Flood Waters

I often write during a slow market day. I wrote this during a slow, rainy Wednesday market as we awaited the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

 

2018 has been an incredibly wet year. We are well above the normal yearly rainfall here in Central Virginia. I can’t find the exact numbers, but the little creek that runs the front of our property is usually dry this time of year. It has not dried out at all. As I write this Hurricane Florence is barreling toward the East Coast. North Carolina, which has already had as much rain as we have, is poised to experience catastrophic flooding. We won’t get the worst of it here, but even a few inches is more than we need at this point.

I remember in May standing around with other farmers complaining about the rain, as farmers are wont to do. It rained almost the whole month of May and none of us could get in our fields. Everyone’s plantings were delayed. We joked, almost hopefully, about how we’d all be standing around complaining about the drought come August. Instead, August brought what seemed like monsoons. One rain event dumped 4 inches in a half hour on my field. Paired with the usual August humidity, that meant plant diseases were out of control. And the bugs! I don’t even want to talk about the bugs.

Farming is hard and every season, every year brings its own unique challenges. So I accepted the losses of summer crops and set my mind and heart on a bountiful fall. And now, hurricane Florence. The tiny fall seedlings might survive a few inches, but any more may be season ending. Mid September is just not enough time to replant before the first frost.

I’ve been reflecting on water, such an essential substance, immense in its capacity to both give and take life. While we in the southeast stare down impending floods, California is being ravaged by wild fires. What they would give for even a fraction of our rain. I hate to curse the rain, because I know I will curse the drought in equal or greater measure.

Baptism, at least in the mainline, non Baptist traditions, has lost a sense of the power that water has. An almost benign ritual, with vows hardly any parent or individual takes seriously. Yet the waters of baptism are meant to symbolize our entering the tomb with Christ and as we emerge becoming new with Christ’s resurrection. Not benign at all.
We humans have a propensity for building our homes and lives in the most volatile places on earth – coasts, river basins, lake shores, deserts, mountains, fault lines, volcano valleys. Gorgeous, dangerous places. We curse the disasters when they come, the natural patterns of the places where we choose to live. Nature’s way to cleanse the land and allow new life to emerge. New plants thrive in the wake of wild fires. Flood waters bring nutrients to the land. Hurricanes reshape the coast allowing new species to thrive. The death and destruction lead to new life.

What would it mean if we took baptism more seriously? If we acknowledged the life altering power that the water holds? What would it mean as a parent to give your child over to this truth that we must move through death to find life? Baptism is to be claimed in the family of God, yet entering the family of God is entering into a world where everything is turned upside down – last becomes first, leader becomes servant, our king is crucified, death leads to life. Much more like a natural disaster than our benign ritual suggests. As a parent it scares me a bit to offer my child to this world. But just like the coast lines and fault lines, entering into the family of God brings beauty and wonder and joy beyond measure. Life that eclipses the flood waters through which we must wade.

Florence brought almost 5 inches of rain followed by another 5+ from Hurricane Matthew. The rain just kept coming. 2018 ended up being the wettest year ever recorded for our area. As I begin preparing for the 2019 season some areas of the farm have still not dried out. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to plant in my biggest section because there are still puddles and nowhere for the water to drain. I just found out a friend has decided he can’t farm this year because his field is still under water. Meanwhile, I struggle to find hay to buy for my animals. 2018 was a disastrous year for hay making. So, when I found this reflection, now still struggling with the effects of last year’s rain, I couldn’t help but wonder and worry about what this year will bring. And yet, I hold on to the hope that in the midst of the flood waters I will find beauty and wonder and joy.

River of Fear

A reflection on fear I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence this past fall.

Hurricane Florence is working its way through the Carolinas right now. Although the winds have not been as bad as they could have been, the rainfall and storm surge are causing devastating flooding. Earlier this week, meteorologists predicted all that rain would hit central Virginia. On Monday I was preparing for 2 feet of rain. I dug extra drainage ditches, built more shelters for the critters, cleared debris from our small creek, drained the cisterns to make room for the rain, and stocked up on supplies. It wouldn’t have been enough, but it was all I could do. Fortunately for me, but not the Carolinas, the storm shifted south. Instead we only got a few inches of rain. But as the storms’ south westerly track became clear and my need to busily prepare eased, I realized how much fear I was carrying.
And not just about the storm, though the storm gave form to my fears. The stresses of farming are constant. This year I’m worried about too much rain, but last year it was drought. I worry about when and how much to plant. Will this variety work in my conditions? Is there enough fertility in my soil? Will the flea beetles decimate the arugula crop again? Should I just give up on squash and surrender to the squash bugs? Will my tomatoes get blight again? Will I have anything to sell at market? Will anyone buy from me? How will I pay for all the expenses that add up and up in the early spring? Will I ever be able to pay myself?

