Even though I hail from the Midwest, I know precious little about farms or farming. What I do know was gleaned from The Farm Report, which I watched when I woke up before dawn at age 5, 6, 7. (Full disclosure: my bedtime until I was 9 or 10 was 7 pm. That was some hardcore old-fashioned Midwestern child-rearing my parents did.) I didn’t wake my parents, I just went downstairs and watched The Farm Report until cartoons came on. Sometimes I would have a bowl of cereal, but mainly I would just wait. Wait for cartoons. Wait for everyone else to wake up. Wait for the sun to rise. In the meantime I learned about the importance of weather (these people were obsessed!) and commodity prices (which didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time and about which I am still fuzzy because it sounds like a bit of a scam – but I must still be missing something).
So when two people I know and like came out with books about farms this spring, well, I was nervous. I was worried they might be dull. I was anxious, as I always am before I read a friend’s writing or see their artwork or hear their music for the first time: what if I think it sucks? I was also worried that no one would care, that farming has been too farmed out of our lives (that phrase proves its own point) for anyone to be hooked by a book about farming.
I worried in vain. I am thrilled to report both books are excellent. I rejoice in the pleasure I took in reading them. I feel so damn lucky that I know the people who put these words together. They put the writer back in food writer and the farm back in food.
Lisa M. Hamilton’s Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness is so good it made me angry. It was so good I had to stay up reading it, I just could not find it within myself to simply put it down and fall asleep. Lisa loves farms and farmers. Deeply Rooted tells the stories of three farmers who have opted out of what conventional farming has become – bigger is better, chemicals are fine, debt is a necessity – to forge their own paths in the American agricultural system. They have different degrees of success, they face problems, they are imperfect and fallible human beings. Lisa captures all of this with respect and insight. If you care at all about farms and farmers it’s a must-read, if you like good writing I’d put it in that same category. Not to get your hopes up or anything, but in some ways it was like if Alice Munro wrote non-fiction about farmers. Yes, I did just say that. You can read what Lisa has to say about why she writes about farming and how she eats locally in this Q&A with Lisa M. Hamilton I posted at Local Foods, as well as my Review of Deeply Rooted.
I met Novella at a conference where she spoke and the rest of us laughed our asses off at her shenanigans with chickens and rabbits and pigs, oh my! Novella is the kind of person who is so good, who seems to be living such an authentic existence that is so true to her self and her vision of the world that she makes you feel better just for knowing her. Why is that sentence in the second person? I have no idea how she may or may not make you feel, she makes me feel awesome and hopeful and topped off with possibility. Novella works at a biofuel station. That’s her day job. Then she writes as well – and as demonstrated in her book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, does so beautifully. And when others might watch television or play Scrabble or stare at the ceiling and try to hear the quiet, Novella gets up off her ass and takes care of animals and a thriving garden and feeds a little pocket of the world that rubs up against her farm in the ghetto of Oakland.
I went to see her earlier this week (to get the quotes for this Q&A With Novella Carpenter I posted over at Local Foods). As I drove up to her house at 10:30 in the a.m. a hooker in a non-ass-covering gold lame body stocking-as-dress and a pair of knee-high Ugg knock-off fuzzy black boots was posing for an old man with a camera. Lying in the gutter for him, slithering up against the doorway of the shooting gallery/outhouse on the corner, and generally causing Novella and her neighbors to yell about how crazy it was to each other. That’s the neighborhood in which she has her farm. Prostitutes and shooting galleries? Check. Concerned neighbors bonding together over the insanity? Check.
We hung with her baby goats, who could not be cuter, and sat in the garden and chatted about her farm, why she farms, what farming means to her, and how very screwed up most people are about where their food – and particularly their meat – comes from.
“People think ‘I know this animal and I don’t want it to die’ but I’m going to eat unnamed meat and not feel bad about it. That makes no sense. It’s logically flawed. For me there is no conflict at all. There is great love and then you enjoy them all the more because you did know that they had a good life.”
I love everything she is doing and she is so smart and funny about it and so clearly fulfilled by it. And I know that I am never going to plant that garden or raise those animals. That’s what Novella does. The world is the better for it. I’m the better for witnessing it. And I’m really really glad she wrote a book about it because it is honest and funny and a fabulous story. (Read a review I wrote of it for Local Foods – Review of Farm City by Novella Carpenter.)
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which took my sweet self and blew it right out of any water it could find – that book simply freaked me out with its genius and language play and all of its pretty pretty words
- The Dud Avocado, a 1950s novel about… well, read it to find out but it starts with an American girl in Paris – perfect summer beach reading for those who like their page-turners well written
- A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette, full of her simple recipes and fabulous writing
- The River of Doubt, who knew I cared so much about Theodore Roosevelt? That’s what good writing does, of course, it makes you care when you otherwise might not
I’ve read other things this spring, these are just the stand-outs. As the title of the post says, it’s been a good season for reading. I’m feeling lucky.