Keeping Sabbath

“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest; it’s whole-heartedness.” – Br. David Steindl-Rast

 What does Sabbath look like on a small, part-time farm?  The Christian and Jewish traditions call for a day of rest each week, and as a person who works too hard in general, I think the Sabbath commandment makes a great deal of sense.  However, I’m not especially good at keeping it. 

 This past weekend, for example, was utterly gorgeous weather: sunny, windy, and unusually warm temps in the 60s and 70s.  It was a weekend to be outside – not only to enjoy the weather, but also to take care of a variety of pressing projects on the farm.  As it happened, however, our entire Saturday was filled with other commitments away from the farm.  We also had intended to spend Sunday afternoon with family friends, until a bit of illness in our family scuttled those plans.  Hours of unexpected free time stretched out before me, and I promptly got busy: some maintenance on one of our vehicles, planting and mulching the remaining raspberry starts in a new berry patch we’re establishing, and other outdoor tasks.

 “Tasks” is not the right word for this, however, nor does “work” seem like an adequate description.  Our kids were outside the whole time, occasionally helping, mostly playing nearby in the creek, in the bed of my truck, on the tractor, in the tall rye/vetch cover crop in our larger vegetable plots, and elsewhere.  Laughing at them and with them, enjoying the lovely weather, working deliberately but without haste, and setting my mind at ease by getting urgent projects completed – I was getting a lot done, but it hardly felt like work. 

 I don’t make any attempt to follow the Sabbath commandment with strict adherence to the letter of the law.  In that respect, I wouldn’t make a very good Orthodox Jew (just as I probably don’t make a very good Catholic).  Even so, I really do try to have a day of rest each week.  I’ve long since given up the idea that it has to fall on Sunday.  I frequently work weekends at Saint Meinrad, so I often find that my days off don’t coincide with the regular weekend.  And in the attempt to get farming tasks done when the weather is favorable and I have time to give it, Sundays are often fair game. 

 So is it possible to work, as I did this past Sunday, and yet still be keeping Sabbath? 

 I have no definite answer for this, but most truthful response I can come up with is also the most maddeningly ambiguous: it depends.  There are plenty of times on our farm when the work is plainly and simply work: it’s miserably hot or cold, my body hurts, I miss my kids and Cyndi, the job is overwhelming, I’m in a resentful mood, and so forth.  But this past Sunday, none of that was the case; I enjoyed every minute, and the day definitely felt like “Sabbath time.”

 Jesus was no Sabbath stickler.  He and his disciples gleaned grain on the Lord’s day.  He infuriated the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath and even commanding a man he healed to pick up his mat and walk, which was a violation of Sabbath.  And when called to task for this, he openly made sport of the Sabbath laws, or at least the letter of those laws, insisting that the Sabbath was created for us and not us for the Sabbath.

 As far as I can tell, some underlying principles of Sabbath are rest, reconnection, and restoration.  Rest can mean taking a physical and emotional break to recover, obviously, but I think the deeper theological meaning of rest is the recognition that the world is finally in God’s hands rather than ours.  Rest reminds us that we are limited mortals, that our own efforts alone will never suffice.  We can never accomplish everything, nor do we need to; obviously we must work, but in the end, we have to trust that God will provide. 

 Sabbath time creates the possibility for reconnection to that which is most real and important.  Sabbath invites us to spend time with fellow believers, with our family and friends and the less fortunate, with our own interior life, and on such good-weather days as last weekend, with the loveliness of the natural world – and in all of this, with God-who-is-love.  All of this is a necessary antidote to the mirages of the virtual world, the marketing world, the world driven by the abstractions of capital, profit, and the most demanding of task masters, “economic growth.”

 Sabbath is also restorative time, a time for bringing body, soul, and relationships back to health and wholeness.  Jesus’ healing work wasn’t just to make the Pharisees crazy, nor was it to flaunt his power; it was to restore those who were ill, broken and ostracized back to full participation in the life of a community. 

 If Sabbath is about rest, reconnection, and restoration, then I would like to believe it’s possible to keep the Sabbath amid laboring, as long as the labor doesn’t become laborious: all-consuming, frenetic, isolating, or driven by greed or the illusion of total control.  Whether or not labor is laborious really depends on your interior spiritual disposition toward what you do, and cultivating that interiority is the proper province of Sabbath. 

