This Life Is In Your Hands

I didn’t expect the book This Life Is In Your Hands to be so much about food.

When I heard Maine author Melissa Coleman talk about and read from her memoir, my impression was that it centered around the tragedy of her younger sister drowning at age three. That was certainly part of the book, but it didn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way through. And in the pages leading up to it, a lot of the focus was on food and organic gardening.

Not having known the history of the organic movement, I was fascinated to read about Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of Living the Good Life, who came to Maine and inspired many back-to-the-landers in the late 1960’s. Among them were Eliot and Sue Coleman, who purchased land from the Nearings and built their own house on it; Eliot has since become an authority on organic farming, writing The New Organic Farmer (among other books) and now running Four Seasons Farm with his current wife.

But Melissa Coleman’s memoir is not about these later successes. It instead focuses on the early years of her life and even before, including how much her parents’ love of health food brought them together.

For instance, early in their relationship, Eliot and Sue went on a date of sorts - to a health food store! Such stores were not so common then, and the couple was excited by items like a yogurt maker, bulk almonds, and coconut peanut butter. Later, when they were married, Sue was reminded all over again why she loved her husband when they snuck out to “rescue” fallen apples from an abandoned orchard. Melissa wrote: “Food, from its procurement to its enjoyment, was the force that held them together.” (p. 70)

As back-to-the-landers, food was also a critical daily focus. Eliot spent much of his time gardening and harvesting, especially at first, in “the urgency to put away food to survive” (p. 40), and later to sell at a vegetable stand. Sue was also constantly busy: “Carrots and beets to be placed in sand in the root cellar, string beans to be canned in mason jars, winter squash to season on the patio, onions and garlic to braid and hang from the ceiling alongside spearmint, chamomile, and lemon verbena for tea and basil, rosemary and thyme for seasoning.” (p. 40)

They did all of this because they were worried about big agribusiness and pesticides and being dependent on others. They also believed that if they ate well, they would be healthy, agreeing with Scott Nearing’s comment: “Health insurance is served on the table with every meal.” (p. 81) Eliot applied this logic to plants as well, developing what he called “plant-positive” farming. His idea was that as long as the plants were healthy, they would not attract pests or disease, thus preventing the need for pesticides or even more natural ways of controlling pests.

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