eliot Coleman, The New Organic Grower and Four-Season Harvest (both Chelsea Green, 1989 and 1992). I know of no better, simpler, more eloquent introduction to the basics of organic gardening, nor any more integral vision of the whole, than that offered in these two books. Four-Season Harvest is especially valuable for its vision of the unique opportunities offered by all the seasons of the gardening year. The design for my first greenhouse, described in the section on winter growing in “Achieving Food Independence,” was adopted largely from it.
Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed-Starters Handbook (Rodale Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction to the basics of starting and working with plants. I use it frequently as a quick reference. The final section is especially useful, an encyclopedia of various crops and their successful cultivation, whether direct seeded or started as transplants, from vegetables and herbs and fruits to wildflowers and trees.
Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel (Rodale Press, 1979). From growing vegetables that store naturally to strategies for storage, from plain (a protected pit in the ground) to fancy (a room-size walk-in root cellar with provisions for storing many different fruits and vegetables).
The Rodale organization’s The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is useful. It is badly edited, many entries are an obvious pastiche from disparate, sometimes discordant sources. Still, I occasionally find it helpful for a quick review, or reference to an unfamiliar topic. [I heard that there is a more recent edition of this work, which may correct some of its flaws, but have not seen it.]
Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth (Seed Savers Exchange, 1991). The best source of information for the homesteader on seed saving. Dependence on outside sources for one’s seeds is a pretty serious dependency indeed. All gardeners should save at least some of their own seeds, in the process developing strains more suited to their specific climate and soil conditions, management and disease pressures, etc.
Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture, by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier (Vol 1: Vision and Theory; Vol 2: Design and Practice), Chelea Green, 2005. This is a huge work in two volumes, with a wealth of information on natural forests, and how to mimic them to grow forest gardens that are beautiful, low-maintainence, and bountiful. It can get quite tedious at times, is too concerned with labels and pigeon-holing of concepts, and is much longer than it needed to be. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal about soil ecology and nurture, and was inspired to put the forest garden concept into practice on my own homestead. The extensive appendices, about plant species for the forest garden and their characteristics, are alone worth the (considerable) price of the books.
How to Make a Forest Garden, by Patrick Whitefield (Chelsea Green, revised edition 2002) is a considerably shorter book that offers an excellent introduction to the subject. Written by a Brit for aspiring forest gardeners in England, but the principles enunciated (and many of the species referred to) have wide application in other temperate climes as well.
Pruning Simplified, by Lewis Hill (Rodale Press, 1979). A good beginner’s guide to the pruning of all sorts of fruit trees, ornamentals, even bonsai.
There are many good books for getting to know the medicinal herbs we can grow, or discover growing all around us. Growing 101 Herbs That Heal by Tammi Hartung and 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster are good for making a start. James Green’s The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual is a good introduction to the various forms in which plant medicines are made and used. Perhaps its greatest contribution is illustrating just how easy plant herbal medicine can be. Check out books as well by Richo Cech, Rosemary Gladstar, David Hoffmann, Michael Moore, Susan Weed, and Matthew Wood.
Please get to know the amazing world of fungi, and how to bring them into the homescape in fascinating and useful ways. Paul Stamets, the big mushroom guru out in Washington state, has written a number of useful books on mushroom biology and cultivation. His latest, Mycelium Running, is perhaps the best overview of using cultivated mushrooms for edibles, medicinals, decomposers, and bioremediation (and even, Paul is not shy about adding, as psychoactives). Note that the subtitle of Mycelium Running is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World” – how can you pass it up?
The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery (Sasquatch, ninth edition 1994). A classic compendium on homestead life, a lifelong effort by homesteader Carla Emery, who died just a couple of years ago. Useful reference on many, many homestead topics.
At a number of places in the site, I give examples of Joel Salatin’s creative farming practices. Many of his ideas will be valuable to homesteaders wanting to take a more integrative approach. He’s written several books that can get you thinking along these lines, including You Can Farm, Pastured Poultry Profit$, and most recently Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. If you get a chance to hear him speak, don’t miss it: Joel is always informative and inspiring, and his “revival preacher” style is great fun.
It is scarcely believable that most of us are largely ignoring the elephant in the room, “peak oil” and its implications, but the shrinking of hydrocarbon fuel supplies will be the major event of our time.
Some books I can recommend on the subject are James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century and Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.
If you prefer visual media, see two DVDs: The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream and A Crude Awakening. I’m not a fan of the frenetic kaleidescope of images typical of such presentations, so I found both a bit irritating, but they hit me right between the eyes all the same.
It’s hard to characterize Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. A whirlwind tour of world history it certainly is, but from a perspective you may not have encountered in your history courses. It analyzes, among other things, how changes in the way we produce our food have influenced the rise and fall of empires, the spread of disease, and “the fates of human societies”. Even more relevant to the theme of sustainability (or non-) is Diamond’s Collapse, a sobering study of numerous previous societies and whole civilizations that collapsed following their overrunning or undercutting of their ecological base (and a few who had the wisdom to avoid such a fate).
Read Wendell Berry! Since he is both poet and novelist and essayist, there will be books of his to suit your particular tastes. They all offer a vision of what has gone so profoundly wrong with agriculture, with culture generally, in our time, but also of the directions we need to take for healing, of both ourselves and the earth. Collections of essays include The Unsettling of America and What Are People For?. Remembering is a wonderful novel” do buy a collection of his poems, it’s all good.
Suppose you were to adopt the peculiar notion that sustainability in your own corner of the landscape depends on recycling, rather than squandering, your own body “wastes”? The book you’d need for this bit of madness would be The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (Third Edition 2005) by Joseph Jenkins.
Frances Moore Lapp’s Diet for a Small Planet did a great deal to focus our attention on issues of sustainability and waste in agriculture as related to food choice. Unfortunately, she took current industrial agricultural (rather than traditional) practice as the norm; and drew the conclusion that direct consumption by humans of grains and legumes is always the more sustainable choice. She overlooked the many possibilities for wise resource use in which animal foods are actually the most sustainable option, not the most wasteful.
Readers of this site may be surprised at the benign attitude I have toward insects of all species, and even black widow spiders. I guarantee that reading Joanne Elizabeth Lauck’s The Voice of the Infinite in the Small will change forever the way you relate to the micro-world of insects and spiders.
Stephen Harrod Buhner has written many books about appreciating the role plants play in the world. Stephen’s vision for relating to the plant world more deeply goes well beyond a narrowly “herbalist” view. I especially recommend The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth and The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature.
The Covenant of the Wild by Stephen Budiansky is a useful book for anyone wanting a better understanding of the domestication of livestock species. The subtitle, “Why Animals Chose Domestication”, hints at a radically altered view on how domestication came about, and hence its fundamental nature. Guaranteed to give a new perspective on the relationships possible with these special members of the animal world.
Mother Earth News is a long-standing bimonthly magazine that addresses homesteading issues, broadly defined. I first became involved with Mother Earth when they invited me to participate in a forum on homesteading, which was later opened to the public (although has closed since). (You can read my own responses to the thirteen questions they posed.) I wrote an extended series of articles for Mother Earth entitled “21st Century Homesteading“, and I continue to make contributions to many issues.