 What I’m groping toward in this essay is a desire to do most of my work – farming or otherwise – in a “Sabbath state,” less attached to the results and more intentional about being spiritually whole-hearted, as Br. David Steindl-Rast recommends.  I’d hate to think I could keep the Sabbath commandment by a sort of schizophrenia: working like a madman six days a week, then slamming on the brakes on the seventh.  And yet, I still think trying to set aside a day a week is a crucial discipline, even though I consistently fail at it.  I know from my own experience how tempting it is to overwork, fooling myself that I don’t really need to rest as long as I work with right intention.  The genius of religious practices like Sabbath-keeping is that they serve as very tangible checks on the constant human tendency toward self-delusion.  Sabbath time may remind us that all time and all existence is sacred, but for those of us on this side of Enlightenment or Heaven, it can only serve as that reminder by way of difference and interruption.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chaos, Control, Risk, and Resilience

 “Rural people understand that life is basically a dangerous, unmanageable mess, so that when things go wrong, their suspicions are confirmed and it’s just a blessing no one was killed.”   –  John Gierach

If I’m learning anything from farming, it’s the discovery of all that I don’t know – and the realization that ignorance is rarely bliss.  To borrow some terminology from Donald Rumsfeld, there are the “known unknowns,” the chaotic elements that you know to expect and can reasonably prepare for, like deer and raccoon and insect pests, late frosts, rainstorms, droughts, and so forth.  But there are also the “unknown unknowns:” those things that you never would have imagined could happen, except perhaps in chastened retrospect.  Who could have guessed, for example, that one of our new farm dogs would decide to wriggle her way under a propped-open cold frame lid in order to sleep amid (and trample) flat after flat of vegetable seedlings?  Or that our new indoor cat would eat many of the seedlings we had going inside by a south-facing window? 

Many might say, rightly, that any common-sense person could have guessed these things might happen, and that I should have foreseen such events.  Animals will be animals, and their behavior is for the most part predictable.  It’s true that many of the chaotic elements in agriculture you can plan for.  That presumes, however, that you have the time, knowledge, and perspicacity to think through all of the variables and how they will interact with each other.  And even the smallest garden, much less a diversified farm, is a tremendously complex system.  Even a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can affect the rainfall in the American Midwest.  Who knew?  Or better yet, who could know?  In farming, as in governance and economics and human relationships, the system is simply too complicated to eliminate the element of chaos and unpredictability.  If there’s any good reason to try to grow even a little of your own food, it’s so that you can come to appreciate just how difficult and precarious growing food really is.  Ask even the most seasoned gardener or farmer, and she’ll tell you that it’s hard to ensure a reliable yield.

It’s a tough truth to accept chaos as a non-negotiable element of farming or any other activity.  In fact, much of American culture is built on an attempt either to deny the chaos exists or to banish it.  For example, consider the straight-line surveying grid laid over this country, regardless of terrain.  Consider modern houses and public buildings, whose main regard for the outside world is (perhaps) to encapsulate a “nice view” while insulating occupants from any real effects associated with that view, like changes in temperature or humidity. Consider acre upon chemically-doused acre of monocrop corn or soybeans, with nary a weed in the rows (or earthworm, butterfly, ladybug, etc.).  Control or denial of chaos is just a temporary illusion, of course, made possible by huge nonrenewable energy inputs, ecosystem degradation, and shoving real costs onto the poor of current and future generations.

If chaos is inevitable, and we try in vain to deny it or to control it completely, then risk is always going to be part and parcel of farming – or life, for that matter.  The question, then, is how to make room for risk in our minds, hearts, and practice. It’s a question that reaches far beyond farming, of course, all the way to the theological: how to reconcile ourselves to a Creation in which freedom (and therefore, suffering) is one of the ground rules, and how to reconcile ourselves to the sort of God who would create such a world.  How you answer the question of risk dictates not only how well you farm, but also how deeply and fearlessly you invest yourself in relationships, work, and any other meaningful human endeavor.

