There's not a hint of smugness in Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (The Penguin Press). Nothing preachy or precious. No tricks. Just her curiosity. And pluck. And storytelling verve.
Farm City is Carpenter's story of how she took over (read: squatted) the vacant lot next to her urban apartment in Oakland, Calif., and not only grew vegetables but kept bees, chickens, ducks, a turkey, rabbits and pigs. It's less a sustainability manifesto than it is an adventure yarn, where the wilderness is not, say, a desert island (à la Robinson Crusoe) but inner-city Oakland.
Oakland, shabby neighbor to trendy San Francisco and lofty Berkeley, does have its nicer sections, but Carpenter describes her dead-end street as the ghetto: "The place was a postcard of urban decay." It took over a year before she got up enough courage to walk to a park a few streets over. But her own block is home to several memorable figures who are happy making homes on the margins.
She herself grew up as a child of back-to-the-land hippies, so she describes the urge to garden as possibly being in her DNA - other than that, Carpenter doesn't delve into her own motivations too much. There are no lectures about the evils of industrial food or the need for a sustainability movement. Just accept that she's interested in growing her own food and raising her own animals, and read on.
It's a forward-looking book, which is refreshing. It's easy to get swept up in Carpenter's projects. I wanted to see the block where she lives, on 28th Street - see her garden plot, chicks, beehive. Moreover, without ever suggesting that you should try any of this yourself, she makes it seem, not easy, but possible. And sometimes even cool.
Of course it's hard to make killing poultry seem cool. But the discomfort she evokes as she has to bring some of her livestock to slaughter gently underlines the distance between most of us and the food we regularly eat. Not that Carpenter makes a big deal out of that, either. No, she'd just like to try making some really good food herself.
Farm City has been unfairly lumped in with some of the eco-stunt books published of late (e.g., No Impact Man). A much better description comes from her former journalism prof, Michael Pollan, who catches the book's euphoric quality when he calls it "an inner-city version of The Egg and I." (If anybody remembers The Egg and I anymore.)
Carpenter recently took an uncharacteristic break from her city farming to visit her sister and niece in France. So my thoughts of doing a phone interview with her, pre-book fest, were scotched. All the more reason to go hear what she has to say at her Book Fest appearance - the next best thing to actually visiting her farm on 28th Street in Oakland, hard by Interstate 980.
Novella Carpenter will appear with Madison novelist Michelle Wildgen on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 5:30 p.m. at A Room of One's Own, 307 W. Johnson St. The full roster of food-related events at the Wisconsin Book Festival can be found in the drop-down menu under the category "Making It Home" at www.wisconsinbookfestival.org/schedule.