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Favorite Garden Books: Stronger Than Dirt

January 30, 2011

Book cover - Stronger Than Dirt In the summer of 1994, Kim Schaye and Chris Losee were a young urban couple living in New York City. Kim was an editorial writer for a city newspaper who longed to be a reporter, and Chris was a photographer who had taken over his father’s construction business and was struggling to keep it afloat in a severe economic downturn. Looking for  relief from his misery over the likely failure of the family business, Chris began to dream about moving to the country and becoming a farmer, growing flowers for the urban market. Those dreams turned first to a pile of reference books on the nightstand by the bed and then to plans on paper. Kim was skeptical about the viability of these ideas; but, as she puts it, “my husband is an extremely persuasive person.”

Two years later, the couple had moved out of their Brooklyn apartment and relocated upstate. Kim had landed a position as a reporter on her paper’s state government beat in Albany, the couple had purchased a parcel of farmland where Chris was building them a house, and they were trying to grow their first crop of flowers and vegetables, mostly from 3600 transplanted seedlings that Chris had started in the bedroom of their rented Albany apartment! Stronger Than Dirt (Three Rivers Press, 2003) is the story of their transformation from young urban professionals to farmers and the trials and triumphs of their first years on the farm.

This is a light-hearted and uplifting account of the couple’s experience. It’s not that they don’t encounter problems along the way; but from the beginning, you know that things will somehow work out. What makes this book so engaging is the fact that it is told in two voices. Kim’s and Chris’s separate narratives are interleaved, and their very different perspectives and personalities are accented by the use of distinct type faces for each voice. In this account, Chris is the enthusiastic big dreamer, but also the one who provides skill and hard physical labor to bring the dream to reality, and the one who responds to any difficulty with dogged determination. Kim is more ambivalent about the venture, torn between her love of nature and her identity as an urbanite and combining roles as supporter of her husband’s dream, clear-eyed skeptic, and sometimes unwilling conscript labor. The alternating voices create drama, suspense and forward momentum for the narrative. Sometimes, when I was reading Chris’s very optimistic account of his latest visionary plan, I’d be thinking, “Oh my gosh, how is Kim going to react to this?” And I knew that in a few pages, I would find out. The differences in their perspectives also create humor that contributes to the light feel of the book. Take, for example, these two perspectives on weeding (one of the few things that Kim views more positively than Chris). We begin with Chris’s description:

This was the kind of work  that my guru Dan called meditative, his euphemism for repetitive, monotonous, uncomfortable, but not actually harmful tasks. It was a broad category that, when I pondered it, encompassed about every farming job I could think of . To do it, you simply kneel down at one end of a row (trying to avoid the long view and to concentrate on the few holes directly in front of your eyes) and pluck out those seedlings which, in your best judgment, seem most weedlike…. Eventually, you will come to the end of the row and to a decision: Can you make yourself do another row, or is it time to quit right now? (p. 137)

This is followed by Kim’s perspective on the same task:

Let me just say that hole weeding, as we have come to call it, is my favorite farm chore. At no other time are the before and after so dramatic, as each tuft of weeds peeking out of a hole in the black plastic mulch becomes one perfect little plant…. You can see right away that you’ve really helped something to grow….

And this task leaves you enough breath for conversation, so you can have someone working across from you and actually talk to him or her. One of the most pleasant days I ever spent farming was when my childhood best friend from the city came to help me weed. We moved down a row of cosmos, catching up on all that needed to be related now that we lived in different places. It was the only time I can remember actually being sorry to reach the far end of the field. (pp. 137-8)

Stronger Than Dirt is pure pleasure, an enjoyable page-turner. This is a book for anyone who has dreamed of the farming life or of starting their own nursery. And also for anyone who wants to be inspired by a tale of optimism and faith, love, hard work and determination. I guarantee that it will make you smile.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2011 3:40 pm

    sounds like my kind of book…thx for recommending it!!

