Review: The Planter of Modern Life

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Summary: A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield.

This happened to be a serendipitous find as I was shopping at an online book site. I was unaware of this recently released biography of Louis Bromfield. I will forgive you if you are wondering Louis who? Stephen Heyman, his biographer, acknowledges that this is not an uncommon reaction:

If Bromfield ever appears in a book today, he is shoved into parentheses or buried without ceremony in a footnote. If we remember him at all, it is only as a character in somebody else’s story. As Humphrey Bogart’s best man, say, or Doris Duke’s lover. As Gertrude Stein’s protege or Edith Wharton’s gardening guru. As Ernest Hemingway’s enemy or Eleanor Roosevelt’s pain in the ass. What is surprising is not that he has his own story to tell, but that, six decades after his death, that story suddenly feels important (pp. 2-3).

Louis Bromfield’s life began and ended in the Mansfield, Ohio area, and so he is well-familiar to this lover of all things Ohio. I’ve toured Malabar Farm and the Big House where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married. I’ve learned about his farming ideas and even camped at the farm with my son’s Boy Scout troop (a story in itself!). I’ve read some of his farm writings, Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm. Much of what Heyman mentions in the quote above had nothing or little to do with this part of Bromfield’s life.

It turns out that this part of the story of Bromfield is what Heyman believes to be important in our day. He does not rush to make this point but sets what he thinks Bromfield’s most significant contribution in the context of his whole life. He renders the story in two parts. The first centered around Paris, his very successful novels, the Lost Generation set of which he was part, and his gardens at Senlis. The second focused around his childhood home of Mansfield, and Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, where his work and revolutionary thinking about the soil and farming practices began a movement that continues to this day.

The first part picks up with his ambulance corps work during World War I where his love of France was born. After a few years back in New York working in the publishing trade, he published his own first works, to immediate success. Both The Green Bay Tree and Possession featured strong, modern, American women. And he married Mary, the antithesis of these women. Heyman traces his longing to return to France, realized in 1925. He fell in with the literary set, befriended by Gertrude Stein while Hemingway resented his success, including his Pulitzer Prize. Even amid the success, the glitter, and the parties, Bromfield loved the soil, creating a beautiful garden home along a stream in Senlis, which became a gathering place for his friends, including Edith Wharton, a fellow gardener. We also learn about the beginnings of his association with George Hawkins, his personal secretary, discretely gay, and responsible for at least some of his success in Hollywood.

With the rise of Nazism, the response of appeasement, and increasing longings for home, Bromfield organized a rescue and repatriation effort for the American Lincoln Brigade, fighting in Spain. Through his connections, he mobilized the means to get over one thousand sent home, winning the French Legion of Honor. But Munich closed the door on Europe, and in 1938, he moved back to the States.

The second half of the book describes his purchase of a worn out farm in the Pleasant Valley area outside Mansfield, and his work with agricultural efforts to restore the farm through green crops, contour plowing, and limited use of fertilizers and chemical interventions, crop rotation, and shunning the monocultural farming of so much of Ohio. I learned that he was one of the first to sound the alarm as to the dangers of DDT. Heyman captures the sheer joy Bromfield derived from this work in his chapter “Four Seasons at Malabar.” He offers a nuanced treatment of these years, highlighting the reality that Bromfield’s Hollywood earnings sustained the farm–and really didn’t do that, especially after Hawkins death. He was controlling and didn’t let his two daughters, who loved farming, take a share in the work. They and their husbands went elsewhere, Ellen to Brazil, where she and her husband far more successfully realized Bromfield’s vision.

While Bromfield’s own careless business practices, mistaken ideas, and endless experiments led to mounting debts, his books and lecturing inspired future generations of agricultural writers, and the organic food movement, all of which have challenged America’s business-agricultural complex. Heyman traces the lineage of writers and activists influenced by him including Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine and the organic food movement.

