From the Ground Up
By Jeanne Nolan
Spiegel & Grau, 2013
Teenagers often dream of running off to live a life completely different from their parents and this is exactly what Jeanne Nolan did. In 1987, she left behind her suburban Chicago life to join Zendik Farm, a commune, which at the time was located outside of San Diego. Nolan went in search of a more authentic, greener, way of life, joining a community that lived by its own rules: growing their food and eschewing monogamy and traditional relationships. Nolan spent 17 years on the farm, moving with the community to two other locations, until she decided this life no longer served her.
This memoir begins as Nolan is arriving home, moving back in with her parents to the same suburban community, Winnetka, IL, that she had left behind, returning with her two-year old daughter Thea. Nolan is physically thin and emotionally wrought, struggling with deep self-doubt, as she tries to reimagine life for herself and Thea. Goaded by her mother to plant a vegetable garden in the family’s backyard, Nolan embarks on a journey she could not have imagined when she fled home as a teen. It is now the early-2000s and her farming/gardening skills have value in a world where organic food is sought after. Her green political views are coming into the mainstream. Nolan tells the story of how she finds her way back in Winnetka, starting a small business, the Organic Gardener, in which she plants and cultivates organic gardens in suburban yards, and eventually getting swept into the urban farm movement in Chicago.
I much enjoyed the book, which is a window into the organic gardening/urban farm movement, and into Nolan’s transformation, as she rebuilds her relationship with her parents and finds a way to balance her green values with life in the suburbs. Soon after she returns to Chicago an old love from the farm reaches out and Nolan finds both love and professional success in a community she never thought could value her on her own terms. Most of the book is set in Chicago, with flashbacks to her farming days, and I did wish she shared a bit more about what eventually turned her off from the farm, but she shared enough for me to figure out that after she had a daughter there, she became alienated from the others for loving her daughter in ways that challenged the communal values.
Nolan’s passion for gardening and farming is infectious. I particularly loved reading the pages about her buying seeds and envisioning gardens for her clients, including Rahm Emanuel and his family.
Nolan lives in Chicago with her family where she continues the works she writes about in this book.