Thursday, May 28, 2009

Early May rain

I'm waiting.

Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for the soil to dry enough to till. Waiting to collect my soil sample for analysis. Waiting to get seeds into the ground.

Gardening teaches us about right relationship, about respect, about patience. If there is anything over which I have no control, it would be the schedule of rain showers. Where one has no control, one may choose to fight (images of China shooting clouds to make rain come to mind), or one can learn to dance, moving with a rhythm you did not create, synchronizing your movement with another's. In some instances, we can use force to bend nature to our will. Rather than meander over forested hills, we blow holes through the middle, creating map-ready straight lines.

But, really, you can't till mud. It just don't work, no matter how fancy your technology.

I'm in love with my soil. I'm in love with my compost. I'm fascinated by the ecosystem that thrives in one ounce of well-amended soil. In his first book, Second Nature, Michael Pollan offers the garden as a model for how humans can interact with the world in a way that is both beneficial to us, and to "nature." I use the quotes because this distinction between us humans and the "natural world" is wholly contrived, and feeds the negative dichotomy that allows us to continue to justify our dominion over the land and its non-human creatures. The alternative to dominion is stewardship. We and the "natural world" can both thrive if our relationship to this planet and the other creatures on it is one of respect and restraint. Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.

I scoop compost out of my bucket with my hand, and in my palm I hold an ecosystem more amazing than anything we humans have made. This planet has been at this living stuff for a really long time, and has gotten really darn good at it. I can create the causes and conditions that allow that handful of compost to arise, but I cannot create the life within it. Even a life that I could carry inside me for nine months, I cannot truly create.

When I was nine, I went to the beach with my dad, stepmom, and some friends of theirs. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are as different as the Appalachian and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Pacific pounds the rocks of the slowly receding California coastline, like the western mountains jut, ragged and treeless into thinning air. The Atlantic is a more gentle ocean, softer, like the rolling, worn ridges of broadleaf deciduous forest that make up the Appalachian chain.

I was a strong swimmer as a kid, but I was, nonetheless, a nine year old up against the Pacific. Somehow I got myself caught in a hard undertow. I could dive under the waves, letting them pass over me and draw me toward the shore, but I couldn't set my feet or fight the rushing stream of water heading back out to the west. I was stuck. Bobbing up and down, trying to swim in. I could see my father and his friends on the beach, but I was too far away, and no one was looking for me. I was getting tired.

Finally, I got within range of some people standing in the surf, and as the wave started to rush backward, pulling all the sand from under my feet and tugging me away, I thrust out my hand toward this man. I don't remember that I could even manage to ask for help, though I imagine that my child's face conveyed that I was in distress.

I may owe my life to a smiling brown-skinned man who reached for the outstretched arm of a little huera child he did not know. I would not recognize him if I were to see him, but his smile and firm grip on my hand, freeing me from the ocean will remain forever in my memory. As I gasped for air, I found I could finally stand. I thanked him profusely. I doubt he had any idea that he saved my life.

I hope that he accumulated vast merit for his act of kindness, perhaps seemingly small to him, but on which the whole of my life likely hangs. The teachings tell us that karma multiplies--small actions can have huge results. May his be the seed for his enlightenment.

When people say that the world is hard and angry and closed, I feel sorry for them. My world is filled with strangers who would help an unknown child in distress, who get off the bus during the morning commute to assist a stranger collapsed in the street, people who rescue animals, people who rally behind the story of a little, lost squirrel, people who care to treat the ground under their feet with kindness, and who thank the earth for the abundance of blessings it bestows upons us, with neighbors who care for one another with a bowl of soup, a lent tool, or by lending a hand when you've clearly bitten off more than you can chew.

In life, as in the garden, we reap what we sow. The difference is that, in the garden, if I drop a radish seed here, a radish will grow after a set period of time here. If I were to plant a square of radishes and then fret and complain that I DON'T HAVE ANY CORN!! you'd call me a madwoman. In life it is the same--the seeds we plant in it will ripen, but in life our actions are bitty drops in a huge interconnected and interdependent web, so, unlike in our garden, we don't always know when and where our seeds will germinate and grow. The seeds of hatred will come back to us in the form of angry people. The kindness we give will eventually find its way back to us.

Some people pray, down on their knees, hands pressed together, heads bowed before their Lord.

So too, do I kneel down on the earth, hands cupping my precious soil, filled with life that I cannot create--a brilliant miraculous system on which our very lives depend. Stewarding this tiny, yet vast and complicated ecosystem is one long, living prayer--an act of both faith and humility. A supplication for sustenance.


[orginally written May 2009]

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.