Thursday, March 11, 2010

Greeeeen Acres (NOT!)

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
by Novella Carpenter

I'm interested in gardening. I really am. At least, I enjoy reading about it, and watching the fruits of others' labors. It pains me that I never get around to actually planting and tending anything. It's not an aversion, really, just lack of time. I will also admit to a certain intimidation. Other people seem to know exactly what to do to make something grow (or at least survive), whereas I have no clue. Would my thumb be green? Purple? Gray (the color of death in apocalyptic literature). I am a wee bit chicken to find out. I do have a philodendron plant that I have kept alive for about 19 years, but it is almost impossible to kill a philodendron.

Novella Carpenter is a gardening rock star. She has managed to grow a vegetable garden in the middle of the grittiest, grubbiest part of downtown Oakland, California. Without being all self-righteous about it, she has used her produce to eat healthier herself as well as provide fresh vegetables for neighbors who do not have easy access to produce. In addition to the gardening, she has raised turkeys, chickens, rabbits, and pigs (although not all at the same time). She is on to something, I am convinced. There is something about raising food and animals that brings people together. The vegetables alone are important for their nutritional value. However, Carpenter's descriptions of neighborhood children coming over to see the rabbits (some of whom had never seen a live animal, let alone held one) and volunteering to help weed the garden are what really grabbed me about this book. She is able to show us the power of community and the difference that a small scale effort like this can make in the lives of kids and adults alike.

If you liked other non-fiction bestsellers like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or The Omnivore's Dilemma, you will enjoy Farm City. Carpenter's descriptions of some of the neighborhood characters are both touching and hilarious, and the reader can tell that she genuinely cares about both a healthy food supply and the urban poor (and the latter having access to the former). Lots of us have sincere concerns for people living in poverty and in places that are unsafe and that carry the tinge of hopelessness. It is a much smaller number of people who actually will go and live there and structure their own life in a way that makes an ongoing, tangible difference for them. Granted, Carpenter is getting something out of the relationship as well. She is a self described child of hippies, and leans pretty far into hippiedom herself. I doubt that she sees her lifestyle as especially sacrificial - she is where she wants to be. Her story of urban farming helps us to see that there are lots of ways for us to engage with our neighbors. Urban farming is not for everyone, but it is one way to build community and provide a path to healthier living. Good for her.

Plus, Farm City is flat out a good story. Carpenter is a wry writer with a good dose of the ability to laugh at herself. She takes her mission seriously without taking herself too seriously, and that is always refreshing. Who knows? Maybe this is the year I will plant some tomatoes.

Reverent Reader


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