In Anticipation of a Dirtier Life
As my family sits impatiently waiting for the spring thaw to heat up the housing market so we can finally acquire a piece of land in our desired area, I find myself more and more detached from the soil. I haven’t grown anything in well over a year and I miss it more and more. Having helped found the Morton Grove Farmers’ Market last year was a great experience, but I miss the day-to-day experience of watching growth, battling nature and eating fresh from the vine.
A whole slew of books—it’s its own genre, really—have been written about the spirituality of farming. Organic farmers like Joel Salatin have detailed organic farming as a political statement, suburbanites have penned journals about leaving the banality of their sterile white collar lives to grow things for a living. I’ve read many of these and put just as many down halfway through the first chapter.
Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life stands out in the crowd like a cabbage among weeds. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. As a travel writer, She has crafted elegant prose that elevates the most mundane farm tasks into mesmerizing tales. Here is her description of compost:
“Of all the confounding things I encountered that first year, the heat of decomposition—its intensity and duration—was the most surprising, the one that made me want to slap my knee and say, Who knew? That heat comes from the action of hordes of organisms, some so tiny billions can live in a tablespoon of soil. They are in there, eating and multiplying and dying, feeding on and releasing the energy that the larger organisms—the plants and the animals—stored up in their time, energy that came, originally, from the sun. I think it’s worth it, for wonder’s sake, to stick your hand in a compost pile in winter and be burned by a series of suns that last set the summer before.”
Unlike other journals of farm life, she is honest about her and her husband Mark’s finances. They had little cash to begin with, and Mark sought to live a bartering lifestyle anyway. Other books gloss over the costs of acquiring or maintaining the land much and make me wonder if the white-collar farmers were really just trust fund babies opting to get their fingers dirty. (To be fair, my wife thinks I’d make a better gentleman farmer than actually get my hands dirty.) Kimball does not shun the dirt, and offers a glorious description of the different types of filth that cling to her skin and clothing on a daily basis. She eloquently describes each injury to herself and her husband as well as the animals they own and the ultimate death of her beloved horses and cows. She also pulls no punches admitting that, although she loves her farm life, it is exhausting work that never gets any easier, despite the eventual addition of full-time staff as Essex Farm’s reputation grew along with its CSA members in the North Country of New York state.
Late in the book, Kimball contrasts her 500 acres to a modest farm she visited in Hawaii, which she describes as a suburban garden plot. Kimball remarks that those who love growing food but are looking to relax and enjoy tranquility are better off becoming gardeners than farmers, whose livelihood depends on good weather, functioning equipment and cooperative livestock.
She goes on to note that in times of upheaval, people return to the land. As America’s current two-front war escalated, the size of her volunteer staff grew. Surfing the crest of the Return to Agriculture trend, Kimball and Essex farm also spearheaded the Write-about-the-Return genre.
As for myself, odds are against us having land in time for a spring planting. If I’m lucky I’ll plan for some late-season crops. We feel that homeowners in our district are slowly realizing that the housing market isn’t what it was in 2005 and they must drop their prices to attract buyers. Soon, if all goes well, I’ll be planting again and bragging about my square foot gardens on these pages. Until then, stay warm and think of spring.