The Bookcase that Became a Blog

Penelopedia, the blog, came to be when I realized I had a cluster of interests that seemed to me fundamentally related. I have a special bookcase near the kitchen that houses all my cookbooks and food magazines, organic gardening books and magazines, frugal living guides, Mother Earth News magazines, and field guides for birds, insects, wildflowers, trees and regional wildlife. That bookcase was essentially a blog waiting to happen. And then I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the pleasures and values behind leaving behind much of the industrialized food system and eating locally and traditionally raised food, and everything seemed to come together: respect for nature, animals, natural and traditional foods, sustainable food production that preserves biodiversity and doesn't abuse animals, simpler ways of life including growing your own food, and the deep importance of place.

The cookbooks are largely, but not exclusively, vegetarian, including such mainstays as the Moosewood cookbooks (both Mollie Katzen's and some that came later), Vegetarian Epicure, 1001 Low-fat Vegetarian Recipes, and Laurel's Kitchen. My other cooking bibles are Jane Brody's Good Food Book and Good Food Gourmet, which include meat in some recipes but also emphasize a diet based on whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

I do eat some meat (mostly chicken), eggs, and dairy products. Over the past couple of years I have come to place increasing importance on avoiding factory-farmed animal products, favoring naturally raised grass-fed beef from a local producer (which we have only occasionally), non-caged poultry and eggs, and dairy products from pastured cows. I can't and don't always avoid mainstream meat and animal products, but it is a goal I try to move toward. There is nothing like the golden yellow (and the associated much healthier balance of fats) of butter made from the milk of pastured cows. I think the advice of Michael Pollan and others, to eat less meat and to pay more for it (to reflect healthier, more natural food and environment involved in raising the animals humanely), is right on.

But, despite my continuing commitment to the ideas noted above, Penelopedia has morphed into much more of a nature blog than a food-values blog. I still touch on food issues now and then, and give glimpses into my gardening life (almost nonexistent these days). But mainly this blog is a wonderful excuse to take a camera along when we are out and about, and to learn more about what I have seen so I can share it more intelligently.

Birdwatching is, as I often say, a good way to enjoy nature without being too strenuous about it! I find my life is much improved when I have an incentive to get out for a walk or a drive into the countryside; when I feel the wind and smell the damp earth or sun-warmed grasses and wildflowers; when I listen to the birds and insects and scan the landscape for a flash of color or an avian silhouette at the top of a dead tree. I love becoming more aware of the bird life around us, and gradually being able to identify more and more of it.

And yet it is still all connected, just as my bookcase revealed to me. We read about irreplaceable diverse grasslands (essential habitat for many birds and other creatures) being lost at an almost unprecedented pace -- plowed up for commodity row crops because of high corn values. We hear about the perilous status of the honeybee and the Monarch butterfly, probably both due to multiple factors but strongly likely to be at least partly due to widespread use of  pesticides and herbicides that make plants toxic to essential pollinators and remove their natural host plants (notably, milkweed) from the rural landscape. We cannot escape the truth of Wendell Berry's adage that eating (and, apparently, producing fuel) is an agricultural act that inevitably affects our landscape, the web of life that depends upon it, and ultimately our birthright of biological diversity on this precious earth.

Most of what I write about happens in or near the small college town of Northfield, Minnesota. I have lived here for more than 25 years now -- far, far longer than I've lived anywhere else. (The "anywhere elses" include five years as an infant and young child in Kenya, a dozen or so years growing up in and around San Francisco, four years of college in New England, and eight years in various locations in Wisconsin). I know the seasons here. I like the seasons here (just lop six weeks off winter... which, actually, climate change has been tending to do in recent years). I know an increasing amount about the flora and fauna of the area. I love living where in five minutes we can be out in the country. I love the feel of a forward-thinking town that has three wind turbines and a historic, walkable downtown, and that still mostly eschews the suburban ethic of chemically perfected lawns and total reliance on the big-box economy. You can hang your laundry on the line here, amid decades-old lilac bushes and old-fashioned spirea and giant maple trees. I love the extensive nature areas of our two colleges, and the fact that I work just across the street from a river that seems different every day.

As long as I stay interested in the natural world around me, and in keeping that natural world integrated into our modern lives, I'll keep sharing my discoveries here. Thank you for stopping by.