Monday, October 3, 2011

This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is the full title of this memoir. Coleman's childhood on a Maine farm drew me to this book -- it sounded similar in many ways to my own -- but I rather dreaded that it might fall into the blame-the-parents genre:  "I grew up with root vegetables and without Dallas, and my psychotherapist thinks I may never be right." Blessedly, Melissa Coleman is alive, well, living in Maine, and on close terms with both her parents. This is not a blame-hurling book.

This blog is about books, not about me, but I have difficulty viewing this book with total objectivity, because so many of Coleman's observations echo my own past. Her parents were highly-educated people who came "from away" (as the Mainers say of anyone not born in that state) to get back to the land in the early 1970s. They admired the work and philosophy of Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of The Good Life, and it was from the Nearings that the Colemans bought their 60 acres near the coast. Eliot and Sue (Papa and Mama, as Coleman always calls them), built their house by hand, drew their water from the well that Eliot dug, lit with kerosene, heated with wood, grew their vegetables. My own parents did not go off the grid to that extent -- we had running water and electricity in the house -- but we did grow most of our own food, my mother preserving it for the winters in various ways, and we did heat with wood. My parents were omnivorous; Coleman's were vegetarian. My parents were about 20 years older than the Colemans, and their choices were somewhat more moderate, but they would have admired the staggering amounts of work and knowledge the Colemans put into their homestead, and they would have relished Melissa Coleman's observations of Maine's natural beauty as much as I did.

Readers know from the title that the Colemans' homesteading experience didn't end happily. Cynics can sneer and dismiss the story as one more piece of documentary evidence that Utopia doesn't exist. This isn't, however, a story about a Utopian dream that failed to materialise. Eliot and Sue Coleman had and attained vast stores of knowledge and skill, and they expended Herculean amounts of work. As Melissa points out more than once, if they didn't grow and preserve enough food to get them through a winter, they would go hungry. They were not playing at this, and moreover, they succeeded for nearly a decade. Their life on the homestead did not come to an end because it had been an unrealistic goal. They did not quit from exhaustion or sense of failure; both parents still believed deeply in the values that had driven them there at the start. It was the unravelling of their health and their marriage that undid the Colemans' farm. Without two healthy adults working at full capacity and in tandem, there is simply no way to sustain this lifestyle. And, as Melissa illustrates, both the Nearings, then very elderly, and the Colemans took in any number of volunteers, young people who were willing to work to gain knowledge of organic farming methods and self-sufficiency. The presence of young, pretty interns who favoured skinny-dipping and nude gardening also took its toll on the Colemans' marriage, even as it helped with the workload.

Sue Coleman suffered from anxiety and depression, especially post-partum depression after the birth of her three daughters. Only later did Melissa realise that the vegetarian diet very likely contributed to her mother's mood swings. This is also one of a few gentle jabs she takes at the Nearings, her parents' mentors, for failing to disclose the various things they obtained from beyond the boundaries of their own land. She later mentions a crate of oranges and avocados they'd imported surreptitiously from Florida and ate in great secrecy.
Of vitamin B’s many variations, B12—which assists in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system—is not found in plants, leaving vegetarians deficient. The Nearings later admitted to getting B12 shots to supplement their diet, but did not widely discuss this fact, as it contradicted their claims of self-sufficiency.

Eliot Coleman developed hyper-thyroidism. His instinct to lose himself in physical work was both a symptom and an aggravating factor. For several years he resisted both surgery and medication, trying to treat the problem by altering his diet, just as he used different organic fertilisers to feed the soil on the premise that pests will not attack healthy plants. His dietary tactic failed, and Sue, struggling with her own moods, watched his hyperactivity carry him even further from her.

One of the visitors to the Colemans' homestead remarked that it was paradise. Her companion replied to her, "The very nature of paradise is that it will be lost." Paradise may or may not be eternal, but I have always imagined it as unremittingly pleasant. Melissa Coleman makes very plain the joys and enormous risks involved in their lifestyle. I don't think it sounds purely idyllic to anyone who gives it more than a passing thought. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that this lifestyle requires teamwork and total commitment, ideally of multiple families. This is not a life for the solitary sort.  A solitary life requires money, and, as Coleman mentions, many in the world can't afford the luxury of solitude.
That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn't matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town -- not to mention that the Jeep's registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on. We were living the way much of the world actually lives. On the other hand, we didn't have phone, water, or electrical bills; health insurance premiums; or a mortgage, a car payment, or any other monthly payment, for that matter. No one could come to shut off our utilities and take away our home.
Mama nodded at Papa over the dinner table and smiled, salad dressing shining on her lips. When eating a good meal, with our feet under our own table, we felt that we were, indeed, royalty...  I hover close here because I understand that our survival lay in that exchange, and in the precarious balance of Mama's and Papa's emotional investment in our lifestyle. To succeed at this life, they had to constantly feed their vision of it, or it would wither and die. 

This is not a story of a failed experiment, nor a snap-shot of a past era, a time when going 'back to the earth' and 'back to nature' happened to be in vogue. It's completely relevant today. Those of us who live in cities, who flip switches and turn taps for light and water, who buy our foods rather than growing them -- we need to be mindful of our place in it all. We need to remember that our lives are also full of uncertainty: what happens when potable water stops coming from the tap? Where does the food come from, and what if it fails to show up? What happens when the chemicals have killed the soil, or when the farmers have all given up and moved to the cities? The Colemans are not utopian, escapist crackpots, nor were the Nearings before them, and we don't necessarily need to move into the Maine woods to learn from them. Buying locally, organically grown produce might be a simple way to start.

Two other books that complement this one beautifully are Michael Pollan's An Omnivore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

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