Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
“I plucked different things from different people. For humor and honesty, I looked to Mary Karr’s memoirs, all of them. For the ability to write a true sentence, I love Joan Didion. For writing about farming and rural life, there’s Verlyn Klinkenborg.”
“Kristin Kimball is a farmer.” That’s how her author bio begins. True enough: She and her husband, Mark, run Essex Farm in Essex, N.Y., which produces a full year-round diet for its 150 local members. She is also one of the only farmers ever to describe a cow thus: “She was an interesting-looking cow, dark brown with a beautiful streak of white in her shaggy forelock that made me think of Susan Sontag.”
Kimball’s superb memoir, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, reconciles these extremes, recounting how this Harvard grad went from being a serial-dating, bar-hopping Manhattan freelancer to a married mother living way upstate who gets up to milk the cow at the same hour when East Village dive bars close.
What happened? She met a guy. Which means that this book could have been a cutesy, Green Acres thing. It isn’t. It is a clear-eyed, unflinching story whose happy ending—after fights, doubts, weeds, poverty, and gulag-like toil—feels well earned.
Great stories happen to those who can tell them, as the saying goes. Here’s proof. Kimball takes her promising raw material beyond interesting to funny, moving, and exquisitely written. Moreover, her personal tale acquires public relevance by making real and vivid a solution to our broken food system: restoring small farms, and in so doing the communities they serve.
In other words, you loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma—now read this.
How did the book come about?
The original idea was eight or nine years ago, when I wanted to write about young people getting into farming. That’s why I interviewed Mark. When we started the farm, I put it aside for three years because there was no time.
When I picked it back up, it was a different story—more personal. I’d married it.
The action starts in 2003. Did you take notes over time and write later?
I kept notes as I could. I wrote a weekly farm newsletter for the members, which became a handy record of events for the book.
In the writing, what came easy and what came hard?
None of it came easy; I’m not that kind of writer.
In a quiet, unassuming way, the book offers wonderful poetic touches, as when you describe “the hard white purse” of a newly slaughtered pig’s stomach. Words and punctuation feel chosen with great care. Do you have to sweat for your figurative language, or does it come?
If I have a gift as a writer, that’s it. I’ve always loved words, cared about them and paid attention to them.
Who and/or what were your models?
I plucked different things from different people. For humor and honesty, I looked to Mary Karr’s memoirs, all of them. For the ability to write a true sentence, I love Joan Didion. For writing about farming and rural life, there’s Verlyn Klinkenborg; I love the texture of his language.
What was your “process?”
I would start really early: Leave at 4 a.m. to go down the road to the volunteer fire department, where I had a desk. It was my island of calm. I’d write from 4 to 7, then go home to get our daughter up and dressed. I forced myself; I had to think of procrastination as alcohol to an alcoholic.
How and how much was the book edited?
The biggest note from editors and myself was, Stick to the farm. The first draft had more stuff about New York and the Essex community. I realized that those things were spokes; the farm was the hub. The structure came last. I’d resisted the seasonal organization, thinking it was cliché, but it worked really neatly.
How was writing this book different from freelancing for magazines and guidebooks?
With those things, I was aware of the audience. Writing the book, I would forget that anyone would ever read it. People find this hard to believe, but there was a real moment of surprise and fear when I realized other people were going to read it. I’m more nervous about what our Amish friends think about it than about anyone.
Is that why you write so candidly? You rigorously include the dark sides: the difficulty of your relationship with Mark, the relentlessness of farming, the ugly sides of the local community.
That’s one reason. The other is that I knew what I wanted to get across: farming is beautiful and brutal, romantic and hard, all at once.
Bill McKibben blurbed your book, and his blurb mentions Wendell Berry. How much do you feel part of a movement toward relocalizing farming and food?
I’m a farmer first, and I definitely feel part of the sustainable agriculture community. I’d love to be lumped in with those two names, but I’m not there yet!
Writing is a solitary activity; I don’t talk about it too much. But farming I talk about all the time. That’s more my identity right now.
One point the book makes is just how far, and how suddenly, we’ve wrenched ourselves away from how humans have thought and lived for most of our existence.
Historically, most of our time was spent acquiring, producing, and/or storing food. Maybe there’s something hard-wired that makes that work satisfying to us now. It certainly felt right to me. It clicked. It’s curious that we’re so far away from it, that what Mark and I are doing is such a novelty.
In the years since we started, the story has resonated more and more. I certainly feel that food is big enough to be at the center of one’s life, despite people thinking it’s not sophisticated or complex. It’s not only okay, it’s good.
When you met Mark, a Swarthmore grad, you learned that he owned neither a radio nor a television, and that he was probably one of the last people in the country to learn about 9/11. This opting-out of the postmodern media-saturated world then informs your life together on the farm. The book makes it extremely appealing. But do you worry that it’s also a cop-out?
It’s opting out of the noise, the chatter—which is such a relief—and in to being more connected to our neighbors. I know less about day-to-day events in Pakistan, but more about the local community, and I can have more of an effect on it. I’ve never felt isolated. A small town won’t let you, especially if you’re a farmer.
Because of the book I’ve started “twittering.” It feels strange. We’ll see.
You write that you were a vegetarian for several years, then started eating meat when you met Mark and started farming. You don’t mention any dilemma or difficulty switching; did you just not put it in the book?
I was a vegetarian because I couldn’t see that part of the food system, and I had a strong feeling that it was broken. When I could see it before my eyes, see that our animals had a good life and a respectable death, I was totally comfortable.
Lastly and most importantly, describing your New York days you mention frequenting a Mexican place on the Lower East Side that served margaritas to-go in styrofoam cups. In the spirit of “service journalism,” what is it?
No idea of the real name. We called it The Hat. I’ll have to get back to you. [Editor's note: it's called, El Sombrero.]
Any other projects in the works?
I have two ideas I’m exploring. One is a book about food, with recipes. The other is a book about Essex Farm as it has matured, sort of The Dirty Life II.
Finally, Kristin Kimball, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Left city for farm. Found satisfaction.
Edward Lovett is a writer, tutor, and jazz crooner. He lives in Brooklyn.
BUY The Dirty Life.
VISIT Kimball’s website.
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