Sunday, July 12, 2009

Farm in town

Portland, July 10—

I DON'T KNOW WHEN I've enjoyed meeting a new writer so much. Novella Carpenter's book Farm City is a complete success on so many levels. Carpenter's a born writer: fast and accurate eyes, ears, fingers; well-read; a great sense of prose rhythm and structural rhythm; smart and sassy. Her book is very funny, talks straight, and gathers as it goes.

She started gardening on a vacant lot in Oakland, California, thankful for the benign climate after moving down from Seattle, and one thing led to another. The progression's outlined in the titles of the three sections of this book: Turkeys. Rabbits. Pigs.

With livestock, and one other thing, a garden moves into a farm. Not effortlessly: the effort's a big part of the story. But, apparently, inevitably. The one other thing is transactions: it's not really a farm until the produce leaves the property. One gardens for one's own self and famiily; one farms for others, for barter or possibly profit.

Or, perhaps, out of a kind of mania, a benign mania, an obsession with the ethic of Right Living. Her story unfolds artfully and easily in this oddly graceful book, graceful in spite of plain language my grandmother would have found quite offensive. One of the themes of the book is the author's relationship with her mother, a hippie who'd dropped out with her boyfriend and lived the country life a few years. Novella Carpenter hadn't planned on following those footsteps at all, but early influences are deep.

Another theme is the unlikely setting of this city farm: the Oakland "ghetto." The reader meets dopers, Buddhist monks, the homeless, and poor folks of various ethnic backgrounds just getting by. There are times this book makes you think of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row or Robert Nathan's One More Spring: there's the same curious optimism, even light-heartedness, that can emerge from urban poverty, which develops its own community, even courtesy and mutual assistance.

I read this morning in Robert Reich's blog that there will be no recovery from the present recession will never come:
All we know is the current economy can't "recover" because it can't go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin.
Part of the new economy will undoubtedly look like what Carpenter develops on her urban farm. I see this already in my own family: a son with a feed store, raising cattle, helping his community with lumbering and such; a daughter whose neighbors are trading vegetables and raising chickens.

The best thing about Farm City is precisely this optimism growing out of despair, the strength of human competence when the cultural assumptions that have made so much go wrong are simply ignored or circumvented. It's all so damn reasonable, raising chickens and rabbits and carrots and beans, getting on with basic matters and ignoring commercial snares and temptations.

The next best things about the book are its boundless humor and teeming texture. There's so much happening in this life, so many details, so much to interest us, to intrigue the eye that suddenly observes an unexpected or incongruous detail. Carpenter celebrates urban life while reclaiming it for daily pleasures.

The reader gets the feeling that she has grown, matured, and achieved a kind of grace not only from her farming but also from her writing. The final chapters are quite moving: she observes the workings of a Berkeley restaurant which, earlier in the book, she might have written off as simply precious.
Maybe I've read too much Anthony Bourdain, but I had imagined that the back of a restaurant would be a crude, uncivilized place. I expected to get groped, not high-fived. Everyone who passed through this kitchen seemed intelligent and kind.
Vegetarians will likely be unhappy with Farm City. The education of Novella Carpenter, as an urban farmer but beyond that too, involved her coming to terms with the necessary killing of the meat she eats. She's not unrespectful of vegetarians; she describes a number of encounters with them in perfectly sympathetic terms. But it is not her way, and it has not been the normal way of human activity. A critical part of her book, a running theme, concerns the conscious, conscientious address to the ethical problem of killing and eating animals.

I think it's the focus, respect, and dedication she finds in Christopher Lee's kitchen that finally nails down these ethical questions.
In his book About Looking, John Berger wrote, "A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an 'and' and not by a 'but'." I felt well on my way to peasantdom. But I needed Chris to teach me more…
Chris did indeed teach her more. I myself know Chris Lee well enough to know how remarkably well Novella Carpenter observes, grasps, understands, and describes him: it isn't easy to capture the looks, sound, and character of a living person this accurately and sympathetically.

But the thing is, Novella Carpenter is patient, well read, and thoughtful. She gardens her mind and history the way she farms, with the kind of passion that springs as much from dedication as desire. She writes, toward the end of her book,
While rooting around the history of prosciutto making, I had stumbled upon this quote from Pliny the Elder… about Epicurus, the famous Greek hedonist: "That connoisseur in the enjoyment of life of ease was the first to lay out a garden at Athens; up to his time it had never been though of to dwell in the country in the middle of town." … That an urban farmer existed before Christ made me feel like I was—that we all were—merely repeating the same motions that all humans had gone through, that nothing was truly new. This insight gave me a sense of peace.
Epicurus of course was no mere hedonist; he was a philosopher, profound because realistically involved with the pleasures and problems of daily life. Novella Carpenter is much the same.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
By Novella Carpenter.
276 pages. The Penguin Press. $25.95.


samin said...

hi charles,
what a funny world: i'm trying to track you down to ask a question about hawaii and here you are reviewing novella's book!

i'd like to teach some canning and cooking classes in honolulu this fall. i have a gig at the u of h arboretum, but would like to do you have any contacts, or could you pass fritz's info to me so i could ask him for help?


Christopher Lee said...

Hi Charles, I forwarded this to Novella, who deeply appreciated it, not as a compliment to her but as an informed, thoughtful review. You know, what always struck me about Panisse is the erudition of the people who peopled it. You embody it here (typos aside). I agree wholly with your opening sentence. Novella has done a good thing, and we all hope she will triumph with her terrific, enchanting, funny book. best, chris lee

Curtis Faville said...

Perhaps the perfection of the palate, or of the table, is among the highest of refinements.

Perhaps refinement is a bad word.


I'm still waiting for that defense of gastronomy you promised a few weeks back.

Charles Shere said...

I'll get to it, Curtis, I promise; I've been traveling, and won't be home working again until Monday…

John Whiting said...

"Part of the new economy will undoubtedly look like what Carpenter develops on her urban farm."

The sobering condition is that the new economy must include a social stability that permits such farms to exist. In the face of economic collapse, such a stability is by no means a certainty. In other words, swords as well as plowshares may be required.

Jeanne said...

I loved this book, too! Well written and funny. And so quirky. I want to visit Ghosttown farm and see everything she's created.

Also, your review is so lovely and spot-on. A joy to read.