Book Review: This Life is In Your Hands.

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This Life Is In Your Hands:  One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (A Memoir) by Melissa Coleman (2011, HarperCollins Publishers, New York)

If you’re into organic farming and gardening, you’ve likely heard of Eliot Coleman.  A pioneer of the “back-to-the land” movement of the 1970’s, founder of The Small Farm Research Association, and author of the 1989 organics bible, The New Organic Grower (along with several other publications), his theories about the various tenets of organic farming have been both inspiring and revolutionary.

This Life is In Your Hands isn’t about the concepts of successful organic market gardening…although the farm that Eliot and his first wife, Sue, owned and operated in the early ‘Seventies is the narrative frame and the setting. Eliot’s daughter Melissa has written this book to document her early childhood, and to come to grips with the tragedy that destroyed her family.

Buoyed by the idealistic dream of living fully off the land and off the grid in a remote area on the coast of Maine, Eliot and Sue work to establish an organic farm in less-than-perfect conditions.  Through brutally hard work and sheer determination, they succeed – and the farm becomes an educational model and provides work experience for a succession of young, carefree apprentices.  To say that Melissa’s childhood was unusual is an understatement – with her parents both busy ekeing out a living and pursuing their dreams, she was often left to her own devices.  (One of the most poignant passages in the book describes the seedlings in the greenhouse as her “siblings” – which Melissa took to deliberately stomping on in an attempt to garner some attention from her father).  Desperately lonely, Melissa is overjoyed when her sister Heidi is born, and she cannot wait for the baby to get old enough to play.  But time and stress and take their toll on the girls’ parents, and as Eliot’s physical health is compromised, Sue heads towards a mental breakdown, and the couple’s marriage begins to crumble, the worst happens: at the age of three, Heidi drowns in the farm’s irrigation pond.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Melissa to write about the collapse of her family and her own suffering in the wake of Heidi’s death  – but she manages to do it without resorting to the extremes of either sentimental treacle or vehement anger.  This is a quiet and devastating book, told with great beauty, forgiveness, and hope.   The Coleman’s story is coloured with the highs and lows of living a sustainable life in nature –  not always the paradise they had imagined.

(Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara Damrosch currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Maine.  Eliot is still very active in promoting organic practices in his writing, on TV, in live lectures, and on the Internet.  Check out the Farm’s website here).

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