  2. January 30, 2011 3:59 pm

    Another terrific write-up, Jean. Whether it’s books or blogs, you have become a great resource for finding good reads;-)


  3. January 30, 2011 4:06 pm

    Just wanted to let you know that your Sissinghurst link in the right column seems to be broken. I know that I could get to it on my own…through more searches…but thought you’d want to have it working properly on your blog;-)

  4. January 30, 2011 6:04 pm

    I enjoyed your review Jean. I love the title!

    • February 2, 2011 10:18 pm

      Donna, Jan and Carol, I’m pleased that you enjoyed the review. It really is a delightful book. (Jan, thanks for cluing me in about the broken link; I’ve fixed it.)

  5. January 31, 2011 12:52 am

    Sounds like a fun read. That first take on things “meditative”–It’s really so true. The times I’ve looked at formalized meditation it’s seemed to be so much like gardening, though without the plants, the smell of the earth and the sunshine.

  6. January 31, 2011 1:28 am

    That sounds like a great book. Wonder if it has made it to our library…

    • February 10, 2011 10:02 pm

      James and Janet, This is a fun read.

      James, I have to admit that I agree with both Dan and Chris about the “meditative” nature of gardening. When I’m out enjoying the garden, I can easily get into a meditative state. But when I’m doing some hot, sweaty chore while fighting off swarms of black flies or mosquitoes, it seems more like a penance than a meditation.

      Janet, I don’t know how much luck you’ll have finding this book in your library. I checked WorldCat, and all the libraries that own it seem to be in North America.

  7. January 31, 2011 10:00 am

    Jean, I read this review and it immediately reminded of my own circumstances. My husband is the dreamer and I, sometimes unwillingly, follow along with mixed results. I’ll bet this book would give me a few laughs. Already the description of Kim’s weeding hit home – I find it can be a very soothing task.

  8. January 31, 2011 11:46 am

    Jean, I have to find this book. It sounds very relevant to my own experience in starting my nursery. The weeding thing is funny. Some days when I am doing a mindless repetitive job I feel like Kim and sometimes I feel like Chris. Generally, I enjoy the process of creating and the quiet time to think (or not). If I am tired, it seems endless. Thanks for the great review, Carolyn

  9. January 31, 2011 12:59 pm

    Great review, Jean! I agree with Carolyn, above, that I’ve felt about weeding like both Chris and Kim — although it was easier to see Chris’ point of view when I was weeding long, seemingly interminable rows on my grandfather’s farm. In my tiny kitchen garden, I enjoy the process more, knowing the tasks are each manageable and short-lived.

    Now I have to see if I can locate this book. 🙂

    • February 10, 2011 10:06 pm

      Marguerite and Carolyn, I think you would both recognize some of your own experiences in this account.

      Meredith, I think “interminable rows” was exactly the image Chris was trying to evoke in this passage. The book is unfortunately out of print, but both Amazon and Barnes & Noble show used copies available for sale, and there are about 200 public libraries, mostly community libraries but also some college and university libraries, that have it in their collections.

  10. February 1, 2011 12:58 pm

    The two authors sound like the perfect combination to write such a book. Thanks for the recommendation. I find weeding both meditative and enjoyable, but not always of course. It’s certainly a topic any gardener could reflect upon! Barbara

  11. February 1, 2011 3:15 pm

    I read this book Jean, and really enjoyed it. I am still toying with the idea of growing cut flowers after we move to Kilbourne Grove full time, but I do not think I want to get up to sell at a farmers market. Perhaps to some local flower shops instead.

  12. Lula ( permalink
    February 2, 2011 3:02 pm

    And “optimism and faith, love, hard work and determination … and smiles” are what we need most. Thanks,

  13. February 10, 2011 10:10 pm

    Barbara, Yes, weeding is a topic that any gardener could wax philosophical about!

    Deborah, I’m intrigued by your idea of growing flowers for flower shops. I imagine your flower design experience and expertise would help with making good choices of what to grow. (I have none of hose skills, so it’s good that I’m satisfied with just having enough flowers to cut for the house!)

    Lula, I agree; there isn’t much in life that can’t be helped by optimism, faith, love, hard work, determination and smiles.

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