Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Paperback: 304 pages
• Publisher: Scribner, 2011
• Price: $15.00
• ISBN-10: 1416551611
• ISBN-13: 978-1416551614
Various factors are contributing to the renewed interest in family farms. To name only a few—there is the fast-growing interest in organic foods and the sustainable lifestyle that goes hand in hand with eating organic; the desire to leave the rat race behind for a simpler, if not necessarily easier life; a renewed movement to reconnect with one’s local community; and a rocky economy that is forcing some in the ranks of the unemployed to consider other ways to support themselves and their families.
For Manhattan journalist Kristin Kimball, the reason to immerse herself in the farming life was rooted in romance. Assigned to write a story about sustainable farming, she fell in the love with the young Pennsylvania farmer she interviewed. One muddy scenario leads to another, as Kimball takes up the hoe among rows of carrots as she awaits the interview, then joins Mark, the farmer, in slaughtering pigs—even though she, up until a taste of organic farm-raised bacon, had been a vegetarian. So begins their love story with each other and a farm.
From a tiny city apartment surrounded by shops, cafes and delis, traffic and rush and noise, Kimball doesn’t take long to move out to the country to begin working the farm alongside Mark. Her family is at very least mildly horrified. At best, when she announces wedding plans, they expect eventual divorce once the whim passes.
It’s not as if Kimball doesn’t have doubts of her own. She has plenty. The memoir is nothing if not honest. “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.” (Page 248) I’m not sure I agree with that statement entirely—one hopes a good marriage moves more toward self-expansion than self-denial—but clearly Kimball has had to leave behind life as she knows it.
The two young farmers are opposites in many ways, and some of their initial work on the farm seems more combative than the blending of teamwork. The two can be highly competitive, and sometimes must solve their differences by splitting the farm duties rather than working together. Overall, however, they show astounding determination, touched with a glimmer of dreamy ignorance (at least for Kimball if not for the more experienced Mark) about what they are getting into when staking claim on a run-down farm of 500 acres. Arguably, not quite knowing what you are getting into is often a requirement to accomplish something extraordinary.
The couple empties their savings as they work to repair Essex Farm and cultivate the fields with all manner of vegetables and fruits, as well as livestock. It is not a farm of specialty, but a farm that feeds most any appetite. Their goal is to develop a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm that supports its shareholders with every food need—providing plants as food but also meats and dairy.
Kimball’s deeper love, or perhaps more accurately, more encompassing love, is for the whole of her farm life which includes her partner. If there are moments that one thinks she may just yet throw up her arms, elbow deep in compost and manure, what holds her to her hoe is the entire lifestyle with every component within it. She grows to love farming. She loves waking up early in the morning for yet another long, hard day of work with her farmer beside her, even with the struggle and maybe even because of it. There is poetry in such hard work.
For anyone considering such a lifestyle and thinking it might be an easier one, Kimball issues a wakeup call. Farming is anything but easy. She quickly senses that it ages her in some ways, weathers her with the elements that she simultaneously grows to love. Nature is harsh, and farming is a means of trying to control nature, so that what ensues can be a kind of war. A war against weeds. A war against weather. A war against rats. A war against time.
“There is no such thing as escape after all, only an exchange of one set of difficulties for another,” (Page 257) she writes. This may well be the greatest lesson of all that she gleans from her fields.
That, and letting go of all that is superficial, unnecessary for survival, and in some manner connected to vanity. Kimball’s description of their barn wedding, with guests on hay stacks and a barn decorated with sunflowers and a groom gone out back to milk the cow during the wedding reception … are priceless. And lovely.
Yes, lovely, all this dirt and mud and earth caked beneath fingernails and in the fine lines of a woman’s skin. From all those smells and all that sweat and all that grueling labor rises the dream, proving that living a sustainable life that pays high dividends in more than just cash is still possible. It only requires utmost dedication and whole-hearted love, demanding all and giving all back.
When it comes down to it, for all the elegance and cleanliness that Kimball has left behind in the city, she has found real value. “I had always been attracted to the empty, sparkly grab bag of instant gratification, and I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.” (Page 158)
By end of her story (with a daughter joining their family and Essex Farm become a thriving CSA with more than 100 members), Kimball also acknowledges that she has learned to give up her combative competition with her farmer-husband. At long last, their rhythms have synchronized. They now work as a team. What she describes may well be what every woman, city or country, seeks:
“I wish every woman could have as a lover at some point in her life a man who never smoked or drank too much or became jaded from kissing too many girls or looking at porn, someone with the gracious muscles that come from honest work and not from the gym, someone unashamed of the animal side of human nature.” (Page 24)
I plowed through The Dirty Life in less than two days, hardly putting the book down and then only with reluctance. It was fascinating, it was enlightening, it was moving, it was raw, it was honest, it was adventure, it was digging into the dirt of a life many of us long to find—if not quite on a 500-acre farm, then at least in our suburban raised-bed gardens. We who grow our own vegetables and keep in touch with the nature that centers us in our own small way, we are glad for the farmer who feeds us without doing harm to the earth that sustains us.