The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The Bucolic Plague

The Bucolic PlagueThe Bucolic Plague is a well-written, gripping book...and I hated it.  The Beekman Boys' reality is like a twisted version of Mark's and my lives, too similar for me to suspend disbelief and ignore their life choices, but too different for me to identify with.  The book read like a cautionary tale, making me very glad that we bought the cheapest bit of land I could find and never tried to scale up our business faster than it could comfortably grow on its own.

Although they professed to be embracing a simple life, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell bought a million-dollar piece of property three hours outside New York City and continued working their jobs in the Big Apple Monday through Friday.  Each weekend, they'd hop on a train and make the long commute to their mortgaged mansion, which they hoped to turn into a Martha-Stewart-inspired homestead.  (By the way, in case you think I'm exaggerating, the neighbors and author do call their home a mansion and Brent worked for Martha Stewart at the time.)

Meanwhile, Brent and Josh launched a goat-milk-soap business in the least micro fashion imaginable.  Rather than doing all of the work themselves, they outsourced the goat-milking and the soap-making, spending their time on marketing and order fulfillment (some of which they later hired employees to do as well).  With the help of a plug on Martha's show, they were soon rolling in business...but the duo continued to work full time because they were spending so much cash on employees and scaling up that they weren't actually making a profit.

Beekman goatsThe Beekman Boys' blogging (as reported in the book) seemed to be similarly grandiose and inauthentic.  Josh wrote about spending an afternoon picking apples from their trees, but rather than enjoying the pursuit, he struggled to find a bowlful of unblemished fruits to be photographed for the website.  He and his partner worked so hard adding "sparkle" to the virtual version of their homestead that they seemed unable to embrace the reality of that life, and their relationship suffered accordingly.

The bottom line is --- The Bucolic Plague represents a Hollywood version of homesteading.  The author does a good job of honestly portraying at least some of the pitfalls, but I was disappointed that he never realized the root of his problems lay in buying into the same consumer culture that homesteaders strive to break free of.  Unless you're thinking of buying a million-dollar "homestead" and need a wake-up call, I don't think I can recommend The Bucolic Plague to anyone.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Having cleaned the home from top to bottom, dug in dirt and goat poop, weeded what seemed like miles, spread pebbles for paths, mulch and the list goes on and on......if this is Hollywood.... get me outta' here. While doing all those things either Josh or Brent or both were right along beside me and working for many more hours that I could. The adventure continues as does the adventure of Sharon Springs. I am sorry the book did not please you and I am delighted that it pleased many others. Josh's Dad and I would get many a call asking for "how do you" or venting frustration, or sharing the news of apples going to the cider mill. I hope you have had the same delights, Hollywood or not. Perhaps someday I can read about them.

Comment by Jackie Purell Fri Aug 24 08:19:05 2012
Jackie --- Thanks for dropping by! I suspect I'm not the target audience for your son's book --- we've been drifting further and further out of the mainstream. :-) Clearly, many folks have read it and enjoyed it.
Comment by anna Fri Aug 24 12:26:38 2012
I'm puzzled. The comments on this blog showed up yesterday, and the blog itself only this morning.
Comment by Errol Sat Aug 25 08:51:50 2012
Daddy --- I wrote the post a few days ago, but figured it felt more like a weekend post, so I saved it. But somehow the commenter found it even though it wasn't up on the blog yet, so I moved her comments over to join the post this morning. Complicated, I know.... :-)
Comment by anna Sat Aug 25 09:14:06 2012
I have just one question: why did they decide to call their book "The Bucolic Plague?" It seems like a decidedly negative title to a book about something they obviously really wanted to do and probably enjoy. Are they deliberately trying to scare people away? There has to be some in-joke here...
Comment by Angela Sat Aug 25 09:34:28 2012

I watched the Beekman Boys TV show one season (not sure if it was on more than one or two seasons), and found it to portray a commercialized, stylized rat race of a life, that was full of frustration, and leading to the demise of a relationship. Certainly there was plenty of hard work with dirt and poop, but also with reality-TV type antics and unnecessary, hurtful and passive-aggressive bickering that no one should see. I wish for another season with a slower pace for the couple, with more harmony, and the gift of weekends "off". I found them charming in some ways, but not happy. I've also perused their website/blog several times, which is filled with gorgeous photos and products. I found their blog somewhat superficial, without the detail i sought regarding their farm, platings, and animals. It does remind me of Martha Stewart's image of never actually having dirt on her clothes at the end of the day. That said, I found great recipes and poetry, and photo essays there.

Comment by jen g Sat Aug 25 10:05:28 2012
I found the book to be a tremendous amount of fun and more of memoir than a how to manual. I also think it is a great example of homesteading for different personalities/types. They are following their dreams in the way that works for them.
Comment by Tisha Sat Aug 25 15:04:42 2012

Angela --- I never quite figured out the title. I don't think they explained it in the book --- perhaps it's just a joke?

Jen --- That sounds a lot like the book made me feel. I appreciate you finding the positive in it --- the poetry and recipes.

Tisha --- I'm glad you enjoyed it! I definitely read it as a memoir, but I guess I expect memoirs to provide thought-provoking philosophies to open my mind, and was sorry not to see anything here. I was glad to read a homesteading book from someone who wasn't straight, but I didn't really feel like his sexual orientation gave him much of a different worldview.

