Monday, September 03, 2012

Farm Stories

I'm reading this book that my father recommended--The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball--and I'm really enjoying it.  It's about--

Wait, hold up.  My father? Recommended?  Tom, you mean.  Tommy Smith.  This guy.  Recommended a book?  That he read, himself?

Yeah, yeah.  It takes a while to let that sink in.  Pa doesn't have time to read, so he doesn't do much of it.  But the farm in the book is just a few miles from my uncle Bouncer's house, so the book came into his path.  And of course, it's right up his alley--it's about starting a farm.

I sit in a strange place when it comes to books about how awesome it is to get back to the Earth.  Whenever someone asked it I was going to go into farming, my father would say, "I've worked very hard all my life so my kids wouldn't have to go into agriculture." Farming is really, really, really hard work, and there's no money in it.  It is not for the faint of heart; it may be rewarding but it's only very occasionally fun, and you won't have any health insurance.  It kind of reminds me of parenting like that--there are plenty of great moments, but as many or more horrible moments, and a pervasive exhaustion that makes it really hard to parse why you're doing this--but you'd never give it up.

Very few memoirs about farming let onto that.  Yeah, they'll talk about the dirt and the work, the hours and the weather.  But a writer who's got a book in them about farming is generally not motivated to really communicate how all those things pile on themselves to the point of oppression, or how much of a factor luck is--how too much or too little rain at just the wrong time can cost you half a year's income. 

The other side of this book is the love story, if you will--how the author met her husband and left her life as a writer in NYC to move with him to upstate New York and milk cows.  Whirlwind doesn't even begin to describe it, and I frequently found myself thinking "the man is CRAZY, you should RUN!"  My favorite example: while they were looking for land to start their farm, they had rented a house.  Mark "mistrusts" modern plumbing, so he build a compost toilet in the living room of their rental.   This is beyond endearingly quirky--this is someone who's going to end up living in a shed keeping his toenails.  (He actually does save his used dental floss, just in case he needs it for something.)

But the really crazy, creepy part is how many of his wacky quirks, again, REMIND ME OF MY DAD.  He doesn't like driving anywhere, and is mistrustful when she decides to leave the property, too.  (Not mistrustful that she's doing anything he wouldn't want her to.  Just uncomfortable when she's not home.)  He wants to do things his way, even when it's not entirely sensible, and they have a lot of arguments about things.  He sounds exhausting, really, and I'm rather startled at how much of his crackpot scheming he manages to pull off.

Because I think that's the thing, in the end.  My horror at getting up at 3:30 AM to do 3 hours of chores BEFORE you start your full day of work (chores means feeding, milking, and cleaning up after the animals) is almost dwarfed by the thrill I feel at the idea of this self-sufficient food empire they've created, and at the notion of fresh dairy, and at the fact that they've made a success of it, with supporting members and volunteer workers.  And I can't pretend I don't envy that sense of place and focus. 

I think what this book really feeds into is the same thing I love about nun books--it's about putting aside the easy parts of life to shape yourself around something that really matters to you.  It's about doing something hard and transformative and permanent.  It's about living a life that is not only shaped by your values, but is defined by and entwined with and in every way formed around those values.  I could never do that, but I'm always in awe of the people who can.

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