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 thenews 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 anymore 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 livedthere before my grandparents, it hardly seemed to matter. My family had simply taken over a way of life that had been accumulating 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 tabini. 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 hadbeenlike 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 nowthat 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.
Del was the first of that generation to die. When the cancer was diagnosed she was set and determined to begin with. "I want to know the news, however bad," they say she told the doctors. Then came the affront of treatment: "They made me drink barium." She'd always carried her large self with dignity, had carried out everything with deliberate care, even something as small as shaping Easter cookies, hundreds eachthe same size and intricately shaped. Her generation of the family did not record much, but everything worth noting is set down in her meticulous, flourished hand, every wedding notice and obituary of the extended familythird cousins, cousins twice removedclipped and pasted by her into a hardbound album. I don't remember her ever registering fear, even as her voice grew faint and hoarse. "I've had a good life," she said to me squarely. In the later stages of her illness she began to shrink rapidly in her dresses. A stairlift appeared on the farmhouse stairs. She became a frail shape, unimaginable even to herself: "Who'd ever have thought I could feel my bones against the seat of the chair?" she said in a kind of wonder.
"You should come back for a visit now," my father told me one day, and then he went on to warn me I might not recognize her. I had been living away for years by then while my father and brother carried on the work of the farm. At the time I was on Nantucket Island, thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, so the return felt like a real journey. The ferry pulled away from the dock in the harbor dawn and glided past the last sandy stretches of wild, scoured land, then past cormorants drying themselves on the jetties. It took hours to cross the sound then, and after the quiet suspended world of us travelersjust our murmurs and the humming enginesI was always startled by the bright, jostling morning of the working world when I debarked on the Cape. However quiet the ferry had been, it couldn't compare to how tamped down the farm felt when I arrived back that time. My aunt's failing was all the concern. Small helpless gestures: her brothers would bring her boiled lobsterone of the few things she could keep downand they'd urge her to eat just a littlesomething. She might pick at the meat in the legs or at the fine white flakes in the cavity of the body before pushing it aside. The few deaths I'd endured until then had been sudden. I'd never seen anyone passing out of the world before.
When I returned a few weeks later for the funeral and stepped out of the car on a warm, clear summer morningthe sky: a white haze on blueI was startled that the farmhouse appeared as serene as always. With the rows of tasseling corn and trellised tomatoes following the curve of the old hills, the placid geometry of the farm had never seemed so absolute before. Whether heightened by contrast to my life away or by death, or both, I can't say. I only know how set and ordered the farm appeared so early in Junealways the most perfect time, when all is hoped for and full of energy, before drought sets in, and small failuresand I seemed to see for the first time the kind of care it took to keep up the place. I swear I remember it that way, though the last time I was at the family grave site I saw that Del had died in winter, and my sister insists she was then nearly nine months pregnant with my nephew, who was born in January.
I've lost track of the time between that first death and my return to the farm to help outwas it fours years, or six, seven?but I'm sure Del's passing and the way I remember the farm having appeared to me that day played a part in my decision. Perhaps it's only that the sense it aroused of a place steady, assured, and vulnerable had begun to meet my wish for some definition in my life. Already time had worn on my desire for freedom, or had made that desire seem ordinary. Nantucket had given way to other places, to western Massachusetts, to towns outside Boston where the wail of sirens wasanonymous to me. I'd seen many of my friends marry and begin to establish families of their own. With Del's death, maybe I began to recognize the fragility of my one and only family, and the farm. My father and brother had always had their differences concerning the running of things, my brother wanting to expand for the future with a larger farmstand and greenhouses, wanting to experiment with methods and crops; my father, more cautious. As my brother fell further into the drugs he'd begun using as a teenager, his ideas were paired with an unreliability that worsened the contentions between them. In my years away I'd tried to ignore the argumentsI felt helpless in the face of thembut with the family growing old, they began to seem consequential.
whatever else my return to the farm has meant for my life, it has made the later years of that older generation more clear to me than their earlier ones, none more so than Bertha's. I can't imagine her life beyond the farm. I know she traveled when she was younger and spent some summers working in a resortin the Adirondacks, was it? But the life I knew was defined by her singular fidelity, and the fidelity it engendered in return.
After my father and four of my uncles had followed Del to their graves, Bertha sometimes forgot that they had gone, and I had to tell her again that Stanley had passed away, and again her eyes registered the grief as clearly as the first time it had been told to her. She was in her nineties by then, and a neighbor had moved in to help her with daily life. She had bristled at the thought of someone outside the family coming into thefarmhouse, but she no longer had the strength to refuse. Joe's plaid coat and creased hat still hung on the coatrack. The dresses of Del's large, healthy self still hung in the closet. Bertha wouldn't have it any other way. "I like to have my familiar things around me," she said, standing stooped among the stove and sink and counters where she'd spent so much of her life working steadily at four things at once if need be: leveling off the measured flour with the blade of a knife, punching down dough in an earthenware bowl, saving the chicken fat, saving scraps. Always at the end of my brief visits, after I'd filled the air with patter about small thingsthe growing season, the weatherand had repeated myself just to keep the air stirring, after I'd said I should be going, she'd query me: "What's your hurry?" I could feel the silence I would leave behind me.
