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Inexplicably my mind kept pulling me into the story of Christopher McCandless as I read Gaining Ground. I felt as if Pritchard were telling the adventure story we wanted McCandless to have. More on that in a moment, but first some general information about the book.
Pritchard recounts the story of how he worked to transform his family's failing farm into a profitable enterprise by raising grass-fed beef and other animals while focusing on the sustainability of the land. His grandparents ran the farm when he was young and his parents did some weekend farming when it was their turn. However, they had day jobs to make ends meet and the farm eventually was in considerable debt. When Pritchard graduated from college with english and geology degrees, he stepped in to try to make the farm work, largely because he couldn't find other employment, but also because he had a calling.
After some unsuccessful starts, the family attended a workshop on sustainable farming practices that changed their lives. They saw many of the small family farms disappear over the last few decades. My friends reading from my native Wisconsin will be familiar with the stories. Those farms that were still in operation were required to utilize farming methods that were not always the best for the land in order to ramp up production. Pritchard's family realized that the modern agricultural system was broken not just for the farmer, but for the long-term sustainability of the land.
The family decided to throw away all of the technological ways of farming and focus on repairing the land and raising grass-fed beef, sheep, and pigs along with free range chickens and eggs. After some lean years selling their products at local markets, they focused attention on selling in their home farm store and at farmers' markets in the large metro of Washington D.C. Soon, their farm was a success and the family's bills were paid without compromising the long-term sustainability of the land. They dumped modern technology for sustainability and success.
Although the book has a positive message, there are some tragedies along the way and many challenges that were confronted. The book includes a number of humorous vignettes of farm life including spritely goats, unhappy butchers, a very mean pig, and farmers' markets angels. We are left with concerns about many of the characters of the book.
One doesn't expect a book by a farmer to be especially well-written. Those of us who follow the sustainability literature have plowed through some tomes on food and farming that are preachy or too oddly personal. This book has a good mix of biography, drama, new information, humor, and inspiration. Indeed, I found it one of the more interesting books on food and sustainability to come around in some time. I particularly enjoyed Pritchard's humor and no-holds barred honesty. Krakauer could not have done better biographical character development than Pritchard himself.
Which gets me back to Chris McCandless. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who upon graduating from college became somewhat of a vagabond by turning his back on the excesses of his generation to enter the wilderness. The noted author Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild about him (note if you are unfamiliar with the book, you can buy it from my Amazon store to the right. Here's a summary of the story.) Throughout Into the Wild the reader roots for McCandless as he travels the American west seeking authentic experiences in nature. He is a born-again Muir trying to distance himself from our technological age. He eventually dies, most likely from accidental poisoning, in a remote area of Alaska.
Pritchard, like McCandless, was faced with a dilemma upon graduation from college. Both McCandless and Pritchard recognized that the modern world is a highly unsustainable place in our fragile modern times. McCandless rejected society and found comfort in nature and in the unusual misfits that he found on his path. Pritchard, in contrast, returned home unemployed and had his own adventures without traveling the thousands of miles away from family and friends. Each life is an example of the challenges that young adults face when coming of age in our difficult times. Chris and Forrest could have "sold out" and entered the mainstream world of corporate America--Chris was expected to go to law school and Forrest could have transformed his farm into an industrial-age marvel. Instead, each chose to reject the status quo and live an authentic life that had meaning. Indeed, Prithcard, by going, in Krakauer terminology, into the farm, transformed himself, his family, and his community through his own adventures. The beauty of the story is that he brought along his family and friends.
Ultimately that is what we take from Pritchard's book. Sustainability is not just about the land. While environmentalists like Muir and his godson McCandless were loners seeking to find individual meaning in nature, Pritchard finds that an authentic connection with the environment includes his family, the animals he raises, and the people he meets on his journey.
Prichard's book is listed on my nightstand reading on the right if you want to add it to yours. It's a good read.