Sheltering: Marie Mutsuki Mockett on Food Waste and Farming
The Author of American Harvest Talks to Maris Kreizman
In today’s episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman talks to Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, an extraordinary evocation of the land and a thoughtful exploration of ingrained beliefs, from evangelical skepticism of evolution to cosmopolitan assumptions about food production and farming. Mockett talks about the mass destruction of food happening right now (3.7 million gallons of milk being dumped every day), feeling the intense need to plant vegetables for herself, and having to challenge her friends’ notions of what a farm is. One of Mockett’s favorite local bookstores is Point Rey Books: please purchase American Harvest through their website or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman, and I’m so happy to be talking to the author of this amazing book today [holds up copy of American Harvest]. Can you see it? Yes, you can. Marie, welcome!
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Thank you. Thanks for having me on your show.
Maris: Would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you’re doing?
Marie: Sure. I’m very fortunate; I’m feeling okay today. I’m Marie Mutsuki Mockett, and this is my childhood bedroom.
Maris: That’s amazing.
Marie: Down on the Monterey Peninsula in California. My dad made the furniture; my mom made the quilt behind me. I forgot to clean up my bed. I came down here a little over a month ago with my son, who is 10 years old, so this is a very different way than I thought I was going to be spending my time. But all things being equal, we’re extraordinarily fortunate to be here. This is where I grew up with my dad, who is American, and my mom, who’s Japanese. I’ve written two books about Japan. I was very fortunate in that my mother taught me Japanese, so that gave me a lot of access to Japan, and I was able to use that to write two books before this one. This is a book that’s set primarily in Nebraska, because though I grew up here in California, my father, along with his siblings retained the family farm—it sounds so funny—but retained the family farm in Nebraska and Colorado, so I use that as a backdrop to investigate a number of questions I had about religion and food and farming and science, and the result is the book that you have there.
Maris: And certainly, now that we’re all stuck in our homes, we’re not at all questioning where our food comes from, or what kind of god to believe in. [laughs]
Marie: You know, one of the things that’s so bizarre is—the spine of the story is basically, as a friend said, a huge road trip. It’s a road trip from Texas, going all the way north and then turning west for Idaho, and it takes place over the course of five months. It’s this huge road trip through the interior of America. I was on the road with the harvesters in 2017, so we’re coming up on three years—no idea that this was going to happen to us—and a lot of these guys have been to high school, some of them have only been to eighth grade, a lot of them are homeschooled, and they all go to church every Sunday. So I went with them to church every Sunday, which is not something that I have ever done in my life until this point that I write about. Some of them really wrestle with the apocalypse, and it was something we talked about all the time. What’s going to happen if the satellites break down? What’s going to happen if there’s a big disaster? Are people ready for that? Et cetera et cetera. When this started to happen and I realized, wow, we’re going to be sheltering in place but we’re still going to need food, it was sort of this situation that they had described. It was really weird to think about it. And of course, harvest usually begins in May, so they’re only a couple weeks away from heading out to begin cutting wheat.
Maris: And has anything been interrupted in that regard? Do you know?
Marie: There are a couple things I’ve heard about that have been interrupted. One is the new combine that Eric, who’s one of the big characters in the book, usually gets every year; he gets fresh combines because he’s cutting thousands and thousands of acres. They’ve been delayed, so they’re getting them at the last minute. He would normally already have them, but he’s going to have to get them at the end of April. The other thing is the DMVs have all shut down, and every year there’s usually a new group of guys who get their CDL licenses to drive semi-trucks, so that’s going to be interesting to see how that’s all worked out.
Maris: Oh gosh.
Marie: Yeah, we really depend on not just harvesters and farms, but also on truckers.
Maris: Your introduction is so good, because of course I’m sitting here in New York, and we certainly have—I won’t say we. I, as a coastal elite, have a sense of what I think a farm is like. And you really showed me that all of my stupid machinations—it’s great.
Marie: You know, it was so weird. I lived in New York for a long time. I only moved back to California about five years ago. And I had my son in New York. It was really surreal because there I am in New York City with this baby, and everyone is singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Maris: Of course!
Marie: The sheep go bah, and the cows go moo, and I thought, wow, everyone thinks this is what a farm is. And all of the storybooks reinforce this idea. My friends knew I was writing about the farm and they’d say, I want to come see the farm. And I would say okay, but it’s not the way you think it is. It’s not like the house with the silo and the homestead; I don’t have chickens because I’m not even there most of the time. It’s acres and acres of ground that’s disconnected and exposed to the elements and dependent on rain and sun to grow. And then we go in and cut it. A lot of big farms are like that. I shouldn’t even say big farms—farms on the open plains, the Great Plains, are like that. They’re not little tiny, contained, Ma and Pa Ingalls–type farms.