Her last summer was full of heat and drought. Amid the late terse calls of gathering birds, pine branches cracked overhead as squirrels collected nuts for their stores. The irrigation ponds had been pumped down to nothing and still there wasn't enough water for the corn. The apples reddened small, the honey darkened to a flavor deeper than I'd ever tasted, and by September the air smelled of ripe grapes on one wind, and on another of the dust that swirled in back of the pickups. We began to discern a new map of our world, one on which all the susceptible, stressed places in the land stood out: the younger maples and the ones by the road where the soil was laden with salt began to brown before they had a chance to flame with their fall colors. Each leaf dried up, from the edges in. The last green of the year lingered in the low marshy places. Bertha was always by the window when I stopped by, and every few minutes she'd gaze up at the unmitigated hardblue above and say, "Look, what a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky."
Toward the end of that growing season she rarely had the strength to keep her place at the window and began to spend most of her time lying on a bed that had been brought downstairs and set up in the old summer kitchen. The shades were drawn against the sun; she: half sleeping, small. Still, no one else could touch the strength she got from her remaining brothers as they stood saddened and bewildered in front of her. She seemed less than half aware of me by then, as I chattered on about the world as it was, how the winter rye was coming up everywhere now. What was I talking for? To keep her in this world? To keep myself from wondering about her life, steeped in its certain fidelity, which led me to think of my own now lived for its own fidelities? Once I grew ashamed of my patter, and said simply, "Well, this is pretty tough." She focused her clouded eyes on me, shook her head with surprising strength, and uttered a deep, imperious "ohhhhh," and I blanched and looked away, knowing I didn't know the half of it.
Her two surviving brothers spent a long painful time trying to sum up her life for the local paper, to conjure up something beyond the household. "Have them list all the nieces and nephews," one of my uncles said to me. "Remember she was a seamstress for a while, have them put that in." Her funeral was quiet, and maybe twenty-five of usmy cousins and siblings and their scattering of children and teenagers, a few old friends of the family, the priestwent back to the farmhouse afterward for a meal in the backyard. It was a beautiful June day to begin with, though a thunderstorm came in from the west and we all rushed into the close, brightkitchen. The house smelled of our dank hair and clothes and the rain brought out a little must. Someone opened a window for air, the curtains billowed in the wind, and we could hear the downpour and thunder as we dried ourselves off and poured ourselves coffee. We talked on and on about the house, the times, our own childhoods, the whole long lives of them all. "She would have liked this," one of us said. That turned out to be the last time we gathered as a family in the farmhouse. It took a good while for anyone to think of what to do with all the things, and the clothes of the three of them hung in the closets for the longest time. Afterward, when I would see a cousin of mine, one of us would say: "It's so strange not to have them there." And the other: "I know."
The farm, if you were to drive by it now, would appear as measured and ordered as ever, even though no one in the family works the land anymore. I'd stopped helping out the year before my father died: the antagonism between my brother and him had just been too difficult for me. My brother didn't carry on for more than a year after my father's death. I think for all his griefhis was probably the most complex grief of allhe'd imagined a freedom for himself after my father died, though he was to find he was no more heir to the farm than anyone else. He had siblings to contend with, and uncles. His chances would never be clear, what with all the family history behind the farm. His own difficult past had made us all wary of trusting him with the running of the place, even though no one else knew enough or had the time or desire to see to it: a small farm had become an intricatebusiness, and with the costs of owning land, the taxes and insurance, just letting it be wasn't an option. In today's world a farm isn't often abandoned to woods. Some other human scheme is waiting.
In hopes of keeping the farm going I eventually made a call to one of the countless boys who'd worked for my father over the years to ask if he would come back. David had worked on the farm all through high school and college, and he'd always had a particular love and affinity for it. After he finished college he joined the Peace Corps agricultural program, and he was working in Ecuador at the time of my father's death. I had little hope that he'd agree to come back, but it seemed, in those white days, that anything could be tried. We talked over crackling wires, a world away from each other; he still felt an allegiance to the place and to my father, and he said he'd take on the farm after his stint in the Peace Corps ended. His agreement felt like a great simplification. At the very least it would allow the family to get its bearings again, and to live on in the old image for a time. It helped me to believe that though our place here was passing, the world we'd established might continue.
