FIELD, BODY AND COMMUNITY
"The question of human limits, of the proper definition and place of human beings within the order of creation, finally rests upon our attitude toward our biological existence, the life of the body in this world. What value and respect do we give to our bodies? What uses do we have for them? What relation do we see, if any, between body and mind, or body and soul? What connections or responsibilities do we maintain between our body and the earth? These are religious questions, obviously, for our bodies are part of the creation and they involve us in all the issues of mystery. But the questions are also agricultural, for no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth."
- Wendell Berry
The Body and the Earth
The Body and the Earth
"Do not fear O Soil, Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!"
- Joel 2:21
I live in one of those so-called dying rural communities in Kansas, where the eastern reach of the high plains meets the wet lowlands of the Little Arkansas River basin. The closest city is over an hour away. Our town has two local restaurants, a gas station, a Dollar General, and a single grocery store. A mostly boarded-up downtown serves as a graveyard for small businesses.
Here in the breadbasket of America, the fertility of our soil is sold for a paltry sum on the commodities market. In our county alone are 489,000 miles of farmland, shipping crops all over the world. By the time it returns to our grocery store, it is processed beyond health or recognition.
In her essay on Covenantal Economics, agrarian theologian Ellen Davis writes: “The contemporary dynamic is comprehensive local impoverishment; not just in food but also opportunities for income and thus, inevitably, people move steadily from rural areas to the city.”
This is what has happened here in my town. The result is that there are very few farmers, and those few are farming huge swaths of land, often for distant owners. They are also farming to the beat of subsidies that create a deafness to what the land might be saying, what the fields might be trying to communicate.
But there are whispers of another way.
At a town hall meeting, a young farmer looks at my husband and I with big eyes.
"Do you do regenerative agriculture?" He asks, a little hesitantly.
We are new farmers and reluctant to take on such a label, but eventually I assent.
"Me too," he says. "At least, I am trying. I am learning."
“Me too,” I say.
This morning, I walk the oak-lined dirt road past the old farmhouse. My destination is the field beyond the creek. If rain should come, I will find scores of rust-colored bolete mushrooms popping from the ground, hidden under moldy leaves at the feet of ancient oaks in ever-lengthening mycorrhizal partnership. I think about bacteria and its contributions to this cooperative tryptic, and all of the communication happening beneath my feet. I imagine the conversation of volatiles among the trees permeating the air I breathe.
Continuing, I pass the occupied territory of burrs and briars that establish a boundary between the ground that surrounds our dwellings and the forest just beyond. Here, I witness the dance of yearly succession: the fierce orange day-lilies around the creek have died back; making way for the gentle, low-lying Virginia dayflower and its warm blue blossoms. The forest may be only understood in terms of generations: growth, climax, and decline into even more life. The cottonwoods melt into a spongy duff, giving of themselves to enrich the forest floor, preparing the way for what comes next.
I have heard it said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest, so I walk slowly and pay attention, following the sunlight as it runs free over the field. As the field comes into view, I have to push down the feeling of nausea, like a student doctor sent in to care for a wound or set a bone. It was recently plowed—at my bidding, I may add. This field has been fallow for over a year and it is time to plant it with the seed that will shelter it from the winter elements. Still, it is impossible for me to see a plowed field as anything but a violence.
I know that the ground is vividly alive. I know that the plow decimates entire civilizations of creatures with their ways and cultures. The plowing is also an exposure, uncovering that which should be covered. The field becomes vulnerable to winds, rainfall, and wash, which rob the soil of her fertility. It is said that fields are the daughters of a community, that their life is reflective of the life of a community.
Picking up a handful of this plowed field dirt, I hold it to my face to smell it, reminded of dry bones—pale and crumbly, nearly lifeless. I peer at it like one searching for a heartbeat. Please, let there be life.
