(An Urban Farm Mystery, Book 1)


If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

—Oscar Wilde

 Chapter 1

David means “beloved.” And he was, so very much. Nobody seemed to see the taunt in the way he died. The headlines read “Local Activist Killed in Biking Accident.” That was only one tiny piece of the story.

Nowhere did it say that the truck was hauling asparagus from Peru to Tennessee grocery stores. David would have scoffed at the distance the out-of-season asparagus had traveled to get to Knoxville tables. He would have said nobody should be eating it anyway. It’s an early spring vegetable, and it was autumn. He would have been furious that it had traveled 3,200 miles as the crow flies, and God only knows how far by sea and highway, to maybe get to local tables.

That is what David would have said. His wife Emma used to spend a lot of time spinning the real headline in her head, the truth that others didn’t see.

“Slow Food Activist Mowed Down by Truckload of Peruvian Asparagus.”

“Zero-Carbon Advocate Killed by Carbon-Spewing Semi.”

After a considerable fit of fury, David would have laughed at the irony. He would have mused that, unlike the rest of us, the poor bicyclist got the full effect of our unhealthy attitudes toward food and the environment, right up the side of the head instead of gradually with every bite we eat and every breath we take. This bicyclist who was pedaling to keep carbon emissions out of the atmosphere was squashed by a truck that got four miles to the gallon and used 120 gallons of gas a day.

These kinds of facts swim around in the heads of those left behind by the dead. Every minute detail of death is parsed and chewed over. Emma drowned daily in the twisted incongruity of David’s death, particularly the last headline flashing over and over in her head.

“Supposed Faithful Husband Dies after Leaving Girlfriend’s Bed.”

What an obituary that would have made.

David Goode, 53, local activist, was killed in a tragic accident after leaving the home of his girlfriend and fellow activist, Molly Steed, 33. Goode leaves behind his wife Emma, 52; and two sons, Edward, 30, and Abe, 24.

 Had everyone known this humiliating truth but her? David, the one true and uncompromising soul, her soul, was having an affair. Why hadn’t she seen the signs? Even the question was humiliating. She only found out when an unmarked package came in the mail a month after his death. It contained a video tape. She thought it was another homegrown production, some urban farmer’s homemade demonstration movie. After putting it in the VCR, it took Emma a moment to discern what was on the screen—rumpled sheets, naked flesh, and tousled dark hair. The moment of realization ripped through her raggedly. She was looking at a homemade sex tape. David and Molly laughing. David and Molly touching.

She had cried out as she fumbled the tape out of the VCR. Grabbing scissors on the desk, she pulled the magnetic tape out of its case, cutting its entire length into what seemed like a mountain of shiny, brown, half-inch pieces. Consumed by grief and outrage, she swept them up in her arms and burned it all in the fire pit on the back patio. David would have disapproved of the fumes and black smoke from the burning plastic.

Emma didn’t care.

These thoughts rattled round and round in her head every time she came to the garden. They had made big plans for this garden. David had called it the Grand Experiment. They were going to produce most of their food here and show urbanites that backyard organic farms could work. They had read all the literature and toured every urban farm in the region. They had practiced on a small scale with heirloom tomatoes and sweet chocolate peppers. David had delighted in the fat brown peppers with the sweetest taste. She had become a tomato connoisseur—Brandywines, Arkansas Travelers, Tomatillo Verde. They had joyfully tended that kitchen garden and had big plans to go all out the following spring, incorporating every square-foot of their yard into food production.

And then David died. The garden lay fallow that spring. Emma had tried more than once to get back to the garden. She had taken her hoe and shovel and dug the rich earth in the beds, but all she could think about was betrayal. With every shovelful of dirt she turned over, she felt like she was turning over more lies. She stabbed the ground with her hoe. She fell to her knees and pounded it with her fists. She sobbed and raged until, broken, she got up and went back inside.

That was the first spring. She was only glad her sons hadn’t been there to watch her. Edward, their oldest, was a prosecuting attorney in Las Vegas. He was making a career out of going after the big criminals with the biggest, “baddest” connections. He moved his family to Vegas to take on a high-profile case. He was a white hat, like his father. Emma winced, but David was a white hat in so many ways. She had resolved that Edward would never know his father’s secret. Molly Steed was only a few years older than he was. She and David had worked closely on the mayor’s New Visions project. Hell, Molly had sat down at her dinner table and worked late nights in her living room. Never once had Emma suspected. What a fool she was!

