Arlo Crawford fled the organic farm his father and mother created because, he writes, it “always made me a little anxious,” being “so isolated and lonely, and the work there was so intense.” But the summer he is 31, he leaves his job at a Harvard museum and moves home, to New Morning Farm in rural Pennsylvania, to live a more deliberate life.

Thoreau aimed for the same thing at Walden Pond. Thousands of others dream the same dream, then write about their pastoral projects, figuring out how to mate goats, or birthing bovine babies in an old cashmere sweater. I have two bookshelves full of what I’ll here call manure lit.

With a few exceptions, those books are often too cute or too lyrical about the land, engaging in what poet Maxine Kumin called “bucophilia.” Arlo Crawford’s memoir is the opposite. In straightforward language as honest as an apple he describes the life his parents chose as itchy, smelly, boring, bloody, fickle, relentless and exhausting — with occasional hours of untroubled sleep and a few really good moments of bliss.

The Crawford farm is 40 years old and 75 acres huge, grows 100 kinds of vegetables, employs up to 25 people, supplies a big co-op plus restaurants and embassies in Washington, D.C., and runs two farmers markets in the nation’s capitol. It grows $100,000 worth of tomatoes each summer, except the one Crawford is witnessing.

And so his father sits in his office long after dark, with no computer, jotting everything by hand, and frets. And his mother smokes a joint during a break from hoeing the herbs. And when it’s time for their son to pick up at the airport the girlfriend who did not grow up on a farm, but who will join him in a simple cabin he’s building on the land, Arlo Crawford is too spent to change his dingy clothes or brush his teeth.

“I was proud of the fact,” he writes, “that my parents were willing to live with so much uncertainty.” He suffers from a lack of confidence and purpose. He was a kid so fretful he was allowed to sleep with a Civil War sword, an anxiety worsened when a family friend, another farmer, was murdered in his own field.

The ups and downs of one summer, reflected off the ups and downs of one man’s life, make for a story that has stayed with me longer than most novels. I even found myself getting teary near its end, when an unexpected bounty of raspberries redeems New Morning Farm:

“Out of all the mess of the season, the mud and the anxiety, we created a few perfect things. It seemed like an amazing way to make a living, so simple and graceful, that it was almost hard to believe it was something we did with our hands.”

 

Susan Ager, a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is at susan@susanager.com.