Book Review: Milkwood by Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar

“After the screens are put away, and the busyness of modern life is paused, what are we made from?” asks permaculture educators Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar in their book, Milkwood. What does a full and abundant life look like? Is abundance and joy found in money and things? Or, is it all around us? Is it in the recipes we share, the food we grow, the animals, plants and landscapes we steward? Milkwood is an eloquent, informative and engaging argument for the latter, framed by Nick and Kirsten’s five favourite parts of living a home-made life: Bees, mushrooms, tomatoes, seaweed and wild food.

Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar of Milkwood Permaculture
One of the five subjects in the Milkwood book is wild food, like warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides)

I didn’t need to see Milkwood to know it was great. Everything Kirsten and Nick touch smacks of integrity, vision and thought. I was surprised initially about the framing of the book around just five things, but on diving into it and seeing the depth of information they share, it makes perfect sense. Nick explains: “The publishers wanted a gardening book, but we couldn’t reduce what we wanted to get across into a small enough package. It would have ended up being a 700-page behemoth.” The other option was to create a book explaining what permaculture is, but the pair felt it had already been done. Alternatively, they pondered making an in-depth book on just one topic and establishing themselves as the experts on it, but… “We don’t feel like we need to be the world’s leading expert on tomatoes, bees, mushrooms or seaweed. We know the people who are, and we feel confident to synthesize their information into something that’s digestible, paying homage to them appropriately.”

So, the pair whittled their list of things they’re passionate about to five topics and dove deep into them. I’ve learned how to identify seaweed, the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes and what sort of logs shiitake mushrooms like to grow on. It’s proper, in-depth information – the sort of stuff found in a reference book but presented in a more accessible, engaging manner. Of course, the topics for future exploration are endless. “We’ve got a list of ideas for chapters in future books that’s about 60-70 subjects deep”, Nick says with a laugh.

Anher, Nick and Kirsten's son harvesting mushrooms.
The book includes recipes for each of the five chapters. The tomato chapter features goodies like passata and picked green tomatoes. Yum.

The Milkwood book isn’t just about growing tomatoes, keeping bees or mushroom cultivation. It’s about empowering people to life connected, grounded, and joyful lives. Tomatoes, according to Nick are just the gateway drug. “People need patterns to grab hold of, or habits they can use to label themselves. I’m a tomato grower. It’s one of the things that helps me form my sense of self. I grow good tomatoes and I’m proud of it. If I can enable someone else to feel that, as part of their sense of self then guess what? They’re also out there growing carrots and cabbages. Nobody just has a garden full of tomatoes!”

“If we can get people to include in their self-image the keeping of bees or the foraging of seaweed, they’re so much more positive things to have in their self-image than success on social media or success in the world of gaming, or finances or the type of car they drive.”

Trying to help build people’s world view through them taking up habits like these five in the book is what we’re really about. It always has been.”

Nick and Kirsten’s philosophy of change is illustrated within the pages of the Milkwood book. Theirs is an approach based on joy and abundance, not guilt or fear. Their drive is to encourage people to live beautiful, positive, grounded lives. “It’s a joyous thing to go out and forage seaweed and bring something fantastic home for your garden, or some amazing new food to eat. It’s a joyous thing when your first flush of mushrooms fruit. These things bring real pleasure. How can you argue against that?”

The Milkwood book is a confidence builder, a habit former and a powerhouse of grounded change. It’s a reminder of the importance and power of practical skills in our weird wired world where the virtual has somehow been given precedence over the physical. It’s a book I’ll be keeping nearby.

“We wish for you richness”, Kirsten and Nick write in the closing paragraph of the book’s introduction. “Not of money, but of knowing, and doing. And the, the harvest of your efforts – mushroom pie, honeycomb, tomato passata, gomasio, healthy humans. The cool of the forest, and the roar of the sea. The ability to share your bounty and your knowledge forward. Into community. Into a resilient, livable, low-impact future, for everyone around you. This is richness indeed. We just need to relearn the skills to help make it happen. Let’s do it.”

Yep. Let’s do it.

Images from Milkwood by Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, Murdoch Books, RRP $45.00. Photography by Kate Berry and Kirsten Bradley, illustrations by Brenna Quinlan. Buy it HERE!

Seaweed! learn how to harvest, identify and cook with it in the Milkwood book.