Sallyann Murphey’s book Bean Blossom Dreams details the story of her move in 1990, with her husband and young daughter, from Chicago to a farm in Brown County. The story is a real-life fantasy: A small family gives up the excitement and stress of city life for the wholesome beauty of the country. Although Murphey is a British writer, and this book is less than twenty old, it taps into an American literary tradition that’s nearly two centuries old.
From A Lovestruck Horse To High School
Sallyann Murphey writes with a humor and humility that belies her authority on such topics as what to do with a lovestruck horse, and how to grow and harvest a range of herbs, flowers and vegetables that sound like they came right out of a fairytale: Pink Bo Peep popping corn, bachelor’s button, dwarf crocuses.
Bean Blossom Dreams is full of the lessons she and her family learned in their first years as city transplants in Brown County. But these days, the writer devotes much of her time to raising a different kind of crop: the high school students at Bloomington’s Harmony School, where Murphey, a former producer at the BBC, is high school coordinator and teaches history, government and media studies. I sat down with her there to talk about what makes Brown County so special.
I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, of course, it’s extraordinarily beautiful. For those who don’t know, it’s nicknamed the Little Smokies, because it does, on a fall morning with the mist, look like the little Smokies. So the physical beauty of the place draws people in, but also I think, in a very genuine way, they have managed to maintain that sort of American small community.
I was raised in London and Paris, and coming from two big cities like that where nobody knows anyone, so the idea that I can be on first name terms with everyone from the pharmacist to the person I’ll pay property taxes to, that’s enormously attractive in a world where people feel increasingly isolated and without a safety net underneath them.
The American Connection
There is something to the idea of moving to the country that seems intertwined with an essentially American philosophy. Over 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote that in nature, even a city dweller truly comes home to himself:
In the streets and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean…. But alone in the distant woods or fields…I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related. …I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.
Sallyann Murphey might be a Londoner by birth, but her writing about Brown County is part of the legacy of American transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson. In recounting her adventures in Brown County, some memories came up for Murphey despite the fact they happened years ago, on the other side of the world. The intimate project of picking beans with her daughter reminds her of time spent with her grandmother on the cliffs of the Thames.
“Can I do some?” An enormous wicker basket preceded my daughter through the bean plants and she arrived panting at my side.
“Only the bigger ones, here at the bottom,” I showed her. “I’ll get the ones at the top.”
Charley’s rapt concentration as she carefully measured each pod was an echo from many years ago, when my beloved Nana Moyce had instructed a muddy-kneed, much smaller me in the art of picking beans.
I can still see the kitchen garden on the chalk cliffs, hovering above the gray mudflats of the Thames estuary. As we left our harvest by the sink to be washed, the sea breeze from a mile or two away would rush in through the scullery window and blend with the fumes of bleach from the old laundry tub. The rest of the house would still be asleep when we tiptoed out to my grandmother’s silver-blue Austin and drove to our secret spot by the railway tracks. There we would wait for a whisper of sound in the distance, which would mount to a deafening roar as the steam train rushed by on its way to London. Occasionally, the driver would spot two figures at the top of the embankment waving like windmills and he would wave back, pulling on his whistle in a personal salute. That made our day.
For Memory To Thrive
The attraction of Brown County is complex. There is the simple nostalgia it satisfies, a yearning for small-town America. Then there the inspiration that is its landscape, which recalls Thoreau’s expansive America, “grand and beautiful.” Finally, as Sallyann Murphey shows, Brown County is a place where even memories buried long ago and far away can grow.
I think what happened when we moved is these memories came back to me very strongly for the first time in years because those were the seeds that were planted that would later blossom into this love of countryside. We had some friends who owned a sheep farm, and I remember sitting on this very high hill watching the sheep and the sun crossing the grass, and way way in the distance, horses, and just feeling totally at peace, and thinking, ‘Really, in the end, I want a life like this.’