Jonah Raskin is Professor of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University and the author of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation, and For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, all available from University of California Press. Raskin chronicles his latest adventure, in his new book, Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California (UC Press, May 2009).The adventure takes place in the fields of Sonoma County, California, which gave him a fresh perspective on farming, viticulture, the restaurant industry, and everything in between. To learn more about his findings, we welcome you to listen to an interview with the author and read his tidbits below.
By Jonah Raskin
I’ve often heard it said – in my travels in the world of farming and food – that we all have a farm somewhere in the past, and a farmer some place in the branches of our family tree. I know I do. Not that long ago, my immigrant grandparents owed a farm on Long Island about 50 miles from New York City. My own boyhood was shaped by the values and the contours of a rural, agricultural community that was effaced in the 1950s by the spread of suburbia, probably the single most earthshaking social upheaval in my life.
In the 1970s my parents moved to Sonoma County, California where they grew organic fruits and vegetables. I joined them there and became a part of what was called “the-back-to-the-land movement,” working in the fields with my father and in the kitchen with my mother. Then, once again I witnessed the end of traditional farming and ranching, and the spread of tract houses that transformed the landscape, and ended what felt like an Edenic existence.
This personal history provides the backdrop for my new book Field Days, A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California, which is part memoir, part field report. My own past, and my profound sense of loss, prompted me to go on an odyssey to find a perfect, or near perfect farm, to eat wholesome, healthy food from the earth, and to reconnect to my rural roots. Many of the farms that I discovered appear in the pages this book, and you will meet many of the farmers who befriended me. You will also see photos of them. One farm in particular stands at the emotional heart of Field Days. It is called Oak Hill because of its old oak trees and its gentle, rolling hills. It is located in Glen Ellen, California, which has a rich agricultural heritage, and a village that was once home to Jack London, who farmed there, and to M. F. K. Fisher, the legendary writer about food and French life and culture.
In the pages of my personal narrative, as you will see, I memorialize Oak Hill where I worked in the fields, planting, harvesting, weeding and cultivating. I also became a part of Oak Hill’s extended family that includes people of Mexican, Guatemalan, Irish, French, and German ancestry. Here, I felt reconnected to my own past and to a part of myself that I thought I had lost forever. I adopted Oak Hill and Oak Hill adopted me. I’m still very much connected to it and go there as often as I can, though I no longer work eight-hour days with the Mexican farm workers.
In Field Days I mean to persuade you of the importance of small, organic farms, farmers’ markets, and local foods. I also hope to show that everyone and everything is connected. In the course of my odyssey I came to realize that the hands on the hoes in the fields are connected to the hands on the knives and forms at the dinner table, and that they’re linked to the trees in the forests and the fish in the streams. Moreover, I have come to believe that small, local farms can help save our planet, and that cooking and eating fresh, organic produce can help save our lives, our communities and our families.
If we are to survive as a species we must grow our own fruits and vegetables without further harm to the environment, and without dehumanizing and degrading field workers. I hope you’ll agree with me that we all ought to have a farm. and farmers in our immediate future as well as in our past. I hope, too, that you’ll soon have fields days of your own that will prove to be as inspiring to you as my field days at Oak Hill were to me.