I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the occasional disaster (foreseen or not) in farming and gardening, just as I don’t think it’s possible to avoid tragedy and heartache in your life in general.  What I am trying to do on our farm, though, is to create a system in which inevitable risks are counterbalanced by a great degree of resilience.  Resilience doesn’t mean imperviousness, of course, which is impossible.  But it does mean that disasters don’t end up as utter catastrophes.  We may lose the sweet corn in a given year, but we have dozens of other crops to fill in the gaps.  Our laying hens may get killed by coyotes, but we can still sell some timber to make up the lost egg income.  Contrast that to the conventional American food system, which has traded resilience for productivity, and so has become vulnerable to disease or climate disruption that could wipe out huge swaths of our staple crops.  If you don’t think that can happen, consider the mass migration of Irish as a result of the 19th-century potato famine, or ask the Russians how well their wheat crops have done in recent years.

Cultivating resilience requires a very different worldview than a pedal-to-the-metal drive for efficiency and productivity, or fearfulness that leads to paralysis and despair.  At the core, I think, resilience stems from a spiritual virtue: humility.  Humility is not I’m-a-worm self-abnegation, but rather a clear-eyed, realistic view of the world and our place in it.  We’re not ultimately in control, we don’t have all knowledge and power, and we can’t and shouldn’t insulate ourselves from suffering.  Even so, we have to live in the world.  And I would like to believe it’s possible to live amid contingency while still finding a way to thrive – agriculturally, interpersonally, spiritually. 

A humble and resilient way of living would entail taking responsible but not arrogant risks, taking small, slow, careful, gentle steps into the great “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns ” – not, for example, building nuclear plants at the ocean’s edge in an earthquake-and tsunami-prone region of northern Japan.  It would most certainly entail cultivating broad and deep connections to others and to the natural world, as both solace and safety net.  In all of this, humility and resilience imply trusting that the Creator of all is really quite a wonderful (if wild) dance partner.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pa Ingles and “Real” Farming

This is the time of year when “farming on the side” roughly translates into “work like a crazy person.” On our farm I’m busy getting trees, berry bushes, and early garden crops in the ground, spreading mulch and organic fertilizers, tending seedlings and chickens, and so forth.  Off the farm, I’m working a full-time job plus, more recently, a part-time job as the music director of our small rural parish (my joke is that I now work a third job in order to afford my second job, farming).  It adds up to lots of work and little free time.

 Aside from not wanting to sound like a whiner, it’s hard to complain about all this busyness, both because it’s all self-chosen and because I really like all of it.  Far from detesting my “day jobs,” I actually find a lot of meaning, satisfaction, and community in them.  Who could ask for more than that out of any employment?  Even so, what on my good days I call multiple interests can, on my bad days, feel pretty overwhelming.  Having other employment, however, also makes me wonder whether I can call myself a “real” farmer since I don’t farm full-time.

Enter Gene Logsdon and Pa Ingles.  Gene Logsdon is an author and self-proclaimed “Contrary Farmer” in northern Ohio.  He has long made the case that more of us should be what he calls “cottage farmers.”  For him, cottage farming means owning some land, usually not too much, and actually farming it yourself (as opposed to renting it to neighboring “real farmers” to raise hay or row crops on it), while having some sort of additional means of income from an off-farm job or an on-farm cottage industry.  This sort of “hobby farming” means that you can keep the farm properly capitalized and well-cared-for rather than cutting financial and ecological corners just to make ends meet, as is the constant temptation in full-time farming. 

My other mentor in this regard has been Pa Ingles, of Laura Ingles Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie fame.  Charles Ingles is a central character in all the Little House books, which I recently read, one by one, to our enraptured young twin daughters.  Despite Laura’s obvious tendency to idolize her father and paint him with a golden brush, it is still very clear that Pa is a man to be reckoned with.  He’s a tough, no-nonsense homesteader who puts himself and his family through a great number of trials and tribulations at the hands of nature and humanity. 

Throughout the books, Pa raises various crops and livestock.  And yet when the Ingles family finally settles in South Dakota, it struck me that Pa keeps the family afloat more by his carpentry and other off-farm labor than by his farming. 

