Bean Blossom Dreams: A City Family's Search for a Simple Country Lifeby Sallyann J. Murphey
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It started with 200 pounds of tomatoes harvested from a tiny plot of polluted Chicago dirt. It ended with a new a new life on a broken down farm in Brown County Indiana, where the Murphey family settled, trading the urban fast track for a simpler existence. This book chronicles the Murpheys' first 2 years at Bean Blossom Farm - a luminous portrait of how one family made their American Dream come true.
"With an incredible eye for detail, Murphey offers insight into the differences in country vs. city living."
- Rocky Mountain News
- New York Newsday
"For those who dream of living in the country or those who already do, this is a delightful book, full of good humor, wisdom, and personal honesty."
- The New Garden Journal
"For those who dream of living in the country or those who already do, this is a delightful book, full of good humor, wisdom, and personal honesty." —The New Garden Journal
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Beam Blossom Dreams
A City Family's Search for a Simple Country Life
By Sallyann J. Murphey, Glenn Wolff
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Sallyann J. Murphey
All rights reserved.
THE WINGS OF CHANGE
THE FLASH OF ORANGE HOVERED FOR A SECOND, THEN settled on the cream petals of a climbing rose. New wings, damp from the chrysalis, slowly stretched out to expose black fringes and delicate white spots. The butterfly paused to balance herself, then got down to the serious business of soaking up the afternoon sun.
A groan issued from the depths of the deck behind me. My husband was sprawled, gray faced, by the garden table, nursing his long, aching limbs. Greg had just come home from a two-week photo shoot that had been the usual combination of late planes, crowded airports, unfinished projects, and clients with a "good deal" on their minds. He was exhausted. We'd barely had a chance to say hello before the baby-sitter came to whisk our two-year-old daughter away so that I could meet my deadline for the London Daily Mail. I shouldn't have been downstairs at all. There were fifteen hundred words to write before breakfast the next morning and I'd already been up for most of the night before.
"Why do we do this to ourselves?" Greg muttered through clenched teeth.
I pointed to the pile of bills on the table. "Got to pay the piper if you're going to play the tune."
And we had played — hard — mostly before we met, when I was a British TV producer on assignment in New York and Greg was jetting around the world, photographing palaces of American corporate chrome. We had both traveled first class, too consumed by our careers to even notice our good luck. Then, in 1985, we attended the same party and our priorities began to change. For the first time, the idea of family became as attractive as success. "When we get married ..." Greg had said one day, as if it were old news. I'd gaped at him and was about to argue when I realized that I, too, had assumed it from the start. We moved back to his hometown, Chicago, where our daughter, Charlotte, appeared in 1987.
Like all babies, the little munchkin seized possession of our lives and kept us too busy trying to stay awake to notice the second seismic event of that year. In fact, we didn't connect the stock market crash with our increasing struggles until 1989, when we found ourselves mudwrestling for work that used to come with ease.
The butterfly fanned her wings and prepared for flight. "It's only going to get worse, you know." I settled into a chair next to Greg, shoving the bills and my deadline aside. "Next year we'll have to pay Charley's school fees as well. I don't know where it's going to come from; we both put in seventy hours a week as it is."
Greg stared gloomily into the garden, a little patch of color in a row of concrete yards. It was our oasis in the stresspool of the city, the place where we went to find brief peace of mind. "That," Greg said, waving at his vegetable patch, "is the only work that gives me any pleasure. I'm not even sure why we're doing this anymore."
He had a point. Since Charley's birth we had withdrawn increasingly from urban life. The openings, the parties, the pretty things to buy, did not compete well with a pair of large blue eyes and the few precious moments we had to enjoy them. We paid premium rent, premium everything, to live in an area where she could never play alone outside, or go to a school with a cross-section of her peers.
Dry at last, the butterfly took wing. She circled the bright blue delphiniums before settling on the honeysuckle to take delicate sips from each golden cup. In her brief eight weeks, this beautiful creature would drink deeply from many flowers. Between meals she would find herself a mate and they would dance their courtship through the blossoms before she laid her eggs and faded away.
I envied her the joy and simplicity of her short time. They were qualities Td been looking for all my thirty-six years and had only found in snatches. One day, we vowed, we would retire to a farm and spend what time we had left trying to reconnect to a more natural way of life.
"But why then — why not now?" I asked out loud. Greg's eyes opened a crack. The solution was suddenly very clear. I tugged at his sleeve to get his attention. "We could change it all. Why dream of ending up in the country when we could be living there today?"
"Oh yeah." Another of his wife's madcap schemes. "And just what would we do for money?" My husband was leaning forward, hoping to hear an answer.
"What we always do. Greg, do you realize that since we got the fax machine I never leave the office? The business of business is done down a telephone line, which could be set up anywhere. You're okay as long as you're near an airport, and in time we might be able to look to the land to provide our basic needs."
Greg's eyes followed the direction of my finger to the little sea of green in front of the garage. He had every right to be proud of his plot — the last harvest had included a whopping two hundred pounds of tomatoes from ten square feet of polluted dirt.
