Book Review: ‘A Dirty Life’

[rating: 4.5/5]

Kristen Kimball is a Harvard graduate and a writer living the fast life in New York who gets swept off her feet by a farmer and ends up starting a CSA (Community Shared Agricultural farm) with him in upstate NY.

The Dirty Life” is her and her now-husband, Mark’s, journey of finding each other and their piece of land on this blue planet.

I heard Kristen speak at the COG Conference over a year ago and was inspired by her stories of farming, the hardship, pain, love, sweat and tears that go into growing something from the ground up (literally!). Kristen is a wonderful writer! I rarely re-read books (except for the occasional Jane Austen classic), but I have now re-read this wonderful memoir twice over!

The book begins with a quick peek into Kristen’s life B.F. (Before Farm), and quickly jumps into her meeting Mark, a rugged, idealistic farmer who has a bold dream. He wants to build a farm that will grow everything its members would need, eggs to maple syrup, pork to potatoes. What follows is their accelerated courtship and a quick transition into the life of farming. It doesn’t take Kristen too long to be smitten by Mark and his big, bold vision, an opportunity to be part of something real, something tangible. She dives in headfirst.

What follows is the first year of Kristen and Mark’s struggles and triumphs on Essex Farm, the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristen chronicles their search for the perfect piece of land, to the search for their draft horses (Mark does not want to use tractors and machinery!), to their first growing season and the harvest. Somewhere in there is also their own wedding on the farm, catered by the farm! Here is an excerpt from the book that perfectly describes farming and its rewards:

As much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you. It seeps into your skin along with the dirt that abides permanently in the creases of your thickened hands, the beds of your nails…So naturally you give, and then you some more, and then you give to the point of breaking, and then and only then it gives back, so bountifully it overfills not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little patch we call the soul.

Most of the memorable stories in the book come in the form of new experiences for Kristen (which is every experience on the farm in year one). It’s incredible how within a year she goes from the typical city girl who doesn’t want to try liver, to a woman who finds recipes for bull testicles and pig’s blood to ensure that they use and respect the whole animal on the farm. That is a testament to the flexibility of the human spirit!

I found Kristen’s description of weeds and weeding informative for someone who has always wondered why organic costs significantly more at times.

My existence, from daybreak to dark, became focused on the assassination of weeds….Every morning, Mark and I would look out over the fields at first light and see a fresh haze of green. For everyone one of ours, there were a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand of theirs, wave after wave, unending….If you ever wondered why organic vegetables cost more, blame the weeds. The work on a conventional farm that can be done with one pass of the sprayer, on an organic farm, be done continually, from germination to harvest, by physically disrupting the weeds.

What follows are detailed accounts of the types of weeds and how to combat them effectively. Phew! I work up a sweat just thinking about it!

Another incredible part of the story is the attachment Kristen develops with the farm animals. She cares for them like her own children, feeds them, protects them and nurses them back to health when they are ill. As a farmer, you also develop a deep and profound connection with the Earth and the food that emerges from it. Food is no longer just-food. You sowed that seed, watched the sapling bloom, and thrive. You harvested it and cooked it in your kitchen that sits on that very same land. If that is not a connection to Mother Earth, then I don’t know what is! This next excerpt stirred the nutritionist in me. This is Kristen’s first time eating liver, fresh liver, from a deer that Mark makes for her on one of their early dates. (Mark is a natural in the kitchen).

The texture reminded me of wild mushrooms, firm but tender, and the flavor was distinct but not overpowering, wildness balanced between the civilized and familiar pairing of cream and wine. And there was something else about it, something more primal, a kind of craving, my body yelling, EAT THAT, I NEED IT. That was my first hint that there is a wisdom to the appetite, that if you clear out the white noise of processed food and listen, healthy and delicious are actually allies. We are animals, after all, hardwired to like what’s good for us….

And THAT is my philosophy. If you quiet down. And listen. Your body will tell you what it is really craving, the nutrients it needs to thrive. Your body will tell you when it is full, and when something devoid of nutrients actually hurts the body instead of help it. All you have to do is let your body speak, and stop numbing your instincts with processed foods and empty calories.

Ok, I am off my soapbox now :)

Get the book. It’s wonderfully written. It’s witty, real and touching. You can follow Kristen and her farming adventures on her blog:

I leave you with my favourite quote from the book that can be applied to any tough situation (or life in general):

It’s never the way you think it’ll be. Not as perfect as you hope or as scary as you fear.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *