When I talk to people about My Empire of Dirt, I tell some outrageous stories from the year I spent turning my back yard in Flatbush, Brooklyn, into a farm that would, with the exception of salt, pepper, and coffee beans, sustain me for at least a month. Some of the tales are — or at least are intended to be — funny, some provocative, some poignant, and some heartbreaking. And when I finally finish talking, the first question is always, "Do you still have the farm?"
Hell yes, I reply, and then immediately I equivocate, call it a marriage-preserving compromise. In truth The Farm no longer plays a central role — welcome or otherwise — in our family life. We have a vegetable garden and five laying hens. But these days we also have a lawn... well, we have grass. This couplet of vigorous answer and feeble explanation is a reflex, and I regret it more each time I repeat it.
I describe the joys of having my son, growing up in Brooklyn just as I did, fetch the eggs from the coop out back every morning. Then I describe the dystopic debate my wife, Lisa and I had about the effects of The Farm on the children: me insisting the exposure to the reality of farming would give our son and daughter a rarer-and-rarer understanding of the source of their food; Lisa asserting that the experience was sure to turn them both into axe murderers.
The Farm is not the sum of its parts, not the parts you can see at any rate; not the meat birds nor the laying hens, giant rabbits, flies, shit, and discarded construction materials; not the rusted-out refrigerator nor the equally rusty late model Land Cruiser. The Farm was and continues to be both the result of the ceaseless, often dismal, work required to keep it from collapsing in a heap all around me and the reward of profound satisfaction that I managed to uncouple myself, even briefly, from a transactional relationship with food and rejoin the tradition of production (more so because I did this in Brooklyn).