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Farming bounty in the ghetto

With bees, turkeys, pigs, she tends her tenth of an acre amid Oakland, Calif.'s, mean streets.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

The Education of an Urban Farmer

By Novella Carpenter

Penguin, 277 pp. $16 paperback

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Reviewed by Bob Sheasley

Novella Carpenter wells with tears to see her turkey mourning his mate, ripped by a rottweiler in the Oakland, Calif., ghetto she calls home. Harold circles what's left of Maude, puffs and preens as if asking her to mate, then thumps his head by her side.

So much meat wasted. But she still had Harold for the Thanksgiving feast.

That's how it is with Carpenter, who loves animals, in lots of ways. She's a complex character, like none you've likely met - part foodie, part greennik, part hunter-gatherer. A farmer by nature. She defends animal rights, but not as you might imagine.

In Farm City, originally published in hardcover a year ago and now out in paperback, she tells of the urban farm that she and boyfriend Bill started on a weed-choked lot next to their apartment in GhostTown, a neighborhood of thugs and crackheads. A shattered mirror leans against a rusty shed, next to a junkyard.

Carpenter, who will discuss her book Tuesday night at the Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, begins with herbs and vegetables, adds a beehive, then chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese. Rabbits. Pigs. What was desolate now brims with bounty. The homeless pilfer her produce by night, usually with her indulgence. Other creatures pilfer her livestock, not exactly with her indulgence.

Shovel raised, she stands over an errant opossum: "Don't." Clang. "Kill." Thud. "My." Whump. "Ducks." She severs its head and considers putting it on a spike or tossing the body into the street to be flattened. But she pauses:

"Like the junkyard dogs who killed Maude, this beast was just following instinct. . . . The dogs, the headless opossum - they were not the biggest killers. I was. Compared to what I had planned to do - roast the goose, confit the ducks, and truss the turkey - this opossum was a small-time player." She feels like a murderer, not for killing but for how. "Caught up in protecting my babies, I realized, I had become a savage."

She thinks of her parents, who embraced the back-to-the-land movement of the '60s. Her hippie mother became lonely on an isolated Idaho homestead as her mountain-man father went feral, leaving for long hunting trips. They divorced when Novella and her sister were young. Her mother's self-sufficient ingenuity sustained them.

"My parents had, by my age, built a house from scratch, had two children, and fed themselves from their land," she says, then looks at her own life. "My peers were homeless people and freaks."

In the alley outside her window, an addict squats on a bucket, pants down and sleeping. She could live anywhere, she tells herself, besides this squalid place, this Wild West of gunfights and lawlessness with the nation's highest murder rate. No rules here. Anything goes.

In a place like this, you could live in an abandoned car for months, like her friend Bobby, who combs the city for junk and deposits it at the end of their dead-end street. Here, you could squat-farm on a scruffy lot you don't own. And in that she recognizes a paradox: Only this slum would tolerate her.

To her landlord, an immigrant from Benin, an urban farm seems normal. Her Vietnamese neighbor tosses scraps to her pigs, like back home. The Yemeni shopkeeper is thrilled to get live chickens and honey. Bobby gives her tips on pig butchering that he recalls from another world he once knew, Arkansas. And not far away, in a posh Italian restaurant in Berkeley, she befriends a Tuscany-trained butcher and gourmet chef to help her make the prosciutto and salami and more that she craves.

Meanwhile, growing pigs get hungry. They need far more than the weeds she collects for her fowl. Where better to fill the slop buckets than in the garbage bins behind the restaurants that increasingly are gentrifying her part of town? She and Bill dive in the Dumpsters, "laughter wafting out of the open windows above us, the smell of cigarette smoke mingling with the odor of fetid fruit."

Seeing her groping for fish guts, a homeless man offers her a dollar. But using the city's waste stream is part of her philosophy of self-sufficiency. Her use of things that others discard is born of nature, not necessity. No need to throw out a bunny's brain - you can use it to tan its hide. Scrounged pallets and old plywood make a fine coop. Together, she and Bill find treasures amid the piles of debris that rise at curbside around the neighborhood early each month, at eviction time.

By book's end, you know this woman. She lays out her heart, one that embraces life's moments so dearly that she mourns their passing, even while they're here. Farm City finds her in her prime - when "I felt young and healthy, and nostalgic for the present."

And that, too, is how it is with Novella Carpenter. Deeply reflective, though earthy. She'll rail against injustices toward animals, then take you on an intimate tour of their innards. She cusses and quotes poetry. She is, in short, honest about herself. She feels genuine.

In slaughtering an animal, she comes to understand, one must respect it, honor it. Livestock have struck a Faustian bargain with humans, she says. They offer us their lives in exchange for shelter, feed, and an opportunity to pass on their genes. They would not otherwise exist. Yet an animal's slaughter is a sacred moment, a transfer of life forces, and death should come in a familiar place, by familiar hands. It's a gift we must not waste.

But all is not well on Carpenter's tenth of an acre, down home with her homies. Nearby, development is creeping in. Storefronts are unshuttering, condos are rising. There goes the neighborhood. A for-sale sign appears on the lot, and she worries for her little farm.

Like her honeybees, she could leave. At swarming time, some bees set out to find a new hive. Humans, smart as we are, don't know why some choose to go while others choose to stay. But wherever she and Bill go, she knows, they will have bees. Then they will build a garden, and raise chickens. "It's just what we do."