Thursday, August 21, 2014

Living on an Acre


Living On An Acre 2nd edition: A Practical Guide to the Self-Reliant Life
U.S. Department of Agriculture Fully edited and updated by Christine Woodside
Lyons Press, © 2010
Guilford, Connecticut
ISBN: 978-1-59921-885-4

Originally published as Living on a Few Acres, and published in 1978, the original of this book was published to provide practical information and assistance to the back-to-the-land movement. This new edition is intended for the same audience although it focuses on smaller acreage. Living on an Acre walks a fine line between being encouraging and cautionary. It opens with a chapter titled “Pluses and Minuses” and the sub-section “Face the Realities” opens with a checklist:

  • Do you want to be a part-time farmer on a few acres and keep a full-time job in town?
  • Can you find a farm that suits your needs in a place where you are willing to live? 
  • How much will it cost? If more than your savings, can you obtain financing? 
  • Do you have the knowledge and skills needed to operate a small farm? 
  • What about financing the production process?
  • How and where will you sell your produce?
All are fair questions when contemplating moving out of the city. Particularly the “do you want to be a part-time farmer on a few acres and keep a full-time job in town?” question. With (in the US) 90 percent of farm income coming from off-farm sources, buying a farm (as opposed to a house in the country) is buying a second job that pays poorly if at all. Which is why we're seeing renewed interest in urban agriculture, as detailed in Farm and the City.
When I worked off-farm, back in the day, I frequently found myself driving 5000 kilometres (3100 miles)/month—which drove me crazy. But the income paid for school supplies, utilities, and (of course) the ever increasing price of gasoline and car repairs. The insanity of working to afford the transportation costs of working is what lead us to the joyous moment of getting rid of our car and joining the Victoria Car Share Co-op.
I've considered the question of low farm incomes and have long wondered why farms don't take more of the process into their own hands. Selling, as we did, our production directly to the public through farmer's markets and the connections we made there, allowed us to receive a far more reasonable return. There were problems; getting up at 5:00 am to drive an hour and a half to Vegreville to have our chickens and turkeys processed (it has to be done at a licensed and inspected facility in order to be able to sell to the public rather than home use). The butcher we liked being forced out of small animal butchering by the lack of return, meaning we had to haul lambs to a abattoir we didn't really like in order to keep selling them. But, we could set a fair price for free-range animals and keep more of the money in our hands. And we ate like kings. But the loss of small, local slaughter operations isn't mentioned in Living on an Acre.
One of the great things about this book is the practical information it contains. How much land is needed for pasturing a horse? What are the housing requirements for goats? Should you build your own house? These are questions addressed here by the various writers. The must-read chapter is Growing and Raising: How to do it. The topics covered are great—from growing fruit trees, to nursery operations, to raising small and large stock, and even vacation farms. Traditional and non-traditional ways to provide yourself with an income get a good overview/introduction. The only lack is in marketing instructions. The sections on raising rabbits and chickens would be good reading for anyone contemplating raising these animals in the city.
Overall, this is a book that provides an introduction to many of the problems and concerns with moving to a rural life. The chapter The big picture offers short (often too short) essays from people who have made the transition. But Living on an Acre does offer the information you need in order to answer the questions the book ask. At the end of it, you'll have a better idea whether rural life is for you.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jennifer and the City



Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution
Jennifer Cockrall-King
Amherst, New York
ISBN: 978-1-61614-458-6
available as an e-book


