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

Farm in Fall: Autumn Reminiscences

Air Date: Week of

Author Jane Brox's fifth essay in a series on the seasons at her family farm in Dracut, Massachusetts brings the year full cycle to the autumn apple harvest and the anniversary of her father's death.


CURWOOD: During the past year, commentator Jane Brox has taken us on a journey through the seasons on her family's farm in northern Massachusetts. Last winter, she introduced us to her father, who was born when family farms were the norm in the Merrimack Valley. Today, only a few people still work the land. Jane and her father were among them. Just before we aired that story her father, John Brox, passed away. In the spring, Ms. Brox told us what it was like to go through a time of planting, renewal, and hope for the first time without him. At the end of the summer she introduced us to her farm stand, where city folks came to shop and where she longed for the end of the long harvest season. Now, as the long shadows of winter again start to fall over her home, Jane Brox reflects on the long year since her father died, and the changes that have come to her and her farm.

BROX: The air no longer smells of fermenting windfall apples. It's clear and cold and a harder light falls on the bare turned branches of the fruit trees. The farm stand is closed tight. Except for a few rows of cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, which I could still pick on a warm day, all the fields are in rye. What remains of the vibrant, tight-hearted fall, is the scrape of oak leaves and the small, thin notes of finches as they peck at seed.

(Sounds of scribbling)

BROX: I work inside at a table set in a west-facing bay window that frames a solitary Baldwin apple tree. It's one of the oldest fruit trees here, planted by the man who built my white farmhouse, who lived a more frugal life than I could imagine, repairing with scrap, insulating with paper, saving string. Baldwins were a standard part of that earlier life, when every family farm had its own orchard and every tree yielded a different variety of apple: Russet, Greening, Winesap, Sheetnose, Ben Davis, Astracan.


BROX: A few trees of those varieties still bear on gravelly New England hillsides. Their gray bark trunks have thickened with the years. Their crabbed branches clatter in the winter wind. Commercial apple trees will never look that way again. Most have been cut down and replaced, if not by houses, by dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, which are easier to pick and produce a higher yield per acre. And the old kinds of apples, fallen to market pressures, have been replaced by more uniform, redder varieties: Macintosh and Delicious that everyone knows, crisp bright Macoun, perfect for eating out of hand.


BROX: But the Baldwin tree still bears a good crop every other year. This fall its branches almost touched the ground, it was so laden. The fruit slowly turns a brownish red all September, before it deepens to a darker red, with a rusty splay at its stem. Spicy and juicy, long valued for its keeping qualities, I can still make a pie from its fruit in March. Baldwins are slow to ripen and sweeter after the frost, so this tree is one of the last to be picked, and its harvest, late this fall, marked the final turn of the difficult year.

(Church music: Ave Maria)

BROX: Back at the start, in the clear winter light of my father's funeral, I couldn't even imagine getting this far.

(Music continues)

BROX: The old farmers hold on a long time, and my father was no different. He had worked so hard to his own dreams and ideas of this place, had for so long alone decided what to grow and where, how to market and to whom. Even in his last months I think he found the necessity to compromise and relent, more difficult than the physical work. Such control doesn't make for easy succession, and there are days, I feel, we're all the more lost for his having held on so stubbornly.


BROX: Even so, it may be that very stubbornness that also makes it possible for us to continue. My father had his choices. He could have done other things to greater profit and with less love with his life and this land. Having chosen to continue farming here, he has given us the chance to go on, too. And in the end, however well he may have prepared us, it would never have been enough. Since it's not so much the work we're unprepared for as it is his absence.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Jane Brox lives in Dracut, Massachusetts. Her latest book, Here and Nowhere Else, won this year's L.L. Winship Pen New England Award. Her essays are produced by Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan.



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