True Beauty: Form or Function?

 A division of labor has evolved on our farm.  I do most of the work on our hay, vegetables, and berry or orchard fruit.  Cyndi takes care of our flowers and herbs and is a miracle-worker in the kitchen, dealing artfully with whatever I happen to unload on the counter for cooking or preserving.  Our kids help with our chickens, harvesting, and pretty much anything else when we draft them into service.

 Cyndi and I have another division, as well: an ongoing debate between function and form.  When I think about our farm, I tend to consider it in very pragmatic terms.  I focus on functional outcomes: a good crop of tomatoes, healthy orchard trees, and so forth.  I take great delight, for example, in perfectly-spaced, laser-straight crop rows that give ease of access for my farm equipment.  Cyndi, however, is an artist by temperament and training, and she takes a very different approach.  Her lovely flower and herb gardens are a whimsical mosaic of various plants with no discernable pattern.  When we talk about our respective goals for the farm, I talk crop yields and soil fertility; she dreams of beauty and enchantment and wonder, of angels perching in the tree branches.  I aim for function, while she sets her heart on form.

 I am beginning to wonder whether form and function need to compete with each other, or should.  I see the tension between Cyndi’s approach and mine writ large in the wider culture.  When we divorce form from function we end up with factories that are productive but ugly (and polluting) and fine arts that dwell in their own rarified realm and have little social utility beyond it.  I’m not saying that the design of factories (or cities or the built world in general) shouldn’t have a practical bent, of course, or that art for art’s sake is worthless.  But I do wonder what would happen if we tried harder to wed form with function, beauty with practicality.  What if we no longer tolerated blighted industrial moonscapes or cities laid out with no regard for natural topography or the human need for regular contact with Creation?  What if we asked artists to lend their creative energies toward making our neighborhoods beautiful or helping design manufactured products that are made with integrity and that delight our senses and our souls?

 Our efforts to put form and function together has moved our farm in new direction, and I’m learning that beauty and practicality can be wonderful partners.  An orchard made lovely by flowers and herbs is going to attract more pollinators and produce more fruit.  Those laser-straight crop rows I so love become less erosion-prone when I curve them to fit the contours of our sloping land.

 

If it’s true that God created the world and creates it anew every day, then God must delight both in beauty and fruitfulness – for the untrammeled Creation has both, in spades.  Dostoyevsky once wrote that “the world will be saved by beauty,” and I’d like to believe that the kind of beauty of which he wrote is not only the striking colors of a Monet but also the pleasing heft and rightness of a well-made shovel or scythe – which are beautiful because they do their job well and which do their job well because they are beautiful.  If farms and cities and manufactured goods were made so that their function sang harmony with their form – if they became more truly beautiful – they would be better for the Earth and better for human hearts and communities.  For true beauty is never a pretty façade plastered over dysfunction.  True beauty has integrity; it always seeks wholeness.  True beauty always goes down to the root, deep down to the divine Source of everything.

 P.S. I am very sorry – but not TOO sorry – to have taken another long break from blog-writing.  I know there’s an expectation that blogs need to have constant infusions of content in order to…what, to justify their or their author’s existence?  This isn’t that kind of blog.  I want what I put up here to be thoughtful and to come out of a deep center.  That’s what’s going to make it worth reading, even it that sometimes means long breaks between posts. 

P.P.S. A version of this entry originally appeared as a guest blog entry for Snail’s Pace Paper, which is associated with the Benedictine monastery where I work.  You can check out Snail’s Pace at http://www.snailspacepaper.com/ and their WordPress blog at http://snailspacepaper.wordpress.com/.

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Work and Play

            When it comes to children and farming, the summer is a dichotomous time.  Our 7-year-old twin daughters finished their first grade year, and they are busy enjoying their summer vacation.  They play for hours with their toy ponies, they gallivant around our farm with their younger brother Eli in tow (with whom, I’m grateful to report, they have become as thick as thieves), and they go on various adventures with my wife Cyndi, who is earning sainthood by staying at home with them

            At the same time, the growing season is now in full swing, and what is a time largely of leisure for them is a time of sometimes frantic overwork for me.  Much of the time I spend with our children consists of them accompanying me on whatever task I happen to be doing: bringing in firewood that has been seasoning in the woodlot, weeding, harvesting, tending the chickens, and spreading mulch on the gardens, orchards, and berry plots.  Of course four-year-old Eli is simply good company (and an enthusiastic tractor driver) but the girls have reached the “age of helpfulness,” or at least the age of potential helpfulness, where they have enough maturity and dexterity to really contribute to the work of our farm.   

