Review: Becoming Native To This Place

Becoming Native To This Place, Wes Jackson. New York: Counterpoint Press, 1996.

Summary: Six essays advocating agricultural practices that reflect close attention to the character of a particular place.

Wes Jackson thinks universities ought to focus their work on preparing their students for “homecomings”–not to assume that success consists in leaving home but rather becoming native to these places–fully appreciating the character of the place and conforming one’s life in that place to its character. He elaborates this idea of becoming native to one’s place in the six essays that make up this book.

He begins by asking a probing question. Archaeological evidence indicates that at one time over 25,000 indigenous persons lived in the boundaries of Rice County, Kansas. By 1990, only 10,400 could sustain their livelihoods there. Why this population decline? Why did so many families fail where the native peoples once thrived? Why, in a place where buffalo roamed amid native grasses could an economy based on wheat farming fail?

Jackson argues that the assumption that nature must be subdued and ignored had a lot to do with it. Farm plots laid out in squares, disregarding the location of creeks and rivers, the fencing of prairie that offered common grazing ground along with hunting led to the decimation of the buffalo, a food source rich in calories, well-adapted to the prairies. Instead of studying what worked, farmers in tandem with agricultural scientists sought to bend nature to their will. Nature would not be bent.

He offers an interesting case of the conflict between Lysenko and Vavilov, two Soviet scientists. On the science, Lysenko was wrong on many counts and power hungry as well. But he was right to listen to peasant wisdom rather than the proponents of the collective, who wrecked agriculture. Rather than the objectification and control of nature, he urges what Wendell Berry calls a “conversation with nature.” One honors water, forest animals, savanna grazers and the prairie. One pays attention to the topography of land, allowing grasses to hold the soil on slopes. Out of this “conversation,” Jackson launched the Land Institute to develop practices appropriate to the place, an approach that seeks to “mimic” the nature of the place.

More than that, he dreams of what a community might be that did this, describing the community that once was in his location. Sustainability is not just about preserving wilderness, but loving the ordinary of prairie farmland, and even our cities. This loving of place is a task for all of us, and without it, even the most wild places cannot be hoped to survive. It means paying attention to the succession of a place, how in a healthy ecosystem, whether a marsh or a forest, nothing is wasted.

He describes his find forty years programs of New Century Club, a women’s group and their discussions of local wisdom, and the gradual decline even as modern agriculture advanced, but fewer could afford to live there. From beautiful program covers, the programs declined to mimeographs on construction paper. It was evidence that the people of that place had lived closer to the land in those early years than later, with all their technical advances.

Jackson concludes with a call to a kind of ecological patriotism–of love of one’s land, of our place that doesn’t turn the clock back but uses what we know to go forward, though not as conquerors, but those who have finally learned that the land is our teacher, and if we are to care for it well, we must learn from it.

I reviewed Braiding Sweetgrass recently on the integrating of indigenous and ecological wisdom. It strikes me that Jackson is engaged in a similar project. Many argue that we cannot afford the less “efficient” approaches of Robin Wall Kimmerer, or the Land Institute, or places like Polyface Farm, or even Wendell Berry’s own farm. If Wes Jackson and these others are right, we cannot afford our current, unsustainable life, where the hidden costs of our supposed efficiency are becoming increasingly evident. The question is whether we will start learning the lessons of our place on earth while those places can still teach us?

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Summary: An examination of the American way of eating, considering our industrial food chain and how it has affected our diet by contrast with organic and hunter-gatherer food chains.

Human beings are omnivores. From our teeth to our gut, we are able and designed to extract the nutrition we need from a wide variety of foods. What Michael Pollan observes is that our American industrial food complex has led to an imbalance in our diets. Instead of being based on a wide variety of foods, it is concentrated on corn, particularly with regard both to beef, poultry and even fish nourished on corn-based diets, as well as the corn products added to many of the processed foods on our shelves. An epidemic of obesity points to something out of kilter.

Pollan sets out to examine the food chain from the corn in the farmer’s field to the poultry farms and feedlots to our tables, and the impacts of these processes on us, on the animals, and on farmers and the land. He then contrasts this food chain with organic food chains, both industrial and a small sustainable farm, and finally a hunter gatherer food chain. Each culminates in a meal.

The industrial food chain presupposes large corn farms, monoculturally farmed with the aid of expensive farm machinery, fertilizers with run-off, pesticides, storage, and government subsidized prices. Farmers often carry huge debt loads and barely stay afloat. The land suffers as do rivers, lakes, and oceans from fertilizer runoff. The one thing huge harvests do is get turned into the primary food source for the meats we eat. Industrial methods are applied to them as well. Pollan bought a cow that he tried to trace through the process. He was not allowed to see the butchering. But he learned about the problems cows and chickens have with the diet and crowded conditions, requiring more antibiotics to keep animals alive. The meal at the end is a trip to McDonalds, eaten on the road in a convertible–the ultimate in our fast food lifestyle.

The second food chain is the organic food chain. He divides this into two chains. The first is an organic-industrial chain. Food is grown organically, but often packaged and shipped long distances to fill our produce aisles at Whole Foods. Pollan traces the chain from these farms, some which started out as counter-cultural organic farms but increasingly conformed to the USDA “organic standards.” The biggest problem is the “ocean of petroleum” needed to sustain the supply chain. But often organic is more technical, in which “free range” poultry has access to narrow grassy strips for only a brief period of their lives. The meal at the end of this chain is one purchased at Whole Foods.

