The alternative career fantasies of writers would make an interesting study: James Joyce dreaming of becoming the agent for Irish tweeds in Trieste, Thomas Mann musing that he would have made a good banker, Samuel Beckett contemplating a career as a pilot. ‘I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot,’ Beckett wrote to Thomas MacGreevy at the age of 29, having just published More Pricks than Kicks. ‘I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read. It was not as though I wanted to write them.’ The spurs to fantasy in his case were failure and rejection, which he suffered on a grand scale – one of the reasons his biography makes such consoling reading for struggling writers.

About twelve years ago (to elevate myself into this company) I went through a period of disenchantment with the writing life. There were the external blows familiar to most writers: work turned down, bad reviews, anthologies that seemed to have been conceived around the idea of the most pointed possible exclusion of oneself. And then there were the more damaging internal factors, principally a weird mixture of workaholism and feeble inspiration that left me at the end of each day with pages of drivel and my own version of the feeling Kafka describes in his diary as ‘inner leprosy’ (I became an aficionado of such states and their attendant texts).

It was clear to me that I needed to take myself in hand. ‘You must change your life’ (another line that took up residence in my head). But how? And to what? Among the answers that came to mind, one of the few that didn’t involve a rope or a bottle of pills, was that of moving to the country and living off the land. This had been a fantasy of mine since my teens and it still had a powerful grip on me. In England it had never seemed remotely practical, but in the United States, where there was still affordable land to be lived off, one could entertain it as a serious possibility. I even knew someone who had done it, and from a position similar to my own: a bookish man married to a literary agent, who had moved to Vermont and was now making sheep’s cheese, his home a living Marvellian idyll – sheep without, books within.

Among the latter were Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Four-Season Harvest, which I borrowed, reading them from cover to cover in a state of rapidly escalating euphoria. It was possible, according to this guru of the modern organic farming movement, to support yourself on as little as half an acre of land. Five acres and you could live like a prince. You didn’t need any machines except perhaps a two-wheeled walking tractor-tiller: otherwise it was all old-fashioned broad-forks, wheel-hoes and good sharp knives, with a few ducks for slug control and some low-tech greenhouses and root cellars to keep you going through the winter (diagrams provided). This was what I wanted! Instead of being forever at the mercy of editors, reviewers, and my own highly undependable literary resources, I would realign myself with the forces of nature, make my living under the sun and the wind and the rain, in a ‘right relation’ to the cosmos. There, even failure would be noble rather than the demeaning thing it was in literature. My Vermont friend knew an organic farmer who supplemented his workforce by running an informal apprenticeship programme. I called the man at once. His name was Guy Jones and his farm was an hour north of New York, where I was living. He agreed to take me on as soon as the growing season began.

On an icy morning in March I drove up the thruway and along the back roads of Orange County to Blooming Hill Farm, to begin my new life. I was apprehensive – a little stunned to find myself actually doing this – but glad to see that, physically at least, the farm conformed closely to my image of how this new life ought to look: there was a cheerful, eccentric house that appeared to have been banged together out of scrap lumber; beyond it a cluster of similarly makeshift-looking sheds; then, across a winding creek with a half-collapsed footbridge, some small tunnel greenhouses made of steel hoops draped with plastic sheeting, followed by muddy fields and scrub and thick woods. A mobile chicken coop for fertilising different parts of the ground sat on sled-like runners – just as I had seen described in the Coleman books. The air smelled of wood smoke from a stove in one of the sheds, where Guy and his two permanent workers were drinking coffee on crates around an old cable drum that served as a table. It was my kind of place: improvised, tumbledown, yet clearly in business; a ramshackle principality.

