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 and their WordPress blog at

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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 (  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:

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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Purity is for Fanatics

When they learn that my family and I run an organic farm, one of the first things strangers ask us is whether we are “certified” organic.  The answer has always been, and will likely always be, “no.”

 We have several reasons for not getting our farm certified, some of them practical, and others ideological.  As far as the practical side is concerned, it takes a lot of time, paperwork, and money to get (and keep) a farm certified.  You have to learn the certification rules and regulations, abide by them, document your practices and purchases, and then pay a hefty sum for the privilege of being inspected and audited by the certifying agency.  On top of the expenses related to the certification process itself, simply to source all of your seeds, plants, sprays, and feed organically is no small outlay – especially compared to the limited income we make from our small-scale farming operation in the first place. 

 Abiding by organic certification requirement also requires much more forethought and planning than I seem to be able to manage as a part-time farmer.  Many a time I’ve needed to get a crop or cover crop in the ground, I haven’t had the time or wherewithal to order seed from an organic source, and I simply have to pick up what I need from the local ag co-op or farm-supply store.

 Obviously, if the scale of our operation were greater and we were moving large amounts of produce through wholesale channels, certification would be worth the trouble, because it would enable us to charge top dollar for our farm products.  That’s not the scale on which we operate (or want to operate), however, so the certification process doesn’t “cost out” for us.

 Obviously, I’m glad that the organic certification process exists.  Though it has inevitable and exploitable loopholes, it represents at least some check against unscrupulous farms slapping on the “organic” label willy-nilly and extracting even more dollars from unwitting consumers.  And in my opinion, any move toward more governmental support of sustainable farming practices is a good move.

 At the core, however, I have two ideological beefs with organic certification.  The first has to do with trust.  I want to have a relationship with our farm customers that is based on transparency and personal trust.  At the core, organic certification implies enough distance between the producer and consumer that the certification process has to stand in the role of intermediary, ensuring the customer that the producer is “legit.”  In my world of small-scale, locally-based farming, however, I don’t need or want that intermediary.  Any of our customers is welcome to come by our farm at any time, walk through our fields, visit our chickens, and ask us any questions they might want about our methods.  I’ll tell them openly that sometimes I’ve used fungicide-treated seed to ensure a good cover-crop stand, or that I often buy conventional chicken feed from our local mill, to supplement the vegetable scraps, bugs, seeds, and other pasture-scratch food that make up our birds’ diets.  These sorts of practices may not be strictly “organic” according to the rules, but I think they are a defensible part of our overall farming methods.  In the main, our customers agree. 

 The second ideological reason we don’t aspire to certification is that we don’t want to foster a false sense of purity that can so easily infect people who are seeking healthier food.  Don’t get me wrong: I thank God for folks who are willing to put their money where their mouths are (literally) and support more ecologically responsible farming.  Almost without exception, I’ve experienced them as good, conscientious people, and I’m very glad their numbers are growing.  In my judgment, they are absolutely right that organically-grown food is better for their bodies and for the planet.  And heck, we are they: much of the food my family and I can’t raise ourselves or purchase from other local farmers we buy as certified organic through a local food-buying cooperative. 

 The truth is, however, that even organic farming is no panacea.  Organic fields can still erode badly – in many cases, even more badly than herbicide-drenched no-till fields, since most organic farmers depend on weed cultivation, which keeps bare soil vulnerable to rain and wind.  Most organic farms still steal fertility from elsewhere – perhaps not in the form of natural-gas-based chemical fertilizers, but by importing animal manure and other off-farm organic matter.  Except on the smallest of scales, most organic farms still rely heavily on the cheap energy of fossil fuel, both for crop production and distribution.  And so on.

 My point is not to pillory organic farming, of course.  It still has a lot of problems and can’t truly be called sustainable, but it’s the best agriculture we have at the moment, and I support it in word, deed, and pocketbook.  Just because something sports the “USDA Certified Organic” label or its equivalent, however, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that by purchasing such products we have thereby achieved some blissful state of perfect non-complicity with the ambiguities of farming.  We haven’t, and we should never forget that we haven’t.  The kind of purity we might wish for simply isn’t possible in any agricultural paradigm that currently exists at a large enough scale to attract the notice of customers or government regulators.  And, I suspect, it’s a purity not possible at all in a world replete with ecological ignorance and arrogance.