Pollan then spends a week with Joel Salatin, a “grass farmer” in Virginia. On his small farm, he grows chickens, turkeys, cows, and hogs, observing cycles where each sustain the others, in a rotation where the pastures grow richer year by year with minimal external inputs, other than the sun and rains. The pastures feed the animals who sustain the pasture with their manures. Salatin sells locally to individuals who can watch their chickens slaughtered, gutted and plucked if they wish, and to local restaurants. Pollan learns to move cattle from space to space in the pastures, with chickens following. The meal is various meats from the farm and other locally grown food, marked by a drastically enhanced quality of taste.

The final food chain is the most unconventional. Pollan joins foragers who shoot wild game, gather mushrooms and morrels, bake sourdough bread from yeast spores in the atmosphere as well as cherries from a neighborhood tree, and abalone from an inlet of the ocean. Pollan, who has not hunted kills a wild pig, helps dress it, and learns about all the different types of meat that can come from it.

Amid all this, he engages Peter Singer’s opposition to the killing of animals. In the end, he concludes that, while factory feedlots are problematic, there is some sense in the natural order of animals best lives including at least a portion becoming the prey of others, including human beings. At the same time, he comes to realize the dangers attendant when the same person slaughters animals day after day.

He also concludes that both our industrial way of food supply and hunting gathering are problematic and unsustainable. Our “cheap food” does not reflect many costs absorbed by farmers, by the land, and by us as taxpayers. He is drawn most to the Salatin’s Polyface Farm, the growing of good food that is good for us and the land. A chicken that has lived the way a chicken is supposed to live tastes better–their eggs as well. The book also captures the joys of slow food–good food that is leisurely enjoyed.

Pollan’s book is perhaps more urgent now as we recognize the costs of our petroleum fueled supply chains. A century ago, we knew where much of our food came from, much of it from within 100 miles of where we live. Might we be approaching a time where this is so again, or at least to a much greater degree? Pollan makes us think about how our food arrives at our table and what has gone into it along the way. He also helped me realize how hard the people who grow and harvest and butcher our food work, the life of the creatures who become our meals, and how grateful one must be to receive such gifts to the nourishment of our bodies.

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.

Review: Our Only World

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.

Summary: Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable.

In reading this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, some transcriptions of addresses, written between 2010 and 2014, I felt like I had read much of this material before. In some sense, I have. Berry continues to ring the changes of themes that recur in his works: local membership, sustainable land practices, the character of good work, our violent relationship with our world.

There was the sense of someone who has been saying these things for a long time, and perhaps coming toward the end of his work. As I write this, Berry has recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Both his earlier essay collections and earlier novels are longer. For all that, it seems to me that we have both a summing up and a carrying forward into our current context of the things Wendell Berry has been saying to us for fifty years.

The essays range widely covering everything from our tendency to dissect life into parts rather than see wholes (his “Paragraphs from a Notebook”), our violent treatment both of the creation and our fellow human beings (“The Commerce of Violence” and “On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes”), and sustainable practices centered around right-sized land management and appropriate technology (“A Forest Conversation,” “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” “Less Energy, More Life,” “Our Deserted Country,” and “For the 50-Year Farm Bill”). Two address wider concerns in our society (“Caught in the Middle” in which Berry sets forth his views on abortion and gay marriage and “On Being Asked for a ‘Narrative for the Future”).

There were several that stood out for me. One was “A Forest Conversation.” Much of this essay describes the practices of forest owner Troy Firth, who owns a maple sugar operation and also logs his forest with sustainable practices in his choices of trees to cut, and in how he removes them to minimize damage to the forest floor (horses!). “Our Deserted Country” chronicles the movement of people from country to city and the use of industrial technology as a substitute for an appropriate ratio of “eyes to acres” that human-scaled land care involved. He ranges widely in this essay, discussing impacts on the land, the disappearance of a country culture of fishing, hunting, and foraging, and the decline of local streams, including the loss of his favorite willows that no one can explain or had noticed.

In “Caught in the Middle,” Berry voices what many of us feel, that neither of the major political parties represent his views. He ventures into the contentious space of abortion and gay marriage. He opposes abortion as the taking of life, and yet concedes there are circumstances he would help someone obtain an abortion. He acknowledges the conflict in these statements but also contends there should be no laws for or against abortion. He argues this is a personal matter that should not be subject to law, and argues similarly with regard to gay marriage. He questions whether “rights” are bestowed by government, including the “right” to marry. He would go further in saying that neither does the church, but that a “marriage” is made by two individuals who vow and live those vows until death. I suspect this is one of those essays that has subjected him to fire from all sides, the danger of being “caught in the middle.” But Wendell Berry has never shrunk from controversy!

His concluding essay speaks a good word to all our prognostications about the future. He writes:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good–good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places–by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future.

It may well be that this is the theme that under-girds all these essays. His urging that we turn away from our energy-intensive economy is not first for the environment, but because it is not a good way to live. His arguments limiting the power of big government and reliance on national politics is centered in the goodness of the local community, and the ability of local people to best care for their land. Good work, rather than jobs, is what people were made for, but is also good for the world.

Agree with Berry or not (and probably no one will on all he writes), his contrarian voice comes from a different place from much of our public discourse. It comes from a place that is close to land from a life of tending a farm and the surrounding land, and to local people, a “membership.” He offers us the chance to examine the way of living and the way of governing a society that we have assumed. In the end, his concern is not to change the world, or Washington, but to invite each of us to consider what it means to pursue the good in the place we are. Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the best we can do in “our only world.”

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.