Still down on the farm, and then some

In an age of mobility and restlessness, Jane Brox makes a persuasive case for roots.

For nearly a century, her family has farmed the 35 acres her grandfather bought for $500 in 1902, an immigrant from Lebanon who could barely write his name in English on the deed. Today, three generations of offspring, including Ms. Brox, continue to live within sight of the large homestead in Dracut, Mass., in the historic Merrimac Valley where the patriarch and his wife raised nine children.

"It's still the family compound," Brox says with a laugh, relaxing in her own small white farmhouse nearby. "I guess that's not too common anymore."

Watching this kind of steadfast attachment to place and people gradually fade from the American social landscape, Brox, a poet and memoirist, set out to track down her family's stories. "They were disappearing," she says simply.

The result of her search is "Five Thousand Days Like This One" (Beacon Press). Subtitled "An American Family History," the book is, Brox says, "a way to pay homage to the people who have gone before, and to recognize the enormous will and effort that's gone into what they created." It also serves as a paean to the family farm, an endangered species everywhere.

No longer a common experience

"Land is so valuable, and farming just isn't a profession people think of going into anymore," she says. "A hundred years ago, farming was everybody's common experience. Now it's sort of a tourist experience - agro-entertainment. People go for hayrides and pick apples."

But agro-tourism is hardly Brox's concern. After the death of her father three years ago, she and her siblings faced a hard decision: whether to simply hold onto the farm as land or go on cultivating it.

Farming won out. "There are so few working farms left," Brox explains. "To have it continue as a farm would be a great asset to the community."

Brox's own love of the land becomes evident on a sunny July morning as she plays tour guide to a visitor. Leading the way first through a field of peas and early broccoli, she crosses the road to a freshly painted farm stand laden with a midsummer bounty of corn and blueberries.

"I miss some of the old varieties of corn," she says. "It's now very sweet, rather than having a corn flavor. That's part of a response to consumer taste. People like their corn very sweet."

Not far away, Brox stops at a 300-tree apple orchard, planted by her father, to point out rows of Jona Red, MacIntosh, and Macoun. "I pruned these this winter out of a sense of responsibility," she says.

That sense of responsibility continues to take new forms since her father's passing. Her mother, who lives across the road, had never written a check or balanced a checkbook. "I thought maybe I could just go over the fundamentals, but she's not really interested," says Brox. "Most of my generation of women will be better off in our later years."

Like other baby boomers dealing with the loss of parents, Brox has also learned firsthand about what she calls the "bureaucracy" of death. "Everybody wanted to see all these papers and proof of everything. I spent hours. I was just overwhelmed."

She adds, "There's so much less community support in families, so it's harder for people to deal with death. Medical advances have also made death more complicated. It's not as if people can just age in the seat of the family anymore."

Yet her own aunt is a sturdy exception, still living in the homestead where she was born 95 years ago. "We don't even bring up the subject of her living somewhere else," Brox says with a laugh. "She's so attached."

Then, musing about the possible alternative of retirement communities, she says, "You wonder if that sequestered living is the best. It's almost unnatural, like being on a college campus. I wish people would start thinking about villages with people of all ages."

Holding your ground

Despite her own deep roots, Brox concedes a downside to the "territoriality" that comes from living in one place for many years. Long-term bonds, she says, sometimes "make for war and aggression and holding your ground." By contrast, "if you're a citizen of the world, you might not have the fierce attachments which can lead to the conflicts you see all over the world. You become more accommodating about letting people into your place."

Yet being a citizen of the world has its perils, too. "I don't think people who come and go are as invested in local concern for the planning of a place," Brox says. "It's a huge liability for communities." Brox spread her own wings in the 1970s after graduating from Colby College in Maine. She spent five years on the island of Nantucket, working in bookstores and as a baker in restaurants. She also lived in Cambridge and Watertown, Mass., until her father's need for help on the farm drew her back.

Because no family exists in a vacuum, Brox has long been fascinated by the rich history of the surrounding Merrimack Valley, with its 19th-century textile mills, its farms, and its immigrant laborers speaking a babel of languages. Her own Italian-born maternal grandfather worked as a weaver in the mills.

Capturing lost voices

"It is the American story in a microcosm," she says of the area. "The Merrimack River was the founding of industry in this country. This is where it all spread out from." Eager to preserve the "lost voices" of those who helped to shape the region, Brox tracked down farmers' diaries, letters penned by mill girls, and writings by textile workers who staged a massive strike in 1912 to protest pay cuts and working conditions.

"All those voices to me were just so stunning," she says. "I would read letters and get chills up my spine." Noting that three-quarters of the first workers in nearby Lowell were young women from New England farms, Brox adds, "Their wages were half those of the men."

The fight for a 10-hour work day, she continues, "was really the start of the whole labor consciousness, and a women's movement in a way." Young women in the mills displayed "an enormous desire for self-improvement. They attended lectures. They were reading all the time."

For Brox, who teaches classes in memoir writing at Harvard University's Extension School, preserving memories goes beyond a personal calling. "The faster we live and the more fractured our lives and the more we move around, perhaps the more precious those memories seem," she says. "If you live in one place, you might take for granted that the memories will always be there."

Brox knows better. Ever the realist, she also knows that even she, for all her roots on this farm, might someday move. "Sometimes I imagine leaving this place, as the congestion and creep from Boston gets worse," she says, listening to trucks rumble by on the highway. "What's it going to be like in 10 years? Will I be able to get out of the driveway?"

Yet looking out over her idyllic little kingdom from the bay window in the dining room, Brox speaks for everyone with roots - and perhaps especially for those without - when she says, "It's nice to feel you belong somewhere. You can't measure the value of feeling invested in a place, and a sense of belonging."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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