Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Clearing Land

"The past, with its own power and life, imbues all kinds of land."
-
Jane Brox, Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm, North Point Press (2004).

Clearing Land is nearly as poetic a read as The Earth Knows My Name, which is where I learned of it. A story of American agriculture as told essentially through the eyes of a family farm, and mostly in the context of the New England geography where it rests, Clearing Land is a beautifully told history of farming (in all it's glory and despair) tempered by the reality farming faces.

Beginning with the purchase by her Lebanese grandparents of the farm in 1901 and moving up to the present day - Brox lives nearby while a former farmhand runs the farm - she neatly parallels one history with another. She writes to determine her family farm's place in the history of agriculture that is America, and brings to bear the sweeping tale of horses, wagons, scythes, plows, chemicals and trade to the tale of one farm, one family, and one region to see how it shakes out.

Vivid portraits of her family and the farm itself run alongside colonial farming and Jefferson's portrait of the citizen farmer: "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it's liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds." (pg.19)

Early farmers, overwhelmed at the vastness of the land before them and its perceived wildness, cleared land with abandon. Brox points out that by the time the Pilgrims arrived Europe was, in a sense, well-manicured and full. Feritility had to be managed and new land was non-existent. Here it was different. "Colonists continued to make new fields out of the wild in part because of increased settlement, but also because the sheer abundance of available land seemed to discourage prudent agricultural practices." (pg. 40) From a 21st century standpoint virtue does not seem like quite the right word to describe this environmental carelessness along with our well-known history of sketchy treaties, wars, and racism; however, it does show we honestly come by some of our worst habits.

Brox grapples with these issues respectfully and honestly, along with those her own family faced on their farm. A small farm is a business, one run by family and friends together in the context of a wider world of politics, societal values, and economics. "Whatever the situation of the land, there is always the lay of the family as well, which has as much to do with the success of farming as anything else." (pg. 58) The pace is relentless and the work demanding both physcially and mentally, especially during the growing season, and tensions can run high. The split between generations can be painful (as it was for her father and brother), and a farm may be lost in the process. Or the next generation may be forced to leave for one reason or another. Brox is the third generation to help with the farm, and unsure of whether or not she might be the last.

This personal transition, too, is paralleled with history as Brox describes "...the nineteenth century, when New England girls followed the rorads down from rocky, marginal Vermont and New Hampshire farms to meet industry in the first textile cities along the rivers." (pg. 71) It isn't difficult to see a similar history as the children of farmers venture off to the cities in search of better pay and a different life. She recounts (perhaps a bit too long-windedly for my tastes) her own youthful desires to get off the farm and her subsequent adventures in the wider world.

And she examines our desire for farmer's to remain while still wanting out of season vegetables at rock bottom prices. She is not judgemental, but simply posing a question to herself as well as to the reader. "I wonder what this place will be without these farmers. What does it mean to want their life to remain, to count on them for a sense of gravity, even as I could never abide the same demands for myself?...I feel myself mythologize them, my own separate life mythologizes them." (pg. 137)

All is not doom and gloom, or reminiscing over old sepia-toned photographs. Brox notes the emergence of new farmers and those who "come back to old places after having lived away." (pg. 138) This new generation offers hope for the future and our food security. "You need all kinds of men and women working the land to preserve agriculture, to do the work of feeding a thousand, or five or one. It isn't inconceivable at all that we may need to fall back on ourselves and our labors, and the land underneath our feet, which carries the mistakes and knowledge of centuries, that we may need the land to mean once again what it had meant." (pg. 139)

This is an admirably honest portrait of her own family and our country's history of farming that is a compelling read. While I saw in my mind's eye my own family history of farming, I also found the questions Brox raises about the future of farming, open land, and our food supply compelling. While sometimes overly wordy (with a bit of navel-gazing), it didn't really matter. I was effectively transported in time and place, and given much to think about.

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