"And we'd be there to watch Charley grow up as part of a family — not as the only child of absentee parents." A bottle of wine was opened and we got the calculator out.
As the sun dipped in the sky, the butterfly spiraled upward. Fully refreshed, she glided out on the warm breeze, over the garden fence. For a moment she hung like polished amber in the air, pausing to take a last look at the place where it began. Then she turned southeast toward the lake — and the promise of a new and richer life.CHAPTER 2
AND WEEDS AS TALL AS TREES
IT WAS A BOOBY TRAP. THE HORSE HAD CAREFULLY dug a hole in the barn floor, expressed his opinion into it, and then rearranged his bedding to camouflage the dip.
As the morning routine began, he assumed a gentle pose. The sun streamed in through the open Dutch door and I crossed his stall humming to myself. "Oh, what a beautiful morning. ... Oh, what a beautiful ..." Then the ground disappeared. As I pitched forward into his dawn offering, I saw my right knee floating in a pool of brown sludge. There was an audible snicker from his feed bin as I squelched back to the house.
Hotshot's revenge came two days after we had electrified his fence. No more great escapes, no more calls to the animal control officer, no more sprints down Schooner Road at six in the morning. Just the soothing rhythm of a pulsing red light. The horse looked appalled as we installed it all — apparently he never would have predicted that we could have been that smart.
It's been fifteen months since the Big Move, and we all have learned and changed a lot. Gone is the driven, nervous man I was once married to and the shy and whiny child who was my little girl. In their places are two people I hardly recognize.
My tall and skinny Greg has filled out: his shoulders widened from all the outside work, his tummy a tribute to an abundance of fresh food. Charley has grown, too, her legs strong from long walks in the woods, her mind frighteningly unafraid of everything around her. They both glow with good health and a general enthusiasm for life.
For my part, unlike Sisyphus, I have dropped the rock. I still have to work as hard — even harder — but every moment is a pleasure. My legendary redhead's temper has evened out into a beatific smile, and problems that have had me smoldering for years just seem to solve themselves.
The mother of all this improvement is a 42-acre farm in the beautiful hills of Brown County, Indiana. Hills and the Hoosier State may seem like a contradiction in terms, but the four glaciers that created the great plains of the Midwest stopped just south of Indianapolis, at the foot of a huge ridge known as "the Norman Upland." Eons of time and melting waters from the ice eroded this peak into rounded waves of deciduous woodland, where bear, bobcat, and wolf roamed freely into the latter part of the last century.
Settlers started coming to Brown County in the 1820's, but most of them moved on. The dense forest and steep slopes made it difficult land to build on or to farm. Even the native Delaware and Miami tribes only passed through, using the hills as holiday hunting grounds — the area's first tourists.
Those who did stay were made of stern stuff. They usually eked out an existence in log cabins on dirt roads, without power or inside plumbing well into the 1950's, when some statisticians claimed that the county was the poorest in the Union. We even have a village called Needmore, because "folks there needed more of everything."
Then, in the sixties, the community's fortunes changed. It was the dawning of the technological age, and the beauty, the isolation, the very backwardness of Brown County became the main attractions to thousands of artists, tourists, and retirees. They came, in increasing numbers, to enjoy a display of fall color that is as magnificent as any to be found in New England; to buy the crafts from the blacksmiths, the potters, and the basket weavers; and to taste a life that is simpler and slower than the world outside. Many never went back. They stayed to form the vanguard for a new group of settlers, of which we are a part.
Our piece of this paradise has it all: a lovely old greenhouse, a 3-acre lake, 22 acres of woods, 17 acres of pasture, an orchard, and a small Dutch barn.
The day that we first turned down the driveway was full of magic. Roses wound their way over the walls of a stone cottage that lay hidden from the world behind banks of tall locust trees. The outside reminded me of home, taking me back to windswept days on the Yorkshire moors or long hikes in the hills of the Derbyshire peak district.
Inside, it was the cozy farmhouse we had hoped for. The ceilings were low, meeting walls of rich red ponderosa pine. Sunlight streamed in everywhere through sugar-pane windows, dappling the floors and warming the colors of the wood. The living room, dining room, sunroom, and kitchen all flowed from one to the other, giving the family plenty of room to cook, play, read, or just doze by the old woodstove without falling over each other's feet.
The landscape beyond the backdoor was breathtaking. Parkland swept down a hill to a stand of enormous Norway spruce. Their curved, feathery branches dripped with needles, which hid a sight that stopped us all in our tracks. I rounded one huge pine, chasing after Charley, to be confronted by a sheet of silent water. A hundred trees shimmered in the surface of the lake, framed by cattails bowing and swaying to a swarm of dragonflies that dipped to display their colors like dogfighters from World War I. This was a secret spot, undisturbed by time. The only thing missing was a white arm waving a sword from the middle of the pond.
We put in our applications the next day, and in December 1990 the Murphey household moved out of Chicago without a backward glance.
