Serious Reads: The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball
"Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your own bones while growing the beans, so much the better for you." —The Dirty Life
In the midst of the current food-awareness revolution, more and more city folk are turning to urban gardening as a means of growing their own food and avoiding industrialized agriculture. But while some stop at a rooftop farm or windowsill garden, Kristin Kimball went to extremes.
She uprooted her New York City life and moved upstate where she bought a plot of land with her exuberant, farm-minded boyfriend. The story of how they fought with, developed, and eventually reaped the harvest of this land is the backbone of her memoir, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love.
Once upon a time, Kimball was a freelance writer living the young person's lifestyle in New York: crappy apartment, lots of caffeine, and an oven used for sweater storage. Then one weekend she was sent to do a profile of a farmer in Pennsylvania. Mark lived in a trailer and worked the surrounded land with boundless energy—he was at once challenging, spontaneous, and overwhelmingly charming. The two began dating, in a whirlwind courtship that led to Mark proposing a move to New Paltz, New York. The two would start a farm.
Despite her limited farming experience (read: zero experience), Kimball agreed to abandon her lease, friends, and local coffee shops in favor of moving to New Paltz and buying a farm.
It had always been Mark's dream to own a farm, and such was her longing for a place to call home that Kimball made it her dream as well. Together, they decided to introduce a radical CSA concept into their small farming community—a full-diet CSA where members paid about $2,500 up front in return for a full year's worth of meat, dairy, grains, eggs, cheese, maple syrup, and unlimited produce.
When they first entered their soon-to-be-fruitful farmland, it was a muddy, rocky, untapped expanse of dirt.
In some farming memoirs, a couple or a family eases its way into the growing season, and soon they are fluffing giant salads of fresh greens and curing grass-fed meat with which they will entertain guests. This memoir debunks the idyllic myth, and reveals the true difficulties of starting a farm from scratch. I felt intimately involved in Kimball's desperate struggle to teach herself how to harness horses, dig rows of seeds, corral rebellious chickens and make a meal from winter's limited provisions.
Kimball opens herself and her relationship to the reader. We hear about the questions she's constantly asking about Mark and their shared future.
After a tumultuous winter, a long engagement, and the growth of their farm (now with two horses, several cows, a dog, chickens, and literally tons of vegetables) the pair threw a huge wedding. The book culminates with images of guests feasting on the most local food they've ever consumed, while Mark sneaks to the barn to milk the cows in his nicest suit. Kimball's take-away message is summed up well in these words:
"Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your own bones while growing the beans, so much the better for you."
Occasionally in the joyous marathon of page-turning that this column entails, I find a book that gives me pause. The Dirty Life was just such a read. At times I found myself so moved by Kimball's narrative, I had to put the book down. She allowed herself to question her motivations, her husband's vision, and whether she would ever see a green sprout come spring. And she emerged with a lifetime of skills, a passion for farming, and slightly more confidence in her husband's sanity.
As she says: "As much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you." I've never read such a lovely account of nature's transformative abilities.