It’s not exactly what you’d call a pastoral idyll. “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto,” deadpans Novella Carpenter. But she’s not kidding. Ten blocks from downtown Oakland, Calif., the peeps and thumps of Carpenter’s livestock compete with shrieks from car alarms, her chicken coop leans against an auto repair shop, and the scent of honey from her beehives mingles with exhaust from the freeway.
Then she adds pigs. “This image of me as Ye Olde Swineherder,” she writes in Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, her scrappy, hilarious, horrifying, yet ultimately thoughtful memoir, “while affirming that urban farming in America was a reality, also confirmed something else: I was indeed a bit nuts.”
As a writer, Carpenter never fails to take a humorous swing at herself. She looks a bit ridiculous and she knows it. The child of hippie parents, she took a joint degree in English and biology in college, only to eventually find herself dreaming of life as a farmer. But her parents had already tried a back-to-the-land lifestyle in Idaho when she was a child and she knew firsthand of the drudgery and isolation that can come with rural living.
So Carpenter turned to the city. With dumpsters full of discarded food and plenty of human companionship, she reasoned, urban life might offer an easier path to self-sufficiency. She started with a garden in a scruffy vacant lot (pumpkins, herbs, and artichokes, surrounded by apple, lemon, and fig trees), then moved on to poultry (chickens, ducks, and turkey) and rabbits. Finally she ends up with a pair of plump pigs. (The pigs supply large doses of both the hilarity and the horror in this story.)
The hardest part of the whole thing (for both Carpenter and the reader) is the knowledge that her animals will someday be served as dinner. Much of “Farm City,” in fact, is about Carpenter’s angst over the need to become a butcher. But she feels she must. “How many people would eat meat if they had to kill it themselves?” she wonders. In her case, she decides, if she eats it, she must kill it.
(Warning to the faint of heart: Some animals do get harmed in the telling of this story. As a reader I spent the first half of the book convinced that she couldn’t really do it, but she can and – for the most part – she does.)
However, Carpenter’s tales of urban agriculture are not confined to bloodshed. She takes us through the full range of her experience – her sometimes shaky relations with neighbors and landlord, her pangs of hunger as she tries to live solely on her own produce, and the impact of her experiment on her relations with those she loves, including her mostly supportive boyfriend Bill, her one-time farmer mother, and her expat sister who has traded Los Angeles and an SUV for her own back-to-basics experiment in France.
Carpenter exercises her dry wit on pretty much everyone around her – herself included. She may be serious about urban farming, but she keeps earnestness at bay with self-awareness and an edgy sense of humor. When she goes to a neighborhood barbecue, she notes that “everyone at the party is on some kind of Bay Area diet kick anyway. The gluten-intolerant munched on ears of corn in the corner. The vegans had their own grill set up with toasting tofu. The raw-food vegans were sipping on freshly macheted green coconuts. The pescadarians were shoving ceviche into their faces. Defining ourselves by what we eat – that’s what we do for fun around here.”
But if Carpenter recognizes that the extremes of self-conscious eating are ridiculous, she also knows that at the core of it lies something more substantial. In many ways, what she’s writing about is mindfulness. At the grocery store, it is only too easy to fill our carts without evoking either awe or gratitude. But when Carpenter sets her table from her own backyard, she is rich in both.
(One of the book’s most interesting interactions is Carpenter’s friendship with the high-end chef whose dumpster she raids to feed her pigs and the bond of respect they form based on their mutual appreciation for the art of raising and curing meat.)
“When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts,” Carpenter quotes from food writer M.K. Fisher. Even those of us who would run screaming from the sight of Carpenter swinging a hatchet can agree with – and admire – her here.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.