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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Early Land

Air Date: Week of

Writer Jane Brox begins another growing season on her family's Massachusetts farm — but this year without her Dad.


CURWOOD: On Jane Brox's farm in Dracut, Massachusetts, Spring has come and her family is preparing the soil and picking up the branches that fell during an especially harsh winter. As she tells us, along with rebirth and renewal, spring brings uncertainty over what the future holds.


BROX: We call the small rocky field across from the farm house "the early land." It usually dries out by the first ord week in April, and for as long as I can remember it had been the first field my father worked every year. Always the same.

(A motor struggles to start)

BROX: One morning I'd hear the tractor engine, even and deep, as he made his way across the winter rye leaving a wake of polished, turned over soil.

(The motor runs)

BROX: The spring air steepened with the smell of mineral earth, and the work year all of a sudden felt open to me. All we looked forward to, all we were responsible for, our clear and narrow way.

(The motor runs. Fade to the sound of branches breaking)

BROX: Not that the work hadn't started months before. By this far into the year, we've pruned the apple and peach trees. The cuttings are laid down in soldierly windrows waiting to be gathered into brush piles. And in the greenhouse, fragrant with damp peaty growing mix, tomato and pepper seedlings are warming in the trays.

But the pruning and greenhouse work begins while the world is still spare and cold. The footprints we make in soft noonday mud are frozen in place the next morning. To me, it doesn't seem as if the spring really starts until I hear the tractor turning over that first field.

(The tractor motor runs. Fade to bird call)

BROX: How different the same sound can feel at different times. The morning dove's first solitary call of the year one bright spring morning isn't the same as her call extinguishing the August dusk.

(The dove calls)

BROX: And the cut of a relic scythe used rarely and self-consciously.

(The scythe cuts)

BROX: How can it sound the same as the scythe used as an everyday tool?

(The scythe cuts)

BROX: My father died in late December. Now, my brother alone works the tractor across the rye and I'm apprehensive when I hear the reliable sound of its engine. I can't help but wonder about what's to come, and how all of us will get along. I wonder if we've learned what we need to keep things going. My father knew so much about the land, the crops, the weather. A knowledge grown into over the long years of his life. A knowledge we've come to depend on.

All winter, with the snow, the quiet, the fire I'd looked into for months, I was afraid of how the spring would make me feel. I was afraid I'd miss my father most when the season opened up again.

(The sound of branches being moved)

BROX: But now that I'm out picking up the prunings in the orchard and gathering them into piles of brush, walking back and forth among the rows of spare, turned trees, I'm starting to feel more sure of my responsibilities. He'd say work was good for that. For getting out of a doubting winter mind.


BROX: I can hear the call of the finches and chickadees, and the brook and flood rushing over its tumbled granite bed.

(Water runs)

BROX: As I traced the way my father worked for countless seasons, I can't help but think about the course of his life. As he carried the farm through this dark accelerating century, it couldn't have been easy. He had to make his own lone decisions as he faced the passings of the ones he loved and relied on. The very sound of his work changed relentlessly. At first he knew only the patient breathing of oxen and work horses. That was before the entrenched noise of an engine in the fields.

(The tractor motor runs)

BROX: I always think of my father on the tractor. That's what I remember. But he liked to remember how he plowed the early land with a matched pair of horses. Back then he must have felt some of the apprehension I feel now, as he stepped into the soft, turned earth. Certain of nothing other than the love he had for this place.

(The dove calls. Footfalls)

CURWOOD: Jane Brox lives and writes in Dracut, Massachusetts. Her latest book is Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family. Her commentaries are produced by Sandy Tolan.



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