I have to say that Canadians have produced a lot of really great books on food and food systems in the last decade or so. And Jennifer Cockrall-King has taken her place in the ranks of Canadian food writers.
The book opens with a (mercifully) brief overview of the modern food system that focuses on the varied challenges the industrial food system faces; from climate change to peak oil and peak water. JCK then gets into the meat of the book, a tour of urban agriculture in France, the UK, the US, Canada, and ending up with two tours of Cuba. Each section (broken down by city) opens with some history of the city, farm, or person being visited. From the perpetuation of urban agriculture through the history of Paris, to a brief and inspiring bio of Will Allen, JCK offers us something special about her visit.
In Paris, for example, she opens with an anecdote about seeing a police station, “an excellent example of 1970s Brutalist architecture, designed to intimidate and terrorize,” where someone had planted grapevines in the street-level window wells. She “burst out laughing at the juxtaposition of these vines struggling to soften the intentional harshness of this impersonal, aggression-inspired building. Neither the vines' efforts nor the efforts of the gardener who planted them were in vain. The vines were winning.”
Because the book is meant to be inspiring rather than depressing, these are the stories she tells; stories where “the vines [are] winning.” And it's nice, as a Canadian, to read of cities here as well. So many books concentrate on what's happening in the US—understandable, as the potential market there is ten times larger than here in Canada. But Canada is at the forefront of thinking about food and feeding people. From Graham Riches work on the birth of food banks and his prescience on how they would become part of the fabric of feeding people as the social safety net here is slowly hacked apart, to Fraser and Rimas' Empires of Food showing how agricultural production forms the basis of civilization and empire (and the inevitable collapse of both), to Lorraine Johnson's City Farmer: Adventures in Food Growing which offers up the polite Canadian way of urban agriculture (as opposed to Novella Carpenter's more guerilla approach in Oakland). So JCK's overview of the urban ag movement in Vancouver and Toronto is welcome.
Of course, she does refer to Vancouver as being on Canada's “Left Coast,” a stereotype we could probably do without. She does live in my old home town (Edmonton, Alberta), in a province where politics have been silenced by big oil money, and the only movement is on the right to make the province even more of an American colony. To anyone coming from a petro-state, British Columbia's politics would look crazy. But all it means is that politics still matters out here, people still care.
And they care about food. Vancouver's large Asian and Indian communities have invigorated both the flavour palette and the urban agriculture movement. The same has happened in Toronto, which is fitting as the cities are both the largest in Canada, and the most unaffordable. So there is more pressure to think about, and get involved in, urban agriculture.
After her developed-world tour, Jennifer Cockrall-King ends up in Cuba, the epicentre of post-peak thinking and a world leader in agro-ecological research. JCK's visits to Cuba supports much of what I said in an earlier post (Cuba, Si!). Cuba is not perfect, but they are the essential test-bed for a post-consumerist, post-oil world. In Cuba, rationing mixed with local free-market farmer's markets provide a limited but universally accessible food system.Interestingly, a system that worked well in the UK during and after the Second World War. Cuba also upends our traditional thinking about social status and pay; top-level farmers earn considerably more than “white collar” professionals. Here in Canada, of course, the easiest way for a farmer to become a millionaire is to start farming with two million dollars. You'll have a million soon enough.
Jennifer Cockrall-King's book is an excellent overview of the variety of approaches to urban agriculture in the developed world. From the unbroken (though badly damaged) historic production systems of Paris, to the allotment garden and the memory of the Victory Gardens of the Second World War in the UK, and the North American experiments, we see everything from guerilla gardeners to the entrepreneurs and SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) urban farming movement. Most are farming for love, more than expected farm for money, and all of them bring an element of hope to the people around them. And, slowly, all are helping restore the agricultural knowledge-base we're going to need in the not-so-distant future.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Vampire Squid and the Garden


Drought map via NOAA
Yellow is lower level drought, dark red is higher

The Globe and Mail Report on Business (01 August 2014, p B1, B8) ran a report on how rising prices are starting to impact consumer meat choices, and how that's affecting the bottom line of Maple Leaf Meats (who are currently restructuring). The article points out how bacon prices are up by about 26 percent and pork chops are up 18 percent, even though Statistics Canada claims prices are only up 3 percent from a year earlier.
There are a number of reasons offered for the rise in meat prices; the arrival of a piglet-killing virus (porcine epidemic diarrhoea) which has driven up the cost of a pig by 24 percent, the drought of 2012 that drove up the cost of feed and led to herd culls, and a 5 percent depreciation of the Canadian dollar pushing prices higher north of the border. BMO Capital Markets economist Aaron Goertzen takes the “most obvious statement of the year” award by pointing out that consumers are avoiding the now-pricier beef and pork by buying chicken or cheaper kinds of protein.
But one reason for higher prices gets no traction in the article at all—or indeed pretty much anywhere else with the exception of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). NECSI has been warning about the influence of futures traders in the food system for several years now. As did Matt Taibbi in Griftopia: bubble machines, vampiresquids, and the long con that is breaking America (2010), upon which I'm relying for for describing the system.
In a functioning commodity market, there are three players; buyers, sellers, and speculators called futures traders. Buyers and sellers (farmers and food companies) can arrange contracts with each other to guarantee the price of a commodity like wheat or corn (or pretty much any other physical substance, like platinum or oil). A producer wants to ensure that they get a fair price for their wheat, so they offer a future delivery for an agreed-upon price. This works for a buyer, as they want to have a certain and non-fluctuating price for the commodity they need. Called physical hedging, these contracts allow an amount of certainty in an uncertain world. If the price of a commodity rises unexpectedly, the producer forgoes some profit in exchange for a guaranteed price. If the price drops, the buyer forgoes some profit in exchange for a guaranteed price.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Everything Is Connected (Water Edition)

