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Archive for October, 2008

           Update on those 38 holes to fill. Yesterday I planted 8 chestnut oaks (mostly 10 to 12 feet tall), 3 Trident maples, 2 Red maples, and one October Glory maple. Don’t know when I’ve enjoyed work more. There was the immediate pleasure of seeing small changes to the pasture mixed with the long-term prospect of possibly seeing those same trees when they are broad and mature.

           You might have gathered from recent entries here, or from conversations if our paths have crossed in the past few months, that I’m reading a lot of Wendell Berry these days. He is a farmer and writer in Kentucky and I think his writing resonates with me as a land “owner,” a term I’m not sure that he’d endorse. Berry makes me wish that I knew something about farming, about reclaiming land, about plants and animals and farm equipment. But I don’t. I’m willing, even trying, to learn a bit but I know that it’ll be a long time before i set up a booth at the Farmer’s market.

           A very comforting thought struck me a couple of weeks ago, however, and crossed my mind again yesterday as I moved 200 pound ball and burlapped trees, shoveled dirt, hauled water, and sleeved the trunks. The thought was this:

           Beauty is a crop.

          

           The idea might sound rather dreamy and meaningless but it is energizing to me to know that God made, uses, and blesses beauty in His kingdom. And on the way to making this place ‘productive,’ it heartens me to think that, by simply preparing it to be a place of rest for those who visit, I am acting consistently with Him Who promised “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” (Isaiah 61:3, a passage which continues, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendor.”) A well-placed tree and nicely mown field, and efforts to create an unlittered view from the front porch, while not agriculture in the strictest sense of the word, is, for me, well worth the labor involved.  ….   Beauty is a crop.

           For years, I’ve used a small book, A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie, to guide me through my morning and evening prayers. In addition to eloquent petitions, his writings amount to a body of divinity that encourage perceptions of God as awesome and other, but also near and loving. This morning’s prayer included this passage:

    “O God without me, forbid that I should look today upon the work of Thy hands and give no thought to Thee the Maker. Let the heavens declare Thy glory to me and the hills Thy majesty. Let every fleeting loveliness I see speak to me of a loveliness that does not fade. Let the beauty of earth be to me a sacrament of the beauty of holiness made manifest in Jesus Christ my Lord.”

And so, with 23 trees to go, I make it my continuing task to be farmer, loosely defined, in pursuit of a crop of sacramental beauty. It’s good work and I’m glad to do it.  

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Years ago, a friend asked the question, “what is the opposite of faith?” My silent answer, and the one given out loud by someone else in the room, was “doubt.” Bill offered that a better answer might be “control.” And as i have reflected on it over the years, which i have done often, i’m convinced that this really is the more precise antithesis of faith.

 

    That experience has caused me, when trying to understand the meaning of a term, to ask what its opposite is. What, for instance, is the opposite of hope? Of sincerity? Of ambition?

    i’ve noticed in reading the Gospels the last couple of years that there are times when Jesus specifically defines some reason for His coming to the world. i count 6 but there might be more. This morning, the group of guys that meets at my house on Thursday mornings began our 6 week study of those statements by reading and discussing Luke 19:1-10, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zaccheus which ends with Jesus saying that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

           So i ask myself the question: what is the opposite of lost? The first answer that comes to mind, for me, is “found,” an answer sanctioned by the most famous “lost” story ever told, that of the prodigal son who was “lost but now is found.” (Luke 15:32) But i wonder if the better answer might be “home”? “Found” certainly gets a lost soul closer to where it wants to be, but might it be that home, in all its fullness, is really the destination we long for?

           Just a thought  …  

           [The other 5 statements in which Jesus tells why He came to the world are, as i detect them, to preach the good news of the kingdom (Luke 4:43), to be a king and to testify to the truth (John 18:37), to serve (Matthew 20:26-28), to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31, 32), and to die for sin (John 12:27). Understanding Jesus’ reasons for coming to the world might help His followers, whom CS Lewis once described as “little Christs,” to fall in line with His purposes in the world even now.]

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           That’s what Mrs. Betty Beegle told me this week when I called her with a question about my beehives. “Right now, they’re bringing in the goldenrod.” She meant that the bees are gathering pollen, for their winter food store, from the goldenrod which is presently at bloom in our county. And once the fact was pointed out to me i seem to see the wildflower everywhere.

           There was such a kindliness in Mrs. Beegle’s words, as if she was just bringing me up to speed about some of our neighbors, as if she was pleased to report that they’re doing well and all in good health. And she referred to the goldenrod as if it were pure treasure, a local delicacy, the main float in a Macy’s day parade. The image to me – honey bees and goldenrod — was that of a thousand messengers with vases of yellow flowers. (… Do I hear another verse for “Coins of Gold”?)