And Abe, sweet Abe. He was finishing up a degree in ecological agriculture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington—his choice because he could create his own independent study program. He worshiped his father and was following in his footsteps as food activist and earth steward. No, her sons would never know the truth about their father. They would never have to face the stark betrayal and bottomless shame that she felt. At least she could spare them that.

Two growing seasons passed. One day Emma emerged from her home and stood surveying the backyard, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun. The daffodils were blooming. Time to put the salad greens in the ground, the old timers said. She decided to take another stab at the garden.


The overgrown garden beds proved too much for Emma to tackle alone. She managed to get a good amount of spinach and other greens planted in containers on the patio, but she couldn’t bear to touch the yard. A quick online search brought up a long list of local landscapers. She chose the one closest to her house, Katuah Bioregion Permaculture Design. No answer. As instructed by the answering service, she left her name, number, address, and best time for a consultation.

Too early the next morning, a 20-something man showed up on her doorstep.

“I’m Free Byrd. Everyone calls me Teepee Free. I’m here about your garden beds.”

She looked him up and down curiously. He might have stepped out of a seventies documentary about hippies, except that he had a hip urban look about him. His shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but the soul patch under his lip placed him squarely in the present. A leather lace was tied around one wrist. He wore a dark wool ivy cap, jeans, and a tee shirt that read “sound tribe sector nine.” His Doc Martens were scuffed and worn.

“Why do they call you Teepee Free?” Emma eased out the door and closed it behind her.

“I build teepees,” he said, with a boyish grin. “That’s my life work. I do landscaping on the side. The teepee business is a bit slow right now.”

They walked around to the back of the house. The backyard was about an acre, and gently sloped down to meet a small creek bed.

“Wow, big yard,” Free said as he surveyed the lot. Emma looked at the yard as a stranger might. Six raised beds dotted the lawn, all bursting with weeds of every description, some as tall as Emma. Not one of David’s straight even rows could be deciphered from the mess of weeds and bushes.

Free walked halfway down the yard, studying the landscape. He stopped amid the garden beds and pulled a compass out of his pocket. He aligned himself to the south, standing clear of the trees and their shade.

He pointed along the creek. “You can put fruit trees there. Maybe cattails if you get any flooding. I bet you do this time of year. They’re edible, you know. Or bamboo. Of course you’ll want to put your compost bin here and your rain barrels there. Maybe a pyramid of 55-gallon barrels against the house.”

Now Free was gesturing around the yard.

“We can probably set up a greywater system from the house to divert water down here to the garden since that creek is so nasty. First Creek, right? It’s a mess. Let’s put your livestock down by the creek.” He paused to take a breath.

“Livestock?” Emma’s eyes bulged only slightly.

“Chickens or rabbits. You’re a meat eater, right? And eggs. You’ll need eggs. And manure for the gardens. Maybe goats for milk. Bees, of course.”

“Of course,” said a bewildered Emma. “Wait. I just want these beds cleaned up.”

Free scratched his sideburns, then stroked his stubbly soul patch thoughtfully. “Emma, as responsible citizens of the Earth, we have to do all we can to live in harmony with its natural cycles. We need to reinsert ourselves into the Web of Life. Besides, I work real cheap.”

“How cheap?”

“Just let me pitch my teepee down in the yard and I’ll work for rent. We’ve got a lot of work to do here. I’ll even make dinner on Thursday nights. I make a mean tofu and bulgur cabbage roll.”

Teepee Free agreed to start on the gardens immediately. His tools were in the back of his truck. He took pains to tell Emma it was a grease car that ran on vegetable oil.

“I have a friend at McDonald’s who calls me every time the frying oil is changed,” he explained. Emma was duly impressed.

Free set about his work immediately. He pulled a scythe from the back of the truck. Its sharp edges seemed to sing as they slashed through the overgrowth in the garden beds. He stooped occasionally to pull plants out by the roots.

“Raised beds are fine, but I like to put plants straight in the ground,” Free said as he picked up a pile of cut weeds. “Just my opinion, of course. I like to work with the natural landscape, better to simulate nature. We could make an amazing food forest back here.”

He paused to take off his shirt, wiping his face with it before he threw it aside. The spring sun was warm, and Free, obviously not a deodorant wearer, was starting to reek a little.

