Wednesday Book Review: ‘The Dirty Life’

HN book critic Erin McCabe is inspired by Kristin Kimball’s “memoir of farming, food and love.” And, yes, there are horses in it.

From Erin:

Plowing Through Books

Sometimes (gasp!) I read books without horses on the cover.  This week I went on a binge.  First I read The Hunger Games trilogy and decided Katniss should be an honorary HorseGirl since obviously she would totally rock at Pentathalon. I briefly felt guilty that I wasn’t reading something horsey but decided to indulge myself with a book I’ve been wanting to read for awhile:  The Dirty Life.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like my life.  I mean, is it possible to have A Clean Life with horses?

However, the subtitle of The Dirty Life (by Kristin Kimball) is: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love.  I wanted to read it because lately I’ve been obsessed with/curious about/intrigued by the idea of trying to grow or raise most of one’s own food (I have to justify my desire to own goats somehow!).  This book is definitely about that—Kristin and her soon-to-be husband, both first generation farmers, not only start a farm, but they feed themselves and the members of their “Full Diet” CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.  It’s pretty impressive and I was totally happy just to read about how they started their farm (which they got for free!?) with a dairy cow, piglets, cats, chickens, turkeys, and seeds (duh).

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, despite the absence of any horses on the cover, there are actually horses in the book!  As in, Kristin and her husband decide that they will do most of their farming sans tractor.  Yep, they decide to go Amish-style and use draft horses.  The entire book is lush and poignant and moving, but the passages about the horses are often gorgeous.  For example, when Kristin and her husband go shopping for their pair of horses, she describes the first time she drove Sam and Silver, the Belgians they ended up buying: “I took the lines in my hands for the first time.  It was like holding live things, a pair of tame snakes.  Riding, you have your whole body—heels, legs, seat, weight, and hands—in communication with the horse.  Moreover, you’re on top, a position of power.  When you’re driving a team, all that communication—the whole intense conversation—takes places through a few inches of leather running across your palms, your connection to the horses’ mouths.  And there are two of them, blind to everything but the road in front of them.  And they weigh a ton each.  And you are strapped to them from behind, your fates bound.  I guess I’d imagined draft horses would be boring compared to the horses I liked to ride—the hot, wild type that will move off your heel like drag racers—but I glimpsed that day how wrong I was.”

Kimball writing about the experience of using horses for farm labor is beautiful.  For instance, in the midst of chronicling the challenges of learning to be a teamster, she pens this passage:  “If I could have glimpsed the future, this is what I would have seen:  Late spring, sunny afternoon, me seven months pregnant with our daughter, driving the team for Mark while he plowed, not because we needed two people for the job by then but for the sheer pleasure of it, the knowing horses doing their work and the plow moving smoothly through soil and we two humans enjoying it like other couples enjoy a waltz together.  But that was far in the future, with a lot of trying in between.”  She doesn’t sugarcoat the experience though.  Plowing and cultivating and harvesting with horses is hard work.  Just getting them harnessed is hard work (lifting a 70 pound hame onto an 18 hand horse sounds worse than any western saddle).  And then there’s the time her team runs away….  I’ve always been suspicious of driving, for the exact reason Kimball mentions—that whole strapped-to-them-from-behind thing—and it turns out that driving is definitely not for the faint of heart.  After reading Kimball’s description Sam and Silver galloping out onto the road toward town, I’m pretty much convinced that eventing is tame in comparison to farming.

Now, maybe it’s because all of this horse stuff was an unexpected bonus, but there’s plenty enough horse action woven throughout this book to keep this HorseGirl satisfied.  It was a pleasure to read about a part of the horse world that most of us have no experience with—a world where horses work because they have to. You’ll enjoy the book more if you have an interest in cooking, the “slow food” movement, or CSA, or if you have issues with factory farming (it will also help if you’re not squeamish as Kimball writes a lot about slaughtering and cooking their own meat).  Still, there’s enough cross-over between plow horses and riding horses (because really, it’s all about living with horses) to find common ground.  Whether you’re riding or driving, Kimball’s observations ring true:  “To this day I don’t know why they work for us so willingly.  They are big enough to say no, but they keep saying yes, even at the end of a long day, even in the dark.”

So, if you’ve been getting flak for being all horses all the time, The Dirty Life is the perfect antidote.  Everyone will think you’re reading a “normal” book, when really you’ll still be getting a great dose of big horse.

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