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).
It was through the work (fix what's broken, feed what's hungry, heal what's dying — well, try — and water what is thirsty) that I was introduced, for the first time, to my authentic self. The introduction was not all that flattering, but it was indisputable.
Of course, it was ages before I understood this. In the months after my first harvest I sat like a stone while the seasons changed, wondering what was it about The Farm that was so important. It had changed me, that much I knew. But how? It wasn't until I discovered the writings of Wendell Berry that I had even the faintest idea.
I had arrogant plans, was pig-ignorant, and indefatigably ambitious — never mind my careless disregard for my own health or that of our marriage; these are the tools I used to bend the dead patch — a gully, Berry informed me — to my will, bring it back to life. Berry explained that, once alive, my ignorance and ambition did not stand a chance against the powers of nature. It made no difference that The Farm was just 1/58th of an acre; it set about bending me.
Not too long ago I sat on a panel with a pair of real farmers: Moie Crawford from Huntingdon County in western Pennsylvania and Barclay Daranyi from Durango, Colorado.
They sat patiently (indulging me, I believe) while I told my outrageous tale. I often feel like a rodeo clown, a fraud even, when I'm asked to account for myself and The Farm. Still, it's an author's job to sell the book, not just write it, so wherever there's an offer, I take my turn at the microphone. But Moie is the organic farmer behind Michelle Obama's White House organic garden and Barclay is no slouch herself. I finished my turn and was delighted to hand off to the professionals.
I listened in wonder while both described, on a grand scale, what had been my experience. My delight was visceral, Barclay saying she learned a long time ago that there was no point working for results, she just did the hard work and hoped for the best. She recounted one particularly bad cycle when drought followed drought followed plague of grasshoppers. No matter how bad the season was, Barclay was always eager to start the process all over again. When the grasshoppers showed up, she expanded her poultry production so the chickens and turkeys would eat the bugs faster than the bugs ate her crops. A perfectly rational response I thought, a grin spreading across my face that you couldn't slap off with a tire iron. So what if it meant she had to slaughter 300 birds a week rather than 150 for a while? That's just work.
"Enough about the challenges," the moderator cut us off, "what about the rewards," he asked. "Deeply rewarding," we all agreed in unison, davitting our approval, and then we paused, all slightly embarrassed by our ungoverned self-satisfaction. Then Barclay picked up the ball, describing both the joys of finding solutions on the fly and the delight of sitting down to a meal which she had not only cooked but created. I barked with joy, blurted out a story about the First Supper, that first meal from The Farm all those years ago. I raved on about the joy of knowing that the entire meal came from my hand, recounting what I took to be the unique flavors and textures therein.
The three of us chatted after the presentation. The two women smiled knowingly while I gushed about how good it felt to hear the two of them, both real farmers, describing all the emotions I had felt on The Farm. Are you kidding, they responded, that's all it is. Try, fail, and try again. You can have a crop (Moie remembering it as peppers, Barclay recalling potatoes) that would grow with abandon one year after another, and then suddenly you'd sooner expect that crop on the moon as in your field. There was just no way it would ever grow again. If you're talking about a non-industrial, family operation, they agreed, there's nothing you can do to mitigate either the randomness or the absurdity of farming. And you have no power to reverse your attraction to it, they assured me.
"What did the farmer who won the lottery say when asked what he was going to do with the money?" asked Barclay (it turns out there is a rich tradition of Farmer Jokes). Moie chimed in: "'Great. Now I can farm until this money runs out.'"