Beluga photo via premier.gov.ru

A while back I found out the whole story about why Beluga whales were washing up on the shores of the St. Lawrence around Montreal--whales whose carcases were so contaminated with toxins that they had to be handled as toxic waste. Turns out it had to do with farmers in the American Midwest applying fertilizer to their fields. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus was washing into the rivers in the (rather immense) Mississippi catchment basin, concentrating in the waterways, spilling out into the Gulf where it was creating a dead zone. Algae from the dead zone found their way up the Atlantic coast in blooms, generating the neurotoxin found in red tide. Various predators concentrated the toxin up the food chain as the bloom moved north, finally resulting in dead whales in the St. Lawrence. Everything is connected.
Lake Erie photo via National Oceanic Service
As I write this, Toledo, Ohio, is under a "do not drink" order for their municipal water supply. The reason? Contamination with microcystin, a toxic by-product of blue-green algal blooms. Toledo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie (above, showing algal blooms visible from space), along with 11 million other people.
microcystin-LR molecule via Toxmais,
mostly because it's so frickin' cool!
Cyanobacteria produce microcystins, and when they bloom, there's enough of the toxins (particularly microcystin-LR, the most toxic of the group) to affect humans drinking the water. Standard water treatment doesn't affect the presence of the toxin, or its toxicity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Will The Soil Save Us?




Image © Rodale Books
The question at the heart of Kristin Ohlson's new book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet is simple; can we rethink and re-make the agricultural system we've used for the last 10,000 years over the next decade?
The answer depends on your view of human adaptability in the face of global warming. If you are thinking about how the role of national and local governments have been superseded by international trade agreements assigning more power to corporations than governments, well, then we're doomed. If you're thinking about the innate conservatism of farmers and other food producers and the immense stranded costs they would face with any change to the way we produce food, well, then you have to pretty much figure we're doomed. But if you think about the way people respond to disasters like Katrina, Sandy, the Calgary flood of 2013, or earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, the way we refuse to duplicate the infrastructure that failed and instead rebuild taking the changed conditions into account, well, then you have to figure we're doomed.
You might think that I'm a bit defeatist, that I'm rather cynical when it comes to the future of humanity on this planet. And you'd be right. The tremendous control exerted by international corporate structures over our everyday lives, limiting the choices we can conceive of or discuss, suggest to me that without a major international democratic revolution there is really not much chance of turning this Titanic from it's fated course. The cry of “Iceberg! Dead ahead!” went up in the late sixties/early seventies, and overall we haven't paid a blind bit of notice since.
Kristin Ohlson doesn't exactly share my feeling that this big boat is going down, and the only people who will make it are those who launched their lifeboats early. In keeping with her American sense of optimism, she charts the rise of alternative agricultural methods and the (small) communities that have arisen around them. Primarily, this is the rise of “soil farmers,” those who concentrate their efforts on growing soil over growing cash crops. She justifiably calls these New Agriculture practitioners “heroes of the underground.”
Ohlson meets a number of very interesting people in the soil farming movement. People like Allan Savory (whose TED talk is quite remarkable but who faces serious criticism) who's work in Zimbabwe is claimed to be restoring the damaged veldt, and Jay Fuhrer and Burleigh County, where people interested in New Agriculture (my title) learn how to build soil on working land.






