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Writer sows seeds of lyricism in sorrowful farewell to family farm

Some 15 years ago, Jane Brox, a young poet and essayist, returned home after an absence of a dozen years to help her aging father run the family farm in Dracut.

Within a few years, her essays about the labors and rituals of a New England farm, lyrical but precisely observant, began appearing in literary journals, and in 1995 were published in "Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family." Four years later, a second collection was published as "Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History."

Brox has since left the farm in the hands of a manager, David, who had worked on the farm for her father, and moved to Maine. "Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm" appears as an elegiac farewell to her family's farm -- and to a vanishing way of life.

All three collections are to be treasured, for the thoughtfully chosen and carefully placed nuggets of farm lore, but especially for the gripping charm of the writing.

For that, one brief passage in which Brox is walking "up the dry hill beyond the brook" must suffice: "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. . . . 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."

The essay titled "Grange" is of particular interest, as a reflection on Brox's connection to her family farm and as an exploration of the survival of family farms.

In its heyday, the National Grange was a powerful political and social force, organizing small farmers against larger commercial forces and dignifying the place of farm families. Grange halls can still be found in New England towns, even in places where there hasn't been any farming to speak of in a half-century.

In Dracut, Brox writes, "the Grange Hall still stands in the heart of our town, foursquare, muted and staid against the lit signs of the tanning salon beside it and the convenience store across the way." It is dark except during the Monday meetings, the annual bake sale, and roast beef dinner. Only a few dozen men and women who have known one another all their lives remain as members. "Younger farmers don't have time for the Grange," she writes.

But soon after her father, John Brox, died in 1995, a neighbor asked her to join, noting that her father "was a member for years."

The request "reached the part of me that has always been uneasy with home, careful not to completely define myself as here." But she couldn't refuse the request and was "surprised by how comfortable" she was when she attended an occasional meeting.

The other members knew "almost nothing" of her life beyond the farm, but she found it a relief, "a kind of simple seeing, far from my own ambitions and desires, since nothing is expected of me other than that my old child-self stand as representative of my family. What fidelity I have to the farm is taken for granted, a proper right, however much it can seem a mystery in the larger world."

And, she writes, their "quandaries are also my family's quandaries."

"If you were to ask about the future," Brox writes, "you would be met with a quietness, feel a privacy close in." For there isn't a local farmer who doesn't know "that the stone soil they've spent their lives plowing and planting, haying, weeding, has an untold worth [for development], too much worth for more acreage to be devoted to farming."

Farmers can sell the development rights, thus preserving the land for farming, but few do so, Brox writes, because "it goes against a grain deep in most of them, who have viewed the land itself as their only legacy, integral to their lives and to their sense of independence, which has always gone along with working the land." And, she writes, "They cannot imagine it may be different after their time."

As she writes, the Brox Farm survives. There are tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. There is still some corn, a reminder of the days when its sweetness depended on its being freshly picked, and only local farm stands "could assure a daily freshness." And the apple orchard -- which Brox prunes in the spring as her "last real tie to the working life of the farm" -- is now "barely commercially viable" against competition from Washington state and China.

The farm stand that Brox tended as a child has been expanded to carry "product" not grown locally but bought in Chelsea. Brox went there one morning with David, her farm manager, and "amid the noise, the rush," she writes, "I felt how small our own enterprise was, and how defensive was my feeling for it."

With words whose fragile hope extends far beyond a country road in Dracut, Brox writes, "I wanted to believe the smaller world would persist as something more than a last illusion, as a stay against the confusion."

Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm, By Jane Brox, North Point Press, 191 pp., $20

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