I grew up on a farm in Michigan, so eight years ago when my husband, children, and I bought a small farm in the foothills of North Carolina, we realized a dream. On good days, my husband's day job pays the bills, and he comes home to a haven of rural tranquility. On bad days, a fox filches a chicken, the goats get out, and the well runs dry because someone forgot to turn off the hose.
In his new memoir "Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm," author Jon Katz takes these things in stride. More than that, he delights in the constant demands and ceaseless worries of his small farm in upstate New York and shares those tales with an honesty and gentle humor uncommon among farm men. That's not to say farmers aren't honest or funny – just that few of them talk about their relationships with animals and fellow farmhands as Katz is willing to.
Katz himself is a writer first and a farmer second, which is sometimes apparent in his dialogue. (I have never heard a farmer use the word "cow" to describe a steer. Cows are always female, and steers and bulls male; gender is everything on a farm.)
After living and writing for decades in the New York City area, Katz left in search of peace, open space, and meaning. He finds them among the rambling old farmhouse, tumbledown timber-frame barns, and rolling pastures of Bedlam Farm, near the Vermont border. This is his 16th book, joining other fiction and nonfiction such as "A Good Dog," "The Dogs of Bedlam Farm," and "A Dog Year," (which HBO is making into a movie starring Jeff Bridges). Public-radio fans may know Katz from his show "Dog Talk" on Northeast Public Radio.
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In this book, we meet Katz's family, beginning with those who don't live with him on Bedlam Farm: his wife, Paula, who spends most days back in New Jersey where she works, teaches, and edits her husband's writing; and his grown daughter in Brooklyn. Despite the miles between husband and wife, they maintain a strong bond through phone calls, e-mails, and weekends together – truly a modern farm-family arrangement. We also meet the folks who help Bedlam Farm run: the "Farm Goddess" Annie, carpenter Anthony, and assorted neighbors and veterinarians.
The real stars are the animals: the dogs, cats, chickens, donkeys, steer, cow, and sheep of Bedlam Farm. Katz relays each animal's story – from "Perfect Pearl," his Labrador ambassador, to "Izzy," a border collie he rescues from neglect and works into a contented herding dog.
We watch as the bonds between man and animal grow stronger or loosen. We flinch as Katz yells at his animals and then searches his soul (and reflects on his childhood) in the chapter "Anger Management," in which he concludes that "Anger does not work. It's not effective, not with people or with dogs." We sweat as Katz trudges through his daily routine – what he calls "the grounding and comforting rituals of chores and animal care" amid the hot, humid "dog days" of summer. We see his work as a labor of love for animals that we, too, come to adore.
Katz takes us past the toil and drudgery; the constant demands of animals; the uncontrollable outside forces; and the inconveniences of mud, bugs, and manure and shows us the beauty and rhythm of an American dream that is fulfilled not by conquering those tough elements, but by appreciating them.
"Was this a perfect life?" he looks back to reflect. "What made it so appealing was the mix, the sense of crisis and mystery always around the corner, the challenge and responsibility for these affectionate but dependent creatures, the fulfillment of knowing that they are properly cared for, at least for now. The most perfect thing about my life was that it wasn't. It couldn't ever be, and that was what made the perfect parts perfect."
It's a new twist on the American dream, to be sure. When I watch my husband slog yet another pail of water to the goats and drag yet another chicken pen along the thick grass in the morning, I will have a fuller understanding of what those chores do for him, and by extension, for our family. And I have Katz to thank for that.
Elizabeth Brown lives near Hillsborough, N.C., with chickens, goats, a border collie, a husband and three children.