Heyman captures Bromfield’s essential message, that ‘{m}ost of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.’ Bromfield recognized the danger of not caring for the top soil, one of America’s great assets and that chemical fertilizers could never substitute for good soil management. Perhaps the time in France and seeing farms that had been owned for generations had something to do with it.

I welcome this work. Perhaps it is just Ohio pride, but I do believe Bromfield deserves to be better known as an important influence on our contemporary movement for sustainable agriculture and healthy food. His other writing work is another matter and I suspect the author’s inferences to its lack of enduring value are on the mark, though I still want to read more Bromfield. Bromfield was one of the first to practice and preach good soil management, testify before Congress on the dangers of pesticides, and attempt to return to sustainable practices. He also left a tangible monument to his work in Malabar Farm, a working farm where people can learn about his ideas and tour the Big House. The farm doesn’t fully realize his dream of a research center nor display all his farming practices, given its tourism focus as a state park, but one can learn about his life, and see the land he saw, and perhaps something of his vision, which Heyman captures in his biography.

The Month in Reviews: October 2015

I began October with a review of a book talking about the common ground between the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith. I celebrated the work of Ohio novelist and agriculturalist Louis Bromfield, reviewing two of his narratives of his work to restore Malabar Farm in nearby Mansfield, Ohio. Faith and doubt were also themes of the month as I reviewed a book on eight adults who believed and the place of doubt in Christian experience. And I looked at the challenges facing the Western church as it relates to Christians throughout the world and how that changes our paradigms for mission and even how we think about who gets to define Christianity. With that, here are summaries of my reviews with links to my complete reviews:

soul of atlasThe Soul of AtlasMark David Henderson. Lexington: Reason Publishing, 2013. Is there any way to reconcile the thought of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith? Through a personal narrative of dialogues with his two fathers, one a Christian, and one an adherent to Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) the author explores what possible ground could exist between Objectivists and Christians.

unfinished odysseyThe Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, David Halberstam. New York, Open Road, 2013 (originally published in 1969). This is a classic account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign tracing his decision to run, primary campaigns and evolving political vision that ended on the night of his primary victory in California.

Pleasant ValleyPleasant Valley, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1997 (originally published in 1945). The author, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, narrates his return from France to the area he where grew up, his purchase of several worn out farms, and his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture that restored the land to fertility, bringing health not only to the land but to those who made it their home.

Overturning TablesOverturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Scott Bessenecker argues that Western missions efforts are often captive to corporate culture and practices inconsistent with efforts to reach across cultures and to the marginal peoples outside the corporate world.

Abusing ScriptureAbusing ScriptureManfred T. Brauch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. The author explores the different ways we misread the Bible and consequently interpret and apply it in ways that abuse both the intent of the text, and sadly, in some cases the people with whom we apply these texts.

Mere BelieversMere BelieversMarc Baer. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013. Can individuals seeking to live faithfully to their calling change history? These profiles of eight British believers demonstrate that “mere believers” can indeed have a transformative influence in matters both of the heart and of the intellect.

To Whom Does Christianty belongTo Whom Does Christianity Belong?, Dyron B. Daughrity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. This book argues that when one speaks of “Christianity” this must be understood in global terms in all of its diversity of expression and not simply in the forms we Westerners are most accustomed to.

Questioning Your DoubtsQuestioning Your Doubts, Christina M. H. Powell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. This book comes out of the world of academic research and proposes that the process of questioning our doubts as well as our faith builds bridges of understanding deepening both our exercise of reason and confidence in our faith.

Malabar FarmMalabar Farm, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1999 (originally published in 1948). 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.

Theology of IsaiahThe Theology of the Book of Isaiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014. Taking the book of Isaiah as a whole and as it would have been read by its first readers, Goldingay both considers the theologies present in each major section of Isaiah, and traces the theological themes emerging from the book as a whole.

Best Book of the Month: I’m going to go with Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley. I loved his descriptions of restoring the land, building the “Big House” and his stories about other farmers. I think Bromfield’s farm books deserve a wider reputation for their path-breaking descriptions of early sustainable agriculture practices. I also deeply appreciated his love of the hill country of north central Ohio, which I also consider among the most beautiful parts of the state.

