Almost all writers carry a notebook around with them to record thoughts and ideas as they arise. They usually end up being quite random, a mix of the brilliant and the mundane, day-to-day worries mixed in with the germs of big ideas. To get an idea of what the inside of a writer’s notebook looks like, you could take a look at Ruminations from the Garden.
Strangely, it doesn’t end up being a bad thing. The narrative meanders around in unexpected directions, taking in corn prices, bestiality, religion, politics, weather, corn prices, cowboys, horse riding, the Lebanon-Israel conflict and pretty much anything else you can think of that was happening around 2006. But it does so in an engaging style and with absolute candour. If you can embrace randomness, then this is an enjoyable read.
It’s also true to life. Ford sets out with a clear plan of raising a small organic garden in the scorching heat of a Texas summer. He will clear a plot, plant it out, and tell us how it all works out over the year. He describes his rationale very well. Artificial methods of industrial-scale farming have made it possible to farm huge tracts of land with very few people, but at the cost of massive dependence on oil. Thirty gallons of oil are now needed to raise one acre of corn. The machinery, vehicles, chemicals, irrigation equipment, etc., are all dependent on oil in some way, and the oil is becoming more scarce. Prices are rising, and what happens when it runs out, or becomes so scarce that it’s unaffordable? Ford decides to find out, picking up his hoe and going back to old-style manual labour on one acre of his farm.
For a while, he sticks to this plan, and it seems clear what to expect. You start to enjoy the descriptions of repetitive manual labour, the attention to detail, the observations of things that are not possible to see from a tractor, the remembrance of old, almost-forgotten techniques that assume a sudden importance when combine harvesters and industrial pesticides are not to hand.
But then, as with so many great human plans, things go a bit awry. Other things get in the way. Drought strikes. The initial enthusiasm fades. As the book goes on, the garden becomes a less and less regular feature. You wonder what happened to it, sometimes, and then it reappears again choked with weeds, and then it’s back to some other anecdote. At first I got a bit frustrated and wished he would just follow through with the garden thing, but then I realised that he was just being honest. He tried to raise this organic garden in 100 degree heat, and it was really hard work, and sometimes he failed and sprayed weedkiller on the crops just because his back was aching and he couldn’t face weeding by hand, and sometimes he went back to it and spent all day and night picking tomatoes. That’s what people do. We work in bursts, committed one minute and distracted the next. What I wanted, the perfect story of an experiment carried through to its logical conclusion, was unrealistic. In fact, one of the points I think Ford was trying to make is that this kind of farming is incredibly tough, especially in the drought conditions of southern Texas in the throes of climate change. It’s a warning us about what to expect in the future, when our current, unsustainable practices are no longer possible.
When I learned to relax and go wherever Ford wanted to take me, I started to enjoy the book a lot more. It’s an entertaining read, much like listening to an opinionated, avuncular old relative telling stories at the bar. You don’t necessarily agree with all of it or follow the logic, but you enjoy the ride.