           Funny how a small comment can make the world seem alright. Headlines today are full of gloom and doom, politicians are finger-pointing and blame shifting, and the international worry index seems to be hitting all time highs. But I hear, and take comfort in the small but happy news that, in my neighborhood, all around me by the tens of thousands, they’re bringing in the goldenrod. It might be small news, but, rightly understood, it’s good news, and makes me thankful to know souls

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TILTH

           Recently i spent a morning — a cool, clear Saturday morning – with Mr. John Willis, a recent and colorful acquaintance, in Pine Mountain, about 10 miles north of where i live. He is from a long line of tomato farmers in Florida and is, at 79, a man who is well versed in soil and seed and Source of Life. He is getting ready to break up a small plot of ground for planting strawberries in the next couple of weeks and offered to show me his process for preparing the soil – deep plow, harrow, till long ways, till sideways, till diagonally, build mounded rows on 5 foot centers. A lot has to happen to make Harris County land, usually full of red clay, productive and, since i’m planning to use the fall and winter to work some ground near my house for a good garden next spring, i’m asking folks, at every opportunity, for their wise counsel on how to make things grow.  …

           Mr. John, like other people in my town, was gracious to share information with me, and was kind not to laugh at questions that must have made my ignorance all too obvious. He is one of several locals with whom i’ve spoken lately about gardening and small farming in this part of Georgia, and his comments are consistent with a theme that seems present in all of their advice.

           A good crop all starts with the soil.

           Mr. John introduced me to a new word this morning — “you work the soil until you get it to the right tilth.” …  Tilth – i had an idea, from its context, what it meant but checked it out in the dictionary when i got home:

             

“1) – act or occupation of tilling; cultivation of the soil. 2) Cultivated or tilled, land. 3) – the state of being tilled.”

           In the essays, novels, and poetry of Wendell Berry, there is frequent and, at times, reverential, reference to topsoil. (How we’ve treated the topsoil, he implies, is a good test for what kind of stewards we’ve been of the creation.) If you’re like me, topsoil is one of those things that, crucially important though it might be, has managed to stay off of my radar for, well, pretty much all my life. But the Mr. Johns and Shorty Floyds and Wendell Berrys and others like them are making me attentive in good ways to a simple but vital reality of life – that everything matters and that even land is a beloved part of Kingdom life. In the process of learning about local land, the Sower Himself tilling my heart for days of keener gratitude and more appropriate stewardship.

           And i wish good tilth for you.

          

           “Sow for yourselves righteousness,

           reap the fruit of unfailing love,

            and break up your unplowed ground;

            for it is time to seek the LORD,

           until He comes

           and showers righteousness on you.”

              Hosea 10:12

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38 Holes To Fill

   September 11, 2008

              I have no idea how many trees are situated on the land that I call home, the 1200 or so acres that my dad acquired in the late 1960’s. The number would, no doubt, be a large one. But I could take you to the tree which I have done most to cultivate. It’s a sassafras, just behind my house, presently 12 or so feet high.

               A few years ago, while mowing grass and weed eating around the stumps of some wind-felled pine trees, the sassafras sapling, 2 or 3 feet high, caught my notice just before I might otherwise have cut it down. I made note of its presence, finished my work and returned later to build a small brick and stone barrier around the base of the tree. Since then, it’s gotten regular water, mulch, food, and, to the extent I could give it, protection. Each year, I have trimmed limbs and branches to give it shape and direct its growth a bit.

              It might not be the most beautiful tree on the land, but I attend to it like no others. We have, after all, a certain affinity between us now.

              At present there are 38 holes in our pasture – in low, mostly unusable areas – put there intentionally this past summer. The idea is to put trees in them to stop erosion and beautify the fields. The holes are big ones – put there by Bobby Joe Baxley’s backhoe – and filled with good dirt. i’m wanting to fill them with trees that will produce game food (acorns and fruit for turkey and deer, or nectar for our honeybees) and add some seasonal color to the place.

              My options are several.

              I can buy already somewhat mature tees (15 to 20 feet tall) from nurseries, the argument in their favor being that, if I plant anything small, I might not live to see them in a fully grown state.

              Or I could plant smaller trees (4 to 6 feet), purchased from nurseries or transplanted from around the farm.

              Or I can find tiny saplings – a couple of feet high – plant them in those great big holes and nurture them to whatever height they might reach before I pass off the scene.

              Or I can gather acorns and other seeds, and start at the beginning.

              I’m not sure what I’ll do, most likely a combination of the middle two options, but the thought of tending what ever gets planted, with the annual prospect of satisfaction that surely come with each year survived, is a pleasant one. That I might someday sit under their shade or eat honey made from their nectar or track birds nesting in their limbs is what I imagine, in some very small way, my married friends experience when they plan their family lives.

              When I finally do plant those trees, I will do so with delight and, for days, will walk from one to the others to make sure they are doing alright in their new residence.

              A friend in the tree business told me recently about a wealthy client who has a ‘country home’ among his inventory of real estate holdings. The wealthy client, in his late 50’s, wanted some trees planted along his driveway and had the resources to have fully grown varieties –  40, 50, 60 feet high – moved to the land and laid out precisely beside the road. There was no waiting, no pruning, no dirt on the hands. I’m not sure how much satisfaction their shade might ever give him but I wonder if an instant forest lacks the wonder of one more patiently grown.

              Last week, in the woods nearby, I found a sassafras seedling, about a foot and a half high which I’ve potted for safekeeping until it’s a bit older.

               With it, I’ve got my answer for one hole in the pasture.

              37 to go.

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