“You can grow a lot of food in six beds with some planning. Not all that you need, but a good chunk. Did you know that the food you buy in the grocery store can travel thousands of miles from the farm to your table? Think of the gas it takes to transport food that far. That’s too much of a burden on the Earth, not to mention, homegrown food or even local food, for that matter, is fresher and better tasting.”

Yes, Emma knew about food miles. She frowned at the thought. Memories of David came flooding into her mind, but she turned them off. She thought instead of her own foray into local food before the Grand Experiment. It started after reading a book about one family’s herculean efforts to eat locally grown foods within a 100-mile radius of their home. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had changed her life.

“I try to eat mindfully,” she said as she helped move the cut weeds to the old compost pile. “My husband and I read labels and ate locally. It was a full-time job.”

Teepee Free stopped swinging his scythe and looked at her. “Ah, so you are a believer. I thought as much. It looks like you had the beginnings of a nice setup here at some point. How’d it get so grown up?”

“My husband died. I pretty much quit everything.” She looked down at her own scuffed yard shoes. “I want to get back to it. Realistically, I can’t grow everything I need, but this is a good start,” she said. “Baby steps.”

The young man snorted. “No time for baby steps, Emma. The world is in peril.”

In time, she would realize that’s the way Teepee Free talked. In his mind, he and his scythe were the only things standing in the way of the world’s plunge into total annihilation. Maybe he was right, she thought.

When they stopped for lunch (Free brought his own sandwich of organic tomato, alfalfa sprouts, and soy mayonnaise on whole wheat bread packed in a reusable container), he asked for paper and a pen so he could sketch out his proposed improvements to Emma’s backyard.

True to his word, it was all right there on paper—the gardens, the fruit trees, the compost bin, and the rest. “We could build tilapia tanks by the back porch.” Free had sketched tall, conical tanks full of fish.

“Free, I can’t afford tilapia tanks. I need to tackle this project in phases.”

“That’s okay, we’ll get a grant. It’ll be a demonstration house. And actually, it would be a good idea to start a blog documenting our progress. It could help the process.” Free talked on about his dream of free food for the people, and tilapia tanks and apple trees in the middle of downtown. He wanted to create a hydroponic farm in an old warehouse right on Market Square, the heart of the revitalized city. He envisioned an organic “factory farm” to supply vegetables to restaurants on the Square and people who lived downtown. It would be a model for other urban farmers. Better yet, he could set up his farming operation and start a solar power business in the Sunsphere, the city’s premier landmark.

“Wouldn’t that be a bad ass location, and a killer statement?” he asked. “Solar power coming from the Sunsphere!”

“Well, it sure would be nice to find a use for the Sunsphere. It has pretty much sat empty since the World’s Fair in ’82,” Emma replied.

All Emma could think of was trekking solar panels and other gear up and down the 266-foot, steel-truss base to the golden, orb-shaped sphere of offices at the top, but in spite of that, she was swept up by his vision. It made poetic sense. And though it seemed a bit quixotic by her standards, Free was the person who could possibly pull it off. He wasn’t all vision. He seemed like a hard worker. Maybe he just needed help.

By the end of the conversation, she had agreed to help Free with his projects. Work and a tofu dinner in exchange for rent, in exchange for grant writing in exchange for vegetables and tilapia. The bartering was flying around so fast and furious that Emma wasn’t sure who owed what to whom, but if anyone could keep track of it all, it was Free.

It was easy to trust this young man. He was nothing if not sincere. His grasp of ecology and sustainable gardening practices was impressive. His earnestness was refreshing.

Emma later wondered why she let the young man into her life so easily. Perhaps it was his seeming innocence and visionary ecological views, a beguiling combination. The young man had faith in the world’s ability to change, an uncommon trait among kids his age. Maybe it was because her two sons were grown and living far away. She saw Free as a kindred spirit. She envied his nomadic lifestyle. There was a time in her life when she jumped in her truck and hit the roads for parts unknown. She missed those days. Free was full of the youthful exuberance that she once felt but had lost after the long years of babies and work and too many bills.


Free liked Emma the second he laid eyes on her. It wasn’t sexual attraction. It was the feeling you get when you meet a member of your spirit tribe. Even with a three-decade age difference, they met on a level that most people never seem to reach. It wasn’t often that he could just start spouting his vision for the community and not have to explain everything he meant, or why it was a good idea, or why the prevailing paradigm was bad. Emma got it. She got him.

