Influenced by the Green movement on the one hand and media giants like Martha Stewart on the other, more and more Americans are buying organic and gardening. There seems to be a renewed interest in the traditions of canning, preserving and bread baking. Some are even raising chickens and goats as part of the urban farming movement. It is no surprise then that a high-powered New York City couple, on a weekend trip upstate, would see a beautiful 200-year-old farm house and imagine it as a place to dig in the dirt, collect eggs and milk, and grow their own food. In THE BUCOLIC PLAGUE, author Josh Kilmer-Purcell chronicles the first couple of years he and his partner, Dr. Brent Ridge, spent as “gentlemen farmers” at the Beekman mansion.
The Beekman mansion in Sharon, New York, was built from 1802 to 1804. In 2006, Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge came upon the house and property. It had a “for sale” sign out front, and on a whim they called the real estate agent for a tour. Of course, they fell in love with the Beekman and decided to make it their weekend home. They had visions of heirloom vegetables in neat and tidy rows and summer parties straight from the pages of Martha Stewart Living. In fact, they had visions of hosting Martha herself as Ridge worked for her at the time. What they got instead was a herd of goats, a field full of human bones, a labor-intensive garden, a house full of dead flies, and a mail-order soap business.
Despite their love of the Beekman, the life they envisioned there was not so easy to achieve. The house was in need of repairs and the grounds in need of constant maintenance. Along with their caretaker, “Farmer John,” Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge began the work to make the estate a home. But their dreams for the property are not always the same.
While Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge did make many incredible friends in Sharon, started a successful business at the Beekman, and are now the stars of a new television show about the farm, the path to success was difficult and almost cost them their relationship. Commuting from their stressful jobs in the city to their stressful work at the Beekman every week as the economy began to collapse around them made the pair tense and even angry as they questioned the viability of keeping the Beekman. Kilmer-Purcell records it all with honesty. By the end, the Beekman’s future is unclear, but the couple seems on solid ground again.
THE BUCOLIC PLAGUE explores social identity, home and belonging, relationships and career paths, the pursuit of dreams, and more without being sappy or predictable. It is witty and fun to read. Yet there are moments of real clarity and insight, and those are the highlights of the book. Over the centuries, the Beekman grounds have been used as a cemetery (or, worse, a place where the bodies of slaves were simply discarded), and in tilling the soil Kilmer-Purcell comes into physical and emotional contact with the remains of the estate's previous residents. It is when he reflects on the compelling and often sad history of the property that his writing is at its best. His comparison of the “Martha” versus “Oprah” mentalities is funny and wise as well.
Readers may wish, however, that he pursued these trains of thought a bit more in the book. THE BUCOLIC PLAGUE is a good book, but if Kilmer-Purcell had just dug a bit deeper at some of his more introspective and thoughtful ideas, it could've been great. Still, his second memoir is a charming and entertaining look at a couple (and culture) in transition and the possibilities and perils of pursuing wild dreams.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 23, 2010