An Interview with Jane Brox
When Jane Brox and I were seniors in high school, it seems we were of the same mindset. Brox grew up on a farm outside of Boston, Massachusetts, while I lived in a small farming community in the middle of Kansas. Both of us couldn't wait to flee. But as adults, only Brox returned home. With an ailing father, Brox moved back onto the family farm. She had her own house, but her daily life was now full of the daily routines of her childhood and adolescence: she manned the foodstand, helped with the harvest of peas and berries, and the day in and day out of living with parents. She documented her return with her first book, Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family. After her father's death, the tasks that seemed so familiar were now cluttered with more adult-like responsibilities, such as ordering the next year's seed, accounting, and settling border disputes. But her second book Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History also turned an eye backwards, through the generations of her family and the men and women who have worked this land for hundreds of years. The book included letters home from girls working in the textile mills, farmers' diaries, and old land surveys.
With Clearing Land: Legacies of an American Farm, Brox shifted from the personal to the political. Local food issues, land usage, and the dying off of small family New England farms became her focus. Many of the political issues Brox and other nature writers have been concerned with for years are just now coming into the public view. Should fertile land be zoned for farmland only? Should consumers demand more local produce from their grocers? And how does a family farm survive being passed down generations with current tax laws? Brox discussed some of these issues as well as the influence visual art has on her writing, how and why she made the move from her Massachusetts farm to the coast of Maine, and many others. We talked by phone in mid-December.
These three books (Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family, Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History, and Clearing Land: Legacies of an American Farm) have been referred to as your American Farm Trilogy. When you wrote the first one, did you envision it as a trilogy, or has it just become one?
Oh, it’s become one. When I finished the first book I thought I was finished with the subject matter. I hadn’t imagined at all even writing a second one. It’s really just evolved over the last ten years as a trilogy.
Do you see it as a trilogy meaning you’re sort of done with the subject? I know that now you’ve moved off of the farm, does it feel like the conclusion to the trilogy?
Very much so. I feel like I’ve wrestled with the subject enough, in my own life and also as a writer. A big part of the move was a desire to move on.
At the end of the last book, you were still living on the farm. How did the move to Maine take place?
It was actually, I knew at the end of the book that something had shifted in my own psyche about the farm. The book was kind of a realization about my own dispossession of the place, but I really didn’t have any idea of what to do when I finished the book. It really came to me quite suddenly one winter day, really just January 2004 when… it was in fact in the middle of a family argument and I just had this idea that I’d had enough of the family. It was time to go back and be on my own. And the move, I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I have some friends in this area and one of them convinced me that it would be a good place for me. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I spent a year on the coast of Maine.
How has your family reacted to these books?
I was quite, with the first one especially because in the first one I mention my older brother’s drug habit and its effect on the family, and I was quite apprehensive about showing it to my family and how they’d react. I was living right on the farm in my own house, but I was really prepared to leave the farm once they read the book. They were kind of… I remember I dropped off the manuscript before it had been published because I thought I couldn’t wait until it saw the light of day before I tell them about it. I dropped it off, and when I went back a few days later, and my father just said, “Well, you got us pretty straight, didn’t ya?” Of course, I think they were kind of… I don’t think they know what to make of my life as a writer. I think they buried some of their anxieties about the book. I think they have more anxieties than they let on, but they just sort of let them hide. I got off easy.
In all of your books, you talk about the family farm being romanticized, but in the end of the third book, you also mention the stereotypes about people who work on the farms being ignorant and uneducated. When these books came out, did you find people were surprised by your portrayal of American farm life? It’s not something books are written about usually.
It’s kind of funny, I wouldn’t say people were surprised. I was kind of shocked at how much it affirmed some people’s experiences. Especially the first book which I thought was full of family anxieties about my brother and father and the farm and these people would come up to me after a reading, mostly older people, and say, “Oh, you know what, the farm I grew up on was just like that.” I was like, “Oh, really?” There’s a sense in which people sort of read what they want to read in a book, but I do think that in writing the books I was really wrestling with that romanticization, and I think we all have a tendency to romanticize things. I find myself doing it as well and part of it was trying to talk myself down from it.
I’m from rural Kansas, so your passage on the Flint Hills really stuck with me when I read it.
Is that the part of the country you’re from? The Flint Hills?