Best quote: I’m going to go with Bromfield’s description of his neighbor Walter Oakes and his love for “My Ninety Acres”:

“As I watched that big work-worn hand caressing that stalk of corn, I understood suddenly the whole story of Walter and Nellie and the ninety acres. Walter was old now, but he was vigorous and the rough hand that caressed that corn was the hand of a passionate lover. It was the hand that had caressed the body of a woman who had been loved as few women had ever been loved, so passionately and deeply and tenderly that there would never be another woman who could take her place. I felt again a sudden lump in my throat, for I knew that I had understood suddenly, forty years after the woman was dead, one of the most tragic but beautiful of all love stories. I know now what Robert’s strange remark about Nellie and the ninety acres getting all mixed up had meant. Robert himself must once have seen something very like what I had just seen” (p. 154).

Coming Attractions: Look for my review of The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book on the Inklings, which I’m a good way through. I also am currently reading a book suicide from a pastoral counseling perspective, a novel of Frederick Buechner, and a book on Athens and Jerusalem, on philosophy and Christian faith. I’m looking forward to reading a new book on acedia, one of the seven deadly sins and a history of the Great Books movement that arose out of the University of Chicago.

[“The Month in Reviews” serves as a kind of index of all the reviews posted on this blog. By selecting “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar, you can explore a nearly complete list of books reviewed at Bob on Books.]

Review: Malabar Farm

Malabar FarmMalabar 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:

Bromfield and Prince

Bromfield and Prince

“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.

Review: Pleasant Valley

Pleasant ValleyPleasant Valley, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1997 (originally published in 1945).

Summary: The author, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, narrates his return from France to the area he where grew up, his purchase of several worn out farms, and his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture that restored the land to fertility, bringing health not only to the land but to those who made it their home.

One of my favorite parts of Ohio, my home state, are the lush rolling hills of north central Ohio, a mix of small towns, forest and farmland. Malabar Farm, once the home of Louis Bromfield, a 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, continues to this day as a working farm operated as a state park. I’ve camped on its land with my son’s Boy Scout troop and toured its Big House (Bogart and Bacall were married there) and outbuildings. But until now, I had never read the story of this place by Bromfield himself–having only just found a copy on a birthday trip to a used bookstore.

Pleasant Valley is Bromfield’s narrative of his return from France to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming in the valley where he grew up. He purchased several old worn out farms and began the process of restoring soils to fertility, putting into practice progressive agricultural practices like contour planting, using cover crops to hold and restore the soil, restoring woodlots, and tilling and disking his fields but not plowing to leave a cover which, along with manure, and cover crops would hold moisture and the soil itself. Eventually, he acquired roughly 1000 acres, and provided a sustainable life for the 35 or so people and hosts of pets and livestock who shared the land.

He described the building of the Big House, adding on to an original structure and creating a place that could accommodate a celebrity wedding, a study where he could write and think, and a home where children and his pet boxers could live rambunctiously and joyously. Through his description, we see the contoured strips of plantings, the healthy livestock, the pond where the boys went skinny-dipping. We share in his wonder as he discovers springs of water once again coming forth, a sign that the soils of his land are retaining water which is going down into the water table that feeds these springs.

Bromfield believed that the health of the soil was the health of the people. In addition to narrative, he gives us trenchant commentary contrasting living and dead farms, the follies of modern agriculture, and the potential to feed a far greater nation if only we would care for the foundation of our agriculture, the land. He was Ohio’s Wendell Berry, articulating a vision of attentiveness to the soil, and a sense of place, a generation before Berry began writing.

