Finding Answers in Your Own Backyard

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Finding Answers in Your Own Backyard

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by Miriam Card

Artist/biologist/gardener Fred Montague offers solutions to some of our most troubling environmental problems—in the form of a gardening book.

card_montagueGardening books abound, but how many of them explore the vital issue of self-sufficiency—of abandoning industrial agriculture practices that are unsustainable and globally destructive? Not nearly enough, according to Fred Montague, a wildlife biologist and professor at the University of Utah. And to remedy that, Montague gives us his latest book, “Gardening: An Ecological Approach to Individual, Community, and Global Health.”

Gardening books abound, but how many of them explore the vital issue of self-sufficiency—of abandoning industrial agriculture practices that are unsustainable and globally destructive? Not nearly enough, according to Fred Montague, a wildlife biologist and professor at the University of Utah. And to remedy that, Montague gives us his latest book, “Gardening: An Ecological Approach to Individual, Community, and Global Health.”

Gardening, biology, ecology, art and so much more fills this hand-lettered and handmade book—a culmination of the author’s 40-plus years of experience in each of these subjects. Montague says he learned gardening from both books and from his relatives—who came from farming families in the Midwest—but mostly from just doing it.

Montague also has many years experience as an artist. He says he always drew pictures, but didn’t think to use his art in a professional context until the 1970s when, as a graduate student at Purdue University, he needed illustrations for his wildlife research and decided to draw them himself. Friends and colleagues encouraged him to show his work at exhibitions and art fairs, and he was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response. The proceeds from his wildlife artwork supplemented his small stipend throughout graduate school, and he has relied on his art to help him communicate his deep-ecology message ever since.

Montague and his wife, Patricia, moved from Indiana to Utah in 1993. They chose the location for their homestead based on the presence of healthy lichen—an indicator of high air quality. The Montagues’ home in Summit County now sits in the middle of an edible wonderland, created by the labor and not-insignificant brains of himself and his wife, who is a nutritionist as well as a biologist.

When he isn’t drawing, writing books, gardening and making hand-carved furniture, Montague is the academic advisor for 700 biology students at the University of Utah. He teaches several courses a year, including a gardening class he developed that incorporates the same ecological gardening concepts included in his book. Montague also delivers his ecological gardening message to anyone who will listen in lectures given on and off campus.

“Modern agriculture is the single most important detrimental impact on the planet’s natural systems—the systems we depend upon.” Montague says. “It would be the ultimate admission of failure and desperation for our culture if we were forced to plow up the last waterfowl marsh or clear the last elk habitat to grow food for people. We must do a better job of providing for our legitimate needs in the places we already occupy.”

Montague has an idea of how best to do that. In his lectures, as in his book, he clearly explains the effects of industrial agriculture and the basic ecological rules for living ethically on Earth. In “Gardening: An Ecological Approach,” he provides what most environmental books fail to—a concrete and effective plan of action that just about anyone can follow: “Become competent; feed yourself.”

The core concept of this plan might best be described by what Montague hopes to make his life’s work: to be “a good animal”—an idea he borrows from author Barbara Kingsolver. He explains that being a good animal includes “embracing an ‘ecological identity’ that firmly connects us to this amazing Earth…. It would involve a more humble and participatory role in our own existence. It would center on sustainability and justice.” This is the message that runs throughout Montague’s latest gardening text and makes it unique.

Thirteen years in the making, “Gardening: An Ecological Approach” is a work of art that would look natural in fancy cloth binding. But few would dare take such a book into the garden or scribble all over its pages, and to the author it’s important that his readers do just that. Sturdily assembled with plastic covers and spiral binding, this book is meant to be used and personalized. In fact, it includes several blank pages specifically intended to entice the reader to scrawl what they will. Montague even hopes gardening devotees will feel inspired to embellish the hand-lettered and illustrated pages packed with knowledge gained from Montague’s decades of experience.

Montague’s book covers ecological gardening concepts in such a way that it’s practically three books in one. In the first two chapters, Montague presents his argument for a change toward ecological gardening and farming and defines the concepts of ecology. To further clarify these ideas, Montague peppers his pages with helpful illustrations and diagrams.

After explaining the importance of gardening—compelling enough to make even a couch potato consider picking up a shovel—Montague provides a how-to guide, breaking the process into three steps: planning, planting, and tending. The author’s concepts are obviously influenced by the precepts of permaculture guru Bill Mollison and others, insisting that “weeds” are actually useful—as indicators of soil health, as food, etc.—and that pests are simply a sign of stressed plants requiring adjustments to their conditions in order to balance the harmful effects of an otherwise beneficial biodiversity.

A gardening book written by a scientist ought to include some science, and it does—in a chapter about the taxonomy and origin of common garden plants and the places of origin for common food plants. In a concluding chapter on nutrition, Montague explains how our species’ biology and evolution define the foods which we can and can’t thrive on. He then continues with in-depth explanations of the nutrients we all need and guidelines for how to eat for optimal nutrition and digestion across the human lifespan.

Montague says gardening is “one of the most effective and practical environmental activities that a person can undertake.” And he practices what he preaches. Apart from his lectures, books, and ecological gardening efforts at home, he also spearheaded the development of food gardens on the University of Utah campus and on the property of several local elementary schools. The resulting produce is distributed to various Salt Lake City food charities such as Utahns Against Hunger, Hildegard’s Food Pantry and the Urban Crossroads Center.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of all the problems that appear to need our immediate attention these days. It’s often hard to believe that all the little things we can do will have any impact. But Montague doesn’t say it’s too late to fix our global problems. He finds there are many people who care and who want to do something. His lectures, courses and books help people better understand how they can. His is a simple message: “Everything goes together. Everything is ecology and relationships. Sometimes the answers to global problems are in our backyards.”

Montague’s works include three hand-lettered and illustrated text books and seven artist books, one of which, “Wildness,” is symbolically sewn shut, and explores the idea that wildness in all its forms “may not be able to exist in today’s technocratic society.”

Miriam (Mitzi) Card is a senior in the University of Utah’s Environmental Studies program and an intern at CATALYST magazine.

 

To order a book or other work of art, or to schedule a lecture: www.MountainBearInk.com

montague@bioscience.utah.edu

801-581-6244

 

 
 
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