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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Kristy Athens will read at the Sugar Maple in Bay View on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Urban author describes country living in new book, upcoming reading


After a lifetime of living in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., Kristy Athens and her husband Mike decided to sell their home in Portland and buy a mini-farm in Washington State. They lived there until 2009, when the recession forced them to return to Portland.

In 2005, Athens started writing her book, "Get Your Pitchfork On: The Real Dirt On Country Living," and finished it in 2010 after sequestering herself in her grandma's house in Appleton.

Athens is coming to Milwaukee as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival and will read at the Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave., on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. The event is free.

The book, which started in present tense and was later switched to past tense after Athens left the farm, provides practical tools for anyone to realize their dreams of getting away from it all, with the basics of home, farm and hearth.

The book also enters territory that Athens wished she could have been aware of prior to her move, like straightforward advice about the social aspects of country living including health care, schools and small-town politics.

Athens' nonfiction and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines, newspapers and literary journals, most recently Culinate, Jackson Hole Review, High Desert Journal and Barely South Review.

OnMilwaukee.com recently caught up with Athens and talked to her about the ups and downs of country life and how it has affected her life and creative career.

OMC: When did you move from city to rural? Where were you living and where did you move?

KA: My husband Mike and I lived in a funky, working-class neighborhood of Portland called St. Johns. In 2003, we decided to chuck the house we'd remodeled from the studs out and the garden we'd built from scratch, and bought a mini-farm on seven acres in the Columbia River Gorge, in Washington State.

OMC: How old were you at the time? Did you and your husband have any kids?

KA: I was 34 and Mike was 35. No kids. A dog named Phynn.

OMC: Why did you move into the country? Was it a lifelong dream?

KA: Mike and I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and then lived in Minneapolis proper and in Portland as young adults. We were becoming more and more aware of the value of organic food, and loved being outside, and felt that we wanted to make it more of a lifestyle and not just a weekend hiking thing.

OMC: So, did you have any farming experience? What was the farm like?

KA: No, we weren't farmers. We quadrupled the size of the existing garden and grew a lot of our own food, but we never sold any produce. In any case, the garden was beautiful – we designed it to be round with a gazebo in the middle. The front of it was intensive permaculture-inspired keyhole beds; the back was tilled. We grew tomatoes and things in the front, and corn and potatoes, and melons – things that like to spread – in the back.

We had four buildings total, one of which was a beautiful, weathered barn. It was originally a two-stall dairy barn but we converted the stalls and a lean-to into a chicken coop.

We also had an acre of second-growth cedars and firs. There were a few precious wildflowers down there, like an Indian pipe and three orchids. And lots of wild ginger and inside-out flowers; Pacific Northwest stuff. It was magical for us.

OMC: What was the adjustment like for you?

KA: Most of it was fantastic. Our neighbors were wonderful; we loved living on the land and being in daily contact with wild birds and animals; we loved growing food and preserving it. In the winter, we could cross-country ski out our back door.

OMC: When did you decide to write the book and why?

KA: We moved to Washington with a pile of reference books, many of which I still have. But, there were things missing. In the old books, the ones written in the '70s, there is no consideration for modern life, with its Internet, cell phones and telecommuting. In the modern books, the authors fit into the culture and are succeeding, and are unwilling or unable to speak frankly about the crucible of small-town life. It's pretty intense. So, basically, I wrote the book I wish I'd had before I moved.

OMC: When was your book published? How extensively are you touring?

KA: My book came out in April; published by Process Media. My touring schedule has been pretty aggressive but it's basically an excuse to visit friends and relatives.

OMC: How did you find your way to Wisconsin?

KA: This is actually my second trip to Wisconsin this year. Nearly all of my extended family lives in Appleton or Kaukauna. In August, I had the great pleasure of reading at the Barnes & Noble in Appleton and having in attendance my grandma, who was celebrating her 92nd birthday. I wrote the first half of my book at her house; after we had to sell the farm I sequestered myself there for a month to work on it.

OMC: What was the most challenging aspect of living in a rural environment?

KA: Some things were harder than we expected. It was really imperative to own a compact tractor, and we couldn't afford one. The life is physically demanding and there is always something breaking or going wrong. We cut ourselves off from Portland's economy in an effort to become part of the local community and then couldn't support ourselves. I don't really fit into mainstream society, so I often felt like a freak, or was blatantly treated like one. Plus, I got involved in small-town politics, for which I was not prepared, and was ground up in the machinery. It was rough.

OMC: What were the best parts?

KA: The best parts, for me, all have to do with the land. The air smells fantastic; the falling snow is gorgeous; the birds are mesmerizing to watch; the fire in the woodstove is sublime; the farm animals are your friends.

OMC: You moved back to Portland in 2009, right?

KA: Yes, we moved back to Portland, due to the recession, in 2009. We are saving our money and planning our next attempt at country living; we miss it too much.

OMC: What else are you working on these days?

KA: You can learn more about my work at kristyathens.com. Check out my "Bacon & Whiskey" video! I am considering a couple of new books; mostly I am busy updating my blog every week.


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