One of the most beautiful and poignant chapters in the book was his description of “My Ninety Acres”, the farm of Walter Oakes. He and his wife Nellie acquired this land at the time of their marriage, and together cared for it until Nellie died in childbirth. It was her wisdom that led to fence rows that were allowed to grow up, sheltering birds that fed on insects that in other fields would destroy crops. Bromfield and Oakes would walk the farm every Sunday, with Oakes sharing his wisdom in tending this small but prosperous farm. At the end of the chapter, and near the end of Walter’s life, after talking with son Robert about how Walter often seemed to conflate Nellie and the farm into a single entity, he wrote this beautiful account:

“As I watched that big work-worn hand caressing that stalk of corn, I understood suddenly the whole story of Walter and Nellie and the ninety acres. Walter was old now, but he was vigorous and the rough hand that caressed that corn was the hand of a passionate lover. It was the hand that had caressed the body of a woman who had been loved as few women had ever been loved, so passionately and deeply and tenderly that there would never be another woman who could take her place. I felt again a sudden lump in my throat, for I knew that I had understood suddenly, forty years after the woman was dead, one of the most tragic but beautiful of all love stories. I know now what Robert’s strange remark about Nellie and the ninety acres getting all mixed up had meant. Robert himself must once have seen something very like what I had just seen” (p. 154).

Louis Bromfield returned to Pleasant Valley seventy years ago. Yet this narrative has a timeless quality about it because it deals with one of the most basic and elemental realities from which we cannot escape. We discover in these pages the joy and deep satisfaction of caring for the land and the place that in turn gives us our life. Even those of us who live in cities have deep interests in this project, whether it is in the tending of our little garden plots and protecting against runoffs of fertilizers into our watersheds, or in the health of farms around us that provide us our produce, milk, meat, and eggs. All of us will either just use this place or love it. Bromfield inspires us to the latter.

Ohio Authors Who Write About Ohio

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In a post on Reading Choices I mention enjoying books on “place”.  What I sometimes wish is that there were more writers of the quality of Wendell Berry or Wallace Stegner who wrote about my home state of Ohio. Ohio is an interesting place for more than just its swing state politics. From the absolutely flat drained swampland of northwest Ohio to the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio, the state is topographically interesting–even without the dramatic features of mountains or oceans. It is culturally diverse from Little Italy in Cleveland to the Somali community in Columbus to Over the Rhine in Cincinnati. And then there is small town Ohio…

Small town Ohio has been the inspiration for some of  writers of place.  Helen Hooven Santmyer wrote her massive novel And the Ladies of the Club about four generations in a fictional small town based on her home town of Xenia. I haven’t read it, but it is one of the more striking examples of Ohioana. Another that I have read is Sherwood Anderson whose bleak Winesburg, Ohio chronicles a small town in northwest Ohio based on his boyhood in Clyde, Ohio.

Louis Bromfield was a best selling novelist from the 1920s to the 1940s. He eventually moved back to is hometown of Mansfield, Ohio and established a farm he named Malabar Farm. He wrote some of the first works about sustainable agriculture based on his experiences of trying to renew the worn out soils of this land. His books Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm and From My Experience: The Pleasures and Miseries of Life on a Farm chronicle his love of the land and agricultural efforts. They precede by twenty years or more many of the ecological and sustainable agriculture books of the seventies, eighties and more recently.

One of my favorite Ohio writers who did write pieces about his (and my current) hometown was James Thurber. I first became acquainted with Thurber when William Windom visited our campus doing stage “readings” of Thurber in the years after his comedy series based on Thurber, My World and Welcome to It. His humorous essays which appeared in The New Yorker included humorous sketches of growing up in Columbus including “The Night the Bed Fell.”

A number of other highly recognized authors were raised or lived for some time in our state. A  list appears on WOSU’s Ohioana Authors site, which features audio clips about each of the listed authors, some of which I have linked to above. They include Arthur Schlesinger,Toni Morrison, poet Nikki Giovanni, Ohio historical fiction writer Allan Eckart and Nancy Drew mystery writer Mildred Benson (who my wife met when they both worked for The Toledo Blade).

Who are some of your favorite authors who come from your state or country?  Are there writers you like who write about place?