Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy

When I was a freshman in college, my parents bought the farm. Not a euphemism. They (with another family as partners) bought almost 200 acres and returned my daddy to his farming roots. For the last 18 years, we have watched and learned as mama and daddy have navigated gardening, chickens, horses, goats, and a beautiful herd of beef cattle. There are fruit trees in the orchard and grapevines and blueberry bushes; there is a greenhouse that hasn't yet been put to use and barn cats that sometimes will tolerate human attention and sometimes won't. There are calves to wean and tag and cows to take to market. There is hay to cut, hay to move, and hay to put out in winter. And there is swimming in the ponds, canoes and rope swings, campfires and hikes.

In short, there is a working paradise, emphasis on the working.

Every time I leave there, yesterday evening being no exception, I wish again that I could be farming, too. I have long harbored an irrational desire to stay on the edges of life in the city and still have horses and chickens and bees and large-scale gardening. It doesn't work that way, of course. Farming is a commitment move. You go "all-out" - all out in the middle of nowhere, all out of touch with the pulse of city living, all out.

I suppose that is why I was immediately interested in Antonia Murphy's Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer, a review copy of which was kindly offered by the publisher. Frankly, I can't get enough of these types of stories, and I've come to realize there are a bunch of us reader/blogger/writer-types who agree.
Dirty Chick tells the story of Antonia Murphy and her family (husband and two children) and their decision to move to Purua, New Zealand (from San Francisco after a few years of sailing around the world) and become farmers. Actually, the book makes it seem these were less decisions and more just "what happened next" kind of things. Let's get some alpacas! How about this goat! Sure, let's bring home lambs! Murphy writes with an irreverent, breezy tone that sometimes belies the seriousness of what is actually going on.

Let me be frank: this book pushes a lot of boundaries. I actually like the somewhat graphic explanations of their interactions with and observations of their animals. Life on a farm is not G-rated, and I appreciate her willingness to not sugar-coat any of these stories. I also don't mind too much the profanity she uses. The boundaries pushed here for me have to do with how she represents her children and parenting in the book as well as the lack of respect she pays the land and animals she is working with. These are personal issues, though, so another reader might not carry similar concerns.

The parenting issues are hard to define. Murphy's son is explained to have a severe developmental delay, which doctors can't seem to identify in any useful way. I acknowledge my lack of personal experience in this area even as I admit I didn't like the way Murphy seemed to disregard her son's needs in the book. It is just a book - a representation or fragment of life - but it still sat uncomfortably with me how often she would wink at her laid-back parenting style, celebrating her daughter's odd behavior or laughing at her son's difficulties. I, too, embrace a benign-neglect approach to parenting, but drinking a fair amount of wine without knowing where your children (ages 5 and 3) are goes too far for even me. I don't mean to question her concern for her children, but her brash tone often made it seem she didn't care. 

The other piece involves a different kind of carelessness. Coming as I do from the Wendell Berry model of land-appreciation, I found Murphy's approach to farming self-centered: I want to raise animals because of what they do for me, and when these animals stop making me happy, I will move on to something else cuter or more interesting. At one point, she describes her infatuation with lambs as akin to a drug addiction, and it seems an appropriate comparison. The lambs are sleeping with the humans in their beds and being carried in baby-slings until they start to become sheep, and then they are "put out" and the book moves on to the next cute or funny thing. Both are inappropriate ways to care for animals, I think. Though it exemplifies the thing that bothered me, that section on the lambs was equal parts disturbing and hilarious. 

And maybe that's the best way to sum up this book: equal parts disturbing and hilarious. It is not the traditional farm narrative, and they are not the traditional family. But it is funny and interesting and, if you can get past some of the difficulties, a quirky addition to the average-Joe-turned-farmer genre.

Dirty Chick goes on sale January 22, and it might be a great way to wait out the mid-winter blahs until you can start turning your own soil over wherever you live. If you are interested, check back tomorrow for a giveaway!

No comments:

Post a Comment