            This has raised a very important question for me in regard to how they should be included in the responsibilities of the farm and our household economy in general.  Since we had children, our hope has been that they will grow up understanding, through their own direct involvement, what it means to try to support a family on a farm.  This means learning the rural home economic arts – knowledge and skills which are mostly a foreign language in today’s cultural argot.  We want them to learn real responsibility through their various chores and to realize what a challenge it is to provide for themselves the sorts of things that most of us simply pay others to supply.   On the other hand, however, we don’t want this experience to be a grim, back-breaking undertaking that sours them on the rural life and makes it feel like drudgery.  We want the yoke to be easy and the burden light; we want them to have the leisure, ease, and playfulness of childhood, which is so precious and so brief. 

            I feel this tension almost every time we work together.  For better and worse, I am a driven, Type-A workhorse: point me at a task, and I will stay at it doggedly until it is done.  Our twins, however, are more like butterflies, flitting about between work and play, spending most of their time at the latter. 

            The one exception to this in recent memory was when we mulched one of our garden plots.  We were using 1500-pound round bales of old, spoiled hay.  Even once the strings are cut on these bales, the hay is still wrapped so tightly that it’s no easy matter to get it off the bale.  For them, this was a job made in heaven.  I would stand the bale up on its end with the tractor loader, and their job was to peel swathes of hay off of it so that I could fork the loosened hay onto the garden plots.  They discovered that they could claw off some hay, scrabble up the sides of the bale (loosening more hay in the process), then jump off the top of the bale into the pile they had created at its base.

            This was one of those rare, wonderful moments when work and play merged.  They were having a whale of a good time, and in the process, they were making my job easier by providing loose hay for my pitchfork.  We all kept at it for hours, they delighting in their game, and I delighting in their delight – and their help.

             Obviously, it’s a grown-up world, with a lot of serious work to do and deathly serious problems to which we must attend for the well-being of our planet and our species.  Our daughters will learn that soon enough – too soon, I fear.  But I don’t think earnest, disciplined stoics will ever win many converts.  Hard work and discipline have their place – Lord knows they’ve taken pride of place in my own life – but perhaps we’ve entered an age of such serious challenge that the only way we can engage it meaningfully is to marinate our work in laughter and play: finding a way to make even hard work fun, through creative imagination, song, story-telling, and spiritual inspiration.  If the playful Sufi poet Hafiz could hear God laughing (probably at all of our foolish human antics), perhaps we can, too.

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Recent lecture on Eucharist and Agriculture

Hello!  As I noted in my previous blog post, I have been up to my eyeballs with farm work and preparing and delivering a number of lectures, such that I haven’t had much time to devote to this blog.  Again, I’m sorry for the hiatus, which I think is just about at an end.  In the meantime, I wanted to share with any interested readers a digital recording made of a recent presentation I gave at the 2011 annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy (http://liturgy.nd.edu).  It’s entitled “Fruit of the Earth, Work of Human Hands: The Eucharist, Agriculture, and Ecological Responsibility.”  You listen to it by going to the publisher’s webpage for my recent book, A Time to Plant, and clicking on the “Extras” tab.  Under Audio, you’ll find there a variety of mp3 audio pieces; the last one on the list is the lecture I gave at Notre Dame.  Here’s the link: https://www.avemariapress.com/product/1-933495-26-X/A-Time-to-Plant/

Again, thanks for your patience with the blog posts.  I’m ruminating on one now and should post it fairly soon.

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Apologies for Blog Hiatus

To all one or two of you who are regular readers of this blog, I apologize for the long pause in my entries.  Between a number of speaking engagements and one of the busiest times of the year on the farm, my time is stretched very thin, and I’m determined not to become a slave to the blog.  But I do miss writing these entries, and I’ll be back at it very soon.  Thanks for your patience!

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A Chorus of Bullfrogs

When were building our house and knew we would have earthmoving equipment out to dig the basement, we decided that we would also put in a pond beside the house.  True to the permaculture principle of everything serving several functions, the pond was to supply all of the water for irrigation and (once filtered and treated) our household use, moderate the air temperature near the house, offer fire protection, give us a nice view, and provide some food in the form of fish.  To the latter end, we stocked the pond.

Normally, one would stock a pond with a few varieties of fish, one of which would be a predator species, like bass, to keep the others from overpopulating the pond.  Bass eat tadpoles, however, and this conflicted with my wife Cyndi’s most important objective for the pond: that it be a frog sanctuary.  So we we left out the bass and put in red-eared shell crackers and hybrid bluegill, both fairly slow-reproducing fish that would leave the tadpoles alone.

