A country life well lived
by Jack Deming
Aug 01, 2013 | 10124 views | 0 0 comments | 779 779 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Joe Eck sits in the living room of his North Hill home. He has released the final book written with his late husband, Wayne Winterrowd.
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READSBORO- In the living room of the house he and his husband of 42 years built with their bare hands, with carefully selected words and a gentle tone, Joe Eck explains that his new book is a celebration of his surroundings. But it is not the priceless collection of artifacts from ancient Rome and Southwest native American tribes, or Rudyard Kipling’s piano across the room that he and Wayne Winterrowd filled the pages of “To Eat: A Country Life” with. It is what they picked in their own garden and the sense of connection with a self-sustaining, natural life that is highlighted in their latest publication of stories about living on North Hill in Readsboro.

But make no mistake, this book is not just about gardening. Both Eck and Winterrowd wrote for horticulture magazines. Eck wrote a book on garden design used by Harvard University, and Winterrowd, who died in 2010, wrote the encyclopedic “Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens.” “To Eat,” their fourth collaboration, is more a journal then a how-to. It is what Eck describes as unique and hilarious.

“Each book we wrote together is about a different subject,” said Eck, “but all of our books are really about our life. They’re really deeply biographical although they are about plants and the making of gardens. They are unique in that that they are not like ordinary gardening books, and they’re not, they’re very particular.”

While past books, including “North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden” and “Our Life in Gardens,” focused on the seven-acre world-renowned North Hill garden they began to create nearly 40 years ago in Readsboro, “To Eat” focuses on gardening for a life of self-sustainability. Eck and Winterrowd not only designed flower and bush gardens, they grew their own food and raised their own poultry, a way of living that Eck says began as amusement but eventually turned into a mission, along with writing.

In a world where even food has become industrialized, Eck and Winterrowd always took pleasure in what would now be considered by many an old-school way of life. “Commercial food is abysmal,” said Eck. “It’s saturated with chemicals, and we never wanted that for ourselves. We wanted to eat the product of our hands and we did it for 45 years, and it never seemed odd or artificial, it always seemed natural.

“You go out in the garden in the spring and you plant the seeds, you grow the food, and you eat it, and that became true as well with the animals. You buy chickens, you raise them, you slaughter them, and you eat them, all in the most gentle way possible.”

“To Eat,” dedicated to their son Fotios Bouzikos, features recipes focused on specific items from Eck and Winterrowd’s vegetable garden, and anecdotes of their labors, as well as their harvest, and how they prepared it. The book also features illustrations by collaborator and Marlboro resident Bobbi Angell and contributions by Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta.

Winterrowd died as the book reached the halfway mark, and Eck took on the task of finishing this tribute to their lives. “I had to summon him up, and that is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, but I want the voice to be our voice, not my voice. So I work very hard to make it our voice,” said Eck.

After returning home from Copenhagen where both had been teaching on Fulbright fellowships, Eck and Winterrowd spent 10 years teaching at Wilmington and Whitingham high schools respectively. Both taught English and language arts, and while the summers provided them with months to focus on their gardens, the nine months they spent in classrooms were bittersweet.

“The thing about being a good teacher is you have to love your students and care about them,” said Eck. “(You have to know) what their dreams and capacities are, and you’re no good if you don’t do that, and it really wore us out because that commitment is to hundreds of kids. You couldn’t help but love them, but they would graduate and go to college and you would never see them again, and it got heart-wrenching.”

But Eck and Winterrowd were able to continue teaching through their various writing projects. As Eck explains, the purpose of any book is to teach, and his neighbors in Vermont could learn a lot about sustainability as well as life by planting a simple garden. “It’s more than laziness, it’s not engaging life,” says Eck. “It’s not embracing its demands, and the great commercial industrial enterprise in which we live has robbed people of that. They’re so accustomed to going to the grocery store and picking up a pepper and they’ve lost the ability to raise their own peppers at a tenth of the price.” Writing is a way for Eck to put the different elements of his life into words. He is currently working on a book he intends to call “Things,” about the priceless collection of items in his house that he and Winterrowd spent a lifetime amassing.

While “To Eat” is a personal celebration of a 42-year life of self-sustainability, Eck says there is a deeper message that weaves itself into the entire narrative. “There’s a passage in the book which talks about the spring and the enormous pleasure of digging your hands into dirt and that sense of connectedness you feel,” said Eck. “I think one of the worst things the modern world has brought upon us is this sense of selfness. We are human beings, we consume and control the world and that is so deeply false and so alienating. To live with animals, and to raise your own food is so deeply comforting and sustaining and lost to most of Western humanity.”

“To Eat: A Country Life” is available at Bartleby’s Books on West Main Street in Wilmington. For more on North Hill Garden, including visiting hours, go to northhillgarden.com.
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