A good friend of mine who is a backyard beekeeper in Oakland invited me a couple of weeks ago to meet his fellow urban farmer Novella Carpenter for a reading of her new book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Novella has taken the art of urban farming to a whole new level by not only growing veggies galore but raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and a couple of hogs, squatting on a vacant lot in downtown Oakland. She is one of those people who has "Yes We Can" programmed into her DNA, and in true American pioneering spirit she is setting a great example of how we can ween ourselves off the corporate controlled food chain. Aside from being a radical yet down to earth farmer with a wonderful sense of humor, she is also a ridiculously talented writer, so I thought I'd whet everyone's appetite with this review...
There are people — in fact, the vast majority of Homo sapiens — who see and define their existence through the lens of what they do: Teachers, bus drivers, nurses, architects, accountants, and any number of professionals whose modus operandi is collectively understood and agreed upon. Then there are those who teeter along the edges of known and accepted ways of existence, their divine operating systems not quite programmed for vocational compatibility. Some of these unique characters, after juggling their ingenuity across the crevasse of socially accepted activity without tangible reward, settle for a real job. Others stay on the rope too long and fall into the glacier of oblivion, their contributions deemed unfit for intellectual or material recognition. A third category is comprised of those rare, bold and mischievous contemporaries who raise chickens, turkeys and pigs on a vacant inner city lot and call themselves Urban Farmer. Enter Novella Carpenter.
Raised in rural Idaho by back to the land parents, Novella and her co-conspirator boyfriend Bill decide to settle on the wrong side of the BART tracks in a rough neighborhood just south of downtown Oakland, called Ghost Town. Barely ten pages into the book, the author’s reasons for picking Oakland had me almost lose my frothy adult beverage for the first time:
Portland (too perfect). Austin (too in the middle of Texas). New Orleans (too hot). Brooklyn (too little recycling). Philly and Chicago (too cold).
Picking a shaggy apartment in a crime-ridden and economically depressed hood over, say, a nice refurbished Craftsman home with a well-kept backyard in Portland speaks volumes about the author’s predisposition and sets the tone for the entire book. While Novella, unlike most of her adopted neighborhood’s residents, lands in Ghost Town via free will, there is not a single moment throughout these wildly entertaining 276 pages where one is left feeling that this is a setup. Unlike the embedded reporter who gets her shocking and ratings-boosting story from the war-zone and then goes home to picket fences and flat screen TV’s, Novella’s shoot from the hip humor and authentic passion for all things living around her — be they of human, animal, or plant origin — leaves no doubt that this is not a "write and run" piece of journalism, but rather a deeply personal and spiritual (though she would probably balk at that description — sounds too hippie) discovery of her own paradise on Earth: The fertile little cracks in the spaces between urban decay and human resilience.
Disclaimer: I used to work in a meat processing plant in Germany, for a couple of summers. I hung sausages, threw pig heads into vats of blood, salted rumps, and extracted intestines. I didn’t like it. It’s why I worked twice as hard to make it through high school and to college. After fifteen years of vegetarianism I eat meat again. While I love the concept of growing and raising your own sustenance, when it comes to pulled pork and prosciutto I will happily defer to the hog farmers and butchers of the world. As Novella was killing the turkey in the book, I sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
What makes this book so gripping and addictive is the matter of factness with which the story evolves. You know, like, the turkeys (Harold and Maude) are hungry and we’re broke, so let’s see what we can find in the Chinatown dumpsters. It’s as if the protagonists are just doing what anyone would do in their situation, had we been crazy enough to get ourselves into it by inviting turkeys, chickens and a beehive into our urban backyard. It’s the magic in the mundane that makes our jaw drop with incredulity at this very logical, age-old, and really, very biologically correct way of feeding the cycle of life.
But she’s in the city, for crying out loud, there’s something in her DNA that makes her different from the rest of us mere mortals!
Well, just look at how our grandparents did it back in the day. Or go travel anywhere in a developing country, and the sight of cows and water buffalo and any other creature under the sun running around busy city streets elicits no more than a yawn, with the occasional elegant swerve to avoid collision.
Judging by my own — and I would posit from initial reviews and feedback, most readers’ — reaction to Farm City, I’m thinking that we have it all backwards anyway, that it is we in the so-called developed world who are in need of some developing: developing our sense of soil, nourishment, and community. And Novella’s education as an urban farmer shows that this doesn’t need to be done in a guilt-trippy, proselytizing way. In fact, some of my favorite passages in the whole book are the author’s hilarious smackdowns of the self-righteous — noble as the cause may be — finger-wagging that sometimes accompanies our Western interpretations of ancient wisdom. Here is a particularly uproarious gem: (sorry Yoga people ;-) )
Yoga people have been telling me for years that I should give up coffee, that it’s full of toxins and other bad things. But when they suggest that I should stop drinking coffee, I want to tell them maybe they should saw off their legs.
Delivered with irreverent gusto and a hyper-alert bullshit (pun intended) detector, Novella’s radical message is that aside from the great taste and some of the larger global implications of keeping our food sources local and fresh, it’s actually loads of fun to grow veggies in your backyard, keep bees and raise turkeys, then share the delectable fruits of this labor of love with friends and neighbors. While it may not be everyone’s "gateway drug" to 300-pound hogs and home-made salami it’s a great way to debunk the conventional wisdom that the origin of food production is so complex that it needs to be in the hands of engineers in far away factories, and to reacquaint ourselves with the most basic, important, and timeless of all human activity: eating!
Farm City is a tour de force of unadulterated American pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, a beautifully subversive dumpster-diving squat and- slopfest of ravenous (pro)portions. The founding mothers and fathers would be proud to see that gigantic middle finger flying in the face of the tightly controlled empire of industrialized agriculture whose profit-driven motive is to keep We The People removed from our food source, wandering like lost lemmings in supermarket aisles full of shiny prepackaged foodomercials. Novella Carpenter’s voice is refreshingly new for some and profoundly ancient for others, but from her own perspective she’s just a hungry gal jonesing for tasty food, determined to let her belly do the talking.
Check out Novella’s GhostTown Farm blog.
Cross-posted at Sven's World of Words