In honor of Earth Day, today I’m sharing a recommendation for an Earth-related book I just finished reading. Closer to the Ground, by Dylan Tomine, is a memoir about his family’s life “on the water, in the woods, and at the table.” Gratitude to my friend and fellow urban farmer, Jay, who gave me the book knowing it was right up my alley. It’s a tribute to the simplicity, beauty, and richness of life and food in nature — indeed, I was hooked before I even cracked it open.
Tomine and his family live on an island in the Pacific Northwest, where they fish, forage, and grow their own food. In the process, he and his wife are teaching their children about the value and fragility of nature, and how our societal development impacts it.
“Closer to the Ground is the deeply personal story of a father learning to share his love of nature with his children, not through the indoor lens of words or pictures, but directly, palpably, by exploring the natural world together as they forage, cook and eat from the woods and sea. This tale follows Dylan Tomine and his family through four seasons as they hunt chanterelles, fish for salmon, dig clams and gather at the kitchen table, mouths watering, to enjoy the fruits of their labor.” — from the book synopsis
While it sounds like a lofty — and perhaps unattainable — lifestyle for those of us who live in urban areas (there’s not much salmon fishing to be done here in the Potomac River), the book is neither preachy nor prescriptive. Tomine’s writing is humble and accessible, and his story is surprisingly relatable. For example, while his family’s commitment to and dependence on the Earth is genuine, they also shop for food like “normal” folks. In Tomine’s words, “We’re just a regular suburban family that spends time outside looking for food. It’s not like my kids don’t know what Cheetos taste like. We still shop at Costco. We’re not very extreme in any way… It’s just how we’ve evolved to live.”
The book weaves effortlessly among fishing adventures, clam digging, blackberry hunting, seed-planting parties, vegetable harvesting, fruit canning, and of course, lots of cooking and eating. For us East Coasters, it’s an interesting glimpse into the local flora and fauna of a region quite unlike our own.
And for parents, Tomine’s insights about children — while not revolutionary — are universally relatable and laudable. As he said in an interview with Outside Magazine, “It’s easy to assume that this is a book about what a father teaches his kids about the outdoors, but we’re just learning it all together. This is really about what they teach me.” His learning includes these staples, with which we whole-heartedly concur:
- ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO BE PART OF THE PROCESS.
“If you want to do more with kids outside, basing it around food is a good strategy. There’s a level of intensity to it for kids if the goal is food, whether it’s fishing or crabbing. But it doesn’t have to be foraging, per se. Kids love to grow carrot seeds in a pot. If they participate in the food process, they’re so much more apt to enjoy eating whatever it is.”
- EXPOSE KIDS TO NEW FLAVORS WHEN THEY’RE YOUNG.
“We protect our kids from strange flavors. You hear about picky eaters—it’s common. I sympathize. But if kids grow up thinking these flavors are normal, they’ll get used to them. My daughter eats the oiliest, fishiest part of the salmon, the collar.”
- ESTABLISH GROUND RULES.
“We’re pretty controlling about the wild edible stuff. We have a rule that they have to show us everything before they eat it. We don’t want them just picking it and stuffing it in their mouth.”
- BE PREPARED, WORRY LESS.
“I worry so much about safety. Before we go, I’ve thought it out from every angle. But there are always worst-case scenarios you can’t predict. On the last day of chanterelle season last year, Weston got stung 37 times by hornets. Then on the first day this fall, he got stung by another. You can’t protect them from all outcomes. I’m a worrywart by nature. I try to figure out the safest best way to go about it. If it’s windy and rough on the water, we don’t go. If the kids are miserable, we go home early. I could easily be overbearing, so I need to manage that and let the kids have the experience. I know myself: I’m never going to not worry enough.”
- GIVE THEM JOBS.
“Our kids love to participate in every part of the food process: from catching the fish, to cleaning it, to eating it. We put them to work in the kitchen, squeezing lemons, mixing a marinade. It’s the same as being outdoors: you weigh what’s safe and appropriate for them. But you don’t need to convince them to participate. The pride they have in the finished product is so uplifting.”
Books like this remind me just how much our Earth provides for us. And how much we can give back through our small, local efforts. This year’s Earth Day focus is Green Cities, which aims to “help cities around the world become more sustainable and reduce their carbon footprint.” Naturally, we at Sprout are all for green cities, since urban farming is our thing. Whether we’re going out into nature — like Tomine and his family — or bringing nature back into our urban areas, we love the idea of more folks getting closer to the ground.
Published in 2012 by Patagonia Books, Closer to the Ground was well-received by critics and readers. Some highlights:
“…an eloquent chronicle of a likable family’s attempt to live a more nature-centric life…Tomine writes with respect and humor…refreshingly unsanctimonious…a lovely homage to the oldest seductress around: Mother Nature.” –The Washington Post
“So this is leading by example, and the quiet message is to learn to live with the things that really matter; the eternal things about the earth, and about each other.” — from the foreword by Thomas McGuane
“…lush and visceral…Tomine finds a middle way, a way for regular people to live a little more consciously in a world that underpins the contrails and Twitter feeds of our twenty-first-century civilization.” — Orion