Newly published in April 2011: a memoir by Melissa Coleman, daughter of well-known organic vegetable farmer and author Eliot Coleman. She is young to be writing a memoir, barely in her forties. But the life she is writing about in This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is primarily her girlhood, the first decade of her life (the decade when her parents established their roughhewn homestead in the Penobscot Bay region of Maine). That life ended abruptly. And in her telling of it now, Coleman turns out to be a wise as well as gifted writer. In her Prologue she says, “Only in looking back can you see a pattern in the threads of life, interwoven with the events that would tear them asunder, and within that pattern lies the knowledge I’m seeking-the secret of how to live.” One feels she has found this secret.
It seems fitting she has written a book about her family’s early homesteading years. A most significant pattern running through those years, after all, is the influence of books. Coleman says, “…it was a certain book that set my parents on this unexpected course of their lives together. Thinking of that book, I imagine it as an old genie’s lamp waiting in that dimly lit health food store…as my parents opened its worn pages, their future was released.” This was a second hand copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954). Her parents made a pilgrimage to Maine to visit the Nearings in 1968, made a good impression, and were sold (for practically nothing) some of the Nearings’ land, so they could begin their own homestead next door. Other influences at this juncture of their lives included Thoreau, as well as John Burroughs and a Dr. Ralph Borsodi, who experimented with “voluntary simplicity” and wrote, in 1933, Flight from the City. Living the Good Life.
When Coleman’s mother got pregnant, she and Eliot read Natural Childbirth, by Grantley Dick-Read, and had a home birth. Years later, when city relatives came to visit, they would spend tentative afternoons at the Colemans’ rustic homestead (no electricity! no plumbing!), but in the evenings “…they were glad to retreat to a nearby ocean-side guesthouse…owned by Carolyn Robinson, who with her husband, Ed, wrote The “Have More” Plan: A Little Land, a Lot of Living, a bestselling do-it-yourself gardening book…credited with launching an exodus of the middle class from the city to the suburbs after World War Two.”
Eliot Coleman’s approach to vegetable growing came from a number of books, including the Nearings’ The Good Life, which taught him succession planting; the writings of Leonard Wickenden (a chemist who set out to debunk natural farming in the 1940s but was won over and argued in the end against farming with chemical inputs); and, most importantly, Sir Albert Howard’s book, An Agricultural Testament. Howard did not look for natural substitutes for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He argued instead that plants need to be made healthy and strong in the first place, so they are not vulnerable to pests and disease. Feeding and enriching the soil is the way to ensure plant health, using natural inputs such as compost and manure.
The job of carving a homestead out of the woods (living in a tent while racing to build a small cabin before a Maine winter arrives; using an axe to chop down trees, then removing the stumps manually to clear the way for vegetable beds; carrying each day’s water hundreds of feet using a yoke designed to support a couple of five-gallon buckets, digging and then keeping stocked a root cellar)–, this absolutely enthralled Coleman’s parents. One could say that Eliot Coleman, as athletic as he was strong-willed, enjoyed a challenge a bit too much. His daughter refers throughout the book to Eliot’s hyperthyroidism (Graves ‘ disease), which, she says, drove him headlong into the intensity of such challenges and the rigors of gulag-like labor, which she says were a drug for him. And no doubt this is true. However, such behavior relentlessly characterized and suited him decade after decade, through all his life, and seems an inexorable expression of his personality and will, of who he is. (Can a clinical diagnosis really manage to untangle the issue of who somebody is versus what syndromes they have? Can it really be that simple?) As a young man he enjoyed mountain climbing, except for the part where he got to the peak and then simply came back down. He embraced homesteading as the “mountain with no top” he had been longing to find-a challenge that would not let him down. “Farming is no picnic,” he would tell new interns. “I’m working sixteen hours a day for survival,” he told the first newspaper reporter who came to write about their homesteading. “This isn’t any game I’m playing.” A solicitous daughter can appreciate how it must have sometimes been for her mother, when, isolated on the homestead, she “longed to relax in Eliot’s arms,” yet stood by helpless as he “…went out the door, and the back of his head disappeared into the day.”
I am a farmer myself, and I have been accused of working too much. If I have some condition or syndrome spurring me on, I remain undiagnosed. Perhaps I should look into it. But the proclivity to “disappear into work” is farming-appropriate behavior. The rugged imperative of farm circumstances demands a certain mindset, a kind of unthinking resolve to keep going till everything is taken care of (which of course it never is). This is why people flee the farming life and head into cities, most people aspire to a life full of leisure and free of mud and callouses. But I recognize myself and some other farmers I know in Eliot Coleman. I am still smarting from the Thanksgiving years ago when I stopped working, cleaned up and went visiting door to door with my wife, socializing with neighbors. This seemed the right thing to do. Until we went to my neighbor Mike’s house. His wife let us in. “Mike’s still out there, he’s building a barn,” she told us sheepishly. And so he was, on Thanksgiving Day, in a driving snowstorm. I didn’t decide he was nuts; instead I was chafing on the parlor furniture, pulling at my collar, wishing I could get home and into my overalls and back at it.
Eliot Coleman made his own toolbox when starting out on the homestead, and carved into it Scott Nearing’s saying, “Work as well as you can and be kind.” Sue Coleman wrote in her journal that it was best to “work for enjoyment, not for money. With money one’s goals become greedy (if you succeed) and angry (if you don’t).” These are educated thoughtful people who are quite deliberate about their philosophy-in-action. Sue Coleman also wrote in her journal, “We believe in the individual who can be trusted, who is capable of loving, who can carry his own weight and who has a basic goodness.” As her marriage began to get more complicated, even troubled, however, Sue Coleman found herself missing the “compass” that organized religion traditionally provided “small tribes of outcasts like us.” Instead of a book like the Bible, the Coleman’s had only the Nearings’ The Good Life as guide. Melissa Coleman says her Mother “knew how to put away food, but what she needed was advice on… more esoteric matters.” She concludes,” the Nearing formula of four hours a day each for work, intellect, and society was missing the quadrant of the spirit.”
Articles in the Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times brought some celebrity to the Colemans and their farm. They and the Nearings were gregarious enough to make welcome numerous interns and additional younger homesteaders. They were teaching and sharing that which they were yet refining. Later, this would lead to Eliot’s publishing books, advocating on behalf of organic farming, doing a decade of television gardening shows, and generally becoming an icon of the sustainable farming movement that has more recently flourished, now that, as Melissa Coleman writes, “organic gardening rose from the derision of hippie stigma to find its place in a changing world…and a more balanced off-the-grid-with-internet lifestyle has developed.”
There is such focus and deliberate resolve through the homesteading and farming and living that Coleman’s parents were engaged in while she was a young girl. And she captures a surefooted portrait of all that as well as the excitement and wonder of a child’s perspective. But the wisdom of the book, and the deeper meaning in it, emerges like ripples expanding from a single event, the kind of traumatic moment that is so significant and overwhelming that it takes a lifetime to absorb. I am uncomfortable writing about the details of that tragedy. Melissa Coleman is the one who has worked so hard and well to be able to do that.
Read this book. You will come to appreciate what a big accomplishment it is. And it will give you a measure of hope for all of us–that we might, when all is said and done, not only endure but actually prevail.