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A READING LIFE

Remembrance of farm methods past

September, its brisk colors and sharp light, once prompted me to pull up my socks and look to the future. But for some years now -- since my parents both died, I guess -- it has brought on the reverse, sending me sliding back into the past, practically stupefying me with a sense of loss and regret. The immediate cause is canning and pickling and the attendant smells and scaldings. The next thing I know I am lost, standing on a high stool holding the quart of chokecherry juice that my mother put up in 1986 in Minnesota. She was too wearied and worn down by illness to go on and render it into jelly. I was going to finish the task, but didn't; and now there it is: a relic, older than my second son, and impossible to throw out. Every year I go through this. I want to use the jar; it's a fine, heavy Ball jar; but no.

Despite its heft and familiarity, this mute remnant of my mother's labor embodies not only the past, but its irrelevance to the present. It represents all my mother taught me about canning and everything else, and all that her mother taught her, and hers before her -- all the know-how and lore that no one is in the least interested in learning from me. Who today, for instance, can understand how truly staggering is the revelation that ''ptomaine poisoning," the sneaking villain and great destroyer of the grand canning sagas of yore, has been shown to have no basis in science?

This sort of morbid, autumnal nostalgia can drive you mad if you wallow in it or become extremely trying for your friends -- to say nothing of your readers -- if you attempt to free yourself of it by wandering farther and farther down memory lane. The feeling is, after all, essentially egotistical and its specifics as boring to others as the details of your dreams. It takes discipline, discrimination, and genius, really, to elevate memory and a sense of loss to art. Two writers who achieved this spring instantly to mind, Joseph Roth and Joseph Brodsky, and to their company I would add Jane Brox, two of whose books I have just read. What these three writers have in common is a vision of the human predicament in time which conveys -- in different ways, but with great specificity -- both its tragic universality and poignant uniqueness.

''Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm" (North Point, $20), published this month, is Brox's third book in which she employs her family's farm near Lawrence as a foundation for investigating larger matters. (In conjunction with this, North Point has reissued her first book, ''Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family," $13, in paperback.) Clearing land is the book's guiding metaphor, one that encompasses both time and space, and serves brilliantly to compare the material world and its flux with our attempts to understand it. Describing her family's farm and its bleak future, she writes: ''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 brought their 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."

This she does with eloquent melancholy, a melancholy sprung not only from loss but from impotence before the essential mutability of all things and the transience of understanding. ''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." There is no happy ending in either little or big story. On the home front, her family's farm is no longer worked by the family, and beyond it, the New England farm in general is headed for extinction, and with it the evidence of generations of labor and all the ways of working and knowing that shaped it. And even that isn't the whole big sad picture; even more emerges as Brox meanders through the lost arts of stone cutting, salt-hay mowing and stacking, fruit-tree pruning, pie making, and the arcana of farming.

The feeling that a world and its informing consciousness are either gone or increasingly irrelevant strikes one as unbearable; and yet Brox finds some kind of solace in the extinction of meaning when she can see it as being, itself, a sort of cleared space. Speaking of the probable disappearance of her family's farm, she writes: ''Removed from the human press of time, it will empty itself of memory, tracing itself back before our incursions on the land, and all the decisions, all the weight of human desires that were once imposed on it: the accumulation of judgments, the calculations, the care and the exploitations, attempts, histories, and abandonments. It will become close to an abstraction -- 'open space' -- absent work, absent that exhaustion at dusk after a long day in the open air."

To take that view of things, clear-sighted and philosophical though it may be, is a little too frightening to the likes of myself. More than anything else I live for a good story, and if it weren't for novels I doubt I'd be around. Though fulminant nostalgia prompted me to open Mary Sharratt's ''The Real Minerva" (Houghton Mifflin, $24), a novel set in Minnesota in 1923, it soon dispersed and I was gripped by the animal gratification that only a well-wrought melodrama can deliver. Congenial to modern tastes in its feminist sensibilities, the novel is a good old-fashioned story of perfidy, villainous conduct, and small-town censoriousness against which three heroines, each doughty in her own way, strike back. The details of life in 1920s Minnesota are well rendered -- though I can't think anyone ever said ''Listen up" in those bygone days -- and the sense of how oppressive a small town can be is in the best Minnesota tradition. But the reason I recommend this to anyone who is just moping around is that it is a ''good read," the best tonic there is.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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