Earlier this week I attended part one of a four-part series on “Farming 101,” which is being sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project. The first session focused on soil, which is a metaphor ripe with symbolism for the spiritual life. Before we can sow the seeds of faith or produce fruit worthy of repentance we must tend the soil out of which these things will grow. After all, seeds won’t grow in unhealthy soil, and, as I learned on Tuesday, not just any old dirt is soil– soil is dirt that’s alive.
At this time in the growing cycle it looks like the farm has all but hibernated for the winter. The beds are mostly put to sleep, and for all intents and purposes it looks like the farm has shut down. In some sense it has. The last remaining crops of kale are just being harvested, and there is some growing going on in the high tunnels (the temporary ‘green houses’ that extend the growing season, keeping certain areas of the farm still producing during the coldest months), but the farm otherwise looks dormant.
But important work is happening underground. Without the work that happens in the cold, winter months, the planting that happens in the spring will be for naught, because healthy plants need healthy soil. Winter is the time where all the things that have died and been turned into the ground break down and turn the death of last year into that which will produce life this year. Without this cycle of death and renewal there would be no springtime planting, summertime growing, and autumn harvesting—there would be no life. Norman Wirzba eloquently summarizes, “We forget that soil is a complex matrix in which life and death join in an unfathomably complex dance so that more life can grow” (Food and Faith, p. 57).
This past Friday, a couple of days after the talk on soil, I braved the cold and took a walk over to the farm to see what is happening there these days. Did I mention that it was cold? It was coooooold—I’m talking 20 degree cold with the wind-chill (and if you know me, you know that I HATE being cold). Needless to say, there were only a handful of people working on the farm, and all of them were tucked under the warming plastic covers of the high tunnels. A far cry from the bustling, verdant and fecund garden that I saw last fall when I visited the farm, the beds are mostly covered in straw (or with the high tunnels), and nearly the only things growing are the wild sprouts of plants that have wandered outside of the beds. The trees have no leaves, no new seeds have been planted yet, and the wheelbarrows have been parked for the winter.
Without this rest, however, the growing and harvesting that takes place in the summer and fall would leach the land and the practices of the farm would be unsustainable. Sustainable farming means growing that doesn’t damage the land, but that makes the land better. It is farming that doesn’t require you to sacrifice your other goods to keep growing. Finally, it is a practice that allows you to feed yourself, but also to feed others. A healthy spiritual life should be and do all of the things that a thriving farm can do. Above all, we need a sustainable spirituality—one that makes us better people, that doesn’t happen at the expense of other things in our life, and finally, is such that by feeding ourselves we feed others, too.
Jesus’ parable of the sower shows us how important it is to have good soil. The sower who scatters seeds on the path, or the rocks, or amidst the thorns, will reap no harvest. But the seeds that fall on good soil will bring forth abundance. As Jesus explains, “as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13: 23). It is God, through the Holy Spirit, who sows the seeds of transformation in our lives, but we cannot receive them if our ground is hard and rocky, or our soil is shallow or crowded with thorns. Now is the time to tend our soil. Now is the time to ensure that what God plants in us can grow and have life to give glory to God.
We don’t plant during the cold months of winter, but if we do not tend the soil now the seeds that are planted later will inevitably struggle. It is a time when we can absorb the things that have recently died and turn them into the substance that will fuel new life when it is planted. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2). Amen.