Tuesday, August 7, 2012

East Coast vs West Coast



I've recently finished a couple of urban farming memoirs: Novella Carpenter's Farm City: the education of an urban farmer and My Empire of Dirt : how one man turned his big city backyard into a farm : a cautionary tale by Manny Howard. Both were interesting to read, but both were really American in their assumptions. Novella Carpenter wrote her book from Oakland, CA, while Manny Howard was writing his from Brooklyn, and the bi-coastal divide is really apparent in their approaches, their style, and their outcomes. Manny, like Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame, takes on a project that becomes obsessive and relationship-destroying. We meet him suffering a moment in his life that I remember well, the moment when you look around at the reality of being married and having young children. You suddenly realize that it's not all about you, and you are a grown-up now, even if you don't feel like it, want it, or believe it. Its disorienting at best, and in our modern consumer-oriented, atomized culture, distressing. We've created a culture that is best served when we remain self-obsessed adolescents for our entire lives, where “growing up” is seen as the end of the best times rather than a transition into a richer time. In Manny Howard's case, there is a serendipitous phone call from an editor: “How about you turn your yard into an urban farm and live off it for a month?” I can only assume that there was large amounts of alcohol available at that story meeting..... Manny is trapped in that space between adolescent invulnerability and adult sense, and so agrees. His expenses will be covered and there's a nice chunk of change at the end of it all. It is, for anyone who's ever thought about turning their yard into a farm, a perfect situation. You do the work, and someone else pays the bills. Manny bulls ahead, clearing out his backyard, installing a French drain system, and trucking in a load of good topsoil. His aspirations quickly spiral out of control, as he plans a garden, ducks, chickens, and rabbits. His approach is best described when he notes that “this cage, like the rest, was built on the driveway with no plans.” He's never gardened, let alone farmed, and there's no time to do the research up front, so go, go, go! His wife, a long-suffering, highly paid executive at a New York publishing firm (yes, a chauffeured town car picks her up and drops her off daily), watches her husband descend into a madness of obsession and manure, where his definition of the perfect world is radically different from her own. And he appears committed to taking the two children with him into this nightmare. Ultimately, Manny doesn't do a good job of living for a month from the work of his hands. Its not all his fault—there is, after all, a tornado that touches down on his street. And his forays into home meat production are ill-considered at best. All of which stand in stark contrast to the joyous madness happening in Oakland. Novella and her partner Bill move into GhostTown, a neighbourhood in Oakland that is barely functional, where there are shootings blocks away, where the best you can say is that it has become a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Bill, Novella's partner, refits vehicles to burn bio-diesel made from recycled vegetable oil. She works miscellaneous temp or part-time jobs, and comes from a pair of 70s back-to-the-landers. Suffice it to say, Novella is not without clue. Not that she makes it easy on herself. GhostTown is a tough place to live—almost unimaginable for a Canadian working class kid like myself. But when she spies the seemingly abandoned lot next door, Novella hatches a plan. Like the Diggers of England, and the Diggers of San Francisco, she sees that ownership and use must go together. So she begins to clear an abandoned city lot in order to build a garden. And right from the get-go, people start showing up to help. This would be Reader's Digest stuff, except for the strong whiff of counter-culture and the lack of respect for property rights. So, more Utne Reader then.... Novella's book is filled with people who are not her. The people she talks with about how to kill a pig, the drunks and druggies, her neighbours. In each case she tries to give the reader an impression of who this person is, to help make the same connection to them that she felt. The farm is central, but the real story in Farm City is the web of relationships that develop in the temporary Autonomous Zone. Novella gains self-definition when she meets Willow, the woman who drives the area's food security program by farming vacant space and refers to herself as an “urban farmer.” It is a label that Novella quickly adopts (and with good reason). Novella builds gardens,and then decides to indulge in the gateway drug of the urban agriculture movement: chickens. Or, in this case, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Chickens really are a gateway drug. They add something alive to the landscape—whether urban or rural—and by the time they are ready to lay eggs, you're already addicted to watching alien-yet-understandable activities. And the first time you steal eggs from a nest, you know you're never going back again. I've a farming background, even though I was brought up in the city, so I have always known about the linkage between raising an animal and having to kill one. But killing an animal, any animal, is one of the rituals of humanity from which we have become abstracted. Death is something we shelter ourselves from, hide away, and by doing so, make more powerful. Death is the act that separates the gardener from the farmer. Death is the hurdle that has to be cleared. Both Manny Howard and Novella Carpenter manage it, but Novella manages it with grace and understanding. The two books reflect their authors, but also the places they are written about. Manny Howard's is intense and neurotic—much like the Greater New York area seems to be. Novella Carpenter's book is sprawling and inviting, a masterful combination of memoir and research. Perhaps my being more of a West Coaster than an East Coaster affects my response to the two books. Or maybe being a hippie at heart and a back-to-the-lander myself defines my response. But I'd rather read about Novella's successes rather than Manny's meltdown.

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