French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

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Overview

A story about dirt—and about sun, water, work, elation, and defeat. And about the sublime pleasure of having a little piece of French land all to oneself to till.

Richard Goodman saw the ad in the paper: "SOUTHERN FRANCE: Stone house in Village near Nimes/Avignon/Uzes. 4 BR, 2 baths, fireplace, books, desk, bikes. Perfect for writing, painting, exploring & experiencing la France profonde. $450 mo. plus utilities." And, with his girlfriend, ...

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French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

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Overview

A story about dirt—and about sun, water, work, elation, and defeat. And about the sublime pleasure of having a little piece of French land all to oneself to till.

Richard Goodman saw the ad in the paper: "SOUTHERN FRANCE: Stone house in Village near Nimes/Avignon/Uzes. 4 BR, 2 baths, fireplace, books, desk, bikes. Perfect for writing, painting, exploring & experiencing la France profonde. $450 mo. plus utilities." And, with his girlfriend, he left New York City to spend a year in Southern France.

The village was small—no shops, no gas station, no post office, only a café and a school. St. Sebastien de Caisson was home to farmers and vintners. Every evening Goodman watched the villagers congregate and longed to be a part of their camaraderie. But they weren't interested in him: he was just another American, come to visit and soon to leave. So Goodman laced up his work boots and ventured out into the vineyards to work among them. He met them first as a hired worker, and then as a farmer of his own small plot of land.

French Dirt is a love story between a man and his garden. It's about plowing, planting, watering, and tending. It's about cabbage, tomatoes, parsley, and eggplant. Most of all, it's about the growing friendship between an American outsider and a close-knit community of French farmers.

"There's a genuine sweetness about the way the cucumbers and tomatoes bridge the divide of nationality."—The New York Times Book Review

"One of the most charming, perceptive and subtle books ever written about the French by an American."—San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ostensibly about a garden kept by Goodman during a year spent in a tiny French village near Avignon, French Dirt is really an account of his response to living as an outsider in a tightly knit community. To make contact with the villagers and better understand their lot, Goodman first worked in a vineyard in exchange for firewood. The coming of spring and an epiphany in a local apricot orchard led him to borrow land, tools and expert but conflicting advice from resident gardeners for a vegetable garden of his own. The author's metaphor for gardening is that of love; he shares his initial out-of-control buying spree in the garden supply store, his devoted struggle to keep his plants watered without a hose or faucet and his raptures when the garden starts to produce. Unfortunately, this story of his short-lived affair with the garden (he left France at the end of August) is marred by self-indulgent writing and condescension toward the very villagers from whom he craved acceptance. (Sept.)
Library Journal
In this entrancing gardener's version of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence ( LJ 4/1/90), Goodman, a Manhattan transplant, recounts the year he spent tending a small vegetable garden in the tiny Provencal village of St. Sebestien de Caisson (an alias). In addition to describing a neophyte's discovery of the joys of creating a vegetable garden, he portrays the village with its highly polarized partisans of night-vs.-morning watering and its generous, hardworking villagers. At times, Goodman's simple poetic prose style is slightly self-conscious, but not to the point where it interferes with the book's narrative power. Sometimes the repetition of French words (``I had no faucet, no `robinet' '') irritates. Robinet means faucet. The drawings at the chapter heads are perfect: simple, childlike, humorous. This is an enjoyable read, quietly compelling, for anyone who loves the south of France or the making of a garden. For gardening and travel collections.-- Sharon Levin, Univ. of Vermont Lib., Burlington
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565123526
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 4/5/2002
  • Edition number: 10
  • Pages: 203
  • Sales rank: 688,179
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Goodman has written articles for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Commonweal, Garden Design, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Salon.com. He has twice been the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Residency. He created, wrote, and narrated a six-part series about New York City for public radio in Virginia. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

I. The Village
Inspiration 3
Clearing 9
The Village 14
Ignorance 23
Espana 30
Silk 40
Wood 47
Stones 56
Jules 63
Mon ami 68
Blooming 77
II. The Garden
Land 85
Planting 92
Bamboo 100
Routines 109
Snails 116
Watering 118
Stairs 128
Tools 133
Tomatoes 139
Seeds 151
Instincts 160
Bounty 167
III. Leaving
Drums 177
Rabbits 186
Heat 191
Leaving 201
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Before I went to live in a small village near Avignon years ago, I already had a clear picture of the place. I knew there would be sun and cypresses. I knew there would be ebullient villagers who were as open and embracing as their Parisian counterparts were staid and aloof. I knew the land would be bathed continually in sunshine. I knew you frequently slept in a quaint hotel and drank rosé wine in sun-dappled cafés. I knew it was the good life.

