I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.
I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).
This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:
"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)
I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?
Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.