A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography by Kayann Short
Book Review by Amron Gravett
When I first learned of Kayann Short’s recent book called A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, my librarian curiosity got the best of me. I have run into quite a few genres in my day, but this had seriously piqued my interest. After a bit of research, it became clear that Ms. Short is quite literally defining this new genre. These ecology-based memoirs are a way for writers to express their life’s story (as in a memoir or autobiography) within the larger landscape of place and nature. Short explains that it is sometimes referred to as a sub-genre of nature writing. “The impulse for ecobiography, however, comes first from memoir and the desire to record and reflect upon one’s life experiences.” Citing examples such as Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and David M. Carroll’s Self-Portrait with Turtles, she goes on to explain that “in ecobiography, that impulse is shaped by an attempt to locate and articulate the author’s relationships with inhabitants and phenomena of the natural world. Here the writer consciously draws personal lessons from aspects of nature as they become a force or even a character in the lifewriting narrative.”
It was with this expectation, that I devoured A Bushel’s Worth (well, not literally, although the pun is intended). Short takes us around her Stonebridge Farm, a ten acre organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm located on the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains near the base of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak. Originally established as a dairy farm in 1911, Short’s now husband John Martin established it as a CSA in 1992, the first in Boulder County. Short is determined by an “agriculturist mission” to fulfill the needs of their table and others in a more cooperative and tangible way. Throughout the book, it is clear that Short is first and foremost a farmer and Stonebridge Farm is a collective. Delivering the week’s picked produce by bicycle, gathering for potlucks and end-of-season Halloween parties, the members of Stonebridge share and cooperate in a familial way. As a farmer, this writer is able to detail the fruit and the toil of this lifestyle in a vivid array. We come to learn of triumphs (crowd-sourcing the efforts of painting an old barn in 3 hours), trials (an accident involving a tractor and a finger), and seasons of change (winter work vs. summer work). We learn of mysterious words and phrases that only a farmer would know like farmpentry or “cooking for threshers.” By the end of the book, we come to feel Stonebridge Farm in its essence. We come to celebrate and mourn when the owl babies are saved or storm-blown cottonwood falls over. Short brings us with her to her farm and into her memories in a way that only a deeply sensitive person can.
What’s most revealing about this book is the continuity of learning and growing that Short expresses when she compares a recent experience with a childhood experience from her grandmother’s farm. There are moments with humorous memories of her grandmother scrubbing the floor in a dress and pantyhose; moments of mystery finding an old Victorian box filled with seeds saved from an earlier generation; moments of cookery relishing a newly found old apple tree that came to produce the best flavored apple pie; and many of the details of regular farm work.
Publishing place-based writing in a memoir is a growing trend in our publishing industry. People are looking to connect with each other, through their stories, and through their experiences with place and nature. Our environmentalist mentality stretches from educational field to the business field. Few would deny the importance of being a better-informed citizen when it comes to our relationship to our natural resources.
Earning its place in the literary niche, A Bushel’s Worth has received much praise and a few honorable recognitions. It was a finalist for the May Sarton Award and a silver medalist in green living & sustainability for the Nautilus “Better Books for a Better World.” It is surely not the last accolade that it will receive as readers reach for more books that collaborate person and place and seek to grasp a better understanding of this rising farm-to-table movement.
There’ll be toil, and sweat by your brow
But the challenges you’ll answer somehow
And through it all you’ll grow stronger
And closer on this land.
Stonebridge Wedding Song from A Bushel’s Worth, page 21
For other Western Ecobiographies, See “52 Rivers, 52 Weeks, One Woman”