Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of the new book American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland. She also has written the memoir Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye and the novel Picking Bones from Ash. She lives in San Francisco.
Q: Why did you decide to write American Harvest?
A: I recount a little bit of the genesis of American Harvest in the book. Basically, I went back to harvest with my father around 15 years ago. We were sitting in the bunkhouse together (a temporary living unit inside a Quonset hut set up to accommodate farmers and harvesters).
I was living in New York City at the time, and buying my fruits and vegetables and meat from the farmer's market in Union Square. There were many reasons I did this--often the produce tasted better and I'm from California and accustomed to fresh produce. I also liked the ritual of buying from a farmer.
I told my father what I was doing, though, and he was not terribly impressed. He seemed to think that this was very "city" of me, and I wondered at his lack of enthusiasm.
At the same time, when I told friends in New York that I had gone to Nebraska for the harvest, they were intrigued and sometimes perplexed. But the question they most often asked me was: "Is your farm organic?"
I started to wonder about all these disconnects. Our farmers were by and large Christian, though I did not know what this meant or what kind of Christians they were. My friends in the city were mostly atheists.
My family was very open about GMOs and my friends in the city were flocking to farmers markets, as I was, and Whole Foods to buy organic food--something my father had always lightly mocked. And I just wondered what accounted for these differing attitudes toward food, farm and religion.
Then it occurred to me that I knew very few books that investigated modern farming. I thought farming--the people, the equipment--were fascinating and wanted to bring them to life.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between you and Eric Wolgemuth, who is featured in the book?
A: Eric is a wonderful family friend and all around impressive human being. He has a huge capacity to open his heart and share what he knows with other people.
I am incredibly fortunate he trusted me enough to share his world, so I could spend time with the many farmers he knows and invite readers to spend time with them too. Many of us have roots in the farming world but have lost that connection.
While my story and experiences are subjective, I hope that readers have a chance, through Eric, to get to know a bit about the farming world.
Q: Given the current political polarization in this country, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to understanding people who don't share your point of view?
A: The problems in our country are very deep. Some of the problems in communication that are addressed in the book also exist around the world--as countries modernize, for example, people go to cities to look for work and fewer people run farms.
On the other hand, people all around the world still need to eat. And the question of finding enough arable land to feed a growing population, while preserving soil health and the environment, is a problem that will require us all to recognize our interdependence.
My hope at this point is that my book will help to start a conversation. I am not a pundit or a politician or an expert; but I hope I have shared what I have seen, so others who don't know about farming can have at least my own subjective experience.
I am also trying very hard to examine what biases I might have that are not helpful and to share my thoughts on these. I am trying, as they say, to take responsibility for what I can control, which is my own point of view.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope they will have a greater love for the beauty of our country--I certainly did and do and I miss the plains and the sunsets and the sky.
I hope they will understand how hard men and women work to grow and raise our food. I hope readers will understand how hard such work is and that there is much to admire in this kind of work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Creatively, I hope to write a bit more about Japan--my first two books were about Japan. I also am returning to a novel I had started back in 2011.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am grateful to share my journey through the heartland with readers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marie Mutsuki Mockett.