How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.

Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

Every year since owning my own home I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard.  My garden is not for the faint of heart.  The plants start from seeds in the sun room and by mid-July I have a small ecosystem to rival a Brazilian rainforest in the yard.  Carrots, bush beans, thyme, mint, rosemary, peppers, lavender, broccoli, eggplant… all manage to cohabit amiably until the tomatoes take over.  Once those bad boys start sprouting all bets are off.  We refer to my 6 x 9 foot patch of produce as “the heart of darkness” and a chicken wire fence is all that stands between us and it.  Take my word for it, Pennsylvania is a primo spot for tomato growing.

Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994.  He started growing his tomato seedlings under florescent lights in a Brooklyn apartment and after getting booted by his landlord took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania.  “Farm” is putting it generously – he has 2 acres dedicated to growing which, by his own account, he does not own.  But what he grows on those 2 acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC.  His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer is not an account of his journey from PA to Brooklyn and back again.  It’s no more or less than what the title claims – a mishmash of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan.  (There’s a whole archive of articles that didn’t make the cut over at Gourmet.com).  What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a damn good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer.  And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days.  That edge creeps in.  This isn’t Garrison Keillor or some heartwarming pioneer family mini-series on the Hallmark Channel.  Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses.  He’s also a bit of a crank.  He complains his way through much of the book… About not being accepted by the other farmers in his area.  About farmers competing with Real Estate developers for farmland.  About what the government charges and the paperwork it requires before you can call your produce “organic”.  About readers of Gourmet sending him hate mail after the magazine published his story about killing a groundhog as he deals with un-diagnosed lyme disease (add hypochondriac to his possible sins).  Stark’s crankiness is a big part of what makes his storytelling so much fun.

Knowing I was broke from buying a tractor and from buying all of the material that went into constructing the greenhouse, they (his Mennonite neighbor, neighbor’s son, brother and father, who all showed up seemingly unannounced one Spring day to help Stark put up his greenhouse) refused to accept payment for their services.  And I wasn’t even a member of their church.  So I tried to be a sport… I threw myself into the next job that had been lined up for the crew: putting the roof on a barn.  I found myself fifty feet up, clinging to a roof beam, cowering and dropping nails to the ground as all around me Mennonites young and old tromped along without the slightest fear in the world.  I hung in there for about forty-five minutes, nervously pounding a nail or two, clinging to dear life and dropping three nails for every one that I pounded in.  When I finally said enough was enough, maneuvering over to the ladder and climbing down to safety, everybody up on the roof thanked me with such sincerity that, in view of my tiny, cowering contribution, I decided they could only have been thanking me for not falling and breaking my neck and leaving them with a real predicament on their hands.

Parenthesis mine.

It’s when Stark switches the focus off himself, his farm, and his experiences that Heirloom becomes a bit lackluster.  An example would be in the very first chapter where he spends too much time on the story of the failed farmer who was the de facto caretaker of Eckerton Farm when Stark moved there as a child.  We’re supposed to see a parallel between the lives of Milt Miller & Tim Stark, but while I understand that the author feels some kinship to the man I never completely buy into it – or into the bigger picture Stark is trying to paint.

Tim Stark is best when he remembers to be Tim Stark… not Michael Pollan.  When he remembers that readers want to hear about his first year growing tomatoes at Eckerton, of a hellish day spent delivering snap beans door-to-door to NYC restaurants, or selling chile peppers to West Indians.  Chapters that start with sentences such as ‘It was inevitable that we would come to be labeled as “the tomato people”…’  “My wife – the farmer’s wife, always sticking her nose where she got no bidness…”  “The bucket on my tractor snapped when I tried to clear the snow that finally stopped falling at noon on Valentine’s Day…”  are the ones that really sing.  Stark still gets his point across and his message out just as clearly as does Pollan, just in his own voice (which, in my opinion, feels more relevant).

Overall, the book is a winner.  I enjoyed it so much that I recommend going online to check out that archive of articles on Gourmet.com (if you haven’t found them already).  And since Condé Nast is closing the magazine, the clock just may be ticking on that.  Hopefully that means they’ll have to publish a follow-up to Heirloom.