Periodically, while reading The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, a book which I loved, I found myself thinking about Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book I hated for its solipsism. The protagonists in each book are both writers, living the Yuppie life. Their paths diverged with Elizabeth Gilbert ending up as a famous author while Kristin Kimball, in an unbelievable life shift, becomes a farmer now helping to produce food for more than 200 families from a 600 acre farm in Essex, New York.
I’ll return in a minute as to why I think The Dirty Life is way more interesting and inspiring than Eat, Pray, Love. First, here’s Kristin Kimball’s story in brief:
A Harvard grad and NYC free lance writer, living the cafe life, dating a variety of NYC characters, feels a tingling to have a “home.” She visits a farmer named Mark, a tall, good-looking fellow with a Swarthmore degree, to interview him for an article on young farmers. Mark is busy and puts her to work. At the same time Mark, an impetuous fellow, decides that Kristin is the woman he must marry. From here the book spins out the details of their unlikely romance, Mark’s ability as a farmer/salesman, Kristin’s unexpected decision to give up NYC and join Mark in his quest for a farm, their stormy partnership and the struggles of their first farm year told season by season culminating in their chaotic wedding. Along the way we learn much about driving teams, animal husbandry, sugaring, pigs, milking, plowing, butchering and other subjects that make up a dirty life.
Mark had an unbelievably ambitious vision. He wanted to provide a full service CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). That is, he wanted to provide his members with all of their food: meat, foul, dairy products, vegetables, sweeteners (maple syrup) and even firewood. More than that, he didn’t want to limit his members but to let them have as much as they wanted, to encourage them to put food by. In addition, he wanted to farm using old methods, primarily with teams of horses.
Fast forward and check out their website which reports that they now have 222 members who pay approximately $3000 per year each for the privilege of sharing in the bounty. Essex Farm has nine draft horses, a few tractors and ten employees.
I’ve read a lot of back to the land memoirs in the last few years and this is the best one. The lesson is clear. The work is hard. The work is unrelenting. The work is satisfying. Clearly, the world needs more Mark Kimballs (who took his wife’s last name when they got married as she didn’t want to change hers). He comes across as idealistic, super energetic, charismatic, dogmatic, relentless, likable, visionary and invincible. We need to clone this guy.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert gives up home to find herself. I don’t know if she did or not because I couldn’t finish the book. The fact that Eat, Pray, Love resonated with so many people disturbs me. My inspiration these days comes from people like Kristin and Mark who actually do things rather than just think about them and write about them. By way of comparison with Ms. Gilbert, in The Dirty Life Kristin Kimball gives up finding herself for a home and, in the end, offers a simple paragraph of explanation:
And this is the place where I’m supposed to tell you what I’ve learned. Here’s the best I can do: a bowl of beans, rest for tired bones. These things are reasonable roots for a life, not just its window dressing. They have comforted our species for all time, and for happiness sake, they should not slip beneath our notice. Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your bones while growing the beans, so much the better.
Mark and Kristin have recreated an early twentieth century subsistence farm. Though it might seem unusual, the fact is that this type of farm operation was ubiquitous only two generations ago. Just over fifty years ago I was able to spend time on my own grandparents farm where they plowed with mules and produced virtually everything they needed and traded for what the couldn’t grow or raise. Two generations later many skills have been lost or gone dormant.
It’s comforting to know that here and there young people are working it out, getting down with the dirty life. (Julia Roberts would be good as Kristin Kimball in the film version).