Monday, September 22, 2014

Interview with Sapna E. Thottathil, pt. 1

Sapna E. Thottathil’s book, India’s Organic Farming Revolution, appears in October. Here, she shares with UI Press editor Catherine Cocks why she wrote the book and what Americans can learn from farmers in Kerala, India. This interview will be continued on Wednesday, Sept. 24.

Catherine Cocks: What drew you to Kerala, India, to study organic agriculture?

Sapna E. Thottathil: My parents grew up as farmers in Kerala—working fields, planting rice and vegetables, and being familiar with the seasons. Yet the stories I heard from them about their lives while I was a kid here in the U.S. fell far short of the romantic, pastoral vision I expected of farm life. They instead would tell me about crops dying off, financial hardships, and hunger. To me, the last bit was the most confounding—the idea that people working the land and familiar with growing food could go hungry.
These stories stuck with me as an adult, so I was surprised to see the increasing presence of organic food products from Kerala in grocery store aisles. And some of these foods were grown within a few miles of where my parents were born and raised! To learn more about these organic foods and to better reconcile in my head the absurdities of our food system (how farmers can go hungry, for example), I decided to spend some of my own time in India.

CC: Here in Iowa, many farms are very large, the work is highly mechanized, and only a small percentage of the state’s population is engaged in agriculture. How is farming organized in Kerala by comparison?

ST: The majority of Kerala’s farms are less than 2 to 3 acres in size, and the work is not as mechanized. Part of this is due to Kerala’s land reforms, which took place starting in the 1960s and ‘70s and put a cap on the size of the state’s farms. Prior to the land reforms, much of Kerala’s farmland was feudal, worked by laborers who had insecure tenancy arrangements. These land reforms (instituted by the state government) were the outcome of decades of protests by workers and attempted to redress many of the social inequities that they had been facing.
There is also a lot of intercropping in Kerala—growing coffee underneath areca nut trees alongside pepper vines and other spices, for example. (Areca nut trees produce a fruit that is chewed and has a stimulant effect, like tobacco.) This intercropping, along with the undulating topography of the land and muddy soils from monsoon rains, makes mechanization difficult in Kerala.

There are about two million full-time farmers in Kerala, which is around 5 percent of the population.

Friday, September 19, 2014


"If deer are a problem in your garden, plant daffodils and forget tulips. Deer relish tulips but won't touch daffodils."—Arleen Troester, Colesburg Garden Club

Gardening in Iowa and Surrounding Areas, by Veronica Lorson Fowler with the Federated Garden Clubs of Iowa

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Poppy Seed Dressing for Spinach Salad from GARDENING THE AMANA WAY, by Lawrence L. Rettig

Fall is approaching, but that's no matter for hardy greens like spinach. Try your next salad with this dressing from Gardening the Amana Way, by Lawrence L. Rettig.

Poppy Seed Dressing

1 cup salad oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon grated onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard

In blender at medium speed, blend all dressing ingredients (save the spinach) until mixed. Dressing will be thick. Drizzle on spinach as desired. Store in tightly covered jar in refrigerator. Stir well before using. Makes about one and one-half cups.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jon K. Lauck Book Talk

John K. Lauck, author of The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, will be talking about his new book. He will be in Chicago, so if you're in the area, please stop by. For more information or to RSVP, visit our Facebook event.

Date: Wednesday, September 17
Time: 7:00 P.M.
Location: Newberry Library, 60 W Walton St, Chicago, IL

Praise for The Lost Region

"Jon Lauck has written the definitive manifesto for a new midwestern historiography. Deeply researched, elegantly written, passionate yet sensible in its themes, it is a stunning book. One hopes that it will stun the coasties, for example, who believe that the fly-over states, many of them beginning with the letter I, have no serious history. Lauck shows that an America without the Midwest would have been less fair, less strong, less prosperous, and above all less democratic. Lauck is the new Frederick Jackson Turner, reminding us that the Midwest is the master spring of American history—without which, not."—Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago, and author, the Bourgeois Virtues

Friday, September 12, 2014

Excerpt from LEAVING THE PINK HOUSE, by Ladette Randolph

Leaving the Pink House, by Ladette Randolph, describes how, on September 12, 2001, Randolph and her husband bought a dilapidated farmhouse on twenty acres outside Lincoln, Nebraska, and set about gutting and rebuilding the house themselves. They had nine months to complete the work. The project, undertaken at a time of national unrest and uncertainty, led Randolph to reflect on the houses of her past and the stages of her life that played out in each, both painful and joyful.


We weren't hopeful that day in September as we headed south of Lincoln, Nebraska, on Highway 77 to look at what the ad had said was a "farmhouse on twenty acres fifteen miles from Lincoln." We couldn't help but notice as we drove, though, that instead of the usual suburban muck, the highway was lined by rolling hills, trees, well-tended farmsteads, and lovely vistas spreading out before us at the crest of each new hill.

I'd been doing this periodically—going to look at acreages—for the sake of my husband Noel. When he'd moved to Nebraska from San Francisco eleven years earlier, he'd fallen in love with the countryside in southeastern Nebraska, but he'd never particularly liked Lincoln. He preferred to live in either a large city or in the country. Not surprisingly, his dream since I'd met him had been to live in a house in the country. But at the time we married I'd protested I wasn't going to put my grade-school children on a bus to attend a consolidated school. No matter what Noel felt about Lincoln, its public schools were among the most progressive in the state.

