Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rural Renaissance in Review

Along with weeding in the field, bunching herbs and vegetables for market, and snipping salad mix at Frog Holler Organic Farm this summer I've been doing some reading. Pretty much any book related to gardening has always interested me, and now I find that I am also drawn to books that talk about living closer to the land, food preservation, and, of course, gardening. I've decided to begin reviewing some of the books I read to organize my own thoughts and share with others my impressions of them.

Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. New Society Publishers, 2004. 265 pages.

Rural Renaissance is the story of one family’s transition from very urban living in Chicago as advertising executives to life as innkeepers in a small, rural Wisconsin town. The book tells how they formulate and achieve various tenents of “right living” – living lightly on the earth; community with nature and their neighbors; working for themselves on projects for organizations that hold similar values.

Offering readers something of a how-to through the telling of their own journey, Rural Renaissance is inspirational. To anyone even vaguely leaning toward or having an interest in heading “back to the land”, having chickens, moving a bit more off the grid, or producing their own food, this book would remain appealing and interesting. Their choices in how to construct their house, feed themselves and their guests, and generally interact with their community would draw in anyone who has ever fantasized about such things on any scale.

There is ample and good reflection on how the process went and goes, how it feels, how they have grown personally, professionally, and as a couple, and what they juggle to keep this reality alive. What I wished for were a few more details, i.e. what is that exact recipe for jam, tomato sauce? What is the layout of the garden and the vegetables they grow? What is the blueprint for the straw bale greenhouse? How much savings did they have when they moved and purchased the land? What sort of financial precautions did they have to take? I'll confess that it may seem lacking because it doesn’t tell me exactly what I need to do. If the book is meant to serve as an inspirational jumping-off point for one’s own transition to a journey closer to your heart and convictions, then it is absolutely fine. However, as someone somewhat living this change myself I found I wanted a bit more information.

I found this book better and more useful than my initial impression of it boded. When I first started reading I expected it would be more of the same – a story of those who found “salvation” in country living and wanted to evangelize others to the same lifestyle. While this theme is surely present, there is also a great deal more that I found useful. The list of resources, good quotes from relevant authors, and some of the diagrams were quite handy.

Clearly, not everyone can or is interested in following this same path – well-paid ad exec in the city to B&B owners in the country now establishing their own non-profit – but it is inspiring and thought-provoking to read why the authors so diligently reuse and recycle; why they had a child ; what it means to them to build a straw bale house. One cannot help but look more closely at your own life and wonder about freezing tomatoes or searching out a local seller of eggs. Better yet, maybe someone might decide to look into their city’s chicken ordinance – or lack thereof – and get a few hens in for fun and the best eggs ever.

The lack of exact detail wasn’t a deterrent. This is not a “how to live in the country” book . Other authors have done that and done it well, i.e. Emery, Storey, and Kingsolver, to name but a few. Ivanko and Kivirist offer hope that such a life is possible, comfortable, and satisfying. Their object was not to create a cookbook (although I would not be at all surprised to see one sometime in the future) or a construction manual (they know the limits of their handiness), but rather, I think, a jumping off point for others.

Despite what sometimes felt like a too conversational, too simple presentation Rural Renaissance is still a compelling read. I remain undecided as to whether or not I would purchase the book versus getting it out of the library. It’s slightly out of date and not quite complete enough for me to justify spending money on, but it is worth reading. Ultimately, it will depend on how many times I end up recommending it to others or checking it out from the library.

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