There are not many books I’ve read more than once. My appetite for the written word is voracious–my loved ones might say insatiable–but it’s almost always focused on tantalizing new territory. Fortunately, this is not as much of a vice in reading as it would be in other spheres of life. But every now and then, a book comes along that inspires in me a brief period of literary monogamy. Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love is one of those.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Kimball’s story began in New York City, the same metropolis in which I once languished for four years, yearning to get out of my Ph.D. program and onto a farm. I had many of the same sentiments as her future husband, an established farmer who, upon his visits to her in the city, was unimpressed by the standard attractions of fashionable bars and boutiques. Neither was he thrilled by the restaurants, considering the prices “offensive when the food in his trailer [on the farm] was generally better.” He usually ended up banging around her apartment like a caged animal, which reminded me of days I had similarly complained, “There’s nothing to do in this city!” Not if what you wanted was to put your hands in the dirt and grow something. I was already in love with Kimball’s husband, and we were still in the first chapter.
Obviously, Kimball’s farmer convinced her to leave the city. Though if she had had some farming experience herself, she might not have been so easily persuaded by his harebrained scheme to start, from scratch, a CSA providing not only the vegetables that he had years of experience growing but every other major element of a family’s diet, including dairy, eggs, meats, grains, and flours. They attempted all of this in their very first year on a new spread in upstate New York. But every great story gives its protagonist an impossible goal. Did I mention they decided to do all this with horse-drawn equipment?
Suffice it to say that the learning curve was incredibly steep. In the first months, there were smashed fences, escaped pigs, blinding blizzards, infected cow’s ears. But, said Kimball, “[a]s long as I could pretend I was some kind of exchange student, destined, eventually, to return to my native land, I was fine.” They bought a pair of Belgian geldings, attended an auction of Amish farm equipment, and when spring arrived were off to the furrows.
“I had never in my life been so dirty,” writes Kimball. “I had daily intimacy not just with dirt dirt but with blood, manure, milk, pus, my own sweat and the sweat of other creatures, with the grease of engines and the grease of animals, with innards, with all the stages of decomposition.” At the end of an exhausting spring day, she sometimes couldn’t even summon the energy to bathe, “with the unheated bathroom so far from the woodstove and the morning milking so near.” Romance was reduced to the “brief moment between bed and sleep [when] we’d touch our fingertips together, an act we cynically called farmer love.”
Nevertheless, love permeates the pages of Kimball’s book. It’s a raw, earthy sort of love, not just for her human companion but for every snorting, neighing, clucking, bucking member of the farm. And there is a pervading sensuality as well. Kristen Kimball is the only writer I know to have made milk sound sexy. “Milk as it comes from the cow is a warm, sugary, proteinaceous substance,” she writes. And then goes on to describe how, if you “leave good, clean raw milk from a healthy cow in a warm place, the ‘wild’ bacteria in it will cause it to solidify into something that’s always interesting and almost always edible.”
Kimball’s story is fascinating in its wide-ranging subject matter–capable of amusing and intriguing both wannabe farmers and veterans–but it’s ultimately the prose that keeps me coming back. It’s not overwrought or self-conscious. It’s like sitting down at the kitchen table of Kimball’s farmhouse and hearing straight from her (very articulate) heart. When an acquaintance bought a piece of property nearby and told Kimball that in his retirement he wanted to be a “simple farmer” and find “tranquility,” she mused, “What you really want is a garden…. A very, very small one.” According to her, “tranquil and simple are two things farming is not. Nor is it lucrative, stable, safe, or easy. Sometimes the work is enough to make you weep. But most days I wake up grateful that I found it–tripped over it, really–and that I’m married to someone who feels the same way.”
Whether or not Kimball’s book convinces you of your own fitness for the dirty life (and it might!), reading it will give you an authentic but nevertheless inspiring portrait of what it’s like to be an idealistic, first-year farmer head over heels in mud.