Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Novella Carpenter: Farm City

I heard about this book twice- my dad read it and told me about it and I promptly forgot about it, as he read it on the kindle, and therefore couldn't give me a copy. Out of sight, out of mind. I'm pretty sure he told me I would probably be interested because it was a local book- Oakland lady makes Oakland farm and I'm an Oakland girl. Then, last month, some volunteers who work at my shelter mentioned the book to me, shocked and alarmed that the Oakland farmer was not just a vegetable farmer, but also a meat farmer, a rancher of sort, an Old McDonald type farmer. An Old McDonald type farmer who also ate cute, fuzzy animals like rabbits, and cute feathered animals like chickens and ducks and geese. They were aghast, I was interested.

I'm a vegetarian, but not a vegan, and I don't really concern myself with other people's food choices. I've written about why I voted against Prop 2 last year, so I wasn't as shocked as my friends, and I tried to go into Novella Carpenter's book with an open mind. I have seen small scale vegetable gardens in Oakland, and I appreciate eating locally for environmental, food justice, and cultural reasons. I appreciate the fear of people who are finally making strides at raising awareness of rabbits as house pets, but you can't win them all. I purchased this book, again to the alarm of my friends (purchasing a book by an animal grower/eater?), to put my money where my mouth is- supporting a local bookstore, and an author- mostly because I am curious about what goes on in Oakland. And Novella Carpenter represents a lot of strange stuff that goes on in Oakland.

Carpenter started out as a "normal" (?!) backyard farmer, with vegetables and some chickens. Then some ducks and geese. Sometimes these animals were inside of her house, to keep them safe and warm. And then a beehive. Then she got some rabbits, which she started out just rabbit-sitting for a friend, and ended up breeding for food. Then she got pigs, which led her to dumpster diving all over Oakland and Berkeley to feed their ever growing appetites (8 buckets a day). I think this was beyond "bordering" obsession- she describes herself and her husband in Chinatown dumpsters and the dumpsters of gourmet restaurants trying to find the pigs "favorite" food. Really. Carpenter went for a month eating only what she could grow or trade with other growers, and ended up eating decorative corn on the cob because she was so desperate for carbohydrates.

This is too much. The book was too much. The obsession was too much. I later spoke to a friend who has met Carpenter, and her theory is that Carpenter knew going into the farming that she was going to write a book, thus the over-kill (pun intended). This is a cynical view, but it makes sense. I would have appreciated candor on this point by Carpenter- it would have made her and her project much more likable. I still think urban farming is a noble goal, but I certainly wouldn't want to live next to her. And just because she lives in the ghetto (as she tells us over and over) doesn't make her any better of a neighbor. Her pigs are gross and huge and they escape, she admits. Geese and ducks and chickens are stinky, and they shit. A lot. Why should people in West Oakland have to live with this just because she condescends to allow people to "steal" things from the garden that is on land that she's squatting on? Why not find a legal plot to farm and raise livestock on, preferably not butting up on your downstairs neighbors house? (Sore subject.) And I see the rabbit volunteers point: it has become taboo to eat certain animals. On the other hand, raising your own animals for meat is fairly sustainable. She crossed a certain line for me when she gave a meat rabbit (unfixed of course) to a young kid in the neighborhood (righteously making sure he had parental permission) with no discussion (or thought?) to the repercussions.

Reading this did prompt me to pick up Jonathan Safran Foer's book "Eating Animals" that controversially discusses eating dog. In for the horse, in for the rabbit.


harleymom said...

Can I borrow this from you?

I have lived on a farm, I have lived in cities and I have a lot of pets. I just don't understand what she does with the poo. And the smell. Pigs smell, pigs smell a lot.

themacinator said...

of course.

it's not super clear what she does with the poo. or the smell. she vaguely apologizes for the smell, but basically, she (and her neighbors) live with it. in crowded west oakland.

part of my lack of sympathy with her character.

thb said...

Hey, even locals can write controversial books. All your points are valid, and the book is a good read (particularly for Oaklandishers), even if written somewhat unevenly and a wee bit hypocritical.

There is a "Pop-up" market in Oakland that features the guys from Piccolo (was that the upscale make-it-yourself sausage/meat place? think so....).

Ahhhhhh, locavores forever!

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. Creating massive amounts of unprocessed shit in close quarters causes epidemics of human disease.
I am very concerned about the sociopathological practices of libertarians who really don't care whether or not the rest of us live or die.