Controlled freedom: Dan Imhoff advocates for the wild.
Author Dan Imhoff reconciles wildness with cultivation
By Brett Ascarelli
Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm. . . . The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.
Touring sustainable agriculture organizations in 1995, Healdsburg author Dan Imhoff and his wife started in Kansas and drove clear across to Kentucky. They wound up in Henry County, home of Wendell Berry, the writer, critic and farm god. "We had acquaintance with Wendell," says Imhoff, "and he invited us to stay, so I spent a day with him." During dinner that night, Imhoff says they talked about everything from Berry's "dairy cows to farming to religion to whiskey to just funny stories about his community."
Berry is known for espousing a strong sense of place; after all, some five generations of his family have farmed in Henry County. So what really impressed Imhoff about Berry was that he "really cares about where he's from and his ecological neighborhood." Since that visit, Berry has on occasion edited Imhoff's writing. "It was a pretty humbling experience," says Imhoff, who reports that one of Berry's pet peeves is technical jargon, something which he quite beautifully terms "ugly turn of phrase." Who better to turn pretty phrases in the first essay of Dan Imhoff's new collection, Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature: Essays in Conservation-Based Agriculture (Watershed Media; $16.95)?
Published late last year, the book bridges two rather sere topics, which are usually only discussed separately. Author of several books on green agriculture, Imhoff explains the essays' key concepts. The first is conservation biology, which aims to protect natural habitats so native species like salmon and mountain lions can migrate and travel.
The second is sustainable agriculture, which targets socially and ecologically appropriate methods of farming and ranching. According to Imhoff, the farmers who are interested in sustainable agriculture "understand that their farming system can't take more than it gives back." The underlying assumption is, of course, that we expand our sense of place from just our everyday surroundings to the larger country and earth.
"The biggest challenge," says Imhoff, "with the farming and with the wild movement is that there's not enough discussion about wild biodiversity. There's discussion about diversity, but it's not really about wild nature. Without wildness, what is our life going to be like? Wildness completely benefits a successful farm or ranch."
The late Aldo Leopold, one of the movement's founding fathers, wrote a technical essay; among the other contributors are celebrity authors Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan.
How did Imhoff land such a gilded group of writers? Among Imhoff's other books is Farming with the Wild, which in 2003 established his unique perspective within green agricultural thought and became what he refers to as his "calling card" for attracting the luminary contributors for this recent book.
Imhoff publishes many of his books through his own nonprofit, Watershed Media, founded in 1999. "I [started the publishing house] basically because I was just a miserable freelancer," he laughs, noting that he's been so "miserable" for over 20 years. In 1987, while working on his masters at San Francisco State, he wrote a prescient novel about a fictional oil spill that hits the North Coast. "After I had written a substantial bit," he says, "the Valdez spill happened. I found that I was pretty good at tapping into currents in society."
Imhoff also spent five years working at Esprit, one of the first clothing companies with an ethic that was inspired by the organic cotton movement. "We sort of deconstructed clothing--from the zippers to the fabrics," he remembers, "with regard to their social and environmental impacts. I learned a lot about business and the environment and sustainable agriculture during that time."
Now, Imhoff and his family own a 40-acre homestead in Anderson Valley, where they grow four acres of apples, olives, peaches and pears. He calls the teensy farm his "laboratory."
"As a writer," he says, "it's been really important for me to have that learning experience of planting trees and just eating the foods and sharing them and making products out of them."
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