Introduction: Brook Farm, A Sacred Place

         I first visited Brook Farm when I was 19 years old, over 40 years ago.  There is much social and literary history associated with this former commune in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.  My encounters were very simple, however.  As I got older and learned more about its purpose, the story of the commune’s development, fulfillment, and fall seemed to indicate that innocence, idealism, and experience both tragic and commonplace were connected.

        When George and Sophia Ripley began the Brook Farm experiment in the early 1840s, they were offering an alternative to the mainstream materialistic culture that was already developing in America.  They called themselves Transcendentalists at first, but gradually identified themselves as Associationists, following the model of Charles Fourier, (1722-1837) an 18th Century thinker who believed that spiritual growth and development were the products of both physical toil on the land and intellectual education brought together.  He saw himself as someone trying to create a more peaceful society.  Many known literary figures visited Brook Farm, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was one of the community’s investors, lived there for three months and left.

        The Phalanstery was to be the central house or unitary building.  The Brook Farmers had begun building this house that was supposed to encompass a small, cohesive community, with everyone living in apartments, and sharing all the labor.  On March 3, 1846, the unfinished structure burned to the ground. After the tragic fire, the Community was put into bankruptcy, and later dissolved.  The effective dates of the Brook Farm experiment were 1845-1847.

        During the Civil War, Brook Farm became the site of Camp Andrew where the Massachusetts 2nd Infantry was recruited, drilled and mustered out.  Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, the first group of fighting Black soldiers, was a member of the Massachusetts 2nd.  The site also became the site of the Lutheran Works of Mercy which built an orphanage on the original grounds.  Today, one tastes only echoes and a chance artifact, but the Lutheran cemetery is still very much in existence.


1. Brook Farm


we rummage the blazing redness

of the leaves for any sign

--my son nudges them

crunches them



he does not know the word



the leaves whir

then parachute to earth

sand trucks grovel up the hill

leading to Gethsemane Cemetery


we exchange hellos – then

they are gone

Come my son

take off your socks

walk with me into the battered field

where intellectuals harvested stunted corn

where soldiers from Camp Andrew

drilled in the rubble of transcendence



gnarled trunks

It is autumn--

and the fiery leaf

strains for breath

--it does not know

of its dying

it cannot surmise its birth



2. Brook Farm 1977 After the Burning


there are spirals

in the white birch bark

and acorns uprooted for a dance

    Thoreau's birds calling olit olit olit


it is like a green leitmotif

this spring


songs of a thousand generations

rt. t. t. t.

bszz bszz bszz

chip chip

che char


                enter the still beat



the hills of the cemetery


to accept the dead

and the orphans who lived

in the main house

take possession

and lie under it

a willow hangs upside down

and a vision of boys cycling

toward Gethsemane


they enter this world

          che char

          wiss wiss





3. At the Ruins of the Hive


Like an epicurean, Easter Day is a festival of sun,

and of Civil War stones, of history and myth

all vacillating between crucifixion and renewal.

Think of the witnesses on silent hills,

of spirits in the shallow running brooks.

When today's utterances fade into the smoky green

    of the Roxbury hills,

when the witnesses are forgotten,

then the world’s purpose will be revealed.

I think of spring burials and the rising

of mists from the fields now wild

with cattails and wands.

The sun goldens thought

like an artesian well

with water so blindingly pure--

it is the mind’s blessing

and its ultimate cure.


                                April 13, 1998



4. Brook Farm, September 15, 1998


                                          It is a political day,

an unimpeachable day.

The dampness and humidity

test the temper.

The dirge of the 2nd Massachusetts

is heard as echo among these hills.

How nature has resisted

our long held expectations.

Mist rises up from the fields.

These are not patriots,

but boys parading

in the drill fields of Camp Andrew,

later bored and tired, spitting tobacco,

lying around. White tents, wisps of smoke

curl up from terraced hills.

These bugles are borne

on the wind

that drives toward

Washington City.



5. Dusk at Gethsemane


We drive nimbly over the asphalt road--

headstones and obelisks nested

in the twilit hills above Brook Farm.


Cottontails dart across the fields;

the curious deer approaches from the brush

and tolerates us long enough to get a look.


They do not sleep a chilly sleep

the dead of Gethsemane;

these graves are only temporary.


How often have I pulled off the road

to catch a breath of their serenity,

to break stones like bread.


We carry no guilt, for the Puritan is no more.

Throughout the hushed late fields,

our self-imposed morals can no longer harm.


This is the place where Hawthorne shoveled muck

for three months, then quit in disgust. The commune

lasted seven years until it fell in flames from grace.


                                                          Spring, 2002




Inked woods,

                           forests oily after a long rainfall

sludged with ancient fossils.

It is another sodden afternoon

when the days get longer.


The mothering blue of the far sky lies beyond deceits.

My hand receives air.

                           It was here that the Phalanstery burned in 1846

where the Associationists lost heart

and the cause of Fourier fell back into capital

and infernal cities.


They live in the crystal lilies

not quite gone from this earth.


                          April 9, 2003, Boston




Back to a private place in New England

there are only markers in a wilderness

though I still can hear the Brook Farmers

swinging their sickles

the soldiers in the drill fields of Camp Andrew

and the orphans who used to run free

from the main house.

Butter and eggs on the lost roads,

bees suck the yoke of that flower,

goldenrod are sentinels.


A trek through the woods into a clearing:

the Margaret Fuller Cottage.

I do not hear the utterance of a bird--

charcoaled wood standing like phalli,

a rusted Ford pickup truck,

rods running through rusty concrete.


Today is for the people of the unseen world

whose roots are at one with growing things

wherever I walk in penitence

under an overcast day in autumn.

Nakedness surrounds me,

my breathing beats to a slow metronome

back and forth

my garments growing shallow--

and I now belong to those brief manifestations.


Hawthorne was here sensing a theme

He saw the Commune of Ripley echoing

discord. Neither Associationist

nor Transcendentalist

he later wrote The Blithedale Romance.

Atop the hill there is a Revolutionary War cannon.

There are no salvos as they keep watch

over the Lutheran cemetery spread on

rolling hills of neat stones and mausoleums.

No wars here, not among the bent trees


the chokecherries lavender asters--

all seems safe.

And make a solution for tomorrow

here in my own retrospective

as my thoughts are written

by this sacred place.


This is the autumn of a century ago

and those to come

--reading the words of the wind

and the notes of the staves.

What is perpetuated is unheard

footsteps are broken

interrupted by my loud despairs.

Walking the pleasant earth

I am reminded of the dead who are here

in the autumn of a century dislocated

from the root.

Here I write my biographical truths

in my beginnings.







1. Copyright 1988 Northwoods Press. Middle Journeys

2. Copyright 1988, Northwoods Press Middle Journeys