In the early 1970s, we lived in Congers, New York, a small town in Rockland County. My dad wasn't a stranger to political activist; he had been involved in anti-war and civil rights protests. But he took protesting into high gear, when the problem was down the block. Reynolds Aluminum tried to pay off local officials to build a aluminum processing plant next to Congers Lake, which was a few hundred yards from our house.
Dad did all sorts of things to stop the project. He laid down in front of a bulldozer. He wrote lots of letters, organized protests, went to town meetings. He formed his own third party and ran for office. My parents also met a bunch of like-minded people — some of whom they still are friends with today.
Many in the "Save Congers Lake" coalition were part of the early organic food movement, including Eugene Carpovich and Joan Gussow. Gussow was heavily featured in Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. When I read the Pollan's book, I heard echoes of my childhood throughout the pages.
After my parents got involved with the "Save the Lake" crew, dad dug up our suburban front lawn. We had a modest bi-level and a sloping front lawn. He planted twelve fruit trees and surrounded them with chicken manure. We used to dig for huge earthworms in the manure. He planted grape vines and tomatoes. He built a compost heap. Every fall, we picked baskets of plums, apples, pears, and peaches. Our front lawn was an eye sore, but it yielded a good crop.
With a thick Russian accent, Dr. Carpovich used to give us kids long lectures about the importance of using natural compost and avoiding chemicals. He would explain how to battle worms in the peaches and fight rats in the compost heap. Then he would hand us a plum. As he became older, Dr. Carpovich became so concerned about health and food that he only ate boiled potatoes and lamb from New Zealand.
After we moved out of Congers, my dad's enthusiasm for organic food dimmed. We moved to an even smaller suburban lot in New Jersey that was too shady to grow fruit and veggies. Dad became involved in other political causes. I think my mom was relieved. She had never really bought into Dad's chicken manure and crusty breads. We went back to store-bought produce.
Dad is vaguely amused that his 70s friends and interests are in vogue. Joan Gussow is featured in today's Times. He still grows tomatoes in his backyard, and we'll share a bag of chicken manure for our gardens, but his organic food passion went with the side burns.
When I picked up my vegetables from the CSA this week, I told Jonah how the radishes in our salad were grown in clean soil. I sent my nieces to the backyard to pick some tomatoes from the yard, and they came back smelling the warm fruit in their hands. Dad may not be an organic gardener any more, but maybe his grandchildren will take over.