MOST GARDENERS learn about companion planting pretty early, maybe after compost but before seed saving: carrots and tomatoes, potatoes and spinach, peas and lettuce all make happy couples while pole beans and tomatoes pout near each other. If you’re tired from all that digging and stooping and are looking for some armchair gardening, Michael Perry’s new Coop and Novella Carpenter’s debut Farm City make ideal companion reading.
Perry (author of Truck: A Love Story, reviewed in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion) chronicles his family’s ﬁrst year on their land near New Auburn, Wisconsin. Perry and his wife raise pigs and chickens, start a garden, and have a baby. None of it is easy, though it makes a good story. Interwoven with Perry’s attempts to build a chicken coop, scavenge stale bread for his pigs, and quiet the howling baby are tales from his childhood on a dairy farm. Much of this history is funny, like his memories of the elaborate names of the bulls in the breeders’ catalogue: “One of the stars of my childhood was Fultonway Ivanhoe Belshazzar — one-third landed gentry, one-third literature, and one-third Old Testament.” But much of it, like the accounts of the many foster children who found a haven in the Perry home, is deep and inspiring. I learned some things from Coop about how to keep chickens, but I learned some things about friendship, marriage, and parenting as well. And then there’s the treat of reading about farm life as observed by someone who can actually write; in commenting on his chickens’ enthusiasm for foraging, Perry describes how they “hit the yard in a flying wedge, driving autumn’s last grasshoppers before them like desperate fleeing popcorn.”
Farm City is lighter on poetry but heavier on instruction: from Carpenter’s account of turning a vacant lot in the Oakland ghetto into what she calls an “urban farm,” I learned the details of how to keep bees, how to slaughter and prepare ducks (the fearless Carpenter decapitates them with pruning shears in her apartment’s only bathtub), and how to make prosciutto from one’s own deceased pig. Carpenter is ﬁerce and often funny and is living a life not many in her place would attempt. Most people with Perry’s land would do something similar with it, and indeed his rural friends and neighbors seem to be far ahead of him in their farming skills. I’m guessing most people with Carpenter’s apartment would decline to build a cardboard warren on the deck in which to raise rabbits for meat. Her Oakland neighborhood, called “GhostTown,” is populated with homeless people, transvestites, and flying bullets. The streets are so full of junk that a billboard campaign is launched urging residents to DUMP BOYFRIENDS, NOT APPLIANCES. Perhaps most dangerous of all, Carpenter does not own (or even rent) the lot on which her urban farm is basically squatting. But knowing her gig could be replaced at any time at the landlord’s whim, she forges on, as if real estate troubles are simply one more pest, like opossums, cutworms, or an unexpected freeze.
Midway through the book, Carpenter decides to spend the month of July eating and drinking only things she has grown herself. (This eliminates coffee, painful even to read about; she immediately purchases two tea plants.) This experiment in self-reliance is the heart of the book: funny, fascinating, and revealing about how we live and on whom we depend. Carpenter’s book will stay on my shelf of gardening literature as one of those wonderfully distracting reference books; I’ll go to look up something about bees and end up happily reading a couple of chapters. Readers of Michael Perry will not be surprised to ﬁnd that he has produced yet another book that you want to both hold to your heart and hand to a friend. I might give it away as I would a prized homegrown tomato, with that particular mixture of regret and pride.