Umm, no, it’s a little more east of us, but we had family in Eastern Kansas, and almost every weekend we’d make that drive through the hills. I remember those roads very well.
I didn’t know what to expect when I drove through the Midwest and I was just floored by Kansas. The big sky and all of the bluestem was wine-y, and it was just, you know. I was driving by myself, and I would get up from these hotels at five in the morning and head out on the road. I just remember heading through the hills early in the morning and seeing all that grass. It was really something.
Most people’s reactions to Kansas when I’m driving with them is, “When do we get to a city?”
I just think the expansiveness of it was just astonishing to me. In the east, the landscape is so intimate. You don’t go very far without a little hill or a curve in the road. To see all that space was really quite frightening and wonderful all at the same time. And it does take all day to get through Kansas. [Laughs]
Yes, it does.
I’m thinking, gee, I’ve been driving since five in the morning and it’s still Kansas. I think you can cross Massachusetts in two and a half hours. The scale of the Midwest is something else.
The last two books were much more full of history of the area. How did the research unfold for you?
For the second book especially, I was thinking where do I go now? I had sort of written the personal story in the first book. I was thinking about writing something earlier about the family and the family history. I didn’t have full-fledged stories, they were just these little snippets. I kind of backed into it. I thought I’ll just go to the historical society and see what they have. The first thing I wanted to write about was the influenza epidemic of 1918 because my father kept remembering that. I always remember him talking about it, but just a sentence or two and always the same sentence or two. It was really a way of trying to fill out those stories. It sort of became… the challenge was trying to dovetail that history with personal stories and try to make it fit in the book. I think the history really gave me some ballast to work with the second and third books.
I think I read an interview that said the research on the last book Clearing Land took you four years.
Well, the writing of the book took four years. It was the research and the writing together. But I’m pretty slow. I was teaching, too, but also it just takes me a long time. As a writer, even this morning I’m trying to work on something new and you have all these fragments and you just have to keep nudging them around and figure out how they all fit together and what am I getting at here. It just takes a long time for me to fit it together and figure out what the story is. You start out you’re just sort of captivated by these fragments or these images, and you can’t really predict how much time that’s going to take. It could be instantaneous or it could take forever. You kind of have to keep worrying the material until it gets somewhere, I guess.
What do you teach?
I teach creative writing. I’m starting a new job. For many years I taught at the Harvard Extension School in Cambridge. And now there’s Lesley College has a low-residency MFA, so I’m going to be starting that in January.
Do you enjoy teaching creative writing?
I mean, I do, to a certain extent. I can’t teach too much because it overtakes the time I have for writing, but it gives me a whirl. If I’d never taught, I don’t think I would have articulated many of the things I have about writing and what I think about writing. It’s kind of helped me to keep going forward with thinking about these things. I like the student exchange. Writing is so solitary and I live by myself, so it’s good these whole-hearted classes, but I feel really cautious about doing too much teaching.
Now when did you first discover Thoreau?
You read Thoreau a little bit all of your life, but I never really delved into him since college. Then when I was writing Five Thousand Days Like This One, I thought the book I have to read is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. I was just floored by it. I had never read it before, and I was just taken. He seemed like my nineteenth century counterpart. I just kept going with him, I guess. It really surprised me.
In two of your books you reference the Emerson line, “They were born with knives in their brains.” In the second book you mention you’re still trying to figure out what exactly he meant by that. How was that line changed for you?
I think it’s like all metaphor. It keeps expanding in a way. I think it has to do a lot with, probably the most astonishing change in any culture is the change from agriculture to industry. There’s such a change in the way of life that these people were born on the cusp of this great social change. They just had to think fast in order to survive. The farm girls that came down to work in the mills in Lowell couldn’t afford to do anything but adapt. I think that’s partly what he meant.
You compare the land and the people to specific people and drawings. How does visual art affect your writing?
To me, it’s a way into contemplation. I look at a lot of art, and I’ve been looking at it more and more over the years. It’s just another way of helping me to think. I think especially people like Henry Moore are not representing reality but representing something larger than reality. It just sort of helps me to think more expansively.
There seems to be a pattern in all of the places that you live, from Massachusetts to Nantucket. There’s farm and then either the land loses fertility or the summer houses start going up. And then I think it was just this morning in Maryland a large group of houses on fragile land were arsoned.
Yeah, I think they said it was eco-terrorism.
What do you think about development on that sort of land, I know in your book you mentioned that you can’t imagine anything but a farm being on that land.
I do have pretty strong feelings about development and I think it has to be much more responsible than it is, and much more sensitive to the requirements of the larger society. For instance, in the Connecticut River valley which is very fertile, flat, beautiful farmland. My feeling is, if farmland is that good in an area with limited farm resources, it should be used for farming. That’s not the place to build houses. Probably that’s the same thing in Maryland. If it’s on an ecologically sensitive area you need to give those places a large swath because overbuilding is just so destructive to everything. I do have strong feelings about it. I’ve seen my own farm, and part of the reason I moved was just because the onslaught of development coming up from Boston has just been enormous and the infrastructure can’t handle it anymore. It’s just no longer a pleasant place to live. It’s hard to get anywhere, it’s over-congested, there’s too much noise and anxiety and everything that goes with. It’s not going to happen, but really the way we build has to be rethought from the ground up.
In the New York Times, you said about being the daughter you were “raised to leave.” What did you mean by that?
I think I was very stubborn, but you realize that in most traditional farm families, and I’ve talked to a lot of daughters of farmers who affirm this, the assumption always was that one of my brothers would take over the farm and that the daughters would go on to other things. My father depended on my brothers to plow the fields, and he taught them how to do all that, and my sister and I were relegated to hours at the farm stand. When I look back on it, I realize I really wasn’t being prepared for a place on the farm. My father was of that generation, he was a second generation American and believed in higher education for his kids, and there’s that other strain in American culture that you’re raised to leave your home anyway. I think on a farm, family is very complicated because you have this idea of the home place, and keeping up the home place, but layered on top of that is this cultural idea of to grow up you have to leave home. I think there was a lot of that going on when I was a child, too.
You mention your brother is still doing farm work, what are your other siblings doing?
My sister runs a natural food store in New Hampshire, and actually she has a small farm of her own, she has forty acres and has started to put in blueberry bushes and raspberry bushes and things like that. My other brother works in Washington, DC. He does work for a lot of nonprofit organizations. He was in the Peace Corps and did water and drainage in South America, and he still does that kind of work for nonprofits.
I was curious when you left for college what your view of the farm was. In our farming community about half of the people had really mixed feelings and were studying agriculture to come back and the other half was just looking to flee.
When I was a senior in high school, I couldn’t wait to get away. I was just dreaming of getting out of the family and the farm. I remember getting up to college, I went to Colby college in Maine, and I was homesick for the whole first semester. I never even then, it never even occurred to me to return. I knew that after college I wouldn’t go back there, but the progress of life was taking me away from the farm.
What did you study in college?
I studied English literature.
I almost would have guessed art history from your books.
I’m sort of self-taught with art. I read things and I look at a lot of art, but I haven’t taken one course in art or art history.
What other contemporary nature writers do you read?
I read a lot of the usual suspects. I read John E. Mitchell, who’s another Massachusetts writer. Terry Tempest Williams. I’m also influenced a lot by poets. I think Seamus Heaney was a great influence because when I started writing I read his book Field Work which was really about rural Ireland. I think that had a great impact on me, his early work. I like Emily Hiestand, she’s an essayist from the Boston area as well.
At the end of your last book, you talk some about the local food issue. It seems like an issue that is getting more attention, as there have been several books about it recently, and yet not much seems to be done about it.
I think it’s a natural dovetailing with my subject matter, because if you think about the future of farming it just buts up against agribusiness and its effect. It’s all about the food supply and the integrity of the food. There’s a natural dovetailing. It is in the popular culture now with Michael Pollan writing about that and the recent book about oil and farming, and it’s just such a powerful influence. Smaller farms are sort of so much under the surface. It’s almost a political decision to write about small farms to keep their presence alive in the culture. Otherwise it feels like agribusiness will just swamp everything.
Yeah, in Kansas the little farms just keep getting bought up by the corporate farms, and they just get bigger and bigger.
In Massachusetts the farms will never really be taken over by agribusiness because a farm can’t be much larger than 50, 60 acres. Because of the soil and the lay of the land. It’s interesting, New England farms come under a completely different pressure than the Midwest farms. I guess the pressure is consolidation out there.