On The Dirty Life

Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life began as an assignment for a magazine. Kimball set out to rural Pennsylvania to interview farmer Mark for a piece about the increasingly popular local and organic food trends. Little did she know, the New York City writer would fall in love with the idealistic yet grounded farmer who was to be the subject of her work. The Dirty Life recounts not only the couple’s burgeoning relationship but also Kimball’s unanticipated love of farm life.

From the very first, it is obvious how Kimball fell in love with this man so drastically different from any she had ever encountered before. Maybe she overly romanticizes Mark as a testament to her blind love for him, or maybe her idolized descriptions of her future husband are simply a reflection of her aptitude as a writer, as one who artfully encapsulates a moment or a feeling in words. Whatever the case, I don’t think that a single female reader, no matter how accustomed to city life, luxury, or glamour, could not find Mark deeply appealing through Kimball’s written portrait. Kristin honestly and earnestly recounts her earliest introductions to both Mark and farm life. The two are positively intertwined, rendering the man and his work almost inseparably appealing to the reader. After just 15 pages, I was yearning to find a real man’s man to labor alongside of in the heat of the summer sun on a lovingly tended patch of farmland. That’s the power of Kimball’s storytelling abilities, though I must admit, I am a bit partial to the feel-good aftereffects of some old fashioned manual labor.

But don’t worry – while Mark may sound like a woodsman prince charming dream come true, Kristin doesn’t take long to bring us back down to reality – or at least, as close to reality as possible when you’ve just moved in with your fiance who opposes the use of electricity in a fully-wired home, creates a composting toilet located smack-dab in the center of your living room, dreams of fashioning homemade boar bristle toothbrushes, and constantly picks up new traditional crafts, such as spinning wool. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of reducing our reliance on electricity, finding more efficient and natural ways to deal with human waste, and recovering some of those long-forgotten skills that were second nature to our ancestors before the rise of industry. At the same time, it is quite a transition to go from apartment living in the Big Apple one day to shacking up with a sustainably-minded, Eustace Conway-esque live off the land kind of man the next.

After all the introductions, Kimball takes us to the real heart of the story – the purchase, and start up, of a neglected farm in Lake Champlain based on the CSA (community supported agriculture) model, but bigger. Most CSAs provide vegetables to members on a weekly basis for a nominal fee. Mark’s idea went beyond the more traditional produce portion of our diet to also include grains, meats, eggs, and even sweeteners. This ambitious and innovative idea is a daunting challenge for any farmer, let alone one located in a rural farm-based community, working this land for the very first time.

When Kimball and Mark finally settle down, the real adventure begins. We are offered a glimpse of their first cautious look around the farm, one that almost ended in a defeated ride home until Mark came across a patch of coveted silty loam, a welcome contrast to the clay soil that dominated the landscape for the majority of their tour. We follow Kristin as she learns to milk their first cow Delia, until she masters the art of efficiently coaxing generous portions of milk from Delia’s delicate udders. From the deaths of some animals to the births of others, the mastery of certain time-tested horse-drawn tools to the necessity of neighborly generosity during tough times, Kimball helps us see all that farm life encompasses. And despite the early mornings and late nights, the back-breaking work that offers not a single spare moment of time, the total and complete dedication required of farm life, you can’t help but envy Kimball at least the slightest bit. For all the trials and stresses of this life she has chosen, she ultimately has a more fundamental relationship to the earth that sustains her and the people around her, including her trying but devoted husband Mark.

As Kristin says herself a “farm is a form of expression, a physical manifestation of the inner life of its farmers. The farm will reveal who you are, where you like it or not. That’s art.” I’ve always been a believer in the necessity of outlets and expression but never really considered a farm as such. Kimball’s story now has got me thinking otherwise.

I just wanted to share a few other tidbits of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Kristin and Mark. First of all, in urban areas, though we’re physically located so much closer to our neighbors, our encounters with them are desperately lacking in quantity and quality. For the rural town, despite the miles that may separate next-door-neighbors, everyone knows one another and takes the time to get to know each other. Relationships are close and common, regular and constantly evolving as opposed to those common to city-dwellers whose primary neighborly encounters consist of angrily demanding one another to turn down the volume on the TV.

When you’re engrossed in a venture that matters to you, words like success and failure just aren’t relevant. Things like these can’t be measured in terms like those because all that matters is are you heading in the right direction? Are you working toward something that is good and meaningful and right in your mind? That’s the only measure you need.

Kristin also meditates on marriage for some time and I could relate to some of her concerns about making such a commitment. She comes to recognize that “marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.” Don’t get me wrong – I’m getting married next month and couldn’t be more excited to become Mike’s wife. At the same time, there are things of which we must let go when getting married and that’s not always easy to come to terms with. There’s that sense of who you’ve been before and who else you could have become that must be dealt with as well. Kristin captured that small glimmer of grief trailing alongside the large and joyful commitment of marriage in such a way as to make my own feelings startling clear.

And finally, Kimball ends on a note with which I think plenty of people can relate at a time like this. When uncertainty sets in, we as a people tend to head back to the land. In the face of economic downturns, more people than ever pick up agriculture. This could be the manifestation of some deep-seated desire to prove one’s own self-sufficiency – as a demonstration that, no matter what may come, those most essential of needs can be met. But working the earth is also a seemingly simple and authentic way of life. When chaos erupts, staying centered and finding meaning is much easier when you are, both literally and figuratively, grounded by your work.

Though one of the main characters in this story, Mark, reads much like the Eustace Conway and Chris McCandless hero figures common to plenty of popular literature these days, the book is a personal account of a specific relationship and a unique initiative in someone’s life. There are elements of romance of course, but not without a good dosing a reality. The Dirty Life offers a well-balanced helping of the makings of some of my favorite literary elements – the society-eschewing male hero, a good underdog story, anecdotes of small town life, foodie non-fiction, a profile of success sustainably-minded enterprise, memoir, and the list goes on and on. Kimball’s story is well- and wisely-told, full of mistakes made and lessons learned and infused all throughout with passion for the dirty life she has chosen.

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