This book swept me in much the same way that the author, Kristen Kimball, was swept into farming. The Dirty Life is her story of morphing from a free-lance writer living in Manhattan to an organic farmer in upstate New York all in less than a year. She met her husband, Mark, a Pennsylvania farmer, when she was assigned to interview him, and within 24 hours she was hoeing broccoli and helping him slaughter a big. Love came soon after, and soon after that, they were turning 500 acres of neglected land and outbuildings near lake Champlain into a farm of organic vegetables and fruits, pigs, cattle, chickens, cows, maple syrup, beans, and grains—using horse-power and no tractors. The work she describes is utterly overwhelming, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Yet, it’s the most rewarding thing she’s ever done. Days sometimes start before 4 am and often don’t end until they collapse into bed at 9 or 10. It’s dirty, scary, hard, and beautiful. Their vision is to build a CSA that will feed 100 families a full diet—not just food to supplement the grocery store, but enough quantity and variety to replace the grocery store. She wrote the book seven years after they began their venture, and it chronicles their first year. But from the epilogue and what I’ve read of their current farm, they’ve succeeded and now have 150 members, several interns, and several teams of horses, plus a daughter. This kind of farming seems romantic and idyllic. After all, I love harvesting tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, squash, and lettuce from our family garden. But I do little actual work there. And it’s about 20 x 100 feet. The Kimballs have 500 acres. But farming definitely isn’t idyllic or romantic most of the time—mostly it’s a to-do list 10 times longer than what could possibly get done and setbacks that are often out of your control. But it’s important, earthy, good-for-the-world work too. Kimball is an eloquent writer: she takes us right to the brink of every emergency, the sparkle of every celebration, and the hilarity of every laughable moment. Her self-deprecating tone is refreshing for a memoir. I have so many favorite passages dog-eared in the book that it’s hard to choose only a few, but here are two: a personal reflection and a funny description.
“I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world–the trades–was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white-collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now. . . There’s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking” (111) Later she writes, “Mark and I spent evenings poring over the seed catalogs that had arrived during the darkest week of winter, piling up next to the bed like farmer porn” (119). I’ve read and re-read and read aloud so many passages because they cracked me up or they made me ponder priorities or they connected to The Grapes of Wrath, (my most recent read) or they made me realize just how much work and love goes into the food I eat. This is a great, great book. (memoir)