As I learn this land and grow in care for its wholeness, the decline around me becomes more pronounced. I experience the pain of land in distress. Everywhere I look, there is desecration. Fields worked irrespective of the natural rise and fall of the land form gullies—washes that gulp the precious topsoil into creeks that move into rivers and eventually, to the sea. In the hot summer months after wheat harvest, more than half the fertile soil of our county is left uncovered, vulnerable to the desiccating prairie winds. My heart aches when I pass former cotton fields, pale and lifeless: abuse victims, unable to turn another crop.
If I see decline in the land, I also see decline in the bodies and communities all around me, a call and response that warrants attention. In this past decade, I have seen a marked deterioration in health in nearly all of the communities I am a part of: infertility, cancer, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and even debilitating full-body pain are so widespread that they have become normalized as daily realities. Fear rules our communities, depriving us of our connection to the land and to each other. The ties of neighborliness are thin and fragile. Commodification distorts our relationships, subverting our need for one another. We are all, each of us, suffering--yet we fail to comprehend it.
“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground--then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature.”
- Genesis 2:5-7 ESV
The story of our beginnings is the story of a collision between seen and unseen: dust--dirt, ground, soil, humus--and God’s breath. Adam is fashioned from the dust of the ground, dust into which God breathes to form a living creature among creatures.
Our theological discourse has considered Adam, has considered God, but there is much we haven't yet come to grips with concerning Dirt, the third character in this narrative. What a curious inclusion in this strange trinity: Dirt. Is it incidental or significant? Could it not have as easily been water or light that God breathed on to make a man? Why dirt? This same Hebrew word for ground, earth, mortar, ore: raw material.
I have walked this farm for two years now, observing the patterns of succession in field, forest, meadow and wetlands. I have eaten some of the things I’ve found: oyster and wood-ear mushrooms growing from forest debris cooked into rich earthy broth, lemon balm steeped into tangy tea. From the rich tilth behind the old barn, I dig up foot-long roots of burdock and roast them like potatoes. I trace the winding creeks to their trickling origins, dripping from root lace in eroded banks. I learn the names of bugs, and how to recognize birds by their songs; I study plants and make friends with trees. When it rains, I watch how the water flows through the fields and into the creek. Here, the lines between pleasure, healing, art and farming blur and become one.
There is much pitch and hum in our troubling times: climate change, soil loss, declining health, fragmented communities. We have information, data and documentaries, but little capacity to listen to a particular place and hear what it is trying to say. What we need is the grace of a real place, no matter how small, for which we can care deeply: listening to it through the rise and fall of seasons, tasting its humble offerings, observing its creatures, learning its history.
We also must recognize that much of what we see now in the lands we inhabit has been drastically altered, beyond recognition. Therefore we must strive to hold the memory of what once was--what is still bound in the strata beneath us--to conceive generative paths forward, alternative ways of connecting to the land. We must plunge in and listen to the places of our suffering, no matter how seemingly-small. Listen, when we would rather numb out and forget. We must listen to what our land, our bodies, our communities are telling us. It is in these connections that our well-being lies; for our bodies are inextricably tied to each other’s, and to the land.
With gravity I return to the field in my care, seeking to humbly locate it within the pattern of this place. This field, now dry and lifeless-looking, will in time come back to life. This week, we will seed it with a crop I will never taste. As soon as it grows, we will cut it back, letting it fall into the dirt: a food offering for fungi and beneficial bacteria that in turn, will themselves be a food offering for a whole cast of characters whose bodies and waste will enliven the dirt. Into that vegetative mat we will plant a community of diverse seeds that will grow into pasture for ruminants to graze rotationally, in imitation of the herds of buffalo that were once vital to the life of this place. Their movement and choices will cultivate the ground, steering the seedbed towards lively diversity, a small remembrance of the prairie that once was.
In this small field I am caught up in mystery and held in a gritty tangible reality. Rings of analogous relationships stretch out before me: the microcosm of the dirt, this field, and the forest; my body, community, and the cosmos. They are all here, deeply and richly intertwined. The well-being of the smallest impacts the whole pattern, things seen and unseen, known and unknown. The health of this soil is the health of my own body, of the bodies that surround me. Here I am. Soil and breath bound, held together within the coherent pattern that is the image of the invisible God.