A Book Event for The Founding Gardeners at Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery, Pennsylvania

Ever notice how once something is brought to your attention you suddenly notice it everywhere?  Well, after hearing about the publication of Andrea Wulf’s new book The Founding Gardeners on Twitter I knew I had to read it.  Next, I learn that it’s an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review.  AND THEN, I’m driving home and our local NPR station is talking about an event at a nearby nursery: Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery.  Andrea Wulf will be speaking and signing books 20 minutes away.  So of course I had to go.

It was a lovely day and the Nursery is beautiful.  The fact that Edge of the Woods specializes in native plants made the venue feel particularly appropriate.  The talk lasted about 1-1/2 hours and I’m happy to report that Andrea Wulf is a wonderful speaker.  I’d heard her before in radio interviews & BBC podcasts for The Brother Gardeners, discussing John Bartram (who before the American Revolutionary War started a nifty little business sending Native American plants and seeds to England).  This new book is the natural continuation of that story.  Ms. Wulf explained that while studying Bartram she was surprised to discover what rabid gardeners Washington, Jefferson, Adams & Madison were.  She mentioned orders she found in Bartram’s paperwork from George Washington for his gardens in Mt. Vernon.  She discussed how a visit to Monticello made her realize that these early American presidents were designing their gardens with the same principles in mind with which they were shaping the new country.  It was really fascinating.  And, honestly, it was one of the few times I’ve heard an author clearly and concisely explain where the idea for a book was born.

Afterwards there were questions and answers.  Unfortunately fewer than I would have liked.  There was a very good question about the influence of Native Americans on these early gardens.  And I did ask one question (and a follow-up! as my husband had fun pointing out) about Jefferson’s & Madison’s influences on each others gardens (I’ve always, probably unfairly, imagined Madison as Jefferson’s sidekick in an unflattering, Robin to Jefferson’s Batman, kinda’ way) … but I do wonder how people can come to a reading, listen to someone talk for over an hour and then have absolutely no questions afterwards.   Fortunately, the event coordinators had the foresight to invite a John Bartram impersonator, who engaged the author with questions about the transport of “his” plants & seeds to England and the terrible time he had trying to get payment from the British. When I first read that John Bartram would be there, I worried it would be more kid-friendly than what I was looking for.  In actuality, it was a lot of fun & very well done.

Afterwards, there were refreshments and Ms. Wulf graciously signed copies of her books.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to an event like this.  They’re usually  held on weekdays and the authors I would be interested in hearing don’t normally come to this area.  So I’d forgotten how fascinating it is to listen to an author discuss their book.  And how much you can learn when they take questions from the audience.  Andrea Wulf mentioned that she’s about 2/3 of the way through her book tour.  If you have the opportunity to hear her speak in your area I highly recommend doing so.  Here’s a link to her Upcoming Events.

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Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

Every year since owning my own home I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard.  My garden is not for the faint of heart.  The plants start from seeds in the sun room and by mid-July I have a small ecosystem to rival a Brazilian rainforest in the yard.  Carrots, bush beans, thyme, mint, rosemary, peppers, lavender, broccoli, eggplant… all manage to cohabit amiably until the tomatoes take over.  Once those bad boys start sprouting all bets are off.  We refer to my 6 x 9 foot patch of produce as “the heart of darkness” and a chicken wire fence is all that stands between us and it.  Take my word for it, Pennsylvania is a primo spot for tomato growing.

Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994.  He started growing his tomato seedlings under florescent lights in a Brooklyn apartment and after getting booted by his landlord took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania.  “Farm” is putting it generously – he has 2 acres dedicated to growing which, by his own account, he does not own.  But what he grows on those 2 acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC.  His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer is not an account of his journey from PA to Brooklyn and back again.  It’s no more or less than what the title claims – a mishmash of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan.  (There’s a whole archive of articles that didn’t make the cut over at Gourmet.com).  What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a damn good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer.  And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days.  That edge creeps in.  This isn’t Garrison Keillor or some heartwarming pioneer family mini-series on the Hallmark Channel.  Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses.  He’s also a bit of a crank.  He complains his way through much of the book… About not being accepted by the other farmers in his area.  About farmers competing with Real Estate developers for farmland.  About what the government charges and the paperwork it requires before you can call your produce “organic”.  About readers of Gourmet sending him hate mail after the magazine published his story about killing a groundhog as he deals with un-diagnosed lyme disease (add hypochondriac to his possible sins).  Stark’s crankiness is a big part of what makes his storytelling so much fun.

Knowing I was broke from buying a tractor and from buying all of the material that went into constructing the greenhouse, they (his Mennonite neighbor, neighbor’s son, brother and father, who all showed up seemingly unannounced one Spring day to help Stark put up his greenhouse) refused to accept payment for their services.  And I wasn’t even a member of their church.  So I tried to be a sport… I threw myself into the next job that had been lined up for the crew: putting the roof on a barn.  I found myself fifty feet up, clinging to a roof beam, cowering and dropping nails to the ground as all around me Mennonites young and old tromped along without the slightest fear in the world.  I hung in there for about forty-five minutes, nervously pounding a nail or two, clinging to dear life and dropping three nails for every one that I pounded in.  When I finally said enough was enough, maneuvering over to the ladder and climbing down to safety, everybody up on the roof thanked me with such sincerity that, in view of my tiny, cowering contribution, I decided they could only have been thanking me for not falling and breaking my neck and leaving them with a real predicament on their hands.

Parenthesis mine.

It’s when Stark switches the focus off himself, his farm, and his experiences that Heirloom becomes a bit lackluster.  An example would be in the very first chapter where he spends too much time on the story of the failed farmer who was the de facto caretaker of Eckerton Farm when Stark moved there as a child.  We’re supposed to see a parallel between the lives of Milt Miller & Tim Stark, but while I understand that the author feels some kinship to the man I never completely buy into it – or into the bigger picture Stark is trying to paint.

Tim Stark is best when he remembers to be Tim Stark… not Michael Pollan.  When he remembers that readers want to hear about his first year growing tomatoes at Eckerton, of a hellish day spent delivering snap beans door-to-door to NYC restaurants, or selling chile peppers to West Indians.  Chapters that start with sentences such as ‘It was inevitable that we would come to be labeled as “the tomato people”…’  “My wife – the farmer’s wife, always sticking her nose where she got no bidness…”  “The bucket on my tractor snapped when I tried to clear the snow that finally stopped falling at noon on Valentine’s Day…”  are the ones that really sing.  Stark still gets his point across and his message out just as clearly as does Pollan, just in his own voice (which, in my opinion, feels more relevant).

Overall, the book is a winner.  I enjoyed it so much that I recommend going online to check out that archive of articles on Gourmet.com (if you haven’t found them already).  And since Condé Nast is closing the magazine, the clock just may be ticking on that.  Hopefully that means they’ll have to publish a follow-up to Heirloom.

Caliban Book Shop – Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh is one of my favorite places to visit.  There is just something romantic about a city where three rivers meet and old stone homes are being restored.  To me, Pittsburgh radiates the energy & excitement of a city “becoming”.  So much urban revitalization is happening that I could spend days walking around the residential neighborhoods and taking it all in (which is what we usually end up doing!).

Another thing in Pittsburgh’s favor – it has great independent book shops.  One standout is the Caliban Book Shop located at 410 South Craig Street in the Shadyside neighborhood.  The shop is clean, tidy and has a wonderful selection of used books.  Their card states that they specialize in Rare & Scholarly books – which they do.  I spotted some fabulous 20th century first editions and signed copies.  Some were out of the ordinary, like the signed copy of Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton that had me mentally budgeting for the next month in a desperate attempt to justify buying it.  (Alas, it was not to be).  I’m sure it wasn’t the most valuable book in the shop, but it’s one I don’t come across every day.

What really sets Caliban apart in my eyes is the quality of the inventory not housed in a glass case, which is made up of the inexpensive and rare finds that are the stuff of a bibliophile’s dreams.  They carry books, all in amazingly good condition, that are out of print or by authors that are off radar for the majority of the public.  Of course you can find books by Michael Chabon, John Gardner, Italo Calvino and Stephen Millhauser –all standard stock in the “better” used bookstores.  But Caliban also has a surprisingly nice section on Urban Planning.  I came across several books by less well known publishing houses and by international authors.  The New Arrivals shelves, directly across from the front desk, were a pleasure to browse through.  It’s obvious that the owners, John Schulman & Emily Hetzel, are buyers with discriminating tastes.

Below is what I left with:

  • Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (hardcover with protected dust jacket)
  • 3 Jack Vance Paperbacks (Caliban has a nice 1950’s sci-fi pulp collection – which is a don’t miss housed in a basement room. It also seems to be where they keep their less expensive trade paperbacks).
  • The Dead Girls by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (paperback)
  • Sunset at Dawn: A novel of the Biafran war by Chukwuemeka Ike (paperback)

Any criticisms?  I found their Art section a little weak.  Not bad, but nothing to write home about.  And a few small tables with chairs would have been convenient to sort through my selections before heading to the check out.  Then again, they may be on to something.  If they provided tables and chairs, I’d probably still be there.

Caliban Storefront