My neighbor Julie Bell came through my door with a pot of chili, a hug, and a vintage fur cape (she pictures me wearing it to New York to meet my editors). Neighbors and friends sent cards, apple pie, huckleberry crisp, a leg of lamb, and goat cheese. They’ve all just heard that Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, liked my book proposal, a lot. They’ve paid me a $1.35 million advance to write two illustrated books, and I’ve never written a book before.
I’m a Northern Idaho farmer. Specifically, an organic farmer—meaning I don’t buy chemicals. I wouldn’t know how to use them, really, since I grew up growing only organic food on the outskirts of Ogden, Utah, one of seven in a working-class Mormon family. A dissident daughter at age 18, I went off to live in the woods, working for the Forest Service as a wilderness ranger, fire tower lookout, bridge builder, timber-thinning crew member, trail clearer, etc. After that, I went to carpentry trade school, tackled years of roofing jobs, took up activist work, became a ranch hand, and raised milk cows, babies, and food. For the past 19 years, I’ve been on this farm, living outside in the summer, using electricity only sparingly, with one foot in the modern world and one in the pre-electric era. Now I find myself on the doorstep of my latest endeavor: writing a book.
It’s 4 a.m. Sunday, and I am wide awake. My 63-page book proposal sits in a file cabinet in another building. Grabbing a flashlight and a pair of boots, I remember to make a bunch of noise as I step through the door. There’s a willow tree to the left of my porch, and last night I was startled by a bull moose eating its branches. Tonight, I’ll do the startling. After he thunders off and I’ve stepped onto the dark trail, I hear an owl. I think I hear a porcupine—they lumber and move a lot of brush.
In the human world, night is quiet. That’s why I’m up. During the day, my work consists of constant interruptions. My life is full of other people. They come and go from my farm, the first one arriving as early as 7 a.m., the last one not leaving until midnight sometimes. When my 800 mail-order number starts to ring and employees show up, I’m on duty. (My farm ships instant organic foods to stores throughout North America. I also publish a magazine, MaryJanesFarm, and run a school cultivating organic farmers.) So to make sure I have perfect quiet at night (my time to write and daydream), I keep the humming tower of my computer on the other side of a concrete wall.
The poet Marge Piercy said, “Every woman who makes of her living something strong and good is sharing bread with us.” It seems like the little bit of loaf I’ve had for 30 years just grew in biblical proportions. Now I’m thinking something else biblical, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.”
My book’s working title is Mary Jane’s Gathering Place: Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook … for the Farm Girl in All of Us. I want to write a how-to manual for women who live—or want to live—on a farm. Women are buying farms in record numbers, and some figures suggest that if purchases continue at this rate, women may own 75 percent of America’s farmland within 10 years. When I sent my ideas to Random House, I explained it like this:
These days, women are seeking common-sense remedies that rely on classic values. There is a new interest in domesticity that includes the resurrection of forgotten arts like canning and crocheting. When we gather together, we share our talents, tell what we long for and talk about what is missing in our lives. Creating a trail counter to market-driven cultural models can be lonely—and loony—territory. We want real conversation. We like to share pretty things. We’re dreamers. Armed with the “how” of it all, we become doers—how to mend a sweater, build a greenhouse, restore a grandmother’s diamond set, choose healthy table salt and toothpaste, cook with grace once a month, replace a lawn with a double-dug raised bed, mend a doily, start a business, learn to knit, buy a milk goat, raise chickens, braid a rug, dry leftover fruit, live alone, grow a winter garden, choose a water filter, find a non-toxic mattress, share laundry tips, talk about face lifts, faith, calcium.
These are things I’ve learned how to do and how to make time for. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of what I’ve done here at the farm because I don’t do certain things. I don’t watch TV, and I don’t travel much. But while I’m over in the basement, I ferret out The Ferret Chronicles, Richard Bach’s book about a golden deed and the last war. My Sunday reading.