Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 8, 2013

Lectures on the land

Now in its 20th year, Wallace Stegner series features authors on farming, coal mining and hiking trails

by Rebecca Wallace

One thing the speakers in this year's Wallace Stegner Lectures series have in common is an unusual level of immersion in the topics that fascinate them.

In researching his book "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," journalist Jeff Goodell spent a month aboard a research ship and a week in an underground mine. Cheryl Strayed's memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" recalls her 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Will Allen wins the brass ring. His recent book, "The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities," draws on his wisdom harvested from more than 50 years of farming. A former pro basketball player and son of a sharecropper, he's a widely traveled speaker and evangelist for urban agriculture who is happiest with his hands in the soil.

Home base is Growing Power, the 3-acre farm and community food center in Milwaukee that Allen founded in 1993. It includes greenhouses, farm-animal pens, an apiary, a rainwater-catchment system and composting facilities. Farmers, gardeners and various organizations come to the headquarters — and to other centers as far afield as Georgia, Colorado and New York — for schooling in chemical-free farming, composting and other skills.

"It's about training people in this new way to farm, to make it possible to grow food without chemicals, to be able to have the maximum amount of nutritional value. And the taste of the food is really important," Allen told the Weekly. "To do that, it's all about the soil."

Growing Power runs on compost, made from recycled food, farm and brewery waste and coffee grounds, and worm castings that come from intensive composting in boxes.

As part of his good-food mission, Allen turns a particular eye on America's cities. He strives to bring healthful food to urban areas where grocery stores and fresh produce are less common. That includes getting his farm's food into the Milwaukee school system — 50,000 pounds of carrots in a school year, for example.

Allen spends about a quarter of his time traveling, some of it giving author talks like the one scheduled for Feb. 11 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. His talk will kick off this year's Wallace Stegner Lectures series, which is organized by the Peninsula Open Space District and focuses on themes of conservation and nature.

"We just keep working at it, trying to transform people's lives. Food is the most important thing in our lives," Allen said. "It's the one thing that we all have in common."

Allen has been profiled widely in the media, and in 2008 was awarded a "genius grant" by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He also helped First Lady Michelle Obama launch her "Let's Move!" program combatting childhood obesity.

"You get top-down operators joining a grassroots network, it becomes a very powerful thing," Allen said.

Also in the lecture series is Jeff Goodell, scheduled to speak on April 8. Besides putting out "Big Coal" in 2006, he's published several other books, including "Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family," his own memoir of growing up here in the valley.

Most recently, he wrote "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate." That too came after a long time of living with his subject.

"I spent several years with some of the world's top climate modelers, as well as Cold War physicists, philosophers, politicians, and crackpot entrepreneurs, all of whom are involved with the development of new technologies that might someday be used to manipulate the earth's climate to reduce the risks associated with global warming," Goodell wrote on his website.

His interviewees included Stephen Salter, "a cranky but brilliant Scottish engineer" who "has designed boats that would spray billions of tiny droplets of seawater into the clouds to brighten them, so they will reflect more sunlight away from the earth," Goodell wrote.

A longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, Goodell is also a commentator on environmental issues.

The next speaker in the lecture series is Cheryl Strayed, whose latest book, "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar," is a collection of straight-talking advice columns that she's written for TheRumpus.net. Her memoir, "Wild," recalls her life-changing Pacific Crest Trail hike that she took in the wake of her mother's death and a divorce. Strayed is scheduled to speak on May 13.

The lectures honor the late Stanford University English professor Wallace Stegner, an active conservationist who worked with the Peninsula Open Space District to establish the series. He died just before the lectures began in 1993.

Series subscribers also get a "bonus" talk on March 18, by author and journalist Tim Egan. His most recent book is "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis."

What: The 20th annual Wallace Stegner Lectures series, which focuses on issues of conservation, nature and land

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Four speakers are scheduled for 8 p.m. talks: Will Allen on Feb. 11, Jeff Goodell on April 8, Cheryl Strayed on May 13 and Tim Egan (in an event for subscribers only) on March 18.

Cost: Single tickets are $22 each, with season subscriptions available.

Info: Go to http://openspacetrust.org/lectures or call 650-854-7696, ext. 310.

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