Saturday, August 3, 2013

In Which She Finally Gets Around to Reviewing a Book, with a Side-Trip or Two

Louis Bromfield would be a mostly forgotten Ohio-born novelist of the expatriate generation of American writers in Paris were it not for his early-middle-aged return home in 1938 to purchase the acreage now known as Malabar Farm, near Lucas, Ohio. We have the second world war to thank for his return, and his keen observation of French peasant farming practice to thank for his decision to make Malabar a model farm, leading the way in practicing soil and water conservation and sustainable farming technique by mingling the best practices of old world agriculture and the best science available from U.S. agricultural schools with a pesticide-free approach that would make Malabar one of the first consciously organic farms.

Bromfield's memoir/manifesto Pleasant Valley (1945) should be read by every Ohioan wishing to build a sense of our long and broad, if neglected, literary heritage, and by all readers who have an interest in ecology and sustainability, or simply in where our food comes from. Later books by Bromfield furthered his argument and helped pay the expense of running his farm which, according to popular account, never could sustain itself financially. Still, even a town and suburb gal like myself cannot read Pleasant Valley and ever look at fields neatly plowed in fall so as to be ready for spring without thinking of how many ways that topsoil can be lost before planting, or see messy hedgerows along the roadside or clumps of trees here and there without remembering how essential those non-farm plantings are to saving soil, purifying and trapping water, and providing homes for birds and animals who can help control pests or offer shade for a tired worker in the field and a place to keep that worker's jug of water cool.

The term "eco-biography" did not exist when Pleasant Valley was written, though it is certainly not the first in the genre. Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain (1903) beats it by some forty years, Walden by ninety, others, no doubt, by more--I am no scholar of the genre. But the term itself is a late twentieth- or early twenty-first century coinage, born of the need to describe a kind of writing increasingly becoming mainstream and increasingly being written. Pleasant Valley, like Walden puts farming at the center of its ruminations of life lived upon the land and, more so than Walden, uses farming as a way to think also about community, about the nourishment we get from being with and working with other people. Thoreau is a bit sour on his neighbors, like the Irish family at Baker farm, and famously considered three chairs sufficient for "society"; Bromfield was eminently sociable, hosting friends from his far-flung travels at Malabar--novelists, musicians, wealthy philanthropists, most famously Bogie and Bacall on their wedding day. Ohioans are, by and large, Midwestern friendly.

All of this brings me to a newly published farm-and-community centered eco-biography from Torrey House Press, A Bushel's Worth, by Kayann Short, a Colorado feminist, social activist, teacher, and organic farmer who, with her husband John Martin, owns and operates Stonebridge Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organic farm just outside of Lyons, Colorado. She is also an old and close friend from my Ph.D. days in Boulder. Hers, together with our fellow Ph.D. Sian Mile's, was the last face we glimpsed in our rear-view mirror when we loaded up the rental van and drove off to Dayton, Ohio. She is the only person to whom I regularly write letters on paper in ink and from whom I eagerly await a handwritten reply. In grad school she amassed one of the largest private collections in the region, if not the nation, of books published by feminist presses, since donated to her undergraduate alma mater. (The Friedman Feminist Press Collection at Colorado State University, named in honor of Short's friend June Friedman. Here are the dedicatory remarks.) Every space in her apartment that was not occupied by a stack of books by women held a plant or a piece of vintage stuff she had gathered, from ancestors, family, or yard sales and valued more for its human imprint, its air of having been valued and treasured, than for its intrinsic worth. When she finished her doctorate, got a job teaching writing and women's studies, and bought a Boulder condo, she transformed the pocket back yard into a lush herb garden, and when she married John--another Colorado Ph.D, a mathematician with a farmer's heart and a recently purchased 10 acre organic farm--she became a full hardworking partner in Stonebridge Farm.

I have had the luxury of staying as a guest in the chicken house (which I would gladly rent for a season if I had a book to finish and needed a comfortable setting with beautiful views of the Front Range, conducive to peace and reflection), of watching my young son press apples for cider and help John drive the tractor and weave on John's loom. And I have gobbled the vegetables and asked for more. So I may be a bit partial as a reader, but only a bit. It was partiality to the writer that made me pick up the book in the first place, as eco-biography is not my first choice of reading material. But it was the grace of the prose, the interweaving of generational history, recipes, reports on current and past farm practices, and musings on family, friendship, and community that kept me reading, those and Short's humble and generous consciousness of her debts and her contributions to multiple writerly traditions in which she grounds herself: feminist, farm, ecological, western, literary, that kept me reading.

