If you’re an organic gardener, you must have heard of Eliot Coleman. You’ve probably read some of his books: Four-Season Harvest or The New Organic Grower. I confess that I haven’t. Yet. But that didn’t diminish my excitement at finding a memoir written by his daughter, Melissa Coleman. In 2011, she published This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone.
This poetic book tells the story of the Coleman family as they work to establish a homestead on a remote farm in Maine in the late 60’s and early 70’s. After being sold sixty acres owned by homesteading legends Helen and Scott Nearing, they set to work clearing trees, building a house, and giving birth to their first child, right there in their new home. In her book, Melissa Coleman recounts the goings-on of the farm as she experienced them as a young girl: her joy at running barefoot–and naked–through the woods, her puzzlement when Papa carried off a newborn billy goat and came back empty-handed, her frustration at not getting enough of her father’s attention and taking it out on the things that did: his precious flats of seedlings. She also speculates about the inner lives of her parents: what drove them to take on the challenge of homesteading, what kept them at it, and what ultimately drove them apart.
At first glance, the title of the book–This Life Is in Your Hands–seems to refer to the accidental death of Melissa’s younger sister, Heidi, who drowned while trying to float a toy boat in the farm pond. But I wonder if it doesn’t also allude to Melissa’s own feeling of sometimes-neglect. Her feeling that neither she nor her mother came first in her father’s eyes. It was always the garden. And yet there is no bitterness in Melissa’s voice as she tells the story. There’s a great deal of sympathy, and appreciation for a childhood full of freedom and the outdoors. It gives the impression that this just might be a very honest, balanced account of what growing up on this particular homestead was like.
I heartily recommend it.