Years later, as I feared, we’ve not fished the pond heavily enough to act as the predator species ourselves, and so now we have a pond populated by a great number of very small, hardly-worth-catching panfish.  What we also have in abundance, however, are frogs.  As the weather has warmed, every night we hear an amazing symphony of frogs with myriad voices.  We hear the “click-click-click,” the screeching, the almost deafening relay of “whannup-whannup” ricocheting around the edges of the pond, and the unceremonious “boink” and “chirp.”

It is not just my wife’s enthusiastic love of frogs that makes me glad to hear their singing, nor my delight in their ability to catch mosquitoes and other insects, nor my own sensual pleasure in their nightly serenade.  I rejoice in the frogs not only for what they are or what they do, but also for what they represent.  Though my understanding of this is limited, I have read that frogs are one of the “canary in the coal mine” indicator species, whose health and numbers indicate the overall vitality of an ecosystem.  They are especially sensitive to chemical runoff and other toxins in the watershed, and so a decline of frogs is an early warning sign that a biological system is out of balance.  And it is apparently well-documented that frogs are in decline the world over.

If environmental pressures increase and the overall frog population continues to plummet, who knows how long our own pond’s frogs will continue to thrive.  But come what may, the frogs reminds me of an important truth: whatever you love, whatever you think adds something good and beautiful to the world, you strive to protect and preserve for as long as you possibly can, regardless of the ultimate outcome.  But for their sake and ours, I hope we’ll be hearing a chorus of bullfrogs for years and years to come.

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After the Flood

Like so many in various parts of the country, we’ve been battered recently by gale-force winds and deluged by torrential rain.  Unlike many, we’ve been fortunate to get through pretty much unscathed on our farm, although of course much of our planting is delayed.  Recently we even saw a rainbow – a beautiful, rare gift.  Between it and all this rain, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Noah. 

 It’s a familiar Bible story: aggrieved at human lawlessness, God sent a flood to destroy all life on the Earth, except Noah, his family, and the animals he crammed into his floating zoo.  When the flood waters finally receded and Noah struck dry land once again, God made a covenant with him, marked by a rainbow, vowing never to pull such a stunt again. 

 The story of this covenant has long served as a firm foothold for my faith in the face of potentially catastrophic planetary disasters, whether climate change, nuclear winter, or the rogue asteroid strike or calamitous volcano eruption.  Surely, I’ve told myself, the underlying existential truth of the Noah story (whether or not there ever was such a historical figure or even such a flood) is the faith-fired conviction that God will not allow us to destroy ourselves.  This doesn’t mean that we’re not called to good stewardship, of course, but just that God will somehow intervene before we drive our species (and so many others) off the cliff of existence. 

 These days, however, I’m a little less certain of this.  I do believe, with Teilhard de Chardin and others, that God is drawing the entire Creation toward some wonderful fulfillment, and so in the long term and the big picture, nothing is wasted in God’s economy of salvation.  What is less clear to me, however, is whether I can assume, in an unimaginably vast, unimaginably old, constantly evolving universe, that human life on the little blue-green planet has a divinely-underwritten lifetime guarantee.  I affirm that our species has extraordinarily unique value (and responsibility) as creatures made in God’s image, but with human freedom being what it is, what’s to say that God won’t have to start over with Humanity 2.0 or 3.0 or 10238, either on this planet or elsewhere? 

 Obviously, I can’t know what’s in store for us or our planet, nor do I have much leverage to influence events on anything but the smallest of scales.  What I can do, however, is exactly what Noah did: build an ark. 

 Building an ark doesn’t mean finding some way to make me and my family impervious to whatever difficulties might unfold in the future.  That is the impossible fantasy of doomsdayers with bomb shelters full of horded food and guns. I’m not interested in mere self-preservation; I’m not aiming to ensure that everything is honkey-dory for me and mine while turning my back on the foolish bridesmaids who brought no oil for their lamps and are condemned to their own dark, depraved future.

 I’m very interested in the preservation of the lives of all individual human beings, as well as the vast cultural, technical, and spiritual knowledge our species has amassed over millennia.  The latter is already under threat as globalization bulldozes the uniqueness of particular peoples into a homogeneous heap.  Many of us and much of our cultural accomplishments could go lost if environmental catastrophe (or simply the end of cheap energy and materials) knocks us several steps down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

 Enter the ark.  The best examples I know of ark-building come from the Benedictines, a religious order founded in the early 6th century, amid the collapse of theWestern Roman Empire.  Amid the cultural chaos that followed in the Dark Ages, Benedictines labored away in their arks, a.k.a. monastic communities, patiently rebuildingEurope’s shattered agriculture, copying and passing on its manuscripts, and preserving the best of Western culture for its revival centuries hence.  Unlike Noah’sArk, monasteries were not sealed up against the outside world; indeed, they served in those difficult times as engines of education, economy, civic life, and of course, religion.

