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Know the West

The merry — and meditative — farmer


In Blithe Tomato, California farmer Mike Madison writes about whatever strikes his fancy: neighborhood dogs, old tractors, and what it’s like to tangle with the local gophers for control of his tulips and olive trees. (He admits to losing 25 percent of his net income to the pests.)

Madison’s collection of short essays makes it clear that he’s happiest working his land, but he’s no dirt hermit. He writes, for instance, of the people who stop to smell the lilacs he sells at market. Those pale purple flowers evoke an inevitable trip down memory lane: "The glance; the recognition; eyebrows raised, posture frozen; the exclamation; the approach; the scooping of a bunch and holding it to the face; the deep inhale, eyes closed; the holding of breath for the count of three; the exhale, and then the monologue." He gives us a glimpse of the lives of the small-time farmers in California’s Central Valley — the old-timers as well as the newcomers, who try their hand at farming only to give up after a few difficult seasons.

Along with the nuts and bolts of farming and food trends (remember when arugula was all the rage?), Madison mixes in contemplative essays on topics ranging from the simple beauty of a green bouquet of native grasses and seed pods, to the dark implications of the military cargo planes that fly from nearby Travis Air Force Base. His prayer sums up his philosophy: He’d like to live "where the possibilities for subversion are numerous; and where the natives greet one another with a wink, and irony is as rich and abundant as oxygen."