Guy himself might have stepped off an album sleeve from the early 1970s: a hippy of the barrel-chested Viking type, broad-faced, with long blond hair and bright blue eyes. He seemed bemused by me, but was friendly, open, and unabashedly idealistic in his talk. Before farming he had run a store-front law office helping street kids in Albany. In the 1970s he had gone to California to volunteer for Cesar Chavez’s campaign to unionise farm labourers. Chavez required his legal and administrative volunteers to experience work in the fields first-hand, and Guy had found that he enjoyed it, thereby discovering his vocation. He had 15 acres of land now, a wife and two kids, and a handful of workers whom he was trying to pay a living wage. It wasn’t easy – the need to reconcile being a boss and a labour advocate at the same time seemed particularly problematic – but he appeared to be making a go of the business, and enjoying it too. ‘It’s a righteous occupation,’ he said. Then he sent me off to mix potting soil.

A seriously split existence began. On Mondays and Wednesdays I was teaching creative writing at a college outside New York. Trying to inspire people to write is a tricky matter at the best of times, but it becomes a kind of torture when you’re feeling as gloomy about the whole business of writing as I was. Gentle criticism and warm encouragement are the chief things required of the teacher, but I felt more like the policeman in the story (Kafka again) who, on being asked for directions, cries out: ‘Give it up! Give it up!’

And meanwhile, on Tuesdays and Fridays I was in another universe, working at Blooming Hill Farm. To begin with, this consisted of planting seeds in small pots and transplanting seedlings into slightly bigger pots. Someone who hadn’t put in the hours I had reading workshop submissions in borrowed offices with dead spider plants and shelves full of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry might have found this dull, but to me it was thrilling. I enjoyed the physical repetitiveness and absolute materiality: mixing sackloads of peat, vermiculite and composted manure like the ingredients of a gigantic cake, scooping it into the pots, patting it down, sprinkling the seeds, covering them with more soil, watering them, labelling each pot in waterproof ink on a white plastic tag, crossing each item off the list on the clipboard as the correct number was completed: 40, 50, 60 lines at the end of a day. It was like a dream version of writing: all you had to do was state your fantastical intentions – Leeks (Blue Solaise), Leeks (King Richard), Nasturtium (Moonlight), Nasturtium (Whirlybird), Nasturtium (Canary Creeper) – and nature would take care of the rest.

Guy’s income came mostly from the restaurant trade and the Union Square farmers’ market in New York. His specialities were dried flowers, the little sweet tomatillos called husk cherries or cape gooseberries, and above all fancy salad greens. He claimed to have introduced mesclun to the American market, and at one time he had been able to sell this pre-washed salad of mixed baby greens for $16 a pound. Since then California growers had started flying it in (a mockery of the environmental principles of organic farming) and the price had halved, but it continued to be a major part of his operation. The fields were still streaked with snow but, in the greenhouse where we were potting, new growth had started coming up from last year’s crop: coquille, mache, mizuna, arugula, ruby chard, puntarelle, deer tongue, frisee, all bubbling out of the earth in neat rows, every shade of green and red, each rosette of leaves gleaming like a solar flare. The sight was intoxicating, though I couldn’t have said whether I wanted to eat the stuff, own it or just look at it. ‘We crave only reality,’ Thoreau wrote, and perhaps that’s what was going on. Unfortunately, the mesclun was attracting flea beetles, and these threatened to ruin the seedlings in our pots, and so it had to be destroyed: several hundred dollars’ worth, rototilled back into the dirt – my introduction into the brutal economics of farming.

The arrangement had been that I would volunteer for a couple of weeks, and then if I wanted to go on I would be paid. I did, and by the middle of April I was on minimum wage. ‘You need to pick up the pace now,’ Guy told me. ‘That’s the difference between farming and gardening.’ I was dispatched to prune the perennials. This involved kneeling in icy mud wearing a pair of leaky rubber trousers and clipping back the woody stalks of several hundred lavender, tarragon, anise and echinacea bushes. The clippers raised huge blisters all over my hands; my wrists ached. Every time I shifted down the row my knees felt as though they were being clubbed. After a half-hour (unpaid) lunch break it was more of the same: four hours of it. I staggered back to my car, half delirious with fatigue, phantom stalks bristling behind my eyelids, the leafless shrubs on the central reservation reeling up at me like nightmarish pruning projects.

