By Melissa Coleman
Harper Collins Publishers 2011
Eliot Coleman is a now famous organic gardener, one of the leading experts in his field, considered a father of the organic food movement. When he was twenty-six years old he and his wife Sue took up land in northern Maine. This memoir by their daughter Melissa tells of the ideals and broken dreams that awaited Eliot and Sue in their quest for utopia.
Though sometimes called hippies, Eliot and Sue were not drop-outs. They were extremely hardworking, dedicated to a goal of total vegetarian self-sufficiency. They moved next door to the legendary back-to- the-land advocates Scott and Helen Nearing. Tellingly, the Nearings chose not to have children and saw them as a distraction.
Living in cabins and a house they built themselves, the Colemans survived without running water, indoor toilets, electricity or telephone. They cooked and warmed themselves on an old
cast iron stove. They took on no debt. Working sixteen hours a day, Eliot Coleman was able to turn the acidic soil of Cape Rosier into productive farmland. He did it by rediscovering natural methods of unlocking the nitrogen stored in the forest floor. He used horse manure and compost instead of chemical fertilizer. He plowed and weeded and hoed until the family was able to produce vegetables they then sold at a roadside stand. They survived on less than $2,000 a year.
And in the meantime, Sue gave birth to three daughters.
Today, when cell phones and the internet keep us in constant touch with the outside world, it is hard to believe that in the nineteen seventies Sue Coleman, pregnant or not, would rise before dawn to carry heavy buckets of water from the well, balancing them from a rod on her shoulders. She milked goats, fed the hens and collected eggs and sewed and mended clothes. Before she could bake the daily bread she had to grind the grains by hand. She cooked three meals a day, first for the family, later for all the workers, and she did it without electricity. She had to care for three children on her own because the others were all in the fields. She endured the sight of nubile, athletic young women striding naked through the farm while she felt cast aside, housebound, unable even to smooth her chapped lips with face-cream. In the midst of her sense of unraveling and chaos, a true family tragedy occurred. The fall-out from this loss flows organically, to overuse that word. No other outcome was possible, in Melissa Coleman’s telling.
Melissa Coleman skillfully blends her present self, her adult knowledge, with her childhood memories. Now that she understands the stresses on the family’s life she is unsparing in the honesty with which she chronicles the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and the farm. Yet she does not judge them. Her father’s urge to succeed was unmatched and one imagines that whatever profession he chose, charismatic, driven Eliot Coleman would leave others far behind. Still, the fact remains that his first wife was his true partner in his first and most difficult endeavor to live self-sustainably. As is true for so many women, her contribution and the toll it took is not recognized in the world.
This book is full of wonderful prose pictures, the soft light of summer, fireflies, snow on the fields, the milking of the goats. The world of farming as it used to be several generations back is presented without sugar-coating. It’s a world that another generation of young people is trying to claw back in a valiant attempt to undo climate change and the ravages of industrialization.
It’s no accident that many visionaries follow their dreams single-mindedly, without the distraction of family. Coleman shows us how sticking to the dream without compromise can destroy the hopes of those closest to the dreamer. The title of this book has a triple meaning and is so very apt. It tells us that we, too, can choose to live an intentional life. It refers to the line in the palm of the hand that presumably augers a person’s years of life. And it also alludes to what we must do for the fragile children we bring into the world, that awesome responsibility. One of the unspoken truths in this book is that the modern world, for all its faults, allows children to grow to adulthood because their mothers have time to care for them, freed from unremitting, backbreaking labor.