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/.