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Katrina Alcorn

Working the Land, Writing in Your Head: Q&A with Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter (photo by Sophia Wang)

I was in Upstate New York last fall, visiting family, when my aunt thrust a book in my hands. “I saved this for you,” she said. “You have to read it.”

The book was Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter (Penguin Press, 2009). I was skeptical. After all, my aunt is as conservative and Catholic as I am liberal and un-churched. But I was immediately sucked into Carpenter’s world, into the unlikely mixture of urban life: the graffiti, the drugs, the lawlessness of a dead-end Oakland street; and the farming life: hives buzzing with happy bees, baby chicks chirping on the doorstep, pigs rolling lazily in the dirt.

The story takes us through Carpenter’s journey to make a home amid the blight, and start a farm on an adjacent, unused lot. It’s a modern-day adventure that addresses the issues that many of us — on the left and the right — are wringing our hands about these days: the deplorable state of the environment, the rise of “frankenfood,” our lost connection to the art of cooking and to communing with each other through food.

But Carpenter has better things to do than wring her hands. The turkey just flew into the neighbor’s yard and the pigs are hungry! Throughout, Carpenter is unapologetically herself. She has high ideals for what makes a purposeful life, but she’s no hippie and she swears like a trucker. By the end of the book, she manages to leave us feeling giddy and hopeful for the future.

As it turned out, she lives 20 blocks from my own urban home-sweet-home, and since I read the book, we’ve become friends. One evening recently, I sat down with Carpenter in her second-floor Oakland apartment, while the goats dozed in their sleeping shed and the baby ducklings nestled together on the back stairs. Though we didn’t get into her recent travails with the City of Oakland because of her urban farming, we did talk about the continuing reactions to her book and the new memoir she’s working on.

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