Book Review: Trauma Farm

Posted by: on Jan 17, 2013 | No Comments

I purchased Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life by Brian Brett in one of my favorite bookstores of all time, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle. I visited the stores new storefront on Capitol Hill while in Seattle over Thanksgiving. The staff writes reviews of the books they like and sticks the handwritten reviews on the shelf with the book. You can leaf through a variety of staff favorites, reading the covers, the first pages, and the staff’s opinion of the book. I love being able to see what others recommend or why a book resounded with them so much. Trauma Farm was one of the highlighted books in the front of the store. After much deliberation and putting back several novels, I walked out with just this one book.

In Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, Brian Brett chronicles the last 18 years on his small farm on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Within the span of a single day, he walks the reader through life on Trauma Farm.

“I realized the only way I could write this memoir was by association­–a walk through a summer’s day–the June day of solstice. A walk that simultaneously remembers winter snows, sunflowers, the dinnertime song of the sheep, history, and the taste of acid soil […] an eighteen year long day…”

Brett begins his story walking naked around the farm in the pre-dawn with his dogs and ends full circle. Within this time frame he simultaneously recounts events that happened just days previously as well as years ago. At first, I wasn’t sure how this single day frame was going to work. But as I read, I became more in tune with the way a day placed each of his stories firmly along a time line in a book that actually pays little attention to the typical linear timeline.

“Rural living is an eccentric pursuit, in the same way that beauty is an eccentric pursuit–an exercise in nonlinear thinking as much as a series of rational steps.”

So, while he bounced from 2 weeks ago to 2 years ago to 18 years ago, the events unfolded logically over the course of the day.

While the book includes facts and numbers to show the value of small farming and postulates on the harm of the modern industrial farming complex, it does so within a more personal experience of farming. Instead of another Michael Pollan book (though I do like Pollan’s books) on the value of organic, small, and sustainable farming, this book speaks from the first person about the reality of a small farm. Brett moves through his typical day on the farm: pre-dawn walk, breakfast, writing, farm chores, lunch…etc. And as he moves through these stories and memories, he expertly weaves in social and political commentary related to the small farm. He slips in facts on factory farming, pesticides, government regulation, and more. The reader never gets overwhelmed with pages upon pages of facts. Instead, Brett begins telling a story of his own pigs, then slides easily into a discussion of how pigs are raised conventionally, and eases right back into the story of his livestock or the livestock of his neighbors.

He does not present an idyllic view of farming. He deals openly with birth and death throughout the book. Whether it is the death of a beloved dog or horse or the death of a lamb immediately after birth, he tells it poetically with real and honest respect for each life. He leaves no dirt out of birth, clearly describing the process of getting an ewe to accept an orphaned lamb. Brett easily transitions from a story about slaughtering a lamb to saving a mouse. His goal is to present farm life as it is and praise it for exactly what it is and not what we imagine it to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of the academic, autobiography, poetry and philosophy. He ruminates on life and how to live alongside discussions of broken bones. He says to live consciously, once we come to terms with our inevitable death, we must live “Only with praise […] by celebrating the landscape of life that we don’t understand and never will.” He goes so far to draw Camus, the French philosopher, into the discussion stating that Camus believed in living in beauty and then dying an artist. In other words, Brett says, Camus argued for existence. And Brett does an excellent job of memorializing his farm existence in Trauma Farm.

Even the lines between narrative and poetry are blurred. While he does have poems contained within the narrative some of the narrative itself is written with a strong poetic voice. And somehow with all this mixture of concepts, styles, and even time, the book works. It’s clear and well-organized despite being a little like stream of consciousness. His train of thought is easy to follow and the day framework leaves you something to fall back on should you feel a little lost in his mind.

And despite the title of the book, the read is not traumatic. It’s a relaxing read. It doesn’t feel like an academic book even though it contains some academic passages. He tells the more gruesome moments easily; consequently, the reader does not feel stressed when reading. Brett sees and expresses the comedy in it all through his writing. If you’re interested in small, sustainable, biodynamic farming; rural life; or even philosophy, I recommend giving this book a read.

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