Malabar Farm, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1999 (originally published in 1948).
Summary: Malabar Farm continues the story begun in Pleasant Valley of the author’s efforts of restoring a worn out farm to productivity, covering the years from 1944 to 1947 and going deeper into his philosophy of agriculture and the all-important matter of the soil.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading the narratives of the beginnings of Malabar Farm, now owned by the State of Ohio, but originally purchased and restored to fertility by novelist Louis Bromfield. Recently, I reviewed Pleasant Valley, which tells the story of Bromfield’s beginning efforts to restore the worn out soils of this farm. Malabar Farm continues the story through the years 1944 to 1947.
The book is framed by two letters to sergeants returning from the war, both extolling the virtues of farming intelligently, in a way that sustains the fertility of the soil. In the latter of these he notes completing this book and comments:
“That is why there are repetitions in this book. I found almost at once that, whether I was dealing with health in plants, animals, and people, or the virtues of grass and legumes, or wild life, or farm economy or almost any other element of a sound agriculture, the individual aspects could not be separated because their fundamentals were hopelessly and intricately interwoven into a pattern which resembled that of the universe itself. That is why agriculture to the good farmer is a calling of intricate variety and fascination which he would not exchange for any other regardless of rewards in money. So if repetitions have annoyed you here and there in this book, forgive them. They could not be avoided.”
I wonder. It felt that Bromfield went on and on at length within chapters and at various points in the book about the structure and creation and sustenance of good soil and how good soil is the key to good health for crops, animals, and people. I think some good editing could have cut out some of this material so that the reader would not be saying, “enough already.” Yet much of this material is observational evidence of the effects of the measures used to restore the soil. Perhaps most interesting was his contention that when the soil was healthy, plants were healthy and vigorous and unattractive to pests, and this needing little or no chemical pesticides. At the same time, he was not a pure organic farmer–in a chapter on organic versus chemical fertilizers, he contends that organic materials just could not restore some depleted elements to the soil, or if they did, it would take years, whereas some chemical fertilizing restored these elements immediately.
The structure of the book consists of farm journal entries in chronological order interleaved with more topical chapters on various topics: the life of a farm pond, the healing power of grasses, some of the animals that inhabited Malabar (one of the more interesting chapters) and the flaws in “straightening” rivers in a chapter on Kemper Run. One of the best chapters, where Bromfield is at his most realistic, is when he describes the realities of bad farming years, in this case the summer of 1947, when despite all their efforts they lost many of their crops to excessive and continuous rains, although their measures ended up saving some crops and in preventing soil erosion. You can feel the sense of futility as rains come and they re-cultivate to keep the soil loose only to see all this effort loss when torrential rains result in flooding.
It’s regrettable that Bromfield never wrote a book about dogs. In both books, his descriptions of his relationships to his boxers are among the highlights of the books. Take for example this description of Prince written just after Prince died:
“But Prince was different. Indeed he was different from any of the fifty or more dogs I have had in a lifetime. He was different because he was a Boxer and Boxers owners will know what I mean by that–but he was a King, even among boxers. Above all he was a good companion. To drive with him over the farm or to take him with me across the fields and woods was like having the company of a great friend who was intelligent and amusing.”
Nevertheless, while there were passages like this that soared, there was much more wading in this book. In the first, Bromfield rhapsodized to some degree about farming. In this book, he gets down to describing in detail the hard work of actually farming the land in an intelligent manner (although he would contend this is actually less work than not farming intelligently). Bromfield wades into the intricacies of agricultural policy, farm economics, as well as the extended passages on the care of the soil. I suspect if someone is contemplating doing what Bromfield did, the first book provides motivation and vision, and this book a healthy dose of realism. Both are important, even is the latter is tougher reading. For the reader who just wants to learn a bit more about the beginnings of Malabar Farm, I would recommend Pleasant Valley.