The next time I was put to work ‘rocking’ an area of the main field: collecting and carting off all the stones, of which there was an endless supply, most of them enormous. The weather had turned abruptly scorching, and after a few hours of this convict work I was close to passing out. It occurred to me that what I had earned so far was not enough to pay for the packet of razors and bottle of contact lens cleaning solution I had picked up on my way out of the city that morning. This seemed to me a momentous revelation. How did people live? I remembered old peasant stories of magic treasure: self-replenishing cooking pots found under rocks in fields, donkeys shitting gold. I felt I understood these tales for the first time: the desperation under the antic humour. The strange thing, though, was that later I felt only satisfaction with the way I had spent my day, mindless and monotonous as it had been. And when I opened my first pay packet at the end of the week, the cash inside seemed more real, more honest, more gratifyingly mine than any other pay I had ever earned.

Being on the clock was instructive in other ways too. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti speaks of the ‘sting’ that passes from person to person as commands and other assertions of power travel down through the social hierarchy. As a lifelong freelancer I’d never really felt this sting. I felt it now, and it was a shock. To be told to work faster, to come in earlier, to spend less time nattering, is a startling humiliation when you’re an adult, even if you understand the orders from the boss’s point of view. At the same time it produces an intense camaraderie among the ranks. With my two co-workers, Gene and Steve, I reverted to an earlier, more relaxed model of myself. Gene was an amiable white rasta, Steve a nature child who salaamed the rocks and trees and sold beads at the local Renascence Fayre. The joys of inane conversation were mine again. Me: ‘I think Hendrix was a genius.’ Gene: ‘Hendrix had a gift. Marley was a gift.’ One day we drove in his mobile Wailers shrine to his mother’s house for lunch: a flimsy shack by the woods; dog kennels and grimy white plastic furniture outside, inside dark and humid; Gene’s two plump sisters smoking menthol cigarettes in a tiny kitchen with seven different types of supermarket bread piled on the dryer. We were ten minutes late getting back to work and Guy reprimanded us. He was polite about it, but the sting goes in nevertheless, swift and sharp and surprisingly long-lasting.

By mid-May everything was coming up in strips of vivid colour: extremely beautiful, and touching in its intimate scale, like a child’s picture of a farm. Union Square market had reopened and the work shifted gear: faster, harder, suddenly exhilarating. We harvested a mesclun of Russian red kale, mustard, orach, chervil and golden purslane; we cut and tied two-ounce bunches of tarragon and black mint; transplanted onion and leek seedlings; wheel-hoed a shady patch for borage and a sunny one for fingerling potatoes.

In summer a drought hit, and the farm underwent another transformation. Most of the crops dried up. The creek sank down to a few stagnant-looking pools from which Guy continued to irrigate just one small area, where several varieties of tomatoes and the valuable husk cherries grew. The thin-skinned ‘peach’ tomatoes, over-irrigated for their underdeveloped size, burst their skins and had to be thrown out. There were weeds everywhere (not worth weeding a crop you might lose, Guy explained). He was impressively matter-of-fact, but it was clearly a rough time for him. He was doing a quarter of his usual business. His wife was pregnant with a third child. One day he announced that he wasn’t going to be able to make the payroll that week, and asked us to wait till the following Friday. He took a job doing demolition for a development company that had bought neighbouring land with derelict houses on it: filthy work that filled our pay packets but visibly depressed him. I now saw the point of the dried flowers – they had seemed a bit unfarmerly to me before – which had been hanging from rafters in a shed since June. We bunched them up, supplementing them with goldenrod, loosestrife, foxtail millet and any other colourful weeds we could find. It was a point of pride with Guy to be able to sell anything that grew on his land, wild or cultivated. In late October, when the leaves had turned and heavy frosts had brought the growing season almost to an end, we filled the truck with rosehips, sumac berries and branches of fall foliage.

