RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Cracking Books in the Hammock

The unusual wet and cool spring in Missouri has been nice, but the unseasonable cool means I m having trouble getting into summer reading. Just this weekend, I set up the hammock. Usually, I read two or three books at once, picking up a piece of fiction, turning to something political, then working on a bit of biography. But, this year, there was one book I had to read all the way through before I could begin another.

The page-turner was Kurt Vonnegut's classic Cat's Cradle. Vonnegut, a World War II veteran, like Howard Zinn, came through the war thinking that he was not part of the greatest generation but that he was part of the generation most greatly hoaxed. He was my favorite author in the 1960s and 1970s, and this was my favorite book. The ending, which puts a playful twist on the last days of the world, stayed with me for 30 years. In Vonnegut's alternative universe, there's an understated drama of religion, science, military intelligence, physics, poetry, and relationships, according to rules of his own making. In the '60s, it seemed like humorous fiction. Today, it all seems so reasonable.

After finishing Vonnegut, I decided not to read books about troubles. There are plenty of them, at least one per presidential candidate plus a great many more by government officials, college teachers, corporate whistle blowers and soldiers. These books cover problems from the environment to the government to our nonexistent health safety net to energy to education. But I was looking for books that present solutions, including some we can put into practice.

Two favorite authors have tackled the puzzle of setting up a personal local economy. Bill McKibben s Deep Economy and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle each relate the authors' attempts to move their purchasing habits from international imports to the fruits of the neighborhood. Local purchases require less fossil fuel, give us more control over what we consume, help our neighbors develop businesses. McKibben does a great job of explaining why that's important and reviewing research that says that an internationally expanding economy doesn't necessarily translate into expanding happiness. In fact, he says, research into happiness says it has less to do with possessions, more to do with personal relationships and good work than any suburbanite ever suspected.

As if to illustrate this point, Kingsolver's book takes a personal stab at the same subject, but with fewer experts on board. Her book is illustrated with stories about her young family, who moved from the Arizona desert to Appalachia so they could become more self-sufficient. As she discovers such things as the pleasures of canning garden produce with friends, her children learn about livestock. As I read these two, I amused myself by thinking that maybe that personal approach, as opposed to the researcher's approach, sums up the difference between books by women and men. Obviously, we need both.

A third book about the benefits of eating local, Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes, turned out to be my favorite on local economies. These two authors write about their years of experience creating school lunches from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Instead of corn chips and canned chili, kids at their schools eat fresh corn soup and spinach with black bean burritos and fresh salsa. And although I usually don't like books that combine recipes with text, the recipes in this book are so interesting and so good at making the authors' points that I appreciate that they're included.

Then, on the recommendation of a good friend, I picked up Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. My friend, an architect, said it made him completely re-think natural spaces. This time of year, I am drawn outside every few minutes -- even a walk from the living room to the kitchen includes a detour through the mess of greenery we call a yard. So, to me, it seems obvious that kids who spend the days glued to play stations will end up as adults with no understanding of their connection to nature. Louv points out that adults have to lead the way and teach respect for the big wild places and the pockets of green and earthworms tucked into odd corners of concrete in almost every neighborhood.

As I thought about local economies and landscapes, I decided to read something attached rather intimately to my own place. From Prairie to Corn Belt by Allan C. Bogue is an old book -- from 1963 -- and it focuses on the prairie farmers like those that settled the places where I have always lived, today's places of corn and cattle. I'm not recommending this book to everyone, but I'd like to suggest that everyone interested in a local economy begins by finding out what their ecosystem offers and what people in their neighborhood raised 100 years, 200 years ago.

The land and the farmer is, after all, the source of community celebration, culture and politics. To learn how to move forward in a sustainable future, dear readers, first learn the lessons of the sustaining past.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2007

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