If Pa Ingles isn’t a real farmer, for all he and his family went through, who the heck is?  Does “real” mean indebting oneself with a huge spread of land and an expensive fleet of machinery in order to raise wheat, corn, and soybeans on government crop subsidies?  Does “real” mean investing massive amounts of fossil fuel energy in the form of diesel fuel and agricultural chemicals in order to erode topsoil and degrade ecosystem health?

I think not, and I hope not.  To me, “real” farming is about intention and skill more than finances and scale.  Real farming is farming done for love of the land, the people the land feeds, and the Creator of both.  Real farming leaves a place better than it was and the farmer better than he or she was.  Real farming is a vocation, not just a job or career, even if it that vocation has to share the stage with the other concurrent vocations of a well-lived life: family life, other work, civic involvement, and so forth. 

I’ll show my agrarian colors here and say that I think this nation needs far more real farmers than it has, even if many of them won’t be able to make their living at it.  Real farming is ultimately about the healing of a broken ecological and human landscape, about making a life more than making a living.  For that crucial work to make any real progress, we need to have more and more people trying it: in cities and in the countryside, part-time or full-time, skilled or novice.  If this is real enough for Pa Ingles, it’s real enough for me!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love and Good Work

On Work
Kahlil Gibran

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

       – From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

I should probably just leave Kahlil Gibran’s words to speak for themselves; to my mind they ring with a truth that deserves its own silence to savor. 

 And yet, I can’t not say something about them.  The ideas Gibran expresses in this chapter from The Prophet have been both inspiration and measure for my life on our farm. 

 I began to farm largely because of my strongly held principles and ideals about ecological stewardship.  But it didn’t take too long for the gritty realities of farming to sober up my idealism.  I still have strong convictions, but I see how imperfectly I will ever live them out.  In light of this, and guided by Gibran’s words, I have come to see that how love – not just romantic love, but a deep, abiding commitment – is the deepest wellspring of much of the labor our farm has required: love for God, for God’s Creation, for the family and friends and neighbors who have been part of our journey here.  I can say, at least on my better days, that I built the house with affection, I sowed the seeds with tenderness and reaped with joy.  Much of my work on the farm has indeed been love made visible, and for that I give thanks.

 And yet I have also – too often – worked with distaste and indifference; I have baked the bitter bread and grudged the crushing of the grapes.  As a part-time farmer, I often seem to be rushing, trying to get the farm work done in the nooks and crannies of time that compete with a full-time, off-farm job, spending time with my wife and children and other family members, and myriad other loves and responsibilities.  But good farming is rarely done in a hurry, and rush is often a recipe for resentment. 

 Our children – twin girls who are seven and our four-year-old son – are often with me when I’m doing farm work.  With them I see most clearly the times when I’m working badly.  A few days ago I was racing to get over a hundred blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry plants set in a new patch.  I rushed around madly, and then I turned around to see that one of our daughters, Eva, had wandered down to find me after having walked out of a bickering match with her sister.  We worked out a system by which she could be of help, but not long after we got in the groove of our work, her sister showed up, and soon they were at each other again, competing for who did what, whose job was the most important, and so forth.  With little patience for anything, much less for this kind of childishness, I found myself snapping at them, pushing them hard, tolerating no nonsense.

To be a child, though, is to be full of nonsense and playfulness.  Their catfighting aside, I yearn for the carefree, unburdened way our children relate to life in general and our farm in specific.  For them, most days, it is a place of adventure and imagination, of making forts in the woods, of hiding in the unmown hay.  And while I want our children to learn how to be responsible and hard-working, I don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm.  In fact, I hope to learn from them how to hold the work a little more loosely.   Love is patient and kind, wrote St. Paul, and I suspect that good work has exactly the same qualities – that its means sing harmony with its ends. 

Ultimately, I believe that good ecological stewardship has to be an invitation – into greater authenticity, more pleasure and fulfillment, and finally, into deep and abiding joy and gratitude. This may seem blasphemous in the face of so much suffering in the world today and the dark possibility of even more on the future horizon.  But if it’s true that God calls each of us to do our best work in the world, Gibran is right that good work can and must only be done with love, for “when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Does the world need another blog?

I must admit I start this blog with no small amount of fear and trembling.  Aside from my worry about how to keep feeding the beast, two questions have loomed large in my thinking: What earthly good could another blog do for the world?  And what, heaven help me, would Wendell Berry think? 

