May 25, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…the land you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the Lord your God looks after.”
Windy and I have been growing things together, and not just children, since the fall of 1999. I so distinctly remember planting garlic together behind this crazy house we lived in in Leverett, Massachusetts, a little town tucked up in the hills north of Amherst. It was a tiny raised bed, and we must have planted 10 cloves across by maybe twice that many long. I remember starting with a stick, but quickly found how lovely it was to just poke my forefinger into the soil. Then we’d drop the clove in pointy side up, pat it down nicely, then mulch the whole bed heavily with straw to fend off the deep New England freeze. I think that besides bean plants in high school biology and a few shrubs at my parent’s house, I had never planted anything before, but Windy had, a lot of things. I have no memory of the fruits of that labor, no memory of a single head of garlic harvested and eaten, but I do so remember that planting.
Over that winter I left the corporate world that the Marine Corps had led (or fed) me to, for the greener pastures of a more examined life. That examined life eventually led me to the world of ordained ministry (so be careful what you seek for God knows what you may find and all indications are that God has a wicked sense of humor). The most important part of that vocational discernment, which at the time was not a term with which I was familiar, the most important part started that crisp, cool October afternoon with a paper sack of seed garlic.
Rogation is a moment to pause, to remember, to hold up in our particular religious way our relationship to the whole of which we are but a very, very small part. This brings us right back to the very start of our whole story, right back to chapter 2 of Genesis and that little garden called Eden, that mythical time and place where all of creation lived in harmony, most importantly, we, humans, lived in harmony with the whole. Not just in harmony, but humanity, as represented by the first family, Adam and Eve, was seamlessly part of the whole. There was no barrier between us and nature. It is all nature, all the creation of God of which we are a part, a very special part perhaps, but still just a part.
Then something happened. The narrative device is that fatal nibble from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God alone knows what actually happened, what changed, what gene mutated, what spark of consciousness took a wrong turn and became disordered, what complex of relationships became perverted, but something shifted and our relationship as a species to God and the whole creation changed. We have no idea what precipitated this change, but it is glaringly obvious what change happened, its right there in the story: we decided, concluded, were convinced that we were separate. Separate from each other. Separate from the animals and plants and soil, water and sky. Separate, distinct, distant from God in God’s self. Fundamentally, we began to see ourselves as creatures and societies of creatures that were distinct from the rest of creation. Distinctiveness, separateness, otherness… it is a quick and slippery slope from these sentiments to alienation, hostility, domination which characterize the normative relationship of humanity to our neighbors in creation.
From that little paper sack of seed garlic, I found myself jumping into a rabbit hole that I, as a suburban kid from one of the more densely populated corners of the planet, had no idea existed. Farming. Sustainable farming. From an acre of world class Hadley silt loam soil along a burbling creek in Amherst, Mass; to another acre, this one at a monastery 50 miles north of Boston and of more typical rocky, sandy glacial soil common to New England, surrounded by 99 acres of hay, white pine forest, and sugar maple stands; to the 650 acres of the Callis-Hadley ranch that Windy and the girls are working out in Jasper (well, again working an acre surrounded by unspeakable beauty), I, we have learned more about God in Christ and how we are meant to live and what our place in the order of things are than any seminary or Sunday school could possibly hope to teach.
A pet peeve of mine is the statement “I find God most in nature.” On one hand, fair enough, I can relate to experiencing the humbling, awe-inspiring grace and grandeur of God in wide-open spaces, in landscapes not defined by human modification. Several of the fleeting moments that I have felt unity with God have been in setting unmarked by human built changes.
On the other hand, right now we are in nature. One hundred percent, authentically genuinely nature. We are no different than the barn swallow, or the Mud Dauber wasp, stony corals or badger that modify their surroundings to better suit their needs. We are as much in nature as an ant colony or a hive of honey bees are in their highly complex, decidedly built environments. Our tools are more complex (complex to the point of precarity – the lights go out and no more plywood), and we assume that our design/build process is more complex than lower beings (though try to get 20,000 people to do anything together as well as 20,000 bees can build a hive and make honey), but really, we are just another species of critter, in our case one graced by God with memory and reason in addition to skill, to modify our environments to satisfy our needs. We are not separate. We are not removed. We are not other from any other slice of the creation, or from God in God’s self in any way but in our own hearts and minds. That feeling of separation, that feeling of otherness, that feeling distance from God and the Creation… that is a dominant facet of Original Sin; and the dismal, abused state of the soils and waters, the atmosphere and forests, the oceans and near-Earth outer space, littered as it is with the flotsam and jetsam of our activity there, this is the very direct result of our original sin.
What I began to learn with that sack of seed garlic, what I continued to learn in the lives of the sunflowers, tomatoes and precious silt loam of Amherst, the chickens, maple sap, potatoes and rocky sand of West Newbury, what I continue now to learn through Windy in the lives (and occasional deaths) of our goats and pigs and the volcanic/clay/bedrock mix of Jasper is that truly, all God’s creatures got a place in the choir, us too, but not to the exclusion of anyone or anything else, sentient or otherwise. And that to do that, to live like the creation is as holy a thing as we are, which it is, everything we need to know is probably found in a tablespoon of healthy soil, or in 10 square yards of old growth forest, or in a quarter mile stretch of river, or in the lawn at Tugman Park, or one of our raised beds out back, or in the root ball of one of our rhododendrons. Diversity, balance, sharing, cooperating, living within limits, waste disposal, the knowledge of too much of anything, even a good thing, disrupts the equanimity of the whole… the soil-food web, the system upon which all terrestrial life is founded, yours included, can be read as a manual for right living, for holy living.
Take clover, the bane of lawn tenders everywhere. This humble plant contains in its root systems these tiny nodes call rhizomes, which happen to be the absolutely perfect place for Rhizobial bacteria to grow. Bacteria need sugar. Plants need nitrogen. Plants, through the alchemy of photosynthesis create sugar out of water, air and sunlight, while this bacteria can convert, or in agricultural terms fix nitrogen. That means taking atmospheric N2, processing it into ammonia, then adding an H+ molecule to ammonia to form ammonium, the form of nitrogen that plants use, reflected in the first of the three numbers listed on any bag of fertilizer (NPK). The clover exudes excess sugars into its roots which feeds the rhizobia, who in turn by their nature share the ammonium, a waste product of theirs with the clover, and the abundance is put back into the soil as the leaves, stems and roots of clover die and are composted back into the soil confecting a richer hummus for all of it neighbors. So before you buy some broad-leaf herbicide to free your lawns of clover realize that those tiny little plants are fertilizing everything else in its proximity. Don’t get me started on our collective prejudice against dandelions, which are also an asset for soil systems!
From that sack of seed garlic, to rotations of chickens/spinach/clover, to dusting off my high school chemistry, to a doctoral thesis on the theology of sustainable agriculture to observing what a herd of 30 cows can do to 650 acres, I have learned a lot about God by learning a lot about how the world works, and about how we can learn to work with the world because we are always, always, always part of this world. More on that, later. AMEN