Wednesday, April 11, 2012

book review: dirt & the good life

Dirt & the Good Life: Stories from Fern Creek is a wonderful book of stories and reflections that comes out next Monday, April 16, through Barclay Press. You should definitely pick up a copy, or get the Kindle version. I've been reading it this week and it is a great read! I happen to know the authors, Lisa Graham McMinn and Mark R. McMinn. They're professors at George Fox University, and I grew up with their daughters. Also, last summer I was a member of their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)--that's where you pay a lump sum for all your fruit and vegetables for the summer, and they grow them for you, locally and organically and amazing-tastingly! But even if I didn't know the McMinns, I would still find this book valuable and beautifully written.

The book is a compilation of essays and stories written by Mark and Lisa over the course of their year-long sabbatical from academic work (he in psychology and she in sociology). They spent their sabbatical year digging around in the dirt, feeding chickens, harvesting honey and reflecting on the "good life" of parenting, grandparenting and farming at Fern Creek. Each short piece is infused with a practical spirituality that does not ignore hardship, but focuses on the beauty of life and the importance of caring for the Earth. Their reflections are poignant and sometimes funny, deep and insightful, poetic and practical. Dirt and the Good Life reminded me of a cross between Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, with the poetic sensibility of Wendell Berry (though they write in prose). I love that Lisa and Mark each contributed about half of the book. I enjoyed hearing each of their voices, and taking in their own distinct thoughts as well as learning how their ideas and hearts have melded together and challenged one another over the years.

The McMinns are Friends (Quakers), and though their stories and thoughts would be beneficial to people from many walks of life, I find them especially inspiring as Friends. I'm not sure how they find the time to write, teach, farm and create amazing traditions with their families and friends (like a fall equinox party and an annual pumpkin-carving extravaganza, as they share in the book), but they also are noticeably grounded and wise. Perhaps they have tons of extra time now that they're empty nesters--I loved hearing about how this time of life, which some couples find so difficult, has been for them a time of deepening hope and living out of their shared dreams. But back to the importance of their book for Friends: they present a beautiful picture of what it's like to live simply, ethically, responsibly and extravagantly. They relish silence and simplicity, but they also know how to enjoy the Earth's abundance, and to see God in all of these things.

I appreciate Mark's vulnerability when he shares about a book he wrote that didn't make it to the best-seller list, and how he allowed God to give him a reality check through this experience. He talks about "downward mobility," and I think this is something we as Friends try to emphasize, though we (at least I!) struggle with exactly when, how and where to do this. Like John Woolman, who refused to grow his business and instead chose to focus on God's call on his life, Mark noticed he could continue to try to follow the path that led to critical acclaim, but it might not be God's best path for him. He and Lisa chose to move together on the path of "downward mobility," to buy a small acreage and spend time in the life-giving dirt.

Another thing I like about this book is its online component. If you go visit the site for the book you'll see that you can look at a flipbook of a bunch of pictures of the places and things they're describing. Some of those pictures are present in the paper book, but in black and white. Being able to see them in color adds a lovely dimension to the experience. You can also read a sample of the book while you're there. My very talented husband, Joel, also did a promo video for them: 

Overall, I definitely recommend this book! Lisa and Mark invite you to kick back, relax into an easy friendship and ponder life with them. They share their joys and struggles, insights they've learned along the way, and the creative and deep way they view the world--especially when their hands are in the dirt. I hope you will find their stories and their lives as inspiring as have I.

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