 If business as usual turns into business as very unusual, humanity will need a whole fleet of arks.  We will need them not only to preserve people and their collective cultural knowledge (along with other non-human members of the biosphere); we’ll need them to carry the torch for what is even more essential: loving-kindness, gentleness, and generosity.  These qualities are true fruits of the Spirit, so essential for meaningful existence (or any existence!) and yet so easy to abandon in times of trial.

 My family’s ark is neither a boat nor a gated fortress, but a small farm.  It is a place where we try to cultivate the essential arts of family and community life; the knowledge and skills involved in growing food and householding; the practices of prayer and worship; the joys of music and laughter and great meals – what I hope is a path of sanity in a wider culture whose sanity I often question. 

 Even as we craft this ark of resilience and self-reliance, I know how fragile the whole enterprise is.  I know how absolutely necessary it is to lash our ark to the next to the next, and even so, how easily the whole thing could founder.  And even as we build our ark, I hope and pray that the very process of building it will make it superfluous, and that Humanity 1.0 finds a way not only to survive, but thrive.  May the waters not rise; may the rainbow shine and the covenant hold; may all flesh see it together.

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Earth Day + Good Friday = ?

This year saw the rare confluence of Good Friday and Earth Day.  As I talked about earlier this week in an interview on the Nick and Josh Podcast, this confluence offered a great reminder of the necessary marriage between spirituality and ecology.  Environmentalism without some sort of solid spiritual framework and practice leads to doomsday thinking, finger-pointing, and burnout; religion that has no imaginative and literal roots in the natural world is unhealthily disembodied and dualistic. 

I had been wracking my brain about what to do to mark such a great alignment of two significant days.  In what I think was actually an answer to prayer, in the afternoon of Holy Thursday a package arrived, containing two dozen fruit, nut, and other trees I’d ordered to add to our orchards.  It was a kairos moment, and suddenly the plan for Friday became clear: I would spend the day planting apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry, apricot, hazelnut, Chinese chestnut, pecan, and honeylocust. 

As is often the case when I’m anticipating a big project, I slept poorly, and so I began the day in a sleep-deprived fog.  The weather was also fog-like: another gray and rainy day in what has been a very wet spring.  But with plenty of work to do, I got going at first light.

The day took on a plodding, methodical pace.  For one, I realized that slow and steady was the only way I could coax my tired body through the day, intact and without injury.  Even more importantly, I wanted to make sure I got these trees in properly.  I’ve planted scads of trees in our almost dozen years on the farm, often with too much haste and too little care, and many of them haven’t made it.  I’m going to do everything in my power to help these trees thrive.

At one point I had some help from our farm-tenant-become-friend, and our kids also came out and milled around a bit when the rain let off, but for the most part I spent the day in solitude.  Part of the time I spent listening to mp3 audiobooks (I got through Lao Tzu’s  Tao de Ching and made some headway on Dante’s The Divine Comedy), but I also had plenty of time to let my mind rest or wander as it would.

I didn’t put a lot of energy into making the day “spiritual” in any explicit way.  I did try to pay close attention to what I was doing, which I find to be one of the best (and most difficult!) spiritual practices.  And I asked God’s blessing on each tree (to save it from my inevitable mismanagement!).  Our twin daughters also got into that, running around and signing the Cross on each little whip, once I had them all in the ground. 

Only today, Holy Saturday, after a better night’s sleep and a little time to reflect, did I realize just how much convergence there was between Good Friday and my Earth-Day tree planting.  The Gospel reading for Good Friday described how Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ dead body and laid it in the dark of the tomb – not unlike, it occurred to me, my committing the roots of these dormant, lifeless-looking bare-root trees into the dark of the soil.

I have to admit that I sometimes cringe at the parallels drawn between Easter and the season of spring, with its flush of new growth after the deadness of winter.  While the similarities are striking, the comparison often sounds a little pat in my ears, as if both the Resurrection and springtime are tame, predictable events that fit nicely into our liturgical or planting calendars.  Those who have been through really tough times don’t speak too quickly or glibly of hope in some sort of new life.  The truth is that the dark tomb is a place of waiting, of not being rock-solid-certain about what’s going to happen.  That was certainly true of Joseph of Aramathea and Jesus’ followers, who were as surprised as anyone to find the tomb empty on Easter morning.  I think it’s also true in terms of the health of our planet: with myriad ecological challenges, very little is certain anymore about the reliability of weather and seasons. 

I planted the trees, then, not knowing what will become of them or the Earth in which I planted them.  I planted them with hope for their future and our own, but with little certainty.  We are all waiting in the dark.

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