A Bushel's Worth began its life as a blog three years ago, when the author, turning 50 began taking stock of her life--as I am doing with my blog. There's something about reaching, or perhaps passing, what can only be the halfway mark to impel one to pause, reflect, and wish to record those reflections, even if nobody ever will read them. But it's clear from the reading that the book actually began its life earlier, with young Kayann's summer trips to her grandparents' North Dakota farms, with her saving and studying of old photographs and objects, with her grandmother's mint plant under the spigot, with a grade school activity marking April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day--a small green hopeful moment in a year otherwise marked by the Kent State massacre (less than two weeks later on May 4), the My Lai Massacre in March, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Its chapters retain some of the best features of blog writing--relative brevity, focus, recursiveness, a willingness to mix modes and to incorporate other artifacts--but achieve the polish and depth one expects of carefully written memoir. Various chapters take up Short's farming roots, or what seem to be the three S's of sustainability--seeds, storage, and salvage. The chapters on seed saving (The Seed Box), the fall of the farm's ancient cottonwood (What Goes Down) and finding oneself (Mountains to the West)  besides being fine pieces of writing--exemplary essays--are, in the vein of the best naturalist writing, about more than they pretend to be.

But what has struck me most about A Bushel's Worth is the centrality of community--of communities, actually--to all of the farm's practices and to Short's philosophy of sustainability. Stonebridge's communities include the subscribers, the barterers (people who pay for their shares through farm labor), area musicians, writers, and artists who find temporary refuge and work space in the farm's community room and who may also be subscribers or barterers, Short's and Martin's children and grandchildren, holders of neighboring fields, far-flung fellow CSA farmers, students who come to the farm to learn farming or life-writing, water-rights holders up and down the three ditches that bound or bisect Stonebridge, Coloradans touched by the great St. Vrain flood of 1969, long dead canners of vegetables and builders of barns, and women literary forebears from Vita Sackville-West to Alice Walker. It is the magnitude of Short's vision of community, of the complex web of interrelations generated by every human action, and her willingness to construe those connected in this web as family that mark A Bushel's Worth as a feminist eco-biography with roots in the second wave as well as in the sustainability movement.

The reason I do not eagerly reach for naturalist writing is its generally dour or mournful undercurrent. Thoreau was already warning us that we were fouling our nests over a century and a half ago. A decade or so before him, Cooper had Natty Bumppo decrying Americans' "wasty ways" in The Pioneers. Austin points to the litter of trash the heralds the proximity of every western town along the road. Leopold, Berry and Abbey continue to remind us. After all this time and so much writing we are still fouling the nest. How hard it must be for the later generations of nature- and eco-writers to have to remind us again and again; how dreary to be reminded and to see proof of the need to be reminded along every roadside and with the advent of another strip mall or housing development or big box store with attendant parking acreage! There is a bit of that mournful sense of loss in A Bushel's Worth to be sure. It would not be an honest entry in the genre without it, and the farmers at Stonebridge Farm must know that theirs may be a losing battle. Short remarks several times that the fate of the farm when they are too old to farm it is uncertain, that they are working out options. But overriding that in this book is still Short and Martin's joy in community and connection.

Short's capability in finding joy in these reminds us that community, connection, and family--the web of relations--are the very reason for cleaning our nests and preserving our natural spaces. Short's friends are mostly ordinary people like us; being with and working with them nourishes her, and she them--even beyond the gallons of Stonebridge pancake batter she dishes up annually. Her capability and vision--her awareness of the nourishment to be had in communities spread across space and time--are, I think, Short's real contribution to the eco-biography genre and, beyond the pleasure to be had in reading good prose, make this book worth the reading.

I'm reminded of the fate of Malabar Farm, and hope the Stonebridge farmers can take hope from it. Upon Bromfield's death in 1958, his friend the philanthropist Doris Duke provided much of the funding to allow Friends of the Land, a conservationist group, to buy and operate the farm and keep it safe from development. In the 1970s the land was deeded to the State of Ohio, which operates it as a state park and educational center. It still operates as a model farm and offers the community an opportunity to connect over the preservation of the land and a way of life. Perhaps something similar can happen for Stonebridge Farm. In the meantime, I am hoping for more writing from the farm by Kayann Short.

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