We drove down in convoy that day, each vehicle full of very different thoughts. Greg led the way with Oscar, our sick British bull terrier. My husband was feeling a sense of relief as each passing mile put more distance between him and the pressure cooker of the big city. As the tension lifted and his shoulders unclenched, he began to think about the little white "Spuds" dog at his side. Oscar has no immunity to simple staph bacteria and was being eaten alive by sores all over his body. We had spent a small fortune over three years taking him from vet to vet in Chicago, but nothing they did had worked. Perhaps, thought Greg, this move will also be the answer for him.
Hope was on my mind, too, as I bounced along in my little Yugo, crowded in by Charley; Lady, our large white German shepherd; and a very disgruntled Merry, our gray cat. Living in the country and running a small farm had been a fantasy since childhood. Whenever city life in London or Paris, where I grew up, got too overwhelming, I would retreat into my pastoral daydream of a lovely old country cottage, where I'd be living with chickens in the yard and children on my knee. When I was a young woman, the vision had faded, pushed aside by my job as a BBC producer, with all its busy trappings of "success." Now, through all those strange twists and turns of life, I was on my way to what I had really wanted all along.
My thoughts were already there, unpacked and settled in. I was harvesting our organically raised herbs and vegetables for rich city customers and fancy restaurants, while Greg was finally doing his artwork in his new studio in the barn. I saw us as pioneers in a changing work environment — jacks of all trades and masters of some, earning our way with one hand on the computer and the other on the plow. In the beginning, we would have to pay our bills with Greg's income from his commercial photography and from my writing. But I expected the farm business to take over 50 percent of our obligations within about a year — all it would need was a little hard work.
Behind me, our good friend, Steve Kowalski, followed in his VW. A city boy to his toes, he shook his head all the way to Indy, amazed that we had conned him into helping with this craziness and concerned that we would lose him and he'd have to find his way to the "middle of nowhere" all on his own.
The three cars had already outstripped the moving van, which was being driven by some rather sinister-looking gentlemen from Chicago's southeast side. Their thoughts were in their bellies and where they might stop for a meal. We wouldn't meet up again for another six hours.
By the time the movers found us, it was ten o'clock at night. They pulled in, missed the driveway, and sank up to their axles in mud. All our worldly goods were stuck three hundred yards from the house, and it began to rain. The men crowded into the kitchen, looking mutinous. We soothed them with beer, bacon and eggs, and every dollar in our pockets, and they sullenly began to unload. The job was finished by six the following morning, and I remember drifting dreamward to the sound of spinning wheels. It was a symbolic beginning.
The next few months would be a catalog of frustrations. We were about to be given a crash course in the power of nature versus the puniness of man, which would knock all the big-city arrogance and bucolic illusions out of us. We would have to learn precisely how incompetent we were before we could begin to build the skills that we needed for the future. It was going to be a humbling year.
Since we had no idea what was in store, our first few weeks were full of blissfully innocent excitement. We rushed to get organized, burning each box as soon as it was empty. This was the fifty-fourth move in our joint and separate lives, and we planned never to go anywhere else again. Our determination was reinforced with each new sight and sound.
Everything amazed us. It snowed and we spent hours at the windows, listening to the icicles tinkle like wind chimes and watching the birds puff up their feathers to keep warm. "We should put some food out for them," I said to Greg, "to let them know that we want to be friends."
We filled a plant tray in front of the kitchen and declared "Murphey's Bird Bistro" open for business. At first, no one came. Then a tiny chickadee danced in nervously and snatched at a kernel of corn. A couple of minutes later, he was back, cocking his head and checking us out from a safe distance before dive-bombing the food again. By his sixth sortie, the little fellow felt confident enough to stay awhile and inspect the menu. Within another hour, he was bathing in the seed, throwing it around lotto-winner style.
As the snow melted, other species joined him. Merry spent his mornings with his whiskers plastered to the window, aghast at the audacity of all of them, dancing under his very nose. We had to keep a bird book by the sink just to identify them. There were bright red cardinals, who sent in their buff-colored wives to scout before risking it themselves. There were juncos, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, house finches, goldfinches, and a Carolina wren. Even a blue jay passed by, when he thought we weren't watching.
Excerpted from Beam Blossom Dreams by Sallyann J. Murphey, Glenn Wolff. Copyright © 2008 Sallyann J. Murphey. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sallyann J. Murphey began her career as a producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. She has worked as an investigative journalist for a number of publications, including IPC Magazines, the Daily Mail, the London Observer, The Chicago Times Magazine, and The Utne Reader. Murphey is now the high school history, government, and media studies teacher at Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana, where she is also the high school coordinator. She lives in Brown County, Indiana.
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Bean Blossom Dreams by: Sallyann J. Murphy was a very interesting, detailed book. A city family s looking to start a simpler life in the country. They have to survive harsh winters, fierce storms, being low on food and many more downs but to them the biggest up in their life is ust knowing they will always have each other.