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About the cover

 

D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Green Acres

Sustainable farm living is the life for me, decided reformed suburbanite Doug Fine. So he moved to the Mimbres, cut his carbon footprint and wrote a book about it — and us.

By David A. Fryxell



Doug Fine's new book about "living green off the grid," Farewell, My Subaru, will be published March 25 by Villard Books, an imprint of the formidable Random House. Planning a 15-city author tour, the big publishing house is promoting Fine's breezy memoir of sustainable living as one of its big titles for spring. Smithsonian magazine is already planning a story, and the book is slated for what book publicists label as "national review and feature attention."

Author Doug Fine with his goats, Natalie and Melissa, and the Subaru of his book title. (Photo by David A. Fryxell)

But if you want to chat with Fine before he hits the road for his "nearly carbon-neutral" book tour in his vegetable-oil-burning F250, which replaced the Subaru of the title, forget about lunch at Elaine's or cocktails at the Algonquin. The author of one of this spring's most talked-about nonfiction titles hangs his rumpled straw cowboy hat about as far from the trendy world of Publisher's Row — both physically and psychically — as it's possible to get.

"When folks visit from suburban or urban areas, they think getting here is just the greatest adventure," says Fine of the trek to his "Funky Butte Ranch" in the Mimbres Valley. "They think the directions are a joke."

True, almost everything Fine writes or broadcasts (as National Public Radio's "Rural Guy") has an element of humor, but the ruts, rocks, ridges and river crossing he laughingly describes in his standard emailed directions are no joke. Fine learned the perils of his remote ranch homesite firsthand just days after he bought the 41-acre spread in July 2006: Monsoon rains flooded the river crossing not far off Hwy. 35, making Funky Butte Ranch unreachable by vehicle for 43 days. Since the alfalfa hay and some urgently needed medicine for his newly acquired baby goats lay on the opposite side of "the scariest flood even old-timers could remember," Fine soon found himself waist-deep in the raging Mimbres River. ("Overall," he reflects in the book, "this was the kind of morning that made me wonder why Noah needed 40 days and 40 nights to get the message to lead a holy life. One attempt to get across an engorged river was enough to set me praying, aggressively.")

On a sunny winter day in 2008 when the Mimbres River is no more than a sparkling splash over a brown suggestion of polished river rocks, the crossing is not so daunting. But the rest of the tooth-rattling ride to Fine's ranch — even the ruts have ruts — remains an adventure: "Wind to the top of the ridge," Fine directs. "This part is unmarked. At the top of the ridge, turn right. After a few hundred yards or less, you'll pass a windmill and a cabin. Keep going. That's not it."

You know you have arrived when you spot a small sign: "Welcome. Pre-announcing your arrival helps avoid accidental gunfire and/or unexpected nudity."

Not exactly the sort of welcome you'd see adorning the manicured lawns of Long Island where Fine grew up.

"Turn right here and wind down the driveway (preferably not driving off the cliff despite the fine views of the property, creek bed and butte below)," his directions conclude. "Drive across the creek bed and up to the home site area. Three dogs, 37 chickens, two goats, two cats and six ducks and one human will greet you."



The dogs get there first, enthusiastically, yelpingly leading the way to a modest cluster of buildings and a spot to park right behind the soon-to-be-famous Subaru. Fine's actually been trying to say farewell to the navy-blue 1995 hatchback almost since he moved here. After months of having to remember to occasionally start the car and of dust turning the navy blue to some murky shade not found in Subaru's swatch book, Fine thinks he may finally have a buyer.

Fine, now 37, has acquired a bit of dust himself since he and the Subaru arrived in southwest New Mexico, along with a seemingly perpetual smile. A scruffy brown beard leads into curls of hair sprouting out from under his equally constant cowboy hat. Sunglasses shield eyes the color of his denim overalls. Think "Green Acres" remade starring a bearded Jerry Seinfeld.

This is not Doug Fine's first stint in southwest New Mexico, it turns out. He lived in Silver City for less than a year in the mid-1990s, on the recommendation of a friend, before hearing the call of Alaska. He turned that "Northern Exposure"-like experience into his first book, Not Exactly an Alaskan Mountain Man.

When the idea for a second book began to germinate, he realized this was the perfect place to set his everyman's adventure. "There's an intangible magic about these valleys that really called to me," Fine says. "Plus, on the practical side, solar power here is a piece of cake. There's so much sunlight here the only worry is overcharging."

Arriving in 2005, he rented a place in the Mimbres Valley while writing the proposal for Farewell, My Subaru and keeping his ear to the ground about a property to buy. The book advance arrived just as the future Funky Butte Ranch became available.

"I realized that my career was writing about things that are very unfamiliar to me and that I'm not necessarily good at," Fine explains, wending his way through clots of dogs and goats. "It draws the reader in, wondering if this guy can do it. I want to do it well, but when I don't know how — like securing the chicken coop from coyotes — I hope readers find it encouraging while they laugh at me."

The resulting book blends a year of Fine's hard-won lessons in going "green" with boxed statistical snippets ("In 2003, 380 Americans were electrocuted") and factoids ("Rattlesnakes are deaf"), occasional practical advice and the odd recipe ("Grilled Rattlesnake Dijon"). Farewell, My Subaru will disappoint readers looking for a peak-oil polemic or an anti-global-warming Whole Earth Catalog of resources. But most will learn a thing or two and maybe get inspired while chuckling at Fine's adventures.

"One person's naivete is another person's exuberant optimism," he says. "I have no problems making mistakes at first, and there are people doing this way more efficiently and competently than I am. But my electricity usage is down more than 80 percent, and I can drive around for 1,600 miles without stopping for gas."



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