Emma had set a fast pace when they started weeding her gardens. She was healthy, almost athletic, and pretty in an unpretentious way, almost as an afterthought. Most women her age had long since cut their hair, but hers hung over her shoulder in a long white braid. He figured she was about the same age as his mother, so that white hair was definitely premature. Her green eyes were wise and her smile was kind, but she seemed so very, very sad.

“So where are you from, Free?” They worked side by side throughout the afternoon.

“Arcata, California, originally. I was raised off the grid in a commune.”

“Wow. There’s a story there, I bet.”

Was there ever. Free told Emma he was the only son of two hippies, suckled on ideas of right livelihood and visions for an alternative world. As a child, he spent a lot of time in the woods and ran with the goats and dogs when he wasn’t being home-schooled by a laid-back lady named Bluejay. He lived in an old travel trailer on 100 acres with his parents, Bard and Star—not their given names—and several other families who came and went over the years. Some lived in tents. Some lived in teepees or other non-permanent structures like his family’s trailer. Bard was a retired sociology professor. Star was a nurse who mostly ran free clinics. They grew a lot of their own food and cooked outside. Any electricity they used came from the solar panels that Bard set up like wings on the sides of their trailer. Oh, and pedal power. The use of small appliances was contingent on the amount of muscle exerted.

“So you learned early to distrust authority and disregard convention,” Emma said.

“Absolutely. And I learned how long I had to pedal to blend my smoothie in a converted 12-volt blender.”

“How long?”

“Not as long as you’d think if you don’t use ice.”

“Do you live in a teepee by choice?”

“I’d rather live in my teepee than anywhere else.”

“What do you do when it gets cold?”

“I rely on the kindness of strangers.”

He explained that he used public buildings for amenities like running water, electricity, and free wireless for his computer. He drove his 1994 Ford F350 truck far more than he felt he should, but since it ran on vegetable oil, he didn’t feel too badly about it.

“In a perfect world, I could walk and bike everywhere I needed to go. Unfortunately, Knoxville is not the friendliest town for bikers. And everything is so spread out. Then there’s the issue of my tools. I drive as little as possible because I can’t always get a lot of used French-fry oil.”

He had a friend who made the gas-to-vegetable oil conversions.

“Just let me know when you’re ready to convert your car and I’ll hook you up.”

Apparently, it wasn’t hard if you drove the right kind of car (diesel) and knew a gearhead who was into those kinds of things. Plus, one needed a reliable used vegetable oil hookup. Fortunately he had one. This seemed to salve his conscience at a time when Peak Oil—the point when global oil production reaches its maximum rate and starts a steady decline—was of major consequence.

They worked until dinner time and made arrangements to reconvene in the garden the next day. Free had had a good day. Tonight he would get started on that blog. Surely the planets had aligned and his spirit guides were on duty the day he met Emma. Her backyard was a blank slate. With his connections and her own green aspirations, together they could make an alternative mecca out of this property, an oasis of hope and awareness in a culture on the skids.


Plant a Garden. Change the World.

 Welcome to the first post of our new blog, Knoxtopia. We are two people growing an urban farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. Emma owns the place. I’m Teepee Free, the bartered hand. Let me start our adventure with this truism:


Everyone eats. The simple act of planting a garden instead of buying from giant supermarket chains changes the debate on issues like health, economics, and politics. By doing so, we take back control over what goes into our food and, hence, our bodies. We create the world we want to live in—one free from poisons, unfair practices, and unscrupulous companies and politics.

Who knew a tomato plant wielded that much power?

By planting an organic garden, we unplug from oil. We reject oil-based fertilizers and insecticides. We no longer need all that plastic packaging. Our food isn’t trucked in gas-guzzling planes, trucks, and trains.

Best of all, we honor our bodies with food free from poison and scary bio-engineered organisms. Think about this: If we are what we eat, we are drenching ourselves in pesticides and unnatural organisms when we eat heavily fertilized plants from seeds bio-engineered to kill pests. No thanks!

All this, PLUS our homegrown food is uber-healthy, juicy, and delicious. And did I mention that through organic practices we are healing our imperiled Mother Earth? There’s no down side to this.

So friends, here we will document Emma’s journey to self-sufficiency in the city. Come with us as we transform Emma’s ordinary city home into a farm oasis only 10 houses down from a major thoroughfare. We are building a real-life working model for sustainable agriculture and eco-living in a major metropolis. We aren’t the first to do this. Documenting our labors here will ensure we aren’t the last. Expect to learn about our adventures in organic farming, city farm animals, permaculture, alternative energy, water and waste management, and more.