 The last shall be first, since that question is actually the easier one to answer.  Wendell Berry, for those of you who don’t know him, is a Kentucky farmer and writer of poetry, novels, and essays.  I have known his work since the early 90s, when my college professor-become-mentor, Scott Russell Sanders, introduced me to Wendell’s The Unsettling of America, a stinging critique of modern industrial agriculture.  Wendell and I have traded some letters of over the years, and I’ve met him from time to time, both on his farm and at various other venues.  It was reading Wendell’s work and corresponding with him that got me started on my own vocational path: establishing a small organic farm and homestead in southern Indiana, and trying to live an authentic life of ecological responsibility, community, creativity, and joy. 

 I don’t have to think that hard to suppose that Wendell, who (as far as I know) still writes longhand and turns in manuscripts typed up by his wife on a 50-year-old Royal Standard manual typewriter, would have a host of hesitations about entering the blogging world.  I suspect that the most significant of them would be that time spent in the virtual world is time not spent paying attention to the real world of people, plants, and animals.  I do sense this as a real problem, and of course I don’t think it a coincidence that modern culture has become more socially isolated and radically disconnected from the world of nature even as it’s become hyper-connected through electronic media.  So if I’m going to have a blog, I want it to be one that connects me more deeply to others, not less, and more deeply to the natural world, not less.  I hope that this ongoing series of reflections about the life on our farm will help me pay better attention to what is happening on our little corner of Creation.  And in this, I hope to create a wider conversation about issues of ecological responsibility and spirituality, which ultimately serves to knit the social fabric together more strongly.

 I ask the WWWT (What Would Wendell Think) question somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because lately I’ve come not to care quite as much what Wendell Berry would think about me and my life.  I am almost certain that he doesn’t think about me much, if any, for starters; he’s got his own fish to fry.  And I have mine.  I may have begun my farming life with his inspiration and in his shadow, but over the years, my farming has become mine and my family’s, rather than a slavish imitation of his.  He farms with horses; I farm (not without ambivalence, of course) with a four-wheel drive Kubota tractor.  He is suspicious of technology; I feel naked without my mp3 player.  Our ages are different, our backgrounds are different, our farms are different, our gifts are different, our communities and commitments are different.  So while I heed the cautions that I think Wendell would offer, I don’t think a blog is inherently evil.

 Which leads back to my first question: what good can another blog do the world?  If it’s just for my benefit, I would just keep my musings in a private journal and wouldn’t bother to risk putting personal, not-professionally-edited writing out there for public consumption.  Writing it has to be worth it to me, just as reading it has to be worth it to you.

 A way to answer this question begins with two core convictions that drive my farming life and my thinking about farming.  First, I’m convinced religion and good ecological stewardship are inseparable.  I can’t imagine being a religious and spiritual person (I’m Roman Catholic, FYI) without finding God in “the book of nature” and perceiving in my faith tradition a strong ethical obligation to care for Creation.  And second, I also can’t imagine trying to practice good agricultural stewardship without the larger frame of a relationship with the Holy – not only for inspiration and ethical motivation, but finally, for hope.  Our Earth is a lovely, God-given home, but as the recent Japanese earthquake revealed, it isn’t a firm place to stand.  We may manage not to destroy our species through climate change or ecological degradation, but a volcanic eruption, solar flare, or rogue asteroid might well do it for us.  Hence a central paradox in my life as a farmer and a spiritual person: I am deeply in love with the natural world and committed to learning from and caring for it, and at the same time I believe that Creation is just that: created, contingent, impermanent.  The love of God is the only solid ground.

 So to any of you who might read this blog, thank you so much for taking time out of your life to do so.  I want to share some of my own path of trying to grow deeper roots as a student and steward of the land and stronger wings as a religious and spiritual seeker.  I foresee that some of my blog writing will be the work-a-day reflections of a person of faith who is trying to run a working organic farm amid various other commitments; in other entries I’ll try to step back a bit and grapple with the questions that arise out of that sort of life.  If nothing else, I hope this blog helps all of us pay closer attention to the world of Creation, from which and in which we have our being, and the world of the Divine, whose love is within and beyond all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment