I cook because I garden. I garden because I love to cook. On the surface it’s that simple. As usual with superficial statements though, there’s something deeper. I garden to root myself in place, to belong, both to the human community and to the wider, wilder community of nature. I cook with the food I’ve raised with my own hands because that connection to place and community nurtures my spirit—and it has saved my life.
Perhaps literally. When I was in my early 20s, on the cusp of what seemed like a promising career as a field ecologist, I was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease. I was so sick that specialists gave me two to five years to live. With no known cure, and no consensus on the possible progress or course of treatment, the advice that seemed most sensible to me boiled down to this: Listen to your body. Pay attention to what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse. Take notes. Look for patterns in that data. Make your health a priority.
Those words open the book proposal I started writing today. I’ve been rolling the concept of this book around in my mind for months, writing bits, pulling together other writing that might go into it, drafting outlines and even envisioning pages of the actual book while trying to find the dimensions and direction and heft of the story. I can see it in my mind as a series of disconnected page-images, but until yesterday, in a phone call with a colleague, I couldn’t quite pull the ideas together. Now I can.
What happened? This comment: “I want more of your story in the proposal. After I read Walking Nature Home [my new memoir], some of the things you said resonated in a new way. Your story could be a powerful theme in this new book; it’s about your life and nature and food and the garden.”
As soon as I heard her words, a new view of the book took shape in my imagination. I saw where I had been stuck, and saw where the story could go and how it could grow muscle and wings and voice. I knew right then just exactly where I needed to start and what I needed to draw on. I was ready to begin writing. Sometimes that’s all it takes: Someone who sees the idea from a different perspective can turn it slightly, just the way you turn a three-dimensional object in your hand. That shift as they nudge it a little can trigger an entirely different view. It goes from being something so familiar you can’t see it any other way to something entirely new. With a piece of writing, that shift in perspective can suddenly show you what you have, and where to go with it–or at least how to begin.
This book begins where Walking Nature Home ended: in our deep valley in the shadow of the high peaks. More specifically, in our kitchen and garden, where I grow, harvest, and prepare our food, the place where I go to restore my balance and mood when life grinds me down. I knew that the new book was about gardens and food and rooting our lives in place; I knew that it included practical details and recipes and instructions for green living. But until my colleague asked for more of my story, I didn’t realize I had been keeping my distance. Keeping a cautious distance is important for some stories, but for others distance is just that: a space between writer and reader that prevents the ideas from leaping off the page into readers’ hearts and minds.
This new book grows right out of my garden, and from those roots, it aims for the stars. I won’t be able to work on it much for months. I’ve got freelance assignments that come first. But now that I can see the story, I can hardly wait to start the real writing–it’s going to be quite a journey!
That’s my summer lettuce patch in upper photo, combining Paris Market blend and Monet’s Garden Mix, both greens mixes from inspired seed purveyor Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds. The lower photo is our kitchen garden in a very tidy posture. Thanks to Renee and to Jenny Barry of Jennifer Barry Design for the wisdom and inspiration.