 The drive for true purity is for true fanatics.  It can lead toward self-satisfied passivity, neurotic paralysis, or, in the case of Nazi Germany, human atrocity.  In this sense, “certified” could be a slippery slope toward “certifiable.”  Far better, I think, would be to recognize that the world and our actions in it are messy, and that purity is impossible.  Then we could spend our time and energy moving beyond organic (whether certified or not), even beyond sustainable, toward a truly regenerative, healing way to grow food, which leaves the planet and all people better off, rather than no worse.

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A Walk Through Time

 I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

                                     – Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

 One of the most important things I do on our farm is to take walks.  Much of the time I’m walking with my children, and so these strolls offer us opportunity to spend time together and find out what is happening in each other’s lives.  The walks are also a chance to find out what is happening in the life of our farm. 

 After taking care of our chickens one day this week, our twin seven-year-old daughters and I had a nice ramble through the fields.  To my relief and our common delight, we confirmed that the new blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry starts we established recently have begun to leaf and blossom and that the ladino clover we sowed in between the rows has germinated well.  I pointed out to the girls how the dandelions and lamb’s quarters – both edible and very nutritious greens – are coming up in the hayfields. 

 We also checked on the cover crops that are growing on our vegetable plots.  This year we are trying an experiment to reduce or eliminate our tillage – an effort to bring our organic farm closer to sustainability.  Last fall I sowed a mixed cover crop of annual rye and hairy vetch, which now stands over the girls’ heads.  My plan is to sickle-mow it and lay it down in the fields as a thick mulch, through which we will drill seeds or transplant seedlings.  From what I’ve read, the key to doing this successfully is timing.  If you cut the rye too early, it will bounce back and try to regrow in order to set seed.  But if you cut it too late, the seed is viable, and essentially you’ve just sown your entire field to a weed that will compete with your market crop. 

 The calendar gives me a rough estimate of when they rye will be ready to cut, but the only reliable way to know is to put on my boots and trek out regularly to the fields so I  can keep track of its growth cycle.  I’ve been checking on it almost every day, but I was amazed to learn how quickly seedheads have appeared on what just a few days ago was all stem and blades.  It is very ready, and we will have to move quickly to get it mowed.

 The ancient Greeks drew a distinction between chronos time and kairos time.  Chronos time is clock or calendar time, in which seconds, minutes, days, and years tick by in predictable succession as our planet rotates on its own axis and around the sun.  Chronos time reigns in developed countries like the US, dictating train schedules (excepting Amtrak, which seems to have its own special relationship to time), budget cycles, and, most important of all, television programming. 

 Kairos time is something very different.  A kairos moment is “the right time,” that special, usually unpredictable moment between past and future when something new and momentous breaks into the predictable rhythm of chronos time and makes it irrelevant.  It is kairos time when the long lost friend calls, when the baby is born, when the beloved dies, when the earthquake and tsunami hit.  

 In some general ways, a farm runs on chronos time.  For everything there is a proper season and time, and it is roughly related to the calendar.  On our Midwestern farm, you don’t want to plant tomatoes in January, just as you don’t want to cut firewood in July.  And yet in the particulars of farming, kairos rules, not chronos.  Chronos may give a rough estimate of when the rye is ready to be cut, but chronos knows nothing about how warm this particular spring has been on our particular farm and whether or not our fields are dry enough to support farm machinery.  Kairos is always rooted in the here and the now, in the gifted moments stemming from the real world of plants and weather and people, rather than the abstract, humanly-constructed world of clocks and calendars and schedules. 

 The problem, of course, is that most of us live in both worlds, and we constantly have to negotiate between the two.  Sometimes, as in natural disasters and personal tragedies, kairos obliterates chonos, and we have no choice but to go with the flow – especially when the flow is a 40-foot tidal wave crashing over our village.  But most of the time, we have to figure out from moment to moment what most requires our response.  Now may be the kairos moment to cut the rye, but chronos requires me at my day job.  My kids may want to play with me, but this particular evening I have to finish a writing project against a looming chronos deadline. 

I wish there were clear, easy-to-follow ground rules for this negotiation.  One thing I do know, at least as a matter of Christian faith, is that God operates on kairos time rather than chronos time.  And I also believe, as a Christian and as a farmer, that the kairos moments are usually very easy to miss – even though they are generally the more important times, the times that are wonderful gifts, the times we want to remember and cherish.  So if there is any reliable method for learning how to live in the midst of both eternity and clock time, Mary Oliver has the best advice: stroll through the fields, and pay attention.

