Jeanne Nolan, a happily married wife, mother and a leader in the sustainable food movement in Chicago, took a winding road to get where she is today. In From the Ground Up, our July Book of the Month, she writes about it all — spending 17 years in a cult-like farm commune, losing and then finding the love of her life, learning to be a mother while reconnecting with her own mom, and finding a way to translate her passion for growing food into a new, rich life. We caught up with her to ask a few more questions about her story.
Books for Better Living: It must have been difficult to reveal so much about your personal life along with telling the story of your involvement in organic farming. Why did you want to open so much about your life?
Jeanne Nolan: My thinking was that my personal story could be read as a mom story, a coming-home story, a love story, a commune story, and within each of those I hoped that there were enough universal human themes that people might connect and relate to the personal aspect of the story and then be inspired by the greater message of hope, growing food and connecting to the earth and each other.
BBL: During your time at Zendik Farm modern society changed quite a bit, and you returned to a blossoming food movement, which seemed to help restore your faith in society to change. What areas of change to you think we still need to work harder on?
JN: That’s really well put — I do believe that humans can change and find solutions. I think clearly human beings have not yet struck a “good relationship” with the planet. Countless people are working hard to improve how we live on the earth, but I would love to see a world where we would all be driving non-polluting vehicles and using clean energy, and where food would be grown abundantly in cities and suburbs, harmful pesticides would be banned, jobs would be available for all people at all skill levels. My list could go on and on, but that’s a good start.
BBL: Gardening can be intimidating to the novice. How would you advise getting over the fear of doing it wrong or failing?
JN: I always say that gardening is very forgiving. If you over-plant, you can remove some of the plants, if you under-plant, you can add a crop later in the season. I’ve gardened with so many people with different “gardening personalities”: laissez faire, type A, over-confident, intimidated, etc., and all types can successfully grow food. So my advice is to follow your interest and get started. Not too far back in all of our DNA is the knowledge of how to grow food, so trust your instincts and give it a try.
BBL: Of all the types of projects you’ve been involved with — schools, shelters, family gardens, rooftop gardens, community gardens — which do you think has the power to make the most impact on the sustainable food movement?
JN: I honestly don’t think that I can say that one of these types of gardens has more impact than another. In one week, I can visit a school garden and harvest lettuce and radishes with kids that have Down syndrome, and these kids are capable and proud of their work and learning life skills that will serve them well and possibly lead to employment. Then I head to the city and plant with a group of young men at a homeless shelter, and these city guys are digging their hands in the dirt and feeling good, feeling the benefits of it immediately. Then I head over to an inner city community garden, and the gardeners are telling me that a corner that was previously a magnet for drug sales is no longer because the community garden is attracting a multi-generational group to the block to grow food together. Then I head to the suburbs to work with a suburban family with two daughters in fifth and sixth grades, and these girls are growing food for the first time. They are loving it, involved in deciding what they want to grow, taking responsibility for their family garden and understanding hands-on how when we take care of the earth, the earth feeds us and gives back. I wrap up my week with teaching a free workshop for adults in The Edible Gardens in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. I’m teaching them how to grow food in a container or in the ground, showing them how it’s done in our demonstration garden/urban farm. So I don’t know how I could possibly say which of these has the most impact.
BBL: At the end of the book, you mention that you were working on a garden project at a shopping mall. How does that work, and how is it going?
JN: The garden at Westfield Old Orchard Shopping Mall in Skokie, Ill., was installed in June. It’s off to a fantastic start. It’s an outdoor mall, and we’ve developed an interactive garden for children. They help tend the garden and also participate in fun/educational drop-in activities. It is located adjacent to a children’s play area, so lots of kids are there with their parents as they shop, eat lunch, play and now garden and learn where their food comes from!
We hope this is a prototype for other “mall gardens” nationally and are very excited about the opportunity.