It’s also been interesting, I was talking to my cousin, and I said the news stories are going to talk about milk being dumped, at an incredible rate, it must be said. Chickens being killed and lettuce being plowed under. These are food products that are quite care intensive, and there’s a very short timeframe that you can deliver lettuce. Grains are the backbone of our diet, the unglamorous thing that we eat. But the reason why there’s so much of it is because you can transport it and ship it, and it doesn’t decay or rot as easily as, say, a chicken does. Since we’re talking about books,
Maris: It was luxury.
Marie: It’s one of the first things that we’re losing, right? Constant access to a product like that.
Maris: I don’t know how it is on the West Coast, but I know that in my neighborhood at least, the farmers’ markets are fairly overwhelmed, I think because we all realized this is a limited quantity. Tell me about what your book tour was supposed to be, and what you’re doing in the meantime.
Marie: I was looking forward to it. There’s so much going on in the world that I don’t want to complain about the book tour that wasn’t, and the book has had a lot of love and support, and I’m really grateful for that. But tonight, I would’ve been in Brooklyn at the Center for Fiction. Although we’re doing an event live through the Center for Fiction over the internet. But it would’ve been a conversation with Marlon James and with me, and then Justin, who appears in the book, was going to make an appearance. I was going to see a lot of my friends; I was excited about that. I was going to meet you in person. And there were some nice large events with interesting conversations with people I hadn’t met. I’ve met Marlon, but I haven’t met some of the other authors I was going to be in conversation with. And traveling to cities in the Midwest that I haven’t been to. But the book is still finding readers, so that’s gratifying to me.
Maris: That’s wonderful. Do you have a local indie bookstore that you want to plug?
Marie: Well, in the Monterey Peninsula we have River House Books, which is fantastic—wonderful buyers, real lovers of literature. San Francisco, there’s Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes, which is fabulous; Green Apple Books, which is one of my early loves and obsessions; and then of course City Lights Bookstore, which thanks to the support of the internet was prevented from going out of business. And then West Portal Books, which is the bookshop that’s closest to my home in San Francisco, that I love.
Maris: That’s wonderful. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to in your childhood home. Your son is with you, and you have a book out. Have you had time to read anything or watch anything?
Marie: We’re pretty busy. There are about four weeks that school didn’t meet, so we’ve been having Mommy School.
Maris: How is Mommy School?
Marie: Mommy School has been very popular. Mommy School has demystified fractions, so we’re feeling really good about fractions. We have been writing haikus because we’ve been reading through haikus. We also have started to write a little story about the birds in the backyard, and the birds are very busy. We spend quite a lot of time observing what the birds are doing, because right now they’re nesting and mating and fighting with each other and in the process of migrating. Yesterday we wrote a scene about the Junco Police, because the junco birds actually do police us and chase us away from their nests. We had a little traumatic experience when a Cooper’s hawk landed in the yard and then divebombed a tree of songbirds and tried to make off with a goldfinch.
Maris: Oh no!
Marie: It was very traumatic. So, we’ve been writing that story. Other than that, I get to spend time in conversation with people like you, and I do confess when I’m by myself that I have binge-watched the TV show The Expanse. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I do watch that. Well, I guess every night we watch
Maris: Is it particularly poignant to be in your childhood home as your book is being released?
Marie: It’s really weird. I’m getting more used to it. I got here in the evening because it was very little time before they said you really can’t travel in California. And I went to the grocery store and couldn’t find any potatoes or onions; the produce had been whipped out. It’s California, so it’s been replaced. I thought, I need to plant vegetables. And my mother, who was living here until December, and we had to move her due to some health problems, had left out all of her seeds that she would have put out in the vegetable garden, so they were waiting for me. I immediately went out and planted peas and beans and have been harvesting the asparagus, and I’ve been doing a ton of gardening. Kind of taking over the garden. That’s also really therapeutic, and I feel very spoiled that I get to spend a lot of my time on that. Every morning I go out and see if the carrots are coming up, if the beans are growing, et cetera.
Maris: That’s great. Is there a question you had hoped to be asked on book tour that I could ask you now?
Marie: Gosh, I have not thought about that. Questions I do get asked are questions like, what do I hope people will get from the book? A question I get asked a lot by big media that I have not answered successfully is how do we bridge the divide—because the book is a lot about the cultural divide—and if there’s three bullet points or a takeaway.
Maris: “Here are the things we should do to solve the problem.”
Marie: Right. I believe in books obviously, and I believe in the power of literature, and I believe in writers. But I have said, look, I’m not a politician and I’m not a pundit, and I’m not comfortable taking this book and distilling it down into simple bullet points. What I hope is that it shows people a way in which—I and these men, these harvesters who are from a totally different world, were able to have conversations, and conversations about very difficult and uncomfortable topics. We really talked about everything. I hope that gives room in people’s imaginations to also perhaps engage in those conversations that flow both directions. And I hope that it does reveal something about where our food comes from and about the people who work around the year to try to provide it for us.
Maris: Thank you so much.