Bookmark our blog and come back often. We’ll keep you posted.


GreenbyNature said …

Fantastic! I look forward to many more posts.

AnnieSpeaks said …

Welcome to the world of blogging! Please join me at Annie_Speaks, a blog about Knoxville night life!

Chapter 2

Emma sipped her coffee as she stared out the kitchen window toward Free’s teepee. Nearly 20 feet tall, the top half of the canvas was painted cobalt blue. White constellations were painted all around it, like the night sky. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

More than two weeks had passed since Free had come on the scene, and things were working out nicely. He worked his landscaping jobs around Emma’s yard projects. That worked out because she had to work, too. She was a freelance writer and editor. David left her enough for bills and necessities. Everything else came from what work she could scrape up for herself.

Free usually was gone by early evening. Emma didn’t know where he went. She didn’t ask, but he was back by morning. Sometimes he regaled her while they worked with tales of this environmental defense meeting or that home cheese-making demonstration at the food co-op. Free got around in the alternative underground.

Today she was heading downtown to the Farmer’s Market for vegetable seeds and plants, and depending on what she found there, maybe to a nearby nursery. The first of May was the grand opening of the Farmer’s Market and a traditional planting day for the region. It was tempting to plant before then, especially as the days grew warmer. Old timers warned against it, though, except of course for early greens and root crops. April was a dangerous month for unexpected frosts in the Tennessee Valley. In fact, many long-time farmers held off until Mother’s Day.

She and Free had weeded and added compost to most of the raised beds. Free found composted manure at the Knoxville Zoo. They built a new compost bin by the garden. Already she was filling it with spent coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and yard waste. They were weeding and pulling up scrubby vegetation along the creek to make room for edible landscaping like apple and Asian pear trees. Free was nearly finished with a chicken coop.

Before her shopping trip, though, she needed to get some work done. Working from home was its own challenge. Too many distractions pulled at her as she edited other people’s manuscripts. However, business was good. She couldn’t complain. She sighed as she settled into the chair at her desk. She was only a few pages into her manuscript when the phone rang.

“Goode Editing Service. Emma speaking.”

“Em, you should call your business Great Editing Service.” It was Vergie Dell, Emma’s next-door neighbor. And that joke was old, seeing as how Vergie told it every time she called. In fact, if she had a nickel for every time Vergie Dell called to harass her over something, she would be very rich indeed.

“Hello, Vergie. How are you today?”

“Emma Lee, what is that in your backyard?”

“Are you just noticing it, Vergie? It’s been there for two weeks.”

“I’ve been off to a summer tent revival in Johnson City,” Vergie drawled. “Some forty souls came to the Lord. It was a miracle.”

“Hmm.” Emma distractedly replaced the word that with who in the manuscript on the computer screen. It’s who when it comes after a person and that when it comes after a thing, she thought crossly.

“So, what’s going on? I didn’t even notice ’til you chopped down that bush by the hickory tree.”

“Well, Vergie, a young man is helping me do some yard work. He stays in the teepee.”

“Who is he?”

“His name is Teepee Free.”

“Toilet paper? Why’s he named after toilet paper?”

“No, teepee. The cone-shaped tent, not toilet paper.”

“What’s he do?

“He’s a landscaper.”

“Since when do landscapers move in with you? What’s going on? I think that’s against city code anyway, having that tent down there like that.”

“It’s temporary, and he’s a guest, so I think we’re okay.” Irritation was growing in Emma’s voice.

“Emma Lee, is that proper?” The word was loaded with implication. “A widow like you, living alone for all this time, with a man in her backyard? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.”

“Vergie! He’s younger than my youngest son!”

“Exactly. And just what would Abe think?”

“Abe would think, ‘Awesome, now I don’t have to feel guilty for not being there to help mom with the yard work.’ Anyway, he reminds me a little of Abe.”

“I’m just saying, Emma Lee. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

“Okay, that’s just sick. I’ve got to get back to work. Thanks for your concern, Vergie.”

“I’ll keep my eye on him, Emma Lee.” She hung up.


Copyright ©2014 by Yvonne Loveday

Cover photo by: Tovah Love Photography

All rights reserved in all media. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual people and events is coincidental.

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