Our Roots Grow Deep
Author Daniel Gross tells the story of J.I. Rodale, who initiated the transformation of the U.S. organic and natural-living movement from fringe to mainstream.
Wed, Feb 17, 2010 at 08:00 AM
THEN AND NOW: J.I. Rodale and his wife moved to Emmaus, Penn., and bought a 63-acre farm in 1940 and put his then-offbeat theories on chemical-free food and healthy living into practice. (Photo: Rodale)
When I moved to Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley in 1998, I’d certainly heard of Rodale, the renowned publisher of green and healthy lifestyle magazines (Organic Gardening, Prevention, Bicycling) and sustainable-living books (An Inconvenient Truth, The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies). But I never imagined the impact the company would ultimately have on my life — and clearly had no clue of its granddaddy status among organic-lovers and eco-aficionados.
In short order, I began witnessing Rodale’s broad reach in this region — everything from the Rodale Institute (a model 333-acre organic research farm) to the many friends, neighbors and fellow environmentalists employed as Rodale writers and editors. I, too, eventually freelanced there, co-writing two health books.
Thus, I was drawn to Daniel Gross’ new book, Our Roots Grow Deep: The Story of Rodale. For someone with Rodale ties, this photo-packed look inside the iconic family owned publisher and its part in birthing the modern American sustainability movement is sure to fascinate — a Rodale devotee’s dream-come-true, packaged in attractive coffee-table style.
Granted, at 288 pages, non-Rodalephiles may suffer information-overload, not to mention sticker-shock at the hefty $50 price tag. But one aspect makes this worthwhile reading for anyone, and that’s the intoxicating story of J.I. (Jerome Irving) Rodale, who started it all, and his son, Robert. In that sense, this is an engrossing account of the U.S. organic/natural-living movement’s rise from fringe to mainstream. Lessons abound for anyone laboring to bring green change. “Stick to a thing for a long time,” J.I. famously said, “and you’ll make it work.”
Which is exactly what he did. Restless and intensely curious about the world beyond Manhattan’s Lower East Side where he was born in 1898, J.I. changed his name to Rodale (from Cohen) and moved with his wife, Anna, to rural Emmaus, Penn., where they bought a 63-acre farm in 1940 and put his then-offbeat theories on chemical-free food and healthy living (influenced by the work of trailblazing British agriculturist Sir Albert Howard) into practice.
Called both a quack and visionary, J.I. also began publishing magazines and books extolling his contention that organic food and natural health are good for humans and the planet. Organic Farming and Gardening (later Organic Gardening) debuted in 1942, and Prevention hit in 1950. By the time J.I. died of a heart attack in 1971 while taping The Dick Cavett Show, the ’60s and ’70s counterculture had caught up.
Robert Rodale, who’d been quietly running the company alongside his father, led it into profitability and prominence over the next two decades. Ultimately, Robert, an Olympic skeet shooter, went global with his father’s message, broadening the definition of “organic lifestyle” to encompass his own visionary passions for outdoor fitness and “regenerative agriculture” (a precursor to the idea of sustainable communities).
After his death in a 1990 car accident, Robert’s widow, Ardath, took over, and recently Maria Rodale, their daughter, was named CEO.
If you’re sniffing for Rodale dirt, you won’t find much in this company-published tome. The growing pains are mostly burnished rose-colored (recent ones aren’t even mentioned). Still, you can’t deny Rodale’s towering contribution to green, healthy living. In that regard, this is must-reading for anyone curious about how it all began.