I’m many things, but when it all boils down to it, I’m not much of a doer — at least, not in the sense that Novella Carpenter is a doer. The woman keeps bees and pigs, slaughters her own poultry and game, transforms an abandoned lot into a small farm, Dumpster dives and makes her own salumi.
I guess when I think about it that way, everyone looks like a slacker.
In her book Farm City — The Education of an Urban Farmer, Ms. Carpenter and her boyfriend Bill have just moved from Seattle to what just might be one of Oakland’s most dangerous neighborhoods. It’s called GhostTown and it was so named “for all its long-abandoned businesses, condemned houses, and overgrown lots… And through the vacant streets rolled GhostTown tumbleweeds: the lost hairpieces of prostitutes. Tumbleweaves.”
And so, in this honest and wry and funny voice, Ms. Carpenter describes how she turned “a 4,500-foot square lot filled with four-foot-tall weeds” into a place where “scarlet runner beans wound through the chain-link fence and were heavy with furry green beans. Huge squash rolled on vines. Malabar spinach, a heat-loving variety, twined up a trellis. Apples were ripening on the tree. Blood-red beet stems sprouted next to bushy basil plants. Eight varieties of tomatoes ripened in various beds. A stand of corn rustled in the corner.”
If planting, maintaining and harvesting her own produce isn’t enough, Ms. Carpenter also bottles her own honey and raises animals that will make their way to her dinner table, oftentimes dying by her hands. Rest easy; Farm City is neither a gardening book nor a gruesome tale of butchery. Instead it’s a contemplative, often laugh-out-loud story about how a woman in Oakland became — amidst graffiti, gunshots and gangs — a farmer.
The meat of the story (ha ha) is spent on Ms. Carpenter’s animals; the book is divided into thirds, each section named after a protein: turkey, rabbit and pig. And, with the exception of the pig, Ms. Carpenter kills them herself. She takes no pleasure in this. In fact, she lies awake in bed the night before killing her turkey — named Harold; his partner Maude was fallen by neighborhood dogs — dreading the day that lies ahead of her and worrying that she’ll somehow mess it all up, causing her bird undue pain. In the morning, she picks Harold up (“he liked being held”) and her mind turns to faith:
The !Kung people, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa, ask forgiveness of an animal’s spirit. Budiansky tells us, “They don’t pretend there is no ethical cost, or guilt even, inherent in the act of killing the animal.” With this in mind, I whispered into Harold’s ear my thanks and asked for forgiveness. … Pantheism had mostly eluded me. But to hold Harold, this amazing living creature, and to know that his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.
What I appreciated is that Ms. Carpenter takes what should be the most difficult task — to do, to write, to read — and steadfastly continues her story, honestly describing what she felt (literally and figuratively) throughout the entire process, up to the moment when she serves the meat. “The bounty,” she writes of her pigs, “had been overwhelming… We had hosted six dinner parties over the past few months, one featuring banana-leaf-wrapped pork loin, another with pork tacos from slow-roasted spareribs. We even hosted a sausage-making party.”
This, in a way, is what Farm City is truly about — not just the making of food, whether from a seed or a rabbit, but the enjoyment of that food. Even if you have to get a little blood-splattered and bee-stung to do it.