Book Reviews: The Delights of Rural Life

By Jane Ciabattari

June 13, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California

As Alice Waters hovers in the wings as a muse for the Obama era, inspiring the White House garden and healthy school lunches, the fantasy of a pastoral life far from derivatives and emissions and other excreta of our times abounds. Right on track are these two memoirs—journalist Jonah Raskin’s “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California,” an account of organic farming in Sonoma County, and novelist Brad Kessler’s “Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese,” a chronicle of learning to raise goats and make cheese on a farm in Vermont.

Each provides vicarious and delicious adventures for those of us more likely to buy locally at farm stands or plant a garden patch than respond to the call of the land at full bore.

In the process of writing these memoirs, both Raskin and Kessler made drastic shifts in daily routine, and followed an imperative to digest a universe of new information, much of it nonverbal. Paramount for each was a personal quest—for healthier living, for connection to the land, for simplicity—or, possibly, simply for peace and quiet.

Raskin, author of “The Radical Jack London” and “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation,” sketches Northern California’s organic farming lineage quickly, beginning with Jack and Charmian London, who settled in Sonoma’s legendary Valley of the Moon in 1906 and grew much of their own food. He includes Warren Weber of Marin County’s Star Route Farm, and makes it clear that Sonoma County’s farms have supplied Alice Waters’ restaurant kitchen for decades and impressed Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement

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