Monday, April 23, 2012

Back-to-the-Land Memoirs

It happens every year around this time. The yard is ready for summer, the garden is planted, the hops are strung: nothing to do but wait. Wait and dream. Dream about finding a little farm and an old Ford 8N tractor and ditching the suburbs for life in the country. An authentic, back-to-the-land, dirt-under-your-nails kind of life. I grew up in the country and should know better, but still I dream.

And I'm not alone. The past few years have seen an avalanche of books about people choosing to pursue a rural way of life that their grandparents or great-grandparents lived and that their parents were happy to escape. Here are three of my favorites:

The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
by Jim Minick

Minick and his wife, Sarah, are teachers who decide to become evenings-and-weekends farmers but quickly discover that farming is not part-time work. They set out to establish a pick-your-own organic blueberry farm in the Virginia mountains, and they succeed—eventually, and at great personal cost. The Blueberry Years is a cautionary tale, but it's at its best when Minick simply shows what extraordinarily hard work farming is and leaves the reader to make of it what he or she will. Read it as a memoir or read it as a primer on organic blueberry production; either way you'll see that clear plastic container of blueberries in the produce aisle in a whole new light.

Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting
by Michael Perry

Perry is a humorist, a sometime public radio personality, and that rarest of creatures: a farmboy who, having fled his rural roots, returns to farming. He's funny in a low-key, Garrison Keillor kind of way, but his stories are grittier, more earnest and unabashedly true. Coop is his third book, following Population 485 and Truck, and it picks up right where Truck leaves off, with Perry 40 years old and newly married. With his new wife and stepdaughter at his side, Perry begins the hard work of rehabilitating a dairy farm in the driftless region of central Wisconsin. The book is shaped by an obvious but mercifully unspoken paralleling of farming, marriage and parenthood. (Think "manure" and you're on the right track.) Perry is unsparingly honest but never queasily so, and Coop is by far the most tender of his books. It's well worth reading on its own, but I would recommend reading his earlier books first (they're short) if you can spare the time.

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball

Kimball is a single vegetarian thirty-something New York City party girl until a magazine assignment introduces her to an earthy organic farmer she can't get out of her head. Soon she's eating meat and loving it, and before you know it she's married and struggling to revive a defunct family farm in upstate New York as a carbon-neutral organic farm. If this sounds like a fluffy Sex and the City episode, be assured it's not. By chance or by choice, nothing is easy for the couple and genuine peril abounds. They come close to starving their first winter on the farm. And because Kimball's husband  refuses to own a tractor they buy draft horses and have to turn to their Amish neighbors to learn how to use and care for them. The Dirty Life would be insufferable if Kimball were whiny. But she's not, and every page is suffused with a pleasantly amazed kind of pride.

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