Though Dave has been running the farm for years now, has hired his own crew, and has his own ideas for growth, there are practical things he and I talk over still, and sometimes he asks for advice. There's much to be anxious about, as there always has been, though I usually hold my tongue or choose my words to frame observations rather than suggestions: "Corn will never be the draw it once was ..." I say, fading off, walking away. I try to resist the impulse to drag my past into his ideas for the future"We always did it this way." It's a bit of a joke between us. When he started someearly corn in the greenhouse one year, I laughed and said, "What's that I hearthe sound of my father turning in his grave?"
I miss the clarity you get from training an eye on the frosts and failures, from the exhaustion of working in the open air, and the way that exhaustion sharpens the wine smell of the apple cellar when it's packed to the ceiling in late fall. Over the past years I've begun to feel lighter on the land, until now I am almost a ghost when I walk across the fields to pick a few tomatoes for dinner, or pull up a corner of my shirt to collect some apples for sauce. Sometimes I watch the crew down at the far edge of a field calling to each other in Spanish as they bend to the plantings among bright yellow tubs loaded with tomatoes, squash, and cukes. A new man might stand and stare at me for a moment before narrowing his attention to the work again, but he doesn't hail me. Once when I went to find David to talk about some business and asked one of the men where he might be, he turned to another: "Where David? The lady is looking for David."
It's not the changes themselves that feel so strangethe larger scale, the different crops, the new workers. There have always been changes, and had I been part of them, I would have been swept along with them. But standing apart makes even the small changes feel significant. It can be a relief to slip into the woods at the edge of the farm, so closed in and intimate come summer. Up the dry hill beyond the brook, the moss and old nurse logs breathe their punky smell of dankness and decay. You might imagine you're walking on a moderate sea, the way the unearthed roots of old pines and the hollows they've left behind have moldered into swells and troughs beneath the duff, and fallen trunks with their whirlsof limbs lie like the staves of old wrecks, half buried and fretted with the work of insects. But these woods are the abandoned far pastures from a time when farming was the common life, so you can't walk for long before your thoughts are turned inward by remnants of past labors gone to seed. A little south of the brook, just beyond an old cattle bridge, you'll come upon a forgotten orchard where trees still carry a trace of the mind and hand that shaped them, and everywhere through the woods are runs of stone walls and barbed wire, heaps of rusting metal and broken bottles, a corroding milk can with a lady fern unfurling from a lacy hole in its side. The rust and ruin, the riot of greenmutually incongruoushave created a society of their own. The rain and sun and shadow that decay one feed the other.
If you travel a few hours west, beyond the Worcester hills and the Connecticut Valley, you come to quieter, steeper country, a later frontier where cultivation has always been more difficult and tenuous than on our milder coastal terrain. Still, since there's less residential and industrial development there, the patterns of agriculture are more obvious: ancient sugar maples line the roads, and you can count an unbroken string of farmhouses one after another. As I drive through I find myself reciting the child's song: big house, little house, back house, barn. A few sheep graze on a slope, a herd of dairy cows lie in a pasture. Modest farmstands dot the roadsides, little more than tables stacked with tomatoes and corn, a jar for money, maybe a sign: EVERYTHING WE SELL WE GROW HERE. My family's farm looked the same fifty years ago.
In some places the woods closing in over the mantle of the hills are nearing the backs of the buildings. You can peer into the trees and see collapsed barns. When this world is released from cultivation it returns to a more northerly aspect than our own. Hemlocks and sugar maples climb the rough ledgy heights where bobcats can hide themselves. Summer people like it. There are driveways leading to new places hidden away in the woods. Young families have begun to buy up the old places for their weekends, though they have trouble keeping the fields. "Even in the last twenty years, we've lost so much open land," I heard one longtime resident complain. "The new people don't keep it clear. They start out thinking they can find some old farmer who'll mow it for free ..."
I was there last in late Augusteven after years away from the demands of the farm, traveling in August still feels freeing to meand the first apples of the year were out. I pulled into a place with no name, just a hand-lettered sign that said: APPLES. PEACHES. I couldn't see any outdoor work being done. Everything was still. You could tell the weaker maples would begin to turn in another week or two. I stepped down into a long, low wooden room with old white walls, cave cool, cave dark, full of benches and tables stacked with crates of apples, and the air was dense with that familiar smell. A woman alone, maybe a little older than me, was grading apples, turning each one, looking for signs of insect damage, sizing them. I knew right away by her unhurried pace that she was just helping the place out to its end. There's often a lone woman at the end.
"Smells great in here," I said.
"That's what people say. I'm here all the time, so I don't notice it anymore."
"Have you got any Gravensteins? Half a dozen?"
