Monday, October 31, 2011

The Holiness of the Land that is Me

Others have different memories of origin, and different stories by which to share them.  An ancient Norse creation myth kicks it off with the melting of a frozen river to form the primeval giant and his accompanying cow.  While the giant slept his underarm sweat begat two frost giants, one male and one female.  An African account of Creation introduces humankind as the vomit of the deity.  Nice.  A Navajo version traces our ancestors through the "first people" from earlier worlds -- animals and insects that resulted from the meeting of various clouds.  For J.R.R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion, creation was an act of musical harmony and discord.

In Genesis, for reasons that scholars and faithful have pondered for generations, the medium is less poetic than music, less ethereal than the clouds, significantly drier than rivers, but only slightly more noble than vomit.  Dirt.  That, according to the text, is the nature of us.  Soil.
"Then the LORD God formed a creature from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the creature became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)
From the humus, a human.   Animated soil; somehow, mysteriously, in the very image of its Creator.  Exactly what we are to make of that affirmation is unclear, although my comprehension of God has often been described as "muddy."  But from the very beginning, apparently, scholars have debated about this dirt-born image.  Is it an intrinsic tug toward humility ("remember, you are nothing but dirt"), or is it a nod to an attribute fundamentally holy?

Both, I suppose, are useful, but I confess that I lean more in the direction of holiness.  Whatever we are to make of the earth, it is clear from the story that God went to great pains to set it apart; and I rather like the picture of God artistically -- or is it playfully -- fashioning me out of clay and thereby leaving all over my being fingerprints of the divine.  Perhaps that helps account for my fascination these days with soil -- honoring it, understanding its particular attributes, tending it, and stewarding out of its depths food that nourishes me even as it was first nourished by the worms and the minerals and the myriad constituent parts of the land that is -- or at least will be -- our garden.

My land.  The land that is me.  Holiness, indeed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Great and Patient Alchemy

There is something intimidating about a blank page.  It is complete openness; perfect opportunity -- but there are no lines, no givens, no parameters within which to narrow choices.  Anything is possible, and therefore everything is on the table.  It certainly isn't the wide open expanse of possibility onto which God looked out in the beginning of all things -- that messy chaos and void that the Hebrews knew poetically as "tohu-wa-vohu"; there are, after all, trees already growing, deer already roaming, grass waving in the breeze, and bluebirds and butterflies fluttering through -- but it is my chaos, and responsibility of imprinting some particular order is no small stewardship.

The process, then, begins by making choices; but according to what?

That is the wonder of creating a garden.  If, as in my case, one doesn't intend to cultivate it all, which particular section will be chosen -- and why?  Surely drainage issues would be one factor.  Proximity may well be another.  Access to water quickly emerges as a priority, as does openness to sun.  And how big?  What is the "enough" beyond which becomes "too much"?

We had added rain barrels to harvest rainwater off the garden shed out back, and so these water sources became the anchor of the southwest corner.  A more careful examination of the field revealed a juvenile oak tree that could serve as the southeastly point.  A few years down the road, assuming the tree's continuing growth, will mean shifting the space away from its shade, but for now it won't interfere.  Stepping off a comparable distant north from both points suggested a rough 60' X 60' outline.

The U.S. Geological Soil Survey indicates that the land is mostly Ladoga Silt Loam, but exactly what that means I have yet to comprehend.  I suspect it isn't the finest soil around, but a knowledgeable friend reassures me that it isn't the worst.  Currently covered in prairie grasses, I have mowed out the garden plot and intend to prepare the soil for springtime by enriching it over the winter with compost and manure and a few other organic tricks I have been reading about if I can beat the coming freezes.

The garden, I know, will never be more perfect that it is right now -- fertile and productive and safe within the confines of my imagination.  But we didn't move out here to enjoy an imaginary garden, and so the dirty but gloriously evocative work begins:  the great and patient alchemy of soil and worm, rain and sun, seed and weed and hoe and -- with any luck -- harvest.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

East of, but Still Carrying the Dust of, Eden

"Taproot" is what I have named the farm, and thusly this new blog.  Horticulturally, the taproot creates an anchoring center from which other roots may sprout.  That's not a bad description of this next chapter in my life, and the life of my indulgent wife who joins me in this new endeavor.  At the end of August I left my job of the past 19 years -- as Senior Minister of a fine and supportive congregation in the Drake neighborhood of Des Moines -- indeed of my life work of the past 30 years, to become a farmer of sorts.  More precisely -- and perhaps less pretentiously -- I have taken this turn to become a student of food production.  For the past few years, Lori and I have been learning about food -- what it is, how to cook it -- and now I am determined to learn how to grow it.

There is more to it than mere curiosity.  The more I have learned, the more I have become convinced that the way we grow and distribute food in this culture is not all that healthy, far less interesting than it could be, and decidedly unsustainable.  Collectively, I have become convinced, more and more us better remember how to grow food ourselves or one of these days we are going to start getting hungry.  In my case, it isn't an act of memory; it is a process of learning.  I haven't done this before.  Warmly, I have discovered that familiarity with the soil and its great dance with seeds is a part of my ancestry, but it hasn't been a part of my experience.  We had some fruit trees and berry bushes in the yard when I was young, but I didn't pay much attention until their fruits wound up on our table.  Suddenly, at this later stage of life, I am interested -- "hungry" in a different sort of way.

And so we sold our urban town home and bought a house on 10 acres out in the country.  Taproot Farm -- or perhaps more humbly "Taproot Garden." There I plan to create my classroom of the land.  People ask me if I am going into business.  I rather doubt it, I tell them.  My priority is to learn, not sell.  If I become a wildly successful student, I'll figure out what to do with the excess harvest.  In the meantime I plan to sow seeds in the greenhouse, harvest rainwater, develop a manageable garden out back, learn about dirt and manure and plant nutrition and natural, sustainable growing methods, and do what I can to pass along the learnings.

It isn't, however, simply a pragmatic undertaking.  There is a spirituality to all this that I hope will be as nourished as the body.  I am, after all, a pastor at heart.  Paying attention to -- and participating in -- this holy work of delicious creativity is part of what I mean by sending my own taproot deep into grounding of God's own image by which we were created.  We have long since acknowledged our location as somewhere "east of Eden."  While that may call confessional attention to something theologically "fallen" about our condition, it is significant, I think -- and ultimately hopeful -- that our spiritual GPS remains fixed on the coordinates of a garden.

I don't pretend that I am recreating Eden, but I do intend to tap into that which is ultimately divine, good, and orienting -- grounding and centering myself along the way in that which makes for life.