I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the Bay Area, in Oakland to be precise. I tell everyone I meet that it was a great place to grow up, and indeed it was. My parents' home is pure northern California, a modestly sized craftsman bungalow on an obscenely gorgeous piece of land. There is a creek running through the front yard, fruit trees and flowers in the back, and massive redwoods and oak trees encircling the whole thing.
Luckily, this little country retreat is only twenty minutes (on a good traffic day) from San Francisco and ten minutes from Berkeley. I had the urban environment at my fingertips but lived in an oasis removed from it. Having lived a few places now, I can with a certain amount of confidence say that this combination of country and city is entirely unique (or at least largely unique) to the Oakland/Berkeley area.
So you can imagine my surprise at the reactions I got when I first left home upon revealing where I was from. You're from Oakland?!! Are you sure? You must mean Piedmont (a wealthy municipality which oddly is entirely surrounded by Oakland)? As I tell people, all cities have good and bad areas. Oakland is no different. It happens that I grew up in one of the nicer areas. They do exist, I promise. Defending Oakland is my cross to bear it seems.
So I'll admit that, after reading the first few pages of Farm City, a book that one of my parents' dearest friends recommended that I read, I was not all that enthralled. The book, by Novella Carpenter, is a story of the author's experience moving to Oakland (not to one of the nicer areas by the sound of things) and starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot adjacent to her home. The early pages describe Oakland as a forlorn, desolate place, riddled with gunshots and crack addicts. A forgotten city, plagued with unshakable urban blight.
Mildly incensed, I called my mother to complain. She reminded me that in truth, there are some areas of the city you don't want to go to after dusk, or in some cases, at midday. And one or two city officials have attracted more interest from the FBI than they'd probably like. OK fair point. I continued on with the book.
I followed Ms. Carpenter's adventures in gardening, in poultry rearing, in rabbit husbandry, in bee keeping and in raising pigs (and continue to at her blog), and was utterly amazed by how much this woman could do on her back porch (bees and rabbits) and on a 4,000 square foot empty lot (everything else). With a willingness to haul manure from a horse farm in the hills, to behead ducks, to skin rabbits and a propensity for dumpster diving in search of fresh food for the chickens and pigs, she reminded me of the early pioneers to the western united states, updated. She was willing to try virtually anything to make a go of it in an inhospitable land, and she willingly shared her bounty with others, some of whom asked for it and some of whom simply took.
Through her farm she forged friendships with the man living in the beat up car down the street, the immigrant families in the neighborhood and even came across another urban farmer in the area named Willow. In fact, at a party at the Player's Club the other night I was chatting with our hostess about the book and as I described the premise she said, oh is it written by Willow? Apparently these pioneering Oakland women are gaining trans-continental reputations!
I was surprised at how moved I was by Ms. Carpenter's story. She had an unusually deep connection to her farm, and I enjoyed reading about her efforts, which had a faintly subversive ring to them, to make it run. Thankfully her story wasn't simply another an exhortation for people to grow a few vegetables and stop eating corn syrup. It was far deeper than that. It was an example of a woman re-engaging in a serious way with the ecosystem, not just the one in her back yard that supported plants and animals but the one in her neighborhood that connected people, who in turn needed to be reconnected to plants and animals.