The 95 acres of New Morning Farm sprawl across hill and valley in south-central Pennsylvania. Jim and Moie Crawford purchased the farm in 1976, two years before their son Arlo was born. The Crawfords began organic farming with little experience and no money. But slowly, by direct marketing to the Washington area, they built such a reputation that in 2008 they were advisers for the White House’s kitchen garden.
To young Arlo, however, the farm was simply everyday life. “One of them would stop working to show me how to identify wild spearmint by its square stems,” he writes of the farmhands, “and another would walk with me after a storm to look for fallen birds’ nests.”
Crawford’s memoir is elegant and richly detailed. In recounting a season on the farm, at first he seems more observer than protagonist. This viewpoint results in part from his charmingly modest voice, as he attends to the people and plants around him. But the method proves a smart narrative choice. Crawford comes to the farm, in part, because he feels himself drifting through life. He doesn’t plan to become a farmer, but he wants to reconnect with his parents, the land and his childhood. As he takes control of his life, the narrative becomes more his own.
Crawford’s light touch serves him well. The substantial setup in the first chapter ends with his arrival at the farm. He’s 31 and feeling aimless as he walks into the kitchen after dark. Instead of holding the moment for drama, Crawford’s authorial camera follows him to the sink, where he pours a glass of water from the metal tap: “It had a particular taste from the well, cold and mineral, the way water tasted when I was a little kid.”
Seemingly minor details anchor scenes, lending authority to Crawford’s voice. As he takes us from first planting through selling a harvest in the big-city markets, he makes farming comprehensible even to those of us who think vegetables come from the grocery store.
Nostalgia suffuses this book, but it isn’t regret or a longing for lost innocence. Like the rest of us, Crawford is merely surprised to find two lives overlapping — the past and the present. Slowly, he sketches his relationship with his family, especially his father. When Crawford builds a high wooden platform on which to pitch a tent, there is a lifetime of family dynamics in his father’s critique and an eventual beaming appraisal of the structure’s strength and balance. Crawford perks up the story halfway through with the arrival of his smart, indulgent girlfriend, whom a Victorian would call “plucky.” Their romance adds another layer to this moving narrative.
Sims is the author, most recently, of “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau.”
A FARM DIES ONCE
By Arlo Crawford
Henry Holt. 258 pp. $25