Despite this, in recent months I'd been humoring Noel with these occasional forays into the countryside. Indeed, my argument about the children's education was growing obsolete as the elder two had already left home for college and the youngest was a junior at Lincoln High School. This was clearly something Noel wanted, and I, at times begrudgingly, admitted to myself it was his turn.

We'd seen property after property in various states of disrepair, or worse, old houses remodeled in "country" decor. Like many midwestern cities, Lincoln was developing irresponsibly, and almost every direction out of the city was lined with miles of development acreages, tract malls, and other evidence of sprawl. Our aversion to the unappealing drives and the inevitably disappointing properties on the other end had finally led Noel himself to conclude that owning a country house near Lincoln was probably impossible.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sweet Autumn Clematis from GARDENING THE AMANA WAY, by Lawrence L. Rettig

Here's our favorite flower for September, from Lawrence L. Rettig's Gardening the Amana Way.

Sweet Autumn Clematis

While clematis cultivars come in many beautiful colors, with both single and double flowers, one of my favorite varieties is the old stand-by sweet autumn clematis. As its name implies, sweet autumn clematis blooms in late summer or early fall and has sweet, vanilla-scented blossoms. Its huge masses of flowers often hide the leaves almost entirely. One plant climbing into our blue spruce sends up vines as high as twenty feet. While impressive during the day, it's spectacular at dusk, when its blossoms literally glow against the darker needles of the spruce.

Hardiness: zones 3a-9b
Height: up to 20 feet
Spread: up to 5 feet
Bloom time: from early fall to shortly before frost
Bloom description: small, white
Light: full sun to part shade
Water: moderate
Maintenance: low

Monday, September 8, 2014

Interview with Ladette Randolph, pt. 2

Ladette Randolph is the author of Leaving the Pink House, published just this month. University of Iowa Press acquisitions editor Elisabeth Chretien asked her a few questions about writing her book, growing up and living in Nebraska, and her life in Boston now. This interview is continued from the post on Friday, September 5.

Elisabeth Chretien: You’ve lived in Nebraska most of your life, but you now reside in Boston. How did it feel to make this transition and leave the country house you worked so hard on?
Ladette Randolph: First of all, I moved to Boston because I was offered a fantastic job. It came at a good time for me when my book was coming out and it provided a way for me to be both a writer and an editor more comfortably than my previous work had allowed. It was, though, as you might imagine after having read this book, a very, very difficult move, and not only because of having to leave the country house. I have a lot of life still in Nebraska and I miss my family and friends. In fact, we weren’t sure at first that Noel would follow me to Boston, but after two years of the long distance thing, we decided it was best to sell the country house. We grieved (and still feel homesick) for it, but we were fortunate that our daughter-in-law’s parents were planning a move to Lincoln around the time we were leaving and liked the place enough to buy it from us. So, our two little grandchildren now spend time there, which makes us happy. We love hearing about their adventures, building fires in the fire pit, walking through the woods and meadows, watching the birds and looking at the stars.
EC: Who are your inspirations among nature writers and writers of place?
LR: Cather’s depictions of landscape (not just Nebraska) are influential as is her plain-spoken prose. I’m also influenced by Western writers like Terry Tempest Williams and Teresa Jordan, among many others--too many to mention. I do think of myself as a western writer, though it may be pretentious of me to make that claim. I was inspired by these books to include some of the history of Nebraska in Leaving the Pink House. Alice Munro has been a huge influence. The way she trusts herself in depicting out of the way places and everyday people (many of whom I identify with because of their farm and small town connections), and to write it all in a way that feels simple but is in fact very complex is continually a challenge to me. I’m also a big fan of Chekhov’s short stories (for many of the same reasons I admire Munro). Chekhov was masterful at capturing just the right detail about a person or a place. He was deeply aware of landscape in much of his work and used it well to depict the emotional tenor of his stories. Again, his writing is deceptively simple. The more I read him the less confident I am about what he might be trying to say. 
EC: As your editor, I appreciate the fact that you are an editor yourself. How has this kind of detailed work on others’ manuscripts affected your own writing?
 LR: Again, like the landscape question, I’m not sure if I have enough perspective to answer this properly. I was a writer first and became an editor after I finished my PhD, so although I love my work as an editor and take it very seriously, if pushed, I would still identify primarily as a writer in a way some editors who write might not. I like to think I’m more ruthless in editing my own work because of my experience as an editor, but I’m not sure that’s quite true. I think as writers we all have difficulty seeing our work clearly, and an editor who writes needs an editor as much as any other writer does, so, thank you, Elisabeth, and everyone else at Iowa (Rebecca and Charlotte!) who worked so hard to help me with the edits on this book.
EC: What are you working on now?
LR: I’ve finished what I call the “Zero Draft” and the “Dirty Wedding Draft” of a new novel. (I always generate a lot of pages that help me create characters and plot.) I’m hoping by the fall to have a proper “First Draft.” (I’ve learned to avoid becoming overly attached to generative drafts by using these distancing terms.) I’m still at the point in this project, though, where I’m feeling like the whole thing is a complete waste of time; it could all end up in the wastebasket yet, but for now I’m still engaged with it.