Recent Transplant | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It was back in Illinois that she found her calling. Working as an art director in a Chicago skyscraper, Gina Olszowski felt increasingly divorced from home, hearth and heartland. She decided she needed to get her hands dirty -- literally.

Eschewing gloves, and shoes, preferring to feel the earth beneath her feet -- and between her fingers -- Olszowski took up urban farming.

While still in her 20s, she'd written, designed and published a book on the disappearing landscape: 2008's Now Coming to a Town Near You: Voices of Urban Sprawl. It's an elegy for her hometown, Geneva, Ill. Honestly -- at times devastatingly -- she presented her meditations, along with interviews and photos, about farmland -- and the farming way of life -- being transformed into strip malls and subdivisions. And she recorded her own epiphany: "I want to try growing my own food," she wrote, "to pluck a tomato and drop it right into my salad bowl."

"The book got a lot of people talking," she recalls. "Virtually every person I met with was really happy that I put it out. They were happy to have that opportunity to talk about it." That it being not only our increasing divorce from the earth, but the feeling of helplessness in seeing it happen.

While still in Chicago, Olszowski began farming, renting a 15-by-30-foot community garden plot. "I grew everything I could think of," she recalls: carrots, spinach, tomatoes, yellow squash, lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, herbs -- even watermelons. She put in 15 hours each week: early in the morning, when she could feel the dew on her plants, and late in the evening, when she watered by moonlight. She found, if not nirvana, then at least joy. 

"I'm happy," she'd tell herself. "And I don't want to go home."

In fact, she eventually chucked her job and came to Pittsburgh, to attend Chatham University's prestigious MFA Writing program. Having snagged a Rachel Carson Fellowship, Olszowski came with published-author credentials -- as well as farming chops. 

"I want to do it for the rest of my life," she says today. "Growing things, I feel peaceful, relaxed, content. It's almost like a meditative state." She pauses. "It's incredibly rewarding to bring home buckets full of fresh produce."

Six feet tall, all arms, legs and corn-colored hair, she's decked out today in her working togs -- thrift-shop overalls, tank top, navy-blue bandana. Having scrounged space all about her Friendship rental -- a second floor she shares with a brace of Chatham chums -- Olszowski planted interior window boxes, soaking up the strengthening spring sun as the weather began to turn. Beginning with tomatoes, basil, green onions, parsley, she moved outside to her deck, adding a blueberry bush, lavender and rosemary. Hanging over the deck were lettuce and herbs.

Transplantation took place early this month, into 4-by-10-foot open-bottom wooden boxes placed strategically behind the bushes on her front lawn. Adding spinach and red potatoes to the mix, she placed the boxes -- forms, really, without tops and only newspaper bottoms -- on the lawn. On the newspaper she poured a layer of hay, then her homemade compost (the detritus of fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, her pet rabbit Sherman's litter box, egg shells, even shredded bank statements), finally a layer of manure. Favoring the no-dig method -- in nature, she says, things just pile up, so why not edible things? -- she dumped the seedlings in and stood back.

"Soil is a living thing," she says. "Besides, it's easier this way.

"I want to do an urban homestead," Olszowski adds. And if that won't pay the mortgage on her petit chateau, what better way to raise bread than with that classic cottage industry, graphic design? And, of course, she's still writing about gardens and the environment. Her current topic: nature versus commerce -- the former essentially conservative, using what is needed … the latter essentially profligate, consuming in ever-increasing doses. 

"It's an interesting predicament," she says.

Another writer who was painfully aware of that predicament was Rachel Carson: patron saint of the environmental movement, and Chatham's most famous alumna. (Even the campus coffee shop is named for her.) Carson's legacy provided Olszowski not only with her fellowship, but also her inspiration. 

"When you're an idealist," Olszowski says, "especially a young idealist, it's comforting to know there have been people who've been able to make a difference, especially through writing. I look at her and say, ‘I'm not going to be discouraged.'"


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