Book Review for Pleasant Valley by Louis Bromfield
Copyright 1945. Why, you may ask, am I reviewing a book from 1945? Because I think it may be more relevant now than when it was written.
I found this book in the gardening section of a very small country library because it is classified as a “farming memoir” and it is, but it is much more. It's about economics, architecture, the stability of France (at least up until the book was written), dogs, oddballs, self-sufficiency, sustainability, conservation, politics, dangers of raising the federal minimum wage, causes of poverty and its perpetuation, maple sugar, a love of nature, and, oh yeah, farming.
The reason I say it's as relevant today as when it was written or even more so, is because though we have made our farming practices more advanced, we are still “strip mining” most of the land which is being farmed and in many areas not much is being done to actively restore land which has been exhausted in the past. If Mr. Bromfield could catch a glimpse into today, at our wildfires in the West and the flooding in the Mid-West while at the same time having an alarmingly decreasing water-table, he would be very tempted to say, “I warned you, I told you so, and told you how to fix it.” Admittedly, he does share that the methods used on his farm may not succeed as well in other places because the glacial soil his farm is located above gives some advantages in soil restoration.
I think it is relevant because there was a start of a “food revolution” during the writing of Pleasant Valley which then largely died off but, I think, is having a recurrence in present day. Sadly, the government was, in part, behind the last one. They were the ones who were leading the way towards better land practices, they wisely sought to spread conservation and good land stewardship through example (in the form of “pilot farms” and land areas) and helping promote a largely self-supported organization called Friends of the Land, made up of concerned citizens who recognized our land as one of Americans greatest assets. I say sadly because, currently, I think such government support is lacking or at least I have not heard much of it.
Pleasant Valley is about being connected to the land and realizing every citizen, whether on a tractor or in a sky-rise, is tied to the fate of the land. That what the farmer does and, really, every landowner does effects not just them but the country as a whole. The health of the land, the health of our farms and the animals and fruits grown there are linked to our health, our intelligence, our sense of security, our future and when our land is poor, it perpetuates poverty because our health, the development of our intelligence, our sense of security, and our hope for the future suffers.
The overarching theme of Pleasant Valley is that our land is our most valuable asset as a country and having as many citizens as possible to own a little piece of land which they can care for and nurture and, in turn, be nurtured by it is the best way to have a strong and stable democracy. This is because these people, in being tied to the land, have a stake in our country and its well-being and in having the security that land can offer (in terms of producing much of what that person actually needs, if times get tough), they are free to vote for the best government, they are more free to vote because they are not dependent on a certain type of government and their hand-outs.
The above idea kind of goes back to my post about people “putting down roots” versus having a renter mentality in relation to the community in which they live. The same idea applies, if someone is tied to a piece of land, is clearly shown that their security is bound to that piece of land and the health of it (and they are taught how to care for it), then they will better treasure it. Bromfield says this is how France survived multiple invasions and revolutions, though citizens lost jobs, though their currency and economy were affected and disrupted, many countrymen had small farms that their families had cared for and cherished, so they tightened their belts a little and were still able to independently survive without putting much of a stress on a already overtaxed, unstable government.
Another prevailing theme which Bromfield shares is to work with nature instead of against her, to learn from her methods in soil restoration and merely speed them up by the help you, as a farmer, contribute. To plant in such a way that you help the land as it provides for you, to design your farm so as to harvest water and hold onto it, rather than letting it all run away with your topsoil. To organize your fields, orchards, and vegetable garden so nature helps to pollinate, control pests, and encourage game.
As I was telling my mother about this book she shared that she remembers some family friends when she was growing up that had an orchard and, beside the orchard, they grew a variety of berries for the birds. The family did not really harvest the berries, but left them for the birds and the birds, in turn, did most of the pest control in the orchard. This is the type of thing Bromfield advocates.
This is a book that I would like to own so I could underline and look back through. Not only to better know how to care for the land I will hopefully someday own but also so I can live a better, more “simple,” fuller life.
Now for some quotes:
(from page 10)
The permanence, the continuity of France was not born of weariness and economic defeat, but was a living thing, anchored to the soil, to the very earth itself. Any French peasant, any French workingman with his little plot of ground and his modest home and wages, which by American standards were small, had more permanence, more solidity, more security, than the American workingman or white-collar worker who received, according to French standards, fabulous wages, who rented the home he lived in and was perpetually in debt for his car, his radio, his washing machine.
Sitting there it occurred to me that the high standard of living in America was an illusion based upon credit and the installment plan, which threw a man and his family into the street and on public relief the moment his factory closed and he lost his job. It seemed to me that real continuity, real love of one's country, real permanence had to do with not with mechanical inventions and high wages but with the earth and man's love of the soil upon which he lived.
Some wisdom shared by Bromfield's neighbor:
(from page 144)
He looked down at his big hands and noticed, as I did, that some of the black damp loam of the fence row still clung to them. He brushed them awkwardly together. “I was just digging into the fence row to see what was going on there underground. A fellow can learn a lot by watching his own land and what go on in it and on it...Nellie always said a farm could teach you more than you could teach it if you just kept your eyes open...Nellie...that was my wife”
“Of course,” I said, “I remember.”
Before I share the next one, I should share, Bromfield was not in the “middle class,” he was a bestselling author, wrote scripts for Hollywood, etc.
The middle class is the backbone of democracy – in fact democracy cannot exist without a flourishing middle class. Perhaps the simplest definition of the middle class is that of a group of citizens who own something, who have some stake in individuality, in freedom, in good government, in the protection of civil rights and in the nation as a whole. Democracy is essentially a giant co-operative in which all the citizens have a stake...A man with a stake in the nation is independent. He resists being pushed about and regimented. A man without economic security, dependent upon the state to care for him whether it be to provide jobs or to pay him a dole when he is out of a job, is helpless. He can only continue to vote for the kind of government which provides him with a roof over his head, a miserable wage and food for the mouths of himself and his children. For him there is no security and no other way out.
We have set about to turn the wheel of fertility moving forward again...What we have been doing has been a relatively simple thing. We have sought merely to build as Nature builds, to plant and sow and reap as Nature meant us to do; we have sought to rebuild the earth as Nature built it in the beginning. With man's ingenuity we have been able to do it more rapidly than Nature herself, but only because we worked with the law and within the idiom of Nature. Man has never been able to impose his own law upon Nature nor to alter her laws, but he can, by working with her, accomplish much...
Each farm is a tiny world in itself, with each day its small play of tragedy, of comedy, of farce. Each day is in itself a cycle of the history of the earth.
For the children the rewards have been greater possibly then for the adults. There has been health and good food and fields and woods to roam over, animals to care for ,streams to fish and swim in, and all those contacts with air and earth and water which make for wisdom and understanding and judgment and for those resources later in life which are indestructible and far beyond either fame or riches in the long and trying span of life. They have learned, I think too, the great importance and solace of work, not the aimless, monotonous work of riveting and fitting together nuts and bolts, but of work which creates something, work which is richly its own reward, within the natural scheme of man's existence – the kind of work which contributes to the progress and welfare of mankind and the plenty of the earth upon which he lives.
There are other portions I would like to share, but some of them are pages long, so I will just once again encourage you to read the book.