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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Heritage: A Daughter's Memories Of Louis Bromfield by Ellen Bromfield Geld | LibraryThing

The Heritage: A Daughter's Memories Of Louis Bromfield by Ellen Bromfield Geld | LibraryThing:

I always loved working on my uncle’s dairy farm during the summers. As a teen, I discovered the Louis Bromfield “Malabar Farm” series of books. I fell in love with his theories of agriculture and organic farming. I devoured all the books when I was in college; they presented such an idyllic view of life on the farm. They were a major force in my decision to go into dairy farming after college. That phase lasted about five years.

Bromfield bought the farm that he named “Malabar” (after the Malabar Coast)with earnings from the books he had written about India (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/396988.The_Rains_Came] which was made into a movie that won some Academy Awards, The Rains of Ranchipur.) To give you a flavor of his books one need only read this short paragraph about the ending of the movie: Lady Edwina tries to explain to the Maharani that her love for Safti has become true, so much so that she will make the sacrifice of leaving him for his own good. She drives away from Ranchipur with her husband. You get the idea. His books were extremely popular and even earned him a Pulitzer.

The farm was run down with pastures being taken over by thistles and other “noxious” weeds (I suppose one might argue that was nature reclaiming what it had lost.) Gullies were causing erosion and the buildings were in a state of disrepair.

Bromfield had studied agriculture at Cornell for several years before transferring to Columbia to study journalism. His agricultural ideas, considered fresh and innovative in the forties and fifties had their roots in what he had learned in school. (Fresh with naivete, when I was working on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, I described many of Bromfield’s ideas to my uncle, who, in his inimitably kind manner, replied, “well, I guess he studied at the same places we did.”)

Using his considerable fortune, Bromfield implemented conservation techniques and experimented with “new” practices such as roto-tilling instead of moldboard plowing (a practice still used some places but not as much any more because of its high energy requirements,) chisel plowing (very common now) and multiflora rose plantings to replace fences as they attracted large numbers of birds and other wildlife while keeping cattle safely penned in a field. Multiflora rose is now considered an invasive (it is native to Korea and Japan) noxious species as it spreads wildly, taking over everything. It’s certainly quite pretty and good fodder for goats, but very discouraged presently.

The plan for the farm was roughly that of a cooperative with the member families earning a salary with rent-free housing and food from the farm. It was to be a general farm mixing dairy with beef, hogs, chickens a variety of fruits and a common vegetable garden Bromfield was to cover all the expenses until the farm made a profit and then would draw 5% of any net, the rest to be divided among the families. The farm manager Max, a very competent sort, remained skeptical, arguing the cost of machinery was more than the farm would be able to bear and noting presciently that much of the food could be purchased cheaper than it could be raised.

Ellen published these memoirs first in 1962, just a few years after her father’s death and then they were republished some thirty-five years later. The writing is often quite lyrical:

We came to Malabar Farm in early spring, which is an important condition in the fixing a farm in the heart. We saw the winter whiteness that covered the hills and burdened the limbs of trees dissolve under the cold misery of March rains, into thick sucking mud, which dragged off our boots a hundred times between the house and the barn. The mud and rain, chill and sorry, converged upon Switzer’s Creek, swelling it to the proportions of a roaring river. It lapped at the groaning iron frame of the bridge, grating its underside with bits of driftwood and trunks of fallen trees which, once the rains had ceased, would lodge to form deep pools where trout streaked temptingly silver in the summer twilight.

After Bromfield published  Pleasant Valley, the first of the Malabar books, the others being Malabar Farm  and Out of the Earth, he became something of a cult figure and the farm was beset by hoards of visitors, Bromfield holding court in a rather heroic manner.


He was seldom accurate in his descriptions. If anything he was expansive and grossly optimistic and I think any good farmer with sharp ears and a practical eye could have tripped him up on a hundred disparities. But, somehow, his audience didn't seem to care about these enthusiastic exaggerations. What seemed to be important was the picture they evoked, the whole vast scene of farm life which suddenly became complete, important and, using one of his favorite expressions, "limitless in possibilities" 'the common everyday practice that most of those people carried out became suddenly alive and meaningful as he described them in a way that every farmer understood but could never quite describe to himself.

Ellen continued her father’s dream recreating Malabar in Brazil where they foster sustainable agriculture. Malabar Farm itself could never sustain itself after Bromfield’s death. The children had no ability to keep it going so it was sold to a trust which eventually donated it to become a state park in Ohio (which I MUST visit one of these years.)

The book is hagiographic, but so what? Bromfield was her father. In the end, I realize now that Malabar Farm was a rich man’s plaything, but in a good way. Some of his ideas were worth adopting and the fact that people like Humphrey Bogart could marry Lauren Bacall there helped to publicize his thinking. It never would have succeeded without his considerable income from writing, however. Bromfield had the best of all worlds: the farm, a great place to hang out and play with, and a vibrant intellectual community. His wife, Mary, wasn’t quite so fortunate. Bromfield “rescued” her from a Massachusett’s Brahmin environment, and she did fine as they traveled around Europe and the world, but the farm made her very lonely.

I still retain very fond memories of lying around my dorm room transported to the idyllic lands of Malabar Farm.

References: http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/romu1.htm





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