Memphis Backyard Farmer

Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
March 3, 2011, 12:57 am
Filed under: Reviews

The Dirty Life
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball is several stories in one. At one level, it’s a love story. Two unlikely characters come together and fall in love. She (Kristin) is a Harvard educated writer living in Manhattan’s East Village. He (Mark) is a farmer from Pennsylvania. Meeting on a writing assignment at Mark’s farm, their first encounter includes butchering a pig, a first for 13-year vegetarian Kristin. As you can imagine, they fall in love, and the story continues, the melding of their two different worlds into one.

But this is also a story about farming. Both Kristin and Mark are first generation farmers. Through Kristin’s eyes, we see farm life from the ground up. The two come together and launch Essex Farm, a real agro-experiment. Together they hunt for their land, add animals, equipment and crops, then launch a full-diet CSA, something almost unheard of. We see first-hand the hard work, the crazy hours, the expense, both in terms of capital and relationship, that it takes to start and run a farm.

But this is also a story of plenty.

Plenty of Food

On almost every page, there’s food. Fresh food. Cooked food. Growing food. On one of their first nights together, Mark and Kristin stalk a deer munching on crops at the farm in Pennsylvania. They kill the deer, butcher it, and eat the liver for dinner. Kristin takes us step by step through the cooking of this wonderful meal, finishing with “I fell in love with him over a deer’s liver“. Mark loads Kristin’s car with crates of food as she returns to the city. She, in turn, shares food with a man in her neighborhood. Despite the challenges of farming that first, year, crops come through in spades: “We’d never again have such a wildly beautiful tomato patch, and it produced exceedingly well, as though even the plants themselves were inclined to help us when they could“.

Plenty of Work

Farming is hard work (though Mark wouldn’t call it work – he just calls it farming). On Kristin’s first trip to the farm she tries to help out, hoeing broccoli and raking rocks from rows of tomatoes. By mid-day, she’s sore, blistered, and her crotch is “chafed beyond repair”. But this is just the beginning. As they begin Essex farm, she finds that the work seems to be never ending. “There is no such thing as finished“, she tells us. “Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only things that must be done now and things that can be done later.” We get the warning that it’s not necessarily commodity prices, lack of capital, or “acts of God” that kill farms. It’s burnout. We see Kristin and Mark wrestling with where to create boundaries and where to finally let go of things they simply can’t control. In the end, however, Kristin tells us, “I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it.

Plenty of Community

There is one scene in which there is not an abundance of food. Mark and Kristin have just finished inspecting the farm at Essex. They’re tired and jet-lagged, and have not brought any food with them. Bicycling in to the small town of Essex, they find that there are no restaurants open and no stores available. Facing the long ride back to the farm, Kristin’s angry and contemplating sleeping on a park bench in town. Suddenly an elderly man appears, covered casserole in hand, heading to a church social at the Essex Episcopal Church. There they find a feast of Jell-O salads, baked beans, sliced ham, and…company. “Many of the people I met that night would become very important in our lives“, Kristin writes.

At the beginning of the book we get a peek at Kristin’s admitted loneliness. But by the end of the book, we’ve seen over and over the power of community, of neighborliness. Farming is hard work, and it can’t be done alone. Bad weather happens. A horse gets injured. Seedlings die. Knowledge of the land must be acquired. The small community of Essex comes through, each person humbly contributing what is uniquely theirs to give. “Our friends and neighbors helped. They saved us.

Though I feel certain Kristin wouldn’t put it this way, in many ways this is a spiritual book. Ragan Sutterfield speaks often of God’s bounty – how we live in a world of plenty, not scarcity. “The Dirty Life” shows in a very real way the provision of God.  But in this book we also see the goodness of work – hard, physical, work of the ground. And we see how a community working in relationship benefits – builds up – each individual, and increases the bounty available to all.

This is not a food or farm book that preaches about how broken our food system is. This is a story, well-told.

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