Having grown up in the fifties and sixties, I'd been raised on images of the South of France from travel magazines, the life of Vincent van Gogh, and Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief -- with perhaps a smidgeon of the voluptuous Brigitte Bardot at the Cannes Film Festival. (Peter Mayle wasn't on the scene yet, and I hadn't read the great chroniclers of the South of France -- Jean Giono, Marcel Pagnol, Colette, M.F.K. Fisher, Laurence Wylie.) From these sources I had formed a definite picture. And what an appealing picture it was.

When I arrived in the small village (pop. 211) where I was to live for a year, less than fifty miles from van Gogh's Arles, I realized very quickly it was not the village of my dreams. There was no café. There was no boulangerie. In fact, there were no stores at all. The architecture was plain. The town square was as featureless as an airport tarmac. The cypresses? There were two or three -- in the small walled graveyard down the road. In August, the sun was so fierce I had to retreat to the cool recesses of my stone house. In October, the very same sun disappeared under a deluge of rain the entire month. The wine made by the local vintners tasted harsh. No one drank rosé.

But that was the least of it. When I said bonjour to the few villagers I encountered, they were mute. I smiled at them; they looked past me. When I spoke to the children, they fled. In the afternoons after school, the village teenagers parked their cars next to my house and blasted their car radios at rock concert volume. They were dressed in jeans, wore stylish leather jackets and loafers. I walked around in a sort of confused anger the first few weeks. Then one day I realized, for better or worse, this was the South of France. And this was my village. Discovering what was essential about the land and its people wasn't easy; I had to work at it. I started by hiring myself out as a laborer in exchange for firewood. That simple act opened many doors. Suddenly, people were saying bonjour to me. As for beauty, it didn't take long for me to grasp that this little corner of France, with its subtly undulating hills, its stunning light, its clean, earthy morning air with the faintest odor of the vineyards, was indeed incomparably beautiful. And their wine tasted better and better every passing day.

Then there was my garden. I met a young man named Jules Favier who loaned me a piece of land outside the village to have a small vegetable garden. I met more villagers, and my own roots struck deeper into the community. The villagers took their gardening seriously, and they were more than willing to offer their advice. I was expected to follow it. By the time my year in France was over, I knew most everyone in the village. The South of France I found was not easily or simply discovered, but it was richer and more satisfying than any fantasy. And that garden -- I still think about it. It was a privilege to go there every morning and work hard, thrusting my hand shovel into the French soil, caring for my plants. This is the story I tell in French Dirt.

When the book was published, the reviews started coming out. The Smithsonian said the book was for "Francophiles or wistful admirers of the simple life." Another review asked, "Who among us wouldn't delight in chucking it all and heading for this Southern experience? Goodman did it."

I began to wonder. Had I painted a misleading picture of my little village? Had I made my own contribution to the unreal fantasies people have about the South of France? I had thought I was telling the story of my garden and how it connected me to this corner of France and to this memorable community. I had thought I was writing about the verities of sun, soil, water, air, and work. I had meant, simply, to take readers along with me as I stumbled, fell, and righted myself.

When I was told that Algonquin was publishing a tenth-anniversary edition of my book, I decided to reread French Dirt for the first time in years. It was like a new experience. When I was finished, I thought, "Boy, wouldn't it be nice to go out and have the kind of year Goodman had." But I was Goodman! I had done this! My own book, with every difficulty only leading to a kind of triumph in such an exquisite land, made me want to live like Goodman did. (Richard Goodman)

Copyright © 2002 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2012

    Interesting Account

    I liked the authors image of France and the people there. It is different from other books I have read on the subject because he was in such s small village. It made me want to go live in the same house and grow my own veggies.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Boring Read

    If you like Peter Mayle's France then stick with him. This author is far too enamored of his own thoughts to write a book that is an enjoyable read for the public. Not worth the money or the reading time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    Tristan

    Thx. Sry keh sis is on i wont be on for a while probly ):/

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    Dawn

    Is carried back to sl

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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