In 2003, Kristen Kimball drove to State College, PA from New York City to interview a young farmer for a story she was writing. That farmer, Mark, would eventually become her husband, and the story would be just the first string of words that led to her new book, The Dirty Life. In the book’s prologue, Kimball sets up the scene for city-girl-turned-farmer, writing:
“I’ve slept in this bed for seven winters, and still, sometimes I wonder how I came to be here, someone’s wife, in an old farmhouse in the North Country. There are still moments when I feel like an actor in a play. The real me stays out until four, wears heels, and carries a handbag, but this character I’m playing gets up at four, wears Carhartts, and carries a Leatherman, and the other day, doing laundry, a pair of .22 long shells fell out of her pocket, and she was supposed to act like she wasn’t surprised.”
During her transition from Manhattan’s East Side to a 500-acre farm in Essex, New York, there are many surprises Kimball faces, and she shares the trials of the first year with Mark and their farm in four sections: Leaving, Winter, Spring, and Summer. As much as this book is about farming, it is also about love—finding romance and a relationship with a man and with the land, for it is not just Mark that draws Kimball into the dirty life, but also the small act of hoeing broccoli, the emotional demands of butchering a pig, and the deep rewards of eating a meal she began preparing long before it reached the kitchen.
Each experience Kimball shares is told with fearless honesty and deep love. She allows the reader to feel the push and pull of dreams and reality as she tells of the quick courtship between her and Mark, and their plunge into a new life. In the Winter section, she describes returning to Essex Farm for the second time, ready to move in and begin their operation: “During the weeks we were away from it, and in the excitement of moving, the farm had gotten better in our imaginations. In theory, it was an adventure. Up close, it was frightening.” Every step toward their goal of a full-diet CSA that would include meat, grains and maple syrup was a new step for Kimball, who had never even grown a garden before, but her feet moved just as fast as the pages turn in this book, which compels the reader to keep going past each page break and new section.
Despite the hardships, or more rightly because of them, Kimball discovers the peace that comes with working the land, and she offers this bit of insight early on: “Farming takes root in you and crowds out other endeavors, makes them seem paltry. Your acres become a world. And maybe you realized that it is beyond those acres or in your distant past, back in the realm of TiVo and cubicles, of take-out food and central heat and air, in the country where discomfort has nearly disappeared, that you were deprived.” When you read this book, you will see why Kimball is right, and you’ll be waiting for the spring thaw when you can reach your hand into the soil and get dirty.