 It's an entertaining ride, very accessible to the lay reader. She briefly recaps the history of global warming (which should be known to every person on the planet by now, but, distressingly, is not), cruises through in introduction to soil microbiology, and then focuses the remainder of the book on permaculture practice through different characters and how they interact.
The focus on characters to introduce practice is a smart one, allowing a great deal of information to unfold through talking with people. The book feels like a great conversation between he writer and reader (as the best of these books do) and avoids any unsightly info-dumps. The best practitioners of this style—Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman spring to mind—create the impression of having learned an enormous amount while reading one of their books. What they do, is to introduce the reader to a topic and give them enough information, artfully conveyed, to allow the reader to participate in a greater conversation on the issue. And Ohlson does her best to live up to this standard of writing, for which I'm very grateful.
The downside is that the book offers up a simple single solution to our problems. This is a problem, but one we all suffer from. We like the idea that one person, heroically doing one thing against great odds, can save the world. And that's bullshit. We didn't get into this crisis by one person doing one thing, and we won't get out like that. The only way out is, as Mao put it, to let a thousand flowers bloom. Each person has to begin taking a step forward. We don't really know which step is the important one, so we had better be taking a lot of different ones. And as we start to move on this crisis, we need to form linkages between us—individuals, groups, municipalities, nations. As Kristin Ohlson describes the formation and structure of the microbial world of the soil, so too do we need an ecology of change. An inter-related web of groups and individuals exchanging tactics, techniques, and actions, each moving us in a general direction so that as the crisis evolves, so too can our responses. You don't have to be right, you just have to be trying.
This is the sort of information we desperately need in order to find a way forward into a world where we'll survive global warming. After reading this book I don't think that the soil will save us. But I do think that soil farming/New Ag/permaculture, is one of the big tools we'll have to use to ensure a future. But it's also going to take Radical Democracy, and a movement to Occupy Food, the simplicity movement, and probably the total bankrupcy of the global economy, to get where we need to go. But in the meantime, get up, stand up. And as Public Enemy said “Bring the noize!”

Friday, July 25, 2014

Problems/Solutions/Problems

"Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania".
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I'm currently reading The soil will save us!: how scientists, farmers, and foodies are healing the soil to save the planet by Kristin Ohlson, and while it's an interesting read, aimed at a general audience, I'm not entirely convinced by the title.
But this is not my review of Soil, but the title is serving as a jumping-off point for some other things I've been reading and thinking about. Such as how we're facing this massive increase in population over the rest of this century.
It seems we're expected to increase world population from six to eight or nine billion before we top out. And somehow we need to feed all these people, an accomplishment made all the more difficult by peak oil, global warming, and the question of equitable distribution. The argument is made by industrial agriculture advocates that without high-tech, capital intensive farming, we'll never be able to feed everyone.
But here's the thing; modern agriculture is not a solution. Hell, pre-1900 agriculture is not a solution. Agriculture is the problem. Not the only one, true, but approximately a fifth of the problem. It's not that global warming will impact our ability to grow food in different areas, it's that growing food is contributing to global warming.
The FAO reports that:
[...]estimates of greenhouse gas data show that emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past fifty years and could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050, without greater efforts to reduce them.
[...]Agricultural emissions from crop and livestock production grew from 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents* (CO2 eq) in 2001 to over 5.3 billion tonnes in 2011, a 14 percent increase.  The increase occurred mainly in developing countries, due to an expansion of total agricultural outputs.

Meanwhile, net GHG emissions due to land use change and deforestation registered a nearly 10 percent decrease over the 2001-2010 period, averaging some 3 billion tonnes CO2 eq/yr over the decade. This was the result of reduced levels of deforestation and increases in the amount of atmospheric carbon being sequestered in many countries.
* Carbon dioxide equivalents, or CO2 eq, is a metric used to compare emissions from different greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flood Forecast--Bad And Getting Worse

Image copyright Rocky Mountain Books
Spent a couple of hours this weekend reading Flood Forecast: Climate risk and resiliency in Canada by Robert Sandford and Kerry Freek. Flood Forecast is part of the Rocky Mountain Books Manifesto series, which, according to their website:

[Is] one of the most unique non-fiction series in Canadian publishing. The books in this collection are meant to be literary, critical and cultural studies that are provocative, passionate and populist in nature. The goal is to encourage debate and help facilitate change whenever and wherever possible. Books in this uniquely packaged, hardcover series are perfect for general readers, academic markets and book lovers.