Comment by anna Sat Aug 25 18:47:45 2012
My husband & I loved Bucolic Plague. It was a laugh out loud fun book. We read it for entertainment without pretense of trying to learn anything about homesteading. We still talk about the story of the baby goats on their way to the Martha Stewart show! While we can't relate to living in a million dollar mansion and working for Martha, we also can't relate to living in the middle of nowhere in a trailer in Appalachia! However, we get something out of reading about both. Josh & Brent don't seem to be trying to be anything other than who they are and same goes for you. There is room for both. So what if they tend to be "Hollywood". Maybe they will inspire someone to take up homesteading.
Comment by Tracy Sat Aug 25 23:27:29 2012

Tracy --- A friend said something similar to your "Maybe they will inspire someone to take up homesteading." in an email, and I'm a bit torn. Here's what I told her:

I'm a fan of small changes adding up to make a big difference, so you'd think I would have liked The Bucolic Plague (and the movement it represents). We fall short of the glory in many ways, and I definitely wouldn't hold our lives up as the simple living ideal.

Despite our imperfections, though, I hope we tip the balance over toward being more sustainable than average, and I'm afraid that the Bucolic Plague model actually ends up using more resources and being harsher on the earth than if the Beekman Boys had stayed in their apartment in the city and carried on eating out seven nights a week. As a result, I don't actually see it as a net gain if The Bucolic Plague turns people onto homesteading since it will probably turn them onto the same kind of homesteading that's less sustainable than average American life.

On the other hand, folks who do nothing else but do start a compost pile are making the earth a little better, and I would heap them with praises (as long as they didn't buy an ultra-fancy compost bin and then not use it long enough to make up for the production costs).

Comment by anna Sun Aug 26 08:49:37 2012

Thanks for reviewing books even if you don't like them :-) I was intrigued enough to request it from the library - sounds entertaining at least!

I can't remember where I read this about how people relate to each other based on where they are on a scale of a lifestyle or philosophy (Paul Wheaton maybe?) The basic concept is that people fall somewhere on a scale, say of sustainable living, animal rights, whatever. You can relate to other folks within a couple a steps from where you are, but outside that range you probably won't. Say you are a 5 on the scale, you look up to the 6's and 7's - but the 9's and 10's look like freaks. You would tend to drag the 3's and 4's up to your level, but the 1's and 2's seem like slackers. As you move up the scale (or down) you probably find yourself doing things that previously you thought was crazy :-)

A long way of saying people have their own path - mine seems glacially slow sometimes, still I can't imagine how hard it would be to progress from working for Martha to traditional homesteading. The woman in The Dirty Life did a pretty swift turnaround though.

Comment by De Sun Aug 26 11:17:30 2012
De --- Fascinating information on the scale of homesteading! I can see what you mean about finding it hard to relate to both the 1s and 2s and the 9s and 10s. And you're totally right that starting with working for Martha Steward is a huge impediment, so I should give them more credit for the progress they made. (But I think you should also give yourself more credit for your own progress --- perusing your blog suggests you're well on your way!)
Comment by anna Sun Aug 26 14:05:29 2012

While not homesteading per se, Hit by a Farm is a book written by a lesbian which I found quite enlightening on the balance that was struck for the needs of the farm and the individuals in a relationship.

On the Bucolic Plague, I like that their endeavors allow their friend the goat farmer a way to continue doing what he loves. I also saw a planting dibble on their website for sale and then found a video on how one could make one themselves, so it is great they also put the information out there for those of us who cannot pay the prices for the goods in their store.

Comment by Tisha Sun Aug 26 18:12:04 2012

Tisha --- And here my goal for 2012 is to get my to-read list down below 100 books. You're not helping!! :-) (Just kidding --- thanks for the alternative recommendation.)

I suspect I would have liked The Bucolic Plague a lot more if we'd heard more about the goat farmer and the farm. You're right that there are some interesting elements there.

Comment by anna Sun Aug 26 18:53:05 2012

As the weekend draws to a close, I had to throw my 2 cents in also. As Anna knows, I loved this book and mentioned it to her months ago. I read the book with an open mind and my take on the book was not that the two guys were out to create any specific lifestyle or movement, but that they loved nature and wanted to find a way to remove themselves from the drudgery and intense pressures of city living. They took a huge leap, and had more resources to fund that leap . . . even so it was a risk proportionately equal to that of Mark and Anna. While they wanted to get out of the city, they did not want to become recluse, but endeavored to bring new eyes and attention to the love of farming and have been able to elevate tourism and interest in their community. I loved the book, and it propeled them to further their reach and make a living doing what they love and they are continually finding new ways to dazzle and share the glitz of being "gentleman famers"

Comment by Jayne Sun Aug 26 20:11:24 2012

Jayne --- You're right that they say right on the cover that they want to be gentleman farmers. I guess I should have looked at that and pushed the book away with a ten foot pole since that's the antithesis of what we want. :-)

If they'd ended up breaking free of the rat race, though, I probably could have ignored everything else. But at the very end, they said that the farm was almost paying for itself with the business and that the author was going back to work in the city, which felt like a failure brought on by trying to make the farm too fancy.

Comment by anna Mon Aug 27 08:04:00 2012

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