Book Review: My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm: A Cautionary Tale

I’m a sucker for a hook. When I saw that the map of Manny’s yard beside the title page included something labeled “FEMA trailer” (in Brooklyn) I knew I had to read this book despite the fact that the plants in the cover photo are silk and plastic.

Manny’s wife Lisa is extremely successful – she has the kind of job that entails dressing to the nines and being picked up and dropped off by a driver and car paid for by the publishing firm for which she works. Manny writes freelance for big name magazines (which Lisa’s employer owns) from diverse locations all over the globe about everything from Haitian dictators to bear hunting with mobsters in Russia. When a documentary project about Afghanistan falls through he begins to seriously contemplate getting a “real” job for the first time in twenty years. That’s when he gets a call from New York magazine proposing an assignment in which he will use his back yard “to grow food and then, eventually, eat only that food to sustain [himself] for at least one month.” [pg 16]
In addition to lacking the usual philosophical and/or political motives for urban farming Manny is . . . I think the word I’m looking for is foolhardy – maybe even manic. He throws himself wholly into major projects on whims and anecdotal advice. I anticipate (correctly) many a catastrophe.

“This is the second time that I have returned to The Farm with rabbits and no place to house them. My repeated lack of foresight, of planning, appalls Lisa. She says so. What I consider the ingenious use of found objects as cages looks to her like ill-considered, reflexive decision-making without a proper support edifice. She thinks giant rabbits housed in appliance boxes is animal cruelty.” [pg 117]

He retrofits his basement rec room into a propagation station, but all his transplants, painstakingly started from seed, fall over dead. Back yard protein proved as problematic as vegetables. Tilapia failed because he could not get the Vietnamese man (probably illegally) farming them in tractor-trailers down the road part with any. Rabbits failed in every way imaginable. Ducks failed when they were adopted straightaway by the kids, who forbade him to cook them. Chickens worked, but just barely. In the process of manually digging the subsurface drainage his hands go numb and he discovers that he has a pinched nerve in his cervical vertebrae. While running a table saw to build a high-rise chicken coop he cuts off his pinkie finger (it’s hanging by a strip of skin) but a local surgeon manages to reattach it. The first tornado to hit Brooklyn since 1899 strikes on August 8 – just one week before he was to begin sustaining himself from the farm. It was an F-2. Much of the vegetable garden is smashed by uprooted trees from the yards of his neighbors.
Manny somehow maintains a sense of humor. Like me, he has a penchant for naming things. His house is Howard Hall, his yard is The Farm. The 40 square feet by the back fence that get the most sun are dubbed the Back Forty and the rest of the back yard the Fields of the Lord. The seven foot deep hole he dug for the dry well was the Spider Hole, his first attempt at a rabbit hutch was the FEMA Trailer, and his Toyota Land Cruiser was the Tractor. But there is lots of background noise in the story: he hallucinates the voice of Wendell Berry, he has dramatic fights with his wife, and he interjects a lot of semi-related and less than flattering anecdotes about amazingly stupid things he has done while drunk. Also, he can be unflinching about some of the more gruesome aspects of The Farm. (Let’s just say that I remain convinced that meat rabbits are not for me.) Given what I know about his journalistic exploits from the first chapter of exposition, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still a little repulsed by him at times.
It is definitely interesting to read about urban farming from the perspective of someone who never gave it (or organic gardening, or food miles, or any related subject) a second thought until paid to. Interesting both to read about his successes and failures and to read about what parts of the project he did and did not continue after the contract ended. You may want to smack Manny for a multitude of reasons throughout the course of the book – but in the end you may find yourself unopposed to splitting a six pack with him.
— Amanda
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