My ‘apprenticeship’ ended in November. I felt expanded, instructed, confirmed in my sense that I would be far better off doing this sort of thing than anything else, and pleasantly surprised that I could do it. And yet that was as far as I ever got in the pursuit of my alternative career. For whatever reason – perhaps simply the lifting of the black mood that had prompted it – I didn’t take it any further. Other things that required only passive acquiescence presented themselves: a travel book, a more congenial teaching job . . . I did move to the country, where I grow the odd lettuce, but otherwise life resumed its familiar pattern.

That was 1993. I hadn’t been back since then but a few weeks ago, on my way to New York, I made a detour to the farm. It had been on my mind to visit Guy for some time. The more I had thought about him over the years, the more representative he had seemed of a certain old-style and (to me) admirable version of the peculiarly American combination of self-reliance and civic-mindedness, and I was curious to see how an embodiment of those virtues in their prelapsarian state was faring under current conditions.

The last decade’s property boom had hit the neighbourhood hard. McMansion-style houses had been put up on the adjacent land, seriously compromising the rural feel of the place. The farm too had changed dramatically: the main shed was now a shop, full of affluent weekenders (judging by the SUVs outside) cooing over baskets of gleaming produce. At the back a brunch counter was selling brioches, galettes and ciabatta from Balthazar. Flyers on the wall advertised workshops in cheesemaking and other crafts. There was a sign-up sheet for $50-a-head vegetarian banquets cooked by visiting chefs. Guy’s children worked the tills while Guy strode about, joking with customers, telling them how to cook quinces or broccoflowers.

He seemed more cheerful than ever, and more seethingly exasperated. He laughed when I congratulated him on the new developments: ‘We’re broke, man!’ The price of food hadn’t risen in twenty years. The big corporations had gone into the organic side of the business with their million-dollar mechanical pickers and vacuum coolers, driving mesclun down to a new low of $4 a pound. You had to keep expanding just to stay still: hence the shop and the café and all the rest of it. He’d kept his niche in the New York restaurant business, and observed wryly that Bush’s tax breaks for the wealthy had created more rich people in Manhattan than ever, and that they all ate out all the time. But doing business there had become more cut-throat. One well-known deli chain had recently stiffed him for five grand, refused to pay what they owed him: ‘You need a good attorney to do vegetables in New York these days. Someone just above breaking legs.’ As for his own shop on the farm, he was glad of the influx of weekenders, but without the locals he couldn’t do the volume he needed in order to turn a profit, and the locals were sticking obstinately to their plastic-wrapped iceberg lettuces from the convenience store. ‘We’ll do $2000 of business today. But we have $6000 worth of produce, most of which we’ll end up throwing out.’

What else? His wife had left. There had been another drought this year, so severe he’d had to close down the entire operation apart from the greenhouses. (I peeped into one: there were the emerald clusters, as mysteriously stirring as ever.) He had bought new land nearby, the Blooming Hill acreage having become suddenly valuable enough to secure a big loan – and saddle him with huge monthly repayments. Oh, and the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been in touch, wanting to set a reality TV series on the farm: ‘We had them here for weeks with their lawyers and researchers.’ Hectic, baroque forces seemed to be encroaching on his life, much as they were – are – on the rest of the country. But he was holding his ground, just. He’d sent the TV producers home without signing the contract, and was even still fighting the odd rearguard political action: battling the local school board for more progressive classes, trying to organise farmers to hold out for better terms at the Union Square market – lost causes, he admitted. Outside the McMansions, kids were driving near life-size electric cars up and down manicured lawns. ‘I’d have been the Unabomber if I hadn’t done farming instead,’ he joked, looking at them. Then he went off to get ready for a fund-raising dinner being given by the Friends of Blooming Hill.

‘For a new greenhouse?’ I asked.

‘No, no: a more comfortable restroom for the customers.’

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