Jane Ciabattari on the Delights of the Rural Life
Posted on Jul 9, 2009
As Alice Waters hovers in the wings as a muse for the Obama era, inspiring the White House garden and healthy school lunches, the fantasy of a pastoral life far from derivatives and emissions and other excreta of our times abounds. Right on track are these two memoirs—journalist Jonah Raskin’s “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California,” an account of organic farming in Sonoma County, and novelist Brad Kessler’s “Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese,” a chronicle of learning to raise goats and make cheese on a farm in Vermont. Each provides vicarious and delicious adventures for those of us more likely to buy locally at farm stands or plant a garden patch than respond to the call of the land at full bore.
In the process of writing these memoirs, both Raskin and Kessler made drastic shifts in daily routine, and followed an imperative to digest a universe of new information, much of it nonverbal. Paramount for each was a personal quest—for healthier living, for connection to the land, for simplicity—or, possibly, simply for peace and quiet.
By Jonah Raskin
University of California Press, 344 pages
By Brad Kessler
Scribner, 256 pages
“Field Days” begins as a search for “the perfect farm,” and is in some ways a meandering, a gathering of facts to fill a reporter’s notebook (numbers of acres in organic farming in California, an on-the-ground update of the state of farmworkers’ rights, a survey of organic farms and wineries in Northern California). When Raskin finds Oak Hill Farm, the pace quickens. “ … Even at first sight I felt a sense of being enclosed and protected within the Oak Hill world that surrounded me, and I wanted to embrace it in return.” He has found what he calls the “hero” of his book. Filling in the profile of Oak Hill Farm becomes the centerpiece of his labors. As it turns out, he mentions offhandedly, this is hallowed literary ground, with legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s house within view.
Through July and August, Raskin spends his days laboring in the fields at Oak Hill Farm. The work is transforming. At day’s end, he writes, “I felt exhilarated and clean at the core of my being. … I felt younger and more energetic, and I developed a deeper connection to the earth and a more meaningful sense of place than I had had for years. In the 1950s, when suburbia came to Long Island, I felt displaced. Now, in the Valley of the Moon, I felt reattached to the earth and infused with a new appreciation for the land and the soil. Belonging was uplifting.”
Day by day Raskin learns techniques taught by the fieldworker pros—gently dropping baby leeks in bunches of three into rows 18 inches apart, harvesting raspberries and melons, learning to use a wheel hoe to plant cauliflower and cabbage, cutting flowers. (“I learned to know what made a bouquet by touch and a sense of beauty beyond calculation. … I had the feeling of being in a picture; here, again, was an aesthetic experience of the kind I wanted. Diego Rivera, who loved to paint flowers, might have captured these sunflowers … on one of his canvases.”)
He is sumptuously specific as he describes the pure physical pleasures of the harvest. At one point he prepares a dinner of tomato soup from tomatoes he’d picked and roasted with basil and olive oil, Oak Hill corn on the cob, a whole chicken with tarragon, with Oak Hill red and yellow peppers. Another evening, at Tierra farm, the executive chef from Millennium restaurant serves a black bean and smoked onion torte, a ragout of Tierra’s beans, soft polenta with chipotle-glazed beets, pumpkin crostata with white pumpkin mousse.
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