Paperback size but hard-covered, well designed, and engagingly written (and timely), the first half of this book looks at the Alberta flood of 2013 which took out houses from Canmore to High River. The second half of the book looks at the flooding, three weeks later, of the flooding in and around the greater Toronto area.
    The differences between the two floods are as instructive as the similarities. In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi moved quickly into action, becoming the public face of the official reaction to the flood, co-ordinating the response, but generally staying out of the way of those doing the emergency work. Toronto had Mayor Rob Ford.
    In Alberta, the provincial government failed pretty much completely in their duties. Alberta has had the same party in power for some 40+ years, the Progressive Conservatives. This means that there has been an unbroken continuity in governance. So when provincial government officials claimed that a flood of this magnitude could not have been predicted, they knew they were lying. Flooding of this scope had been predicted as early as 1979 and had almost occurred in 2005--both times on the same party’s watch. This same government had commissioned, in partnership with the City of Calgary, a report of the flood potential of the Bow and Elbow rivers that was completed and submitted in 2012, a year before the flood. The report pointed out that development in the floodplain had the effect of restricting the space in which water could move and would slow floodwaters down, ensuring higher flood levels. The report also noted that a flood reaching Calgary would result in unprecedented damage. Alberta government officials also claimed that the flood was a “once in a thousand year” event that no-one could have anticipated. Calculations by John Pomeroy and his team (most of whom had been on-site in Canmore during the rains that led to the flooding) released their calculations in November 2013 that showed the rain event was not only not a thousand year event, but not even a once a century event. Rather it was a once-in-45-year event. So not even a once in a lifetime event, but an event that should have been planned for. Government had just failed in it’s duty to prepare for it. In a later interview in the Calgary Herald, Pomeroy was quoted as saying that the Alberta government response to the flood “was reminiscent of what you would expect in a developing country.”
    Three weeks later, a weather system dropped 100 mm of rain on Toronto in about two hours (exceeding the 50+ year old record for same day rainfall). The city’s systems were overwhelmed, with more than a million cubic metres of raw sewage ending up in Lake Ontario. 37 of 69 transit stations were without service, stranding some 1,400 passengers for three hours, and left 300,000 residents without power and caused major flight delays. Eventually there were $940 million in private damage claims and some $60 million in damage to the City of Toronto (about $55 million of which was not covered by insurance).
    But where Alberta’s government had abdicated their responsibility and worked hard only on a cover-up of what they knew and when, Ontario had already been working towards a better infrastructure response. That response was clearly not in place during July of 2013, but work has been underway for several years.
One example is that Toronto (and other municipalities) had made downspout disconnection from the sewer system mandatory. Diverting this flow to lawns reduces the infiltration rate of rainwater, easing the strain on storm drains and reducing the likelihood of basement flooding. Floodplain mapping, ignored for 20 years in Alberta, has been updated in the last decade in Ontario, helping municipalities plan development. And while Toronto’s infrastructure replacement from 50’s standards to something more reflective of today and tomorrow’s requirements will cost multi-billions of dollars, there is a programme in place to make the necessary changes.
 While the authors focus on the particular (in this case, their respective floods), they don't fail to notice the larger implications of the extreme weather events. Mention is made of both Siberia and Colorado experiencing extreme dry weather, wildfires, and then extreme rainfall, all in the same season. This kind of roller-coaster is going to batter, if not destroy, our economy. Our personal, local, and national planning is going to have to take into account the possibility of multiple extreme weather events arriving one after the other over short periods of time. Which is going to beat the hell out of our agricultural system.
Toronto’s response is far from perfect, or even timely enough, but at least there is some sort of planning and response for a climate-changed world going on.  The authors of Flood Forecast are not sanguine about the response to flood events in either locale, particularly in the face of growing climate severity. But they are willing to give credit where credit is due. Their book is short, pointed, and very readable, and as such is an important contribution to the necessary civic dialogue now taking place around climate change.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Our Daily Bread

Photographer: Klaus Höpfner

The Guardian's Damian Carrington reported yesterday (17 July, '14) that analysis of government data shows that some 60% of bread sold in the UK tests positive for pesticide residue, and that 25% of that tests positive for more than one pesticide.
The main offender? Glyphosate (also known as Round-Up). Rounding out the top three? Chlormequat, a plant growth regulator, and malathion, an organophosphate insecticide.
Interestingly, bread is much more likely to test positive for pesticide residue than other foods--which test positive "only" 40% of the time. Carrington reports:
The official tests are carried out by the government’s expert committee on pesticide residues in food (Prif) and the levels found were below “maximum residue level” (MRL) limits. The Prif experts concluded: “We do not expect these residues to have an effect on health.”

But environmental campaigners point out that these residues only indicate that pesticides were applied properly at source. But Nick Mole, at Pesticide Action Network UK (Pan UK) and an author of the new report on the government figures, points out that “[These residues] are nothing to do with people’s health whatsoever. There is the possibility of harm from the repeated ingestion of low doses of pesticides and no one has done research on the impact of the cocktails of pesticides we are all exposed to. We are all being experimented on without our consent.”
 There doesn't seem to be any solid certainty about the effects of chemical residues in our food or bodies. But in Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things
Stock image from Vintage Canada

Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie point out that each of us in the developed world are carrying a "toxic load" of over 250 different chemical residues, and that we have no real idea of how our bodies react to the doses of each--let alone what happens in combination.
We can reduce our exposure to pesticides by buying and eating organic food, of course. Regardless of the controversy over whether organic food is more nutritious, we do know that residues are certainly lower (although possibly not non-existent) on organics. There are so many sources of contamination in our environment--from air, foam in furniture, to plastic microbeads in our water--it's nice to know we can actually do something about one source. And it can taste pretty good, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gone Feral. A Review.

