The Dirty Life:
A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love
Reviewed by Tyler Eckel
Like clean living? Read The Dirty Life. It begins with the author, having reached the plateau of her career as a travel scribe kid at the age of 30, handling and reveling in the intense culture of New York and cocktail parties the world over. She was wondering whether this had become her life forever, whether there was more to it than keeping ahead of the game of the machinery of the city, whether her relationships would continue being the humdrum exchange of one eccentric for another. Then, on a writing assignment about young organic farmers, she met the most eccentric of the eccentrics she’d met, her now-husband Mark. Tall, strong as an ox (or a farmer), and with inexhaustible energy, she knew instantly and instinctually he was a man who could provide for her needs come hell or high water. After a whirlwind courtship they were engaged and the two set off to start their own farm.
The Dirty Life kept my attention rapt in two fell swoops of reading. I stayed up half the night when I began it and only stopped because I had to get at least some shut eye before work the next morning. The second half I read on a cozy afternoon and rather luxuriated over the passages, letting them collect in pools on my mind’s tongue to sweetly thicken in their evaporated condensation. Whether you enjoy it by the wide-eyed electricity of the midnight lamp or in the flickering translucence of a fire, I suggest you read this book. I suggest it to those who enjoy travel writing, which the author cut and sharpened her teeth on before her head long dive into farming. I suggest it to those who have worked on farms, as I’ve done, because you’ll relate to it. I suggest it to those who work hard and appreciate the comedy necessary to keep sane during the hiccoughs in the routine. I suggest it for anyone considering farming as a career, a dose of reality against romanticism. And I suggest it to anyone who likes good writing and a good story – because this is both.
Not including prologue, which makes me smile every returning read, nor a nice addendum of recipes from Kristin and Mark Kimball’s Essex Farm that give good tips for how tasty farm-fresh food can get, the book is divided in five sections, the first described above. The next four are the rooting-in and blossoming of the seed of the first. Creating a farm from scratch is a long and laborious process and we get to see it from the inside out—the searching and waiting for land, the unpleasant reality that not all land is arable, the reconstruction of moldering outbuildings and barns. And that’s just for starters. Then come the animals, the maintenance of tools, the planning for crops. And after more animals and more maintenance and more days of hanging by fingernails to the grainy edge of sanity’s ledges comes the rush to prepare, plant, and service vegetation in ground that wants nothing to do with husbandry and everything to do with the voracious wilderness anyplace is without the constant, consistent guiding hand of humans.
This book is about work. The Dirty Life is about work and the calm triumph that comes from sating on the fruit that grows in the infinite field of toil to cultivate. This book is about humanity and the essence we boil down to in the pan of labor. It’s about farm animals and caring for them as intelligent beings. It’s about food and how darn good it is to taste the sweat of your brow on your plate. Mrs. Kimball brings to the table the ability to tell a story plainly, keep an even pace, and to provide insightful sidebars of comedy and human interest. She is open-faced about the struggle of growing a relationship with her husband in the ground of whirlwind courtship and like two plants grafted together at times seemingly by something outside their wills, open-faced about her doubts and fears about the responsibility of sticking to one place and making it work as a consummate home because it’s a farm. Having read her memoir I feel like I’ve met a new friend and hope someday to visit and volunteer on the Kimball’s upstate New York Essex Farm (because one can’t simply tour a farm, one must be put to work, for there is work to do!). And I look forward to the next installment of their story sure to come in the long and hard-won future.
There is a story in the last part of the book’s Spring section about the birth of a heifer calf. Newly minted in the press of entrance into the world:
“[h]er focus seemed to shift between this new world and the quiet within. She was still only tenuously connected to our side, to light and time, air and gravity. At births, I find that it’s this, and not the slip and splash of delivery, that gives us a glimpse of mystery. Newly born creatures carry the great calm of the Before with them, for minutes or hours, and when you are close to it, you can feel it, too.”
Making our way in this world by wisdom and labor, we humans seem need always be present to whence we, and they, have come, without a connection to which our toil can quickly become vain and unnecessary. There is good work to do. And by the grace of The Almighty, and the machination’s set in place in this space and time, I can hope, as I’ve been given inclination to do after reading The Dirty Life, that I put as much gusto and guts into doing it as Mrs. and Mr. Kimball have put into theirs, a good work indeed.