Scribner, 2010, 288 pages
Manny Howard was commissioned to write an article for New York magazine about attempting to spend a month eating only food grown in his Brooklyn backyard. Like many books based on magazine articles, My Empire of Dirt quickly wears thin.
My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm is not meant to be educational, and indeed it does not have much information to offer. Howard does not describe the practical aspects of farming and barely touches on issues such as locavorism and food security. Initially skeptical about “self-satisfied, well-to-do locavores” and the “fetish of sustainability,” Howard is still unsure about urban agriculture by the end of the book.
Howard’s prose is long-winded and dry. He goes on lengthy tangents about Brooklyn history, the lifespan of houseflies, and boxer Roy Jones Jr, while quoting Wendell Berry at length as a disembodied voice speaking to Howard. Howard comes across as egotistical, ignorant, and privileged. He jumps into farming completely unprepared, then is surprised when things don’t work. Lucky for him, the seemingly unlimited resources provided by New York magazine make up for his failings.
Howard’s experiment is ultimately successful, despite a tornado destroying much of his farm and the loss of part of his pinkie finger. For a month, he was able to subsist on produce, eggs, and meat from his own backyard. However, his experience is not readily transferrable to anyone without a bottomless expense account. Many readers will also be put off by Howard’s casual descriptions of animal abuse, including the death of eleven songbirds he bought for his daughter’s third birthday and a “holiday prank” involving a live chicken.
My Empire of Dirt is an unpleasant read for the casual reader and has little advice for someone interested in urban gardening or farming.
C.E. Pierre is currently completing a degree in environmental studies and English at the University of Waterloo. She has a passion for sustainable, local food.
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