Thursday, May 5, 2011

34w4d: Bedrest Book Review

I've been feeling kind of blah....not very productive and really, REALLY craving chocolate. It's a good thing we don't have any in the house or I would not be able to control myself.

Yesterday, I finished Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. My book club is discussing it next Wednesday--hopefully I'll be able to go!

Ms. Carpenter's memoir traces her experiences cultivating an urban farm in the ghetto of West Oakland. She and her boyfriend moved to Oakland from Seattle, where they kept bees and had a garden. Once in Oakland, she graduates to meat birds, then rabbits, and finally pigs. Mixed in with her personal story is a bit of the history of urban farming and references to urban agriculture throughout the world. Her colorful descriptions of the people in her neighborhood add to the human element of the book and also remind the reader that Ms. Carpenter ain't no farming Pollyanna--she is farming in an area where gun shots and gang activity are commonplace.

The book was particularly meaningful to me because I live in Oakland, and I'm not entirely sure that someone unfamiliar with the Bay Area would appreciate it as much. I can picture the places she's describing, from the drive up to Mendocino to MLK. I also had eaten at Eccolo (before it sadly closed in 2009), the restaurant where Ms. Carpenter learned to make salumi. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the Bay Area has some "special characters," and the firsthand familiarity with them--even if it's just to hope that the guy pushing the shopping cart with bottles doesn't ask for change--made me feel like I could really "get" the book. Before I moved here, I doubt I would have understood in quite the same way.

While the vegetable garden takes up most of the space available to Ms. Carpenter for her farm, most of the book is devoted to discussing her experience growing animals. Confession--I was a vegetarian for four years and I haven't eaten mammal meat since 1995. I do eat poultry and seafood, so I do understand and respect her desire to come face-to-face--literally--with her food. I don't think that calling is for everyone, but I can see why it should be. It would, I'm certain, spell the death knell for the hideous factory farming operations that treat animals with cruelty and poison the environment. I'm just too chicken (no pun intended, I swear) to take that step myself. We're working toward buying only organic meat though, so I guess that's a (tiny) step in the right direction.

I'll be very interested to hear what the vegetarians in my book club thought of the slaughtering descriptions. I'm glad she did not mince words; if a person eats meat, they shouldn't shy from the fact that an animal died to provide that meat. Ms. Carpenter's descriptions of how she confronted her distaste for the slaughtering has real meaning.

Ms. Carpenter's journalism background makes the book easy to read and contributes to the (mostly) well-done pacing. I could have done with less explanation about making salumi, but for someone who enjoys it, it is probably good that it's there. I would recommend this book, particularly to anyone who grows a few tomatoes in the back yard.

Topically, Ms. Carpenter has been in the news recently because now that she owns the land she farms (she formerly just squatted), the City wants her to get a conditional use permit. I am really impressed by how she's managed to turn a vacant lot in a neighborhood known for crime into a beautiful, productive urban garden. She represents what Oakland should be encouraging, not over-regulating. I hope that none of my tax dollars will be spent to persecute her or others like her, and I hope that the City passes some new, reasonable urban agriculture rules soon.

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