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'Goat Song' by Brad Kessler; 'Farm City' by Novella Carpenter
A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese
Scribner: 244 pp., $24
The Education of an Urban Farmer
Penguin Press: 278 pp., $25.95
Back to the land. We thought of it this way in the 1970s and '80s. As if she was waiting for us with open arms. Nowadays, one gets the distinct impression she'd be better off without us prodigal children. And anyway, we wouldn't know what to do with a bit of land, much less be able to feed ourselves. Many, many people watched "An Inconvenient Truth" and thought, "Uh-oh, I might be needing a few survival skills in the not-too-distant future." Popular culture has provided all sorts of derogatory words for people who want to know how to grow their own food and maybe even produce their own energy -- survivalist, libertarian, hippie. For decades, books about learning how to grow your own food had a defensive, preachy tone; henny-penny, self-righteous. Going back to the land meant turning your back on modern urban culture.
These two books, one about rediscovering a pastoral way of life, the other about carving out a rural life in an urban ghetto, show how far we've come since the reactive post-1960s hostility between urban and rural lifestyles in this country. They prove that there is a middle ground.
Neither author is in the business of converting or convincing. Novelist Brad Kessler and his wife, Dona Ann McAdams, a photographer, just wanted to live in the country and produce their own food (both grew up in the suburbs and knew little about animal husbandry). As he writes in "Goat Song," Kessler, for reasons that unfold in his description of their daily lives with goats, was drawn to a pastoral life: "[T]he longer I lived with goats the more connections I saw to a collective human past we've since forgotten, here in North America at least. I saw how so many aspects of our everyday culture -- from our alphabet to our diet to elements of our economy and poetry -- arose from a lifestyle of herding hoofed animals." The couple found a place in Vermont and a goat breeder. They purchased two goats, Lizzie and Hannah, bred them, bottle fed the kids and began collecting enough milk to make soft cheeses. Kessler's descriptions of eating the fresh cheese, sprinkled with chives or drizzled with honey, are mouthwatering.
His straightforward description of tasks, skills and routines recalls the writing of the 1930s generation of back-to-the-landers such as Scott Nearing. Reading Nearing's descriptions of building his own stone houses makes the reader feel that he or she could build them as well. We've gotten so addicted to owners manuals in languages we can't even read, to listening to experts and taking classes, that we forget we are actually strong enough and smart enough to figure many things out on our own. Kessler does rely on books and on the wisdom of neighbors, as well as the woman who sold the couple Lizzie and Hannah. He visits the Pyrenees to learn more about making cheese. But there's a lot of trial and error, instinct and elbow grease between the lines as well. The payback is so much more than delicious milk and cheese -- the author sees his own language through a new lens, as it was formed by herders in ancient Greece. The cheeses he learns to make in France are called tomes, which means volume or book. His entire existence is deepened. He is more at home in the world.
"I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto," writes Novella Carpenter in "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer." Carpenter and herboyfriend, Bill, rent an apartment in Oakland in a neighborhood known as GhostTown. They plant a garden; raise bees, ducks, turkeys, chickens, geese, rabbits and finally pigs on the 4,500-square-foot lot out back. "Some might say I had been swept up by the Bay Area's mantra, repeated ad nauseam, to eat fresh, local, free-range critters. . . . But as a poor scrounger with three low-paying jobs and no health insurance, I usually couldn't afford the good stuff." Novella and Bill do scavenge Dumpsters for food. Their neighborhood is full of stealth growers (handmade signs advertise produce for sale with names like City Slicker Farms). Families house impromptu restaurants that serve neighbors and local homeless people.
There's plenty of urban grit. The neighboring lot is an automotive shop complete with fences and junkyard dogs. Carpenter is threatened one day by a group of teenage thugs with a gun. The homeless man who lives down the street in his car is hauled off by the police one day, his possessions scattered. Carpenter realizes she's not the best neighbor -- her animals smell so bad that the little girl next door almost vomits; her chickens wander unannounced into neighbors' houses. Only the questionable safety of the neighborhood prevents Carpenter's garden from being sold and developed. But the garden is bountiful. Carpenter makes a vow to eat only from her own garden during July's warmth, a pledge, she writes, that is a little like "a mute person taking the vow of silence at a Vipasana-meditation retreat."
These are lighthearted, hopeful books. Reading them one can almost imagine an American landscape of linked communities, rural and urban, eating locally grown food, trading in farmers markets. It's a far cry from the multi-mile farms, surrounded by pesticide-neutered soil, highways stretching out for hours, trucks spitting fumes racing to cities and food distribution networks. So often, visions seem unattainable. Kessler and Carpenter, with their humor and their step-by-step clarity, make it seem utterly possible to grow the kind of food you want to eat, wherever you live. It's not about politics anymore. You don't have to go back to the land. You're already there.
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.