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.