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Sentimentality, Practicality, and Geriatric Chickens

Although I love farming, I can’t say I’m particularly enamored with farm animals.  Our farm property lacked fencing when I bought it, and the expense and labor of installing fence has given me a great excuse throughout the years to avoid forays into keeping cattle, sheep, goats, or any other four-footed livestock, including horses, those iconic money pits of rural people.  I’m intimidated by the responsibility livestock require, and I worry about having a large capital investment in stock that I could easily kill through ignorance and neglect.  Looking out over a field of vegetables or an orchard might make my heart sing, but looking out over grazing cattle makes my heart sing only if they’re in our neighbor’s field. 

 My wife, however, grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania, where her father fearlessly dabbled in raising every kind of livestock, from milk goats to cattle to roller pigeons.  Through the rose-tinged memories of her childhood, she remembers how much fun it was to keep farm animals, and so since we have been married she has been after me to add livestock to the mix of our already very mixed farming operation.  I’ve always known she is right, as no natural system functions without animals, and ecological design strategies such as permaculture insist that domesticated livestock should play some role in a healthy and diversified agricultural system.  Even so, I dragged my feet.

Two years ago, Cyndi finally held sway, and I made a small step toward the animal kingdom by agreeing to raise laying hens.  We took a two-pronged approach to establishing our flock.  First, we bought a straight run (i.e. random sexes) of naturally-hatched, mixed-breed chicks from a neighbor.  So that we wouldn’t have to wait months for those chicks to start laying, we also went to a nearby large-scale chicken farmer who raises about 20,000 laying hens a year and sells the eggs for breeding purposes.  He only keeps his layers for one season, and then sells full-grown, already-laying hens to individuals in the area before sending the remaining thousands off for butchering.  On that visit, I remember vividly the awful living conditions of those birds, crammed into a huge, crowded building, running over top of each other, and all debeaked so they wouldn’t kill each other in their boredom and frustration.  We went home with birds of several different varieties, glad to rescue even a few from those circumstances.

Several of the straight-run chicks turned out to be roosters, and several of them turned out to be mean, both to the hens and to each other.  We sold some to a neighbor, and I planned to butcher the rest.  However, our twin daughters, who had helped care for the chicks as they grew, had grown attached to one poor rooster who had been at the bottom of the pecking order.  And yes, they had named him: “Fluffy, the Roostery Chicken.”  How do you butcher a chicken named Fluffy?  Eva and Clare insisted that the hens needed him, and I relented.

I did dispatch the rest to our kitchen table, however. I didn’t grow up hunting or on a farm, so aside from picking off a few sparrows with pellet guns as a boy and the everyday squashing and swatting of bugs, this was my first time to take the life of another living, breathing creature, intentionally and at close range.  It was not, to be sure, a particularly pleasant experience – and certainly not helped by my inexperience and reticence as a butcher. 

And yet I’m glad of it – far more than the roosters, I’m sure.  Although I’m mostly vegetarian, I do believe that eating meat can be a morally and ecologically responsible practice (more on that in another post at some point).  But I also believe that those of us who eat meat should have some sense of what it is like to take an animal’s life: that ambiguous admixture of repulsion, fascination, guilt and gratitude.  Even though it’s not practical for us all to raise and slaughter animals (though it is indeed possible for many more than might realize it) it seems that most of us could find some middle ground between blood on our own hands and the abstraction of buying conventional supermarket meat and paying others to do our dirty work for us, which is ultimately far more cruel to animals and to those who raise and process them.

Of the hens we rescued from the confinement operation, all but one have died, picked off by coyotes or dogs, or just gone missing.  The holdout is, literally, a really tough old bird, who fit in well with the rest of our laying flock.  With the exception of having to deal with Fluffy, who has made up for his previous low status by an almost hyperactive servicing of as many hens as he can, the old hen has had a good sort of chicken existence on our farm – good enough, I hope, to redeem the misery she endured in her previous life. 

But now she has stopped laying consistently (or at all).  In the case of this geriatric chicken, then, a tug-of-war has begun between sentimentality and practicality, two competing impulses on a small farm.  I know that practicality will ultimately win out in this case, although sentimentality has already given this chicken a far longer life than any chicken might expect on a farm.  And pragmatic as I am, I don’t apologize for also being sentimental.  Raising livestock on a small scale always presents a paradox: you end up killing and eating animals which you have come to hold in some affection. 

Paradox is what keeps things interesting, however – on a farm, in theology and spirituality, in human relationships, in all of the created order.  There are few simple, clear answers to any question having to do with how we make our way in the world of nature, culture, and spirit.  To farm well, then, as to live or pray or love well, is to embrace the ambiguity of a Creation and Creator far more complex and mysterious than most religious people want to admit.  One thing is very clear, however: Fluffy the Roostery Chicken isn’t going anywhere soon.

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