"Sure." We talked a little bit about them, how they make such good pies.
"You don't make cider anymore, do you?"
"No, no." Which led to talk about the crisis of a few years back when a handful of people were sickened by E. coli in some unpasteurized apple juice in Colorado. The word of those illnesses had been so insistent on the nightly news that everyone shied away from unpasteurized cider. Sales plummeted, the state debated putting new regulations in place to require pasteurizationuntenable for small orchards that squeeze their own drops and seconds in a mill, something that a farm might depend on to make a marginal crop worthwhile.
"We'd take people down to show them how we washed the apples before we pressed them into cider," she said, "and still they were afraid to buy it. Fifty years we never had a problem and then"
"I know, I know. I haven't had any cider since. It just doesn't taste the same."
It seemed we wanted to talk about everything, our families getting older, the fate of the farms. "Two dairy farms in town went out just last year ... And you go over toward the river, and you see all that beautiful level, loamy farmland where you don't have to dig up the rocks, where the tractors don't tip, and you see them building houses on it."
After a while I grew a little self-conscious about interfering with her work, though she didn't seem to mind. Or maybe the discomfort I felt had to do with her devotion to the place, which seemed so assured to me, and the way she read some devotion in me. She went on, "We lost 95 percent of our crop last year."
"Oh, the frost in Mayyou're colder hereit must have been worse." We ran on for a while again about the apples.
"It's nice to talk to someone who knows."
"Yes, yes, it is," I said back, and I left her there, sizing and grading the Paula Reds and the Gravensteins in the deep, rich smell of the place. When I walked out I saw the brushy, unkempt edge of the fields and it was clear to me that the woods were creeping into the upper reaches of the farm, that the deer were already coming down, and the thrushes were calling out from the low places.
Often when it comes, the end of cultivation is no louder than the tumbling of apples into crates in a cave-cool, cave-dark room, but the life lived in the wake of its disappearance is a break with a long history, and the days that followas the worked and tended country disappears, along with its bales and stacks, rows and grids, the men and women moving among themare different in intent and kind. It may take a while for the idea of it to die awaythere may be a romanticized echo, in which farming's rewards are imagined more vividly than its costsbut its end is one of those times the whole pattern shakes and quivers and settles into new shapes and figures, perhaps all the more so in a country dependent on the idea of agriculture for its identity. In America, not only do individual dreams have their origins in farming, the notion of the Republic is stowed there as well. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens, insisted Thomas Jefferson. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it's liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.
On the worked-over lands of the Northeast, where the new has settled on top of the old again and again, the boundarybetween the smallest field and woodlands remains a kind of frontier. Or perhaps it's more accurate to think of it as a contour of human timeit's always a question of time: how much to acquiesce and try to inhabit its flow, how much to try to make a mark against it, how much heed to give to the past attempts everywhere evident on the land. If you have maintained such a boundary all your life and you see a little brush growing into the clearing, you can get a creeping feeling at the back of your neck. You understand how small your own enterprise is, and how temporary. That's what I despisebrush and trees growing in hay fields, remarked one farmer early in the twentieth century. I've been startled to hear another insist: "I'd rather see a hundred houses in my fields than have the woods come back on it."
The woods have come back on it even where agriculture hasn't been entirely lost. As New England dairy herds were sold and farmers turned more frequently to market garden cultivation, the rougher pastures were let go. My family's farm, in the years I've known it, contains much less cleared land than it had in 1901. Today the row crops, the corn and tomatoes and peppers and beans, are concentrated on the most productive land. Without adjoining farms, and only a few others scattered among suburban tracts, ours is smaller within the community as well, though in some strange way it is also more prominent now that farming is no longer the common life.
Though the margin between our cleared land and woods remains certain for now, I can't help feeling the farm may be swallowed up soon, and a whole world will go with it, one that has been both particular to ourselves and representative of the many who have contended with the land and broughttheir histories to bear upon it. As if understanding can alleviate loss, I am trying to place our own time within the larger story of cultivation. I hope constraint amplifies, that by giving shape to the stories, to the persistent half-lives of the vanished who roam even on stinging winter days, I can see more clearly where we belong in the accumulation of beliefs, ideas, violence, necessities, and desires that have determined this country. But the beginnings are hazy, and the people there seem so different. The moment I try to articulate something of the story, which is its own attempt at defining a frontier once and for all, the boundaries seem to change again. Even as I write this down now my understanding clears and grows back in, clears and grows back in, and I know if I let go, if I turn my back on it even for a little bit, I'll have to remake it out of the rank that has grown back. The stories flux like fall migrations, forming and re-forming, part of them gaining as another part recedes, the labor of it continuous, and still the lines dream their own way, on the wind.
Copyright © 2004 by Jane Brox