Rural life forges new connections for writer Jon Katz
One of the many pleasures of Dog Days, Jon Katz's latest collection of "dispatches" about life on his 110-acre farm an hour or so north of Albany, New York, is witnessing a person in the process of opening up at a time in life when others tend to start closing down.
"Sometimes I feel there are two deaths for some people," the 59-year-old Katz says during a call from Bedlam Farm, which sits astride Patterson Ridge, overlooking the churches and 50 or so dwellings of the rural hamlet of West Hebron, New York. "The first comes when people enter middle age and start closing doors and windows and say the world is going to hell and change is bad. But occasionally you're lucky enough to have the opposite experience. Something happens that opens you up and you have a chance to learn, to change, to grow and experience new things. The animals and the farm have done that for me."
Katz, the "grandson of Russian immigrants who lived their whole lives in two rooms in a tenement in Providence, Rhode Island," has been chronicling his change and growth from a big-city journalist to a rural dog trainer and farm owner since the 1999 publication of Running to the Mountain, which described the beginning of his "Midlife Adventures." A former reporter and editor for publications such as the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post, as well as executive producer for "CBS Morning News," Katz made a radical shift in his life and career that surprised even his family. He now spends most of his week on Bedlam Farm by himself or with his helpers; his wife Paula Span, a journalist who teaches at Columbia University in New York, is a frequent visitor. They have a grown daughter, Emma, a sportswriter who will publish a book of her own next year.
The story of Katz's midlife conversion to rural living will be in theaters with the upcoming release of an HBO Films adaptation of his 2002 book A Dog Year, starring Jeff Bridges in the role of Katz himself.
"A SWAT team from the movie came in and grabbed two bags of my clothes," Katz reports, laughing. "They said they were going to bring them back, but never did, of course. They ordered exact replicas from L.L. Bean and had interns sandpaper them so they would look as rumpled as mine. I have to tell you there's no weirder experience than having this handsome, incredibly charismatic movie star wander around in my clothes. Because right off the bat, I am none of those things."
Katz's dog training guide Katz on Dogs, along with his articles in Slate and his "Dog Talk" show on Northeast Public Radio, have somewhat gleefully antagonized the snobbish segment of the border collie community, who sniff derisively at Katz's desire to train his sheep-herding dogs himself. In other words, Katz has often created a bit of a stir.
If not exactly mellower - Katz maintains strong, often provocative and sometimes unexpectedly humorous points of view - Dog Days strikes a new, slightly more philosophical chord. Like his previous books, which include The Dogs of Bedlam Farm (2004) and A Good Dog (2006), his latest work is rooted in the daily challenges of running his farm - interacting with his dogs Rose and Izzy, tending his 30 sheep, four donkeys, various and sundry chickens and barnyard cats, and restoring his 1862 farmhouse and its barns and outbuildings. But while focusing on the specific activities of a single season (the " dog days," Katz discovered, begin on July 3 and end on August 11, the period when Sirius, named "the Dog Star" by the Romans, rises with the sun), Katz is a natural storyteller and the topics covered in his new book range widely. He considers his friendship with the "farm goddess" Annie, who manages his farm. He observes the comically truncated, "grunt and grumble" conversations of local farmers. He ruminates on his lifelong sense of alienation, of being a "citizen of nowhere." He thinks long and hard about his moral responsibility to his animals.
Katz is quick to acknowledge that his farm isn't exactly like the other farms in the neighborhood. "I have all the issues of a real farm and it is a working farm. I make a living from it, but I do it indirectly," he says. "The other farmers come by here and say, what are you doing here exactly? And I say, well, I grow stories. That's my crop."
"I always try to write from the heart," Katz continues. "Whether it's something difficult, something beautiful, or something surprising, I try to find the emotional geography that exists between me and the place or between me and my animals."
He works "very religiously" from early morning until early afternoon in a small room at the back of his farmhouse that looks out over the pig barn and the dairy barn. "The animals all come and stare at me when they're hungry. I'll look up and there will be sheep and donkeys and cows staring at me. There's a lot of groaning and baaing and get out here and feed us. It's very unnerving," Katz exclaims.
But these sorts of interruptions seem to lie at the center of Katz's ongoing transformation. "Talk about humility," he says. "A writer gets pulled off his high horse every day here. This idea that you can just hole up and work in a pristine and pure environment? Forget it. I have people pulling into the driveway all day long. I have animals escaping, animals getting sick, pipes bursting, I don't know when the shearer will show up or when the hay will be delivered because these people don't make appointments. I looked out the other day and my 2,400-pound cow Elvis had gotten a little lonely and had strolled right through the fence and was underneath my window staring up at me. Elvis loves donuts. So I went out with my donut and walked him back and we bonded a bit. Then I called somebody to fix the fence and while I waited - and this is new to me - I realized that these distractions, interruptions and crises inform what I do and give me things to write about. They are not intrusions on my work. They are my work."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.