The recent UMass Lowell lunchtime lecture series at the University’s Inn & Conference Center brought Jane Brox home in place and spirit.
The award-winning author and Dracut native, whose latest work is the highly praised “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” had a fitting topic: Reading, Writing and Sense of Place.
The event was part of the Moses Greeley Parker Lectures, whose co-sponsors include UMass Lowell Center for Arts & Ideas and Prof. Bill Mass of UMass Lowell’s Center for Industrial Competitiveness.
“Guest speakers like Jane Brox enrich the educational experience on campus,” said Paul Marion, co-director, Center for Arts & Ideas. “They offer both students and the community rare opportunities to engage with accomplished persons in various disciplines who are contributing to the national conversation about compelling subjects.”
Now 55 and living in Maine, Brox grew up on a family farm along Route 113 in Dracut, which she captured in a trilogy of books, “Clearing Land,” “Five Thousand Days Like this One” and “Here and Nowhere Else.” Brox also spoke of other writers who capture a place in time, including Henry David Thoreau, during the April 23 lecture. Just outside the ballroom where Brox spoke for nearly an hour to about 60 rapt folks, Thoreau’s beloved Concord River rushed past, swollen and full of bluster from heavy rains.
Brox said that since reading G.B. Edwards’ “The Book of Ebenezer Le Page,” set in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, “I can never go to Guernsey now.” Brox said the author was so successful at describing the spirit of the place over time that “any trip would never be the same as reading it in the pages of that book.”
She described how memory changes over time and that establishing a sense of place “is very complex and challenging. It took me 15 years to write about the farm I grew up on.” During the course of the writing, the farm changed, as did her memory of “the receding frontier.”
“I saw writing about the farm as a way to preserve it – to capture something I saw slipping away,” she said.
Though based in New England, Brox is garnering attention far and wide. In December 2010, “Brilliant” was listed among Time magazine’s Top 10 nonfiction Books of the year.
She said New England is ideal for capturing a scene, “because what happened here in the 19th and 20th centuries is a concentrated history of our country over the last two centuries.” Greater Lowell, in particular, was a microcosm of the shift from an agrarian to an industrial center.
Brox said people tend to envision farms as stable and unchanging over time, but that’s not true. The apple trees that once fueled the Brox Farm’s economy were eventually cut for firewood. It was, she said, “a moving frontier. Even after the book is finished, the story continues. … If I were to begin that story now, I would write another book entirely.”
In describing the inspiration for her latest book, she explained how a Dracut neighbor’s description of life before electricity sparked “Brilliant.” Brox said some places were without light longer than others for financial reasons, and how vastly different those places were in function and stature.
Like the family farm, as well as other places she cherishes in the works of other writers, another place is changing – the writers’ marketplace.
Technology has led to her own “anxiety” and publishers looking harder at what readers want in terms of e-books and traditional printed works that ends up on bookstore shelves. She also laments that bookstores are vanishing from the landscape of brick-and-mortar business.
“I would do research at the library at Bowdoin,” Brox said during a question and answer session. “There were the stacks – six floors of books – and I would be the only one in them.”