Image via novellacarpenter.net

Novella Carpenter, the author of the excellent memoir Farm City: The education of an urban farmer, is back with a new book, Gone Feral: Tracking my dad through the wild. If you read her first book, about her move to Oakland and the founding of GhostTown Farm (and if you haven’t, you really should), you may think you know Ms. Carpenter and her dedication to creating rural environments inside an urban area. Channeling the spirit of the original English Diggers (and the later Digger movement in San Francisco, for that matter), she and her Significant Other Bill moved from Seattle to Oakland, fetching up in a rather less-than-savoury part of town. By turns heroic, crafty, and just plain lucky, Carpenter manages to take over an unused lot next to her rather tired apartment and convert it into an actual urban farm, raising everything from vegetables to chickens to some most memorable pigs. Step by step, Ms. Carpenter leads the reader through her unusual life, her unique neighbours, and her funky, and productive, farm.
Gone Feral  on the other hand, is a different sort of journey, but still told in a unique and compelling voice. Spare prose, clear progression, and a dedication to telling the story of the day her father went missing, and her (re) discovery of him, make for a compelling read. I had expected to enjoy the book based on my experience with Farm City, but I hadn’t expected to become so wrapped up in the read that I ate this book in one gulp (with several cups of tea).
    Novella’s parents were part of the hippie/alternative/back-to-the-land movement of the late 60s and early 70s. They found and purchased some lovely land outside Orofino, Idaho. They moved into a battered mobile home, slowly built their own house, gardened, raised animals, found local work, and fell apart. Regretfully, not a unique story from that (or this) time. Her mother moved to the Pacific Northwest with Novella and her sister, and her father stayed behind. Then, on October 17th, 2009, Novella received a call that her father was missing. Although he resurfaced some weeks later, none the worse for the wear, the experience sent Ms. Carpenter off on a quest to find her father.
    This is primarily a book about a daughter trying to reconnect with her father, struggling to understand his life and choices, and, most importantly, trying to figure out what happened. Throughout the book there are reasons, revelations, and reconnections, and the resolution, this being real life and not a novel, may not be as satisfying as you might hope (although I found a deep resonance with it). But almost by accident, Carpenter addresses a topic that I have been considering for some time (and written about here on the blog): why were there so many failures in the back-to-the-land movement?
Novella Carpenter photo copyright Sarah Henry
    We see Carpenter’s parents meet and move onto a farm in Idaho. We see how difficult it was for them as a couple and family to achieve their dreams (and how much of the dream became a nightmare). And as Novella negotiates her father’s history, many of the reasons for the failure become clear. But across the holler from her parents are some other back-to-the-landers. And they, ultimately, are not a failure.
    Novella describes the differences between the Carpenters and their neighbours: the Carpenters are alone, following the homesteader narrative of America. The neighbours? To begin with, there are two couples. After some time, they build a second house on the property. They invite their neighbours to an annual solstice party.
    The homesteader narrative of America is a myth. Particularly in the east, the settlers were moving onto farms that were established, had been cultivated for decades if not longer, often had full storehouses of food and seed, and in many ways, were better than their equivalents in Europe at the time. It was just that their occupants had recently died from contact with the European settlers. There was very little of the “two people and a horse” homesteading
happening at all. But the myth of an empty land and heroic settlers was much more satisfying than the reality of “we killed them all and took their stuff.”
    And it was this myth that led so many landers astray. The belief that you had to do it all alone, that you had to be totally self-sufficient, that belief doomed them.
    The Farm, the collective founded around the same time as the Carpenter’s began their attempt, succeeded, and still survives. But that was because the people who founded The Farm took their community with them, and built links with the local community. The Carpenter’s neighbours took a smaller community with them, but also built links with the local community. They made friends, asked advice, lent a hand. In short, mutual aid trumps self-sufficiency. And it’s no different today.
    In Gone Feral, Novella carpenter explores a family history that “does not repeat, but rhymes.” So to does the current rural repopulation rhyme but not repeat. In the former, the story is compelling and extremely readable. In the latter, the story is not yet done.