This Life Is in Your Hands

ThisLifeIsInYourHands

“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

http://external.bangordailynews.com/projects/2014/04/goodlife/?chapter=root&utm_source=bangordailynews&utm_campaign=refer

Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

Summer reading

The Goldfinch book coverI am now thoroughly in the grip of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (In book circles, it seems as though half the universe is reading Tartt’s latest novel.)

After surviving a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (a hellishly claustrophobic, terrifying scene masterfully written), a shell-shocked Theo Decker is making his way home amidst dozens of fire engines, blaring sirens, and chaos in the streets, where he is certain he’ll be reunited with his mother, who had been in the museum gift shop during the blast. Knowing Tartt, I believe things will only go further downhill for Theo in a tragic – comic, picaresque way. I’ll keep you posted over the next few weeks, without spoilers, of course. Having read Tartt’s previous books, The Secret History and The Little Friend, her latest book is a must-read for me.

In the Kingdom of Men book coverIn my perpetual online quest for good reads, I happened upon Kim Barnes the other day. I can’t believe I haven’t yet sampled her writing. In my stack of library books, I now have In the Kingdom of Men, the 1960s story of “a barefoot girl from red dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that” who marries a college boy from her hometown. He takes a job with the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. The novel is loosely based on the experiences of Barnes’ aunt and other American women married to oil executives who worked in the Persian Gulf in the “Mad Men” era. I’ve also placed library holds on Barnes’ two memoirs, In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World.

My Struggle book coverAs usual, I’m overly ambitious, but I’ve decided to take on Norwegian Karl Knausgaard’s three-volume My Struggle after reading intriguing reviews. The fact that our local Barnes & Noble did not have Volume 1 only makes me more determined.

I just purchased Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams (someday we’ll get there) and The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose. (She wrote A Year of Reading Proust.) Rose read, straight through, all the 30 or so books from LEQ – LES on a random shelf in the New York Society Library stacks – no matter how obscure the author. The books and authors include The Phantom of the Opera, California detective fiction, a novel by an Afrikaans writer, stories of French Canadian farmers, and one “feminist, humane earth-mother Jewish writer” who raises award-winning Newfoundlands.

Domestic Matters

A Woman's Shed book cover

We’ve been putting in raised beds at our house, and my latest obsession is backyard domesticity. I just bought Gill Heriz’s delightful A Woman’s Shed. From our local library I borrowed three or four how-to titles about building fences (made of wood, stone, metal, and plants) and backyard sheds, gazebos, cabins, and other nature retreats.

 

The Kitchen Garden Cookbook coverI’ve also been browsing through Sylvia Thompson’s The Kitchen Garden Cookbook (1995). Thompson has also written The Kitchen Garden, which I’ll have to track down. Both are semi-classics endorsed by Alice Waters and other culinary experts. The cookbook is good reading, and if you’re growing your own vegetables you’ll like Thompson’s tips about when to harvest. The recipes are inventive and  sound delicious – I’m looking forward to trying some of them out. How did I find this title? It was on display at our library – a great way to discover good, not-so-new books.

In my quest to learn about gardening and raising vegetables, I’ve been reading Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest, as we hope to experiment with raising food through the winter. Eliot’s neighbors were Helen and Scott Nearing, who launched the modern-day homesteading movement. He has made the Nearing’s home farming techniques accessible to home gardeners and small organic farmers. Living the Good Life book cover(The Nearing’s influential book, Living the Good Life (1954) is a fascinating read, by the way.)  I like Coleman’s book because it is simple and straightforward, especially accessible and inspiring to the lay person. I’ve also rediscovered a book I purchased years ago, Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. Reading the forward to Coleman’s book, I discovered that he and Damrosch are married to each other.

Kitchen Garden book coverI love to visit the many small second-hand and consignment stores in our village. We have a used crafts supply shop I like to browse in, and there I discovered old copies of Betty Crocker’s delightful Kitchen Garden (1971) by Mary Mason Campbell with illustrations by Tasha Tudor; Gardening Made Easy binder coverand Gardening Made Easy (1995), International Masters Publishers, a collection of full-color pamphlets that you order individually and store in a three-ring binder. (I believe these are now out of print.)

 

 

The Supper of the Lamb book cover

For good measure, I requested from the library a copy of The Supper of the Lamb, (1969) by Robert Farrar Capon; this “culinary entertainment” written by an Episcopal priest comes highly recommended by a friend.

So there you are, my summer reading plans – all over the map, highbrow and not, typical for me.

What will you be reading this summer?

 

 

Raised beds

A work in progress

 

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