Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farmby Jane Brox
Though few of us now live close to the soil, the world we inhabit has been sculpted by our long national saga of settlement. At the heart of our identity lies the notion of the family farm, as shaped by European history and reshaped by the vast opportunities of the continent. It lies at the heart of Jane Brox's personal story, too: she is the daughter of immigrant… See more details below
Though few of us now live close to the soil, the world we inhabit has been sculpted by our long national saga of settlement. At the heart of our identity lies the notion of the family farm, as shaped by European history and reshaped by the vast opportunities of the continent. It lies at the heart of Jane Brox's personal story, too: she is the daughter of immigrant New England farmers whose way of life she memorialized in her first two books but has not carried on.
In this clear-eyed, lyrical account, Brox twines the two narratives, personal and historical, to explore the place of the family farm as it has evolved from the pilgrims' brutal progress at Plymouth to the modern world, where much of our food is produced by industrial agriculture while the small farm is both marginalized and romanticized. In considering the place of the farm, Brox also considers the rise of textile cities in America, which encroached not only upon farms and farmers but upon the sense of commonality that once sustained them; and she traces the transformation of the idea of wilderness--and its intricate connection to cultivation--which changed as our ties to the land loosened, as terror of the wild was replaced by desire for it. Exploring these strands with neither judgment nor sentimentality, Brox arrives at something beyond a biography of the farm: a vivid depiction of the half-life it carries on in our collective imagination.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Excerpt from Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm by Jane Brox. Copyright © 2004 by Jane Brox. Published in September, 2004 by North Point Press, a division or Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Horseman, pass by, I used to whisper as the sirens made their long way down the road from the center of town. Now: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven gone out of a generationmy father, both his sisters, four of his six brothers. They had possessed a collective strength that gave definition not only to the family but to the farm itself, to the hundred acres of woods and streambeds, fields and orchards we have called ours that lie across the worn coastal hills north of Boston. I know time itself helped to establish a sense of security, time in place, time and a generation's fidelity to each other. Even as six of the brothers married and moved on and the care of the farm passed to my own father, there was a particular bond among all those siblings that lasted their entire lives. In their later, quieter years, though the farmhouse was no longer the gathering place for the extended family at holidays, all of my uncles were still in and out of it, often almost daily. In the years before his death my father lingered long at the table by the kitchen window, exchanging the news of the family, of the day. I can see him there still, bent over the local paper, talking with his sister Bertha.
That no one in the family lives in the old farmhouse any-more may be the strangest thing about all these passings. For almost a hundred years its nineteenth-century forthrightness had been at our center, and had so worked into our imaginations that, more frequently than I look at any of the pictures of my ancestors, I contemplate the 1901 photograph of the farmhouse with its linkage of buildings: summer kitchen, carriage house, barn. As I study the blades of the windmill above the roofline and imagine the silo just out of the frame, the world appears sturdy against a backdrop of sober daylight. A patient horse is swaddled in ropes and harnesses. Men and women look up from their work in the muddy yard. However it is in some other world, their uncomplaining gazes seem to say, I know that this is the way in ours. Farming in New England was already in decline, with woods growing up on long-cleared lands as the mill cities and prospects to the west pulled people away from this countryside, but it was still the common life, wide open under a big sky, and one farm's holdings adjoined those of the next and the next all down the roadpasture and field and orchard extending as far as the eye could see.
Scrawled across the back of my copy of the photograph in my father's hand is Brox Farm 1901, so for a long time I'd imagined it to depict a moment just after my grandparents took possession of the place, after their emigration from Lebanon, after peddling wares in upstate New York, and briefly enduring tenement life in the city of Lawrence six miles to the east of the farm. Even when I learned that it actually captures the last days of ownership of the family who'd lived there before my grandparents, it hardly seemed to matter. My family had simply taken over a way of life that had been acumulating for centuries, and there was little enough difference between last days and first.
In the years after my grandparents came into possession of the farm, the windmill blew down, the silo burned, but one after another child was born, the size of the milk herd increased, and their halting English became more certain. In time, teams of ordinary horses gave way to tractors as the farm steadied into the one I knew where irises and roses flourished at the fence, full-grown shade trees tossed high above the roof peak in the storms, and my entire extended familythirty, forty of uswould gather at the farmhouse during the holidays. Aunts, uncles, cousins crowded the kitchen and dining room. We ate Lebanese kibbeh and stuffed grape leaves, we tore off pieces of Syrian bread to scoop up hummous bi tahini. The heat chuffed, the warm air was filled with voices, while beyond us, beyond the watery old glass of the farmhouse windows, the world was bright with the stark New England winter.
That the farmhouse remained for so long at the center of our world surely had to do with the fact that my aunts, Bertha and Del, who never married, lived there all their lives, along with my bachelor Uncle Joe. My brothers and male cousins have little anecdotes even now about Joe. He taught them how to check a tire for leaks and how to change the oil in a truck. He stood over them as they planted the tulip bulbs in the farmhouse yard under his direction: "Is that hole four inches deep?" "Four inches." any boy would affirm. "Bulb on its side?" "Bulb on its side." But it's Bertha and Del whom I recall most often. When I was very young the farmhouse had beenlike the meadow, the brook, the woodsone of the stations of my childhood. I would go there almost daily with one or three or four of my girl cousins who lived near me. We tracked in mud, we tracked in snow. We spoke of themAuntie Bertha and Auntie Delin the same breath, as if one word. It seemed all the noise there ever was we brought with us into the kitchen as we settled in the rockers and easy chairs or around the table by the east windows where we found ourselves bent over Scrabble with Bertha or searching through the puzzle pieces laid out and partially interlocked. The unentered rooms, made more still by our games in the kitchen, were sometimes peopled by the recollection of evenings when there were so many for supper they had to eat in shifts at the oak tablea silver cup full of silver spoons at its centeror of the living room thick with cigar smoke when the brothers had brought friends home after a late night out.
The apples blossomed, the grass dried in the August heat, my aunts' attention continued to turn to the sound of a car pulling into the drive, to the tenor of their brothers' voices hailing them as they walked up the porch stairs. In time my own world became crowded with life beyond the farm, with friends from high school and dreams of going awayit's hard to remember when I hadn't been intent on going away. I bent to my books during those late teenage nights, my imagining and hopes running on faster than the frequencies on the radio dial I flipped through when I was restless: static, voices, snatches of song, everything in the world there if you could just tune in, if you could just settle on the right place . . . My visits to my aunts became less spontaneous then, more brief and formal, made dutifully, prodded by my parents. I sat stiffly by the window, feeling the stillness of the house now that the games had fallen away. The family pride"You don't act that way . . ." "Remember who you are . . ."began to feel far too confining, and I tried not to stir it up as Del sat there rocking and Bertha knitted panels in patterns of cable and box stitches to make afghans for each departing niece to take away to college. I wondered about their single lives, their devotion to the family, the protection and regard of their brothers, the way you wonder about those flocks of swifts you see in late August, readying themselves, making their glinting turns in the turbulent airare they helped by the wind or made helpless by it?
"I'd sell pies and ice cream," Bertha recalled, her needles clicking into the quiet as she told me about the tearoom her father had built for her to run just across the road from the farmhouse. She elaborated on the story during later visits: "We called it the Red Wingeveryone along the road would stop in . . ." I can still hear her mild, soft chuckle, and a final comment: "Anything to keep me home." Then she turned again to the work in her lap, which by then may even have been my own afghan in shades of blue that I was to drape over myself as I read poetry and studied ecosystems, Shakespeare, and Russian history in my cinder-block dorm room almost two hundred miles away.
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