 

And then there’s the livestock. Are they well? How can I afford all their feed? Am I feeding them the right thing? Am I moving them enough so they don’t destroy our woods? Will they escape? How do I keep them safe in the storm? I feel so much responsibility for their well-being.
The financial pressures are real. It takes so much money to run a farm and the margins are tiny. We are close to breaking even. Will we ever earn an income? Will Bones be able to retire? Can I really call myself a farmer or is this just a really expensive hobby?
And the time away from the family. I’m always working. Will the kids resent the farm and all it requires of me?
Meanwhile my body suffers. I feel more achy every day and stupid mistakes threaten me with injury. What if I got more seriously injured? Would this whole farming experiment be over?
Meanwhile the world seems in chaos between hurricanes and wild fires, wars and conflict, increasingly visible racism, homophobia and xenophobia, the collapse of our political discourse, and the ever worsening climate crisis.
The fear and anxiety are a river raging just below my surface. Lately the river seems ready to breach its banks. The fear sits heavy in my chest, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Some days I feel paralyzed. And yet, the goats remind me vociferously every morning that they need to be fed. And so I go about my work feeding, weeding, planting, mucking, harvesting. I carry the fear with me, but I can’t let it stop me. I can’t over state how vital the relentlessness of farming work is to my soul. If I didn’t have to haul water to the pigs today, I might become trapped in the fear. But I do. So I pull on my boots, drag the hose to the buckets, and bring the pigs their water. Whether it is raining or snowing, blazing sun or dim with clouds, whether I want to or not, I go. And I’ll wake up tomorrow and do it again.
It is a discipline for sure, and a prayer of a sort, in that all our work can be a prayer to God. My work is a prayer that I will eat well and feed my children well, a prayer for this land that I steward, a prayer for my community I feed with the vegetables and meat I produce, a prayer for the well-being of my animals, and prayer that I will faithfully fulfill God’s command to keep and till the earth. And in that prayer, God lifts my fear, ever so slightly. I do not succumb to the fear, my prayer, my work move me forward with God.

Soul Prep

In one of the Facebook groups I follow related to market gardening someone recently posted a question about soil prep, but with a wonderful typo, “How deep should I dig for soul prep?” In my experience, this is by far the better question.

 
My first garden was a 4×4 raised bed in our mostly shaded backyard in Atlanta. Bones had a book called Square Foot Gardening that I read cover to cover before embarking on my gardening journey. I planned my little garden out meticulously, on graph paper, hoping to cram as much into that tiny space as possible. A small corner of our yard got a decent amount of sun, but had a large bush growing in it. Ever supportive of my projects, Bones spent a whole weekend digging out the deep roots of that bush to make way for my garden. We built up the bed, filled it with good soil, and laid out the square grid with string. A local community gardening project had their annual plant sale so we hitched up the trailer to my bike (we liked to bike around town in those days) and pedaled off to get our very first plants.

 
At the sale I picked out 2 tomato plants, a pepper, an eggplant, some herbs and some onions. I also grabbed several packets of seeds for green beans, carrots and spinach. We nestled the plants into the trailer, trying to secure them for the bumpy ride and then set off back home. The streets of Decatur can be quite a rough ride. Coming up a hill on a quiet side street I hit the edge of one of the infamous steel plates used to cover pot holes and unfinished construction on the roadways. Although my bike held steady, the trailer clipped the edge and tipped over, spilling my precious plants onto the street. We gathered them up, pressing the soil back in around the young starts, righted the trailer and set off again.

 
Once home, I carefully planted and watered, following the instructions from my book precisely. I dreamed about the bountiful harvest that awaited. I tended my garden faithfully over the next weeks, excited with each sign of life and growth. In the end, the harvest was not abundant. We got a few tomatoes, enough to make a few tomato sandwiches. Maybe a handful of green beans. No carrots, no spinach, no peppers and perhaps one eggplant. I’m not even sure why I planted the eggplant because neither of us like to eat eggplant! Turns out what I thought was decent sunlight was not nearly enough hours during the day to support vigorous vegetable growth. I also had much to learn about timing and seasons; carrots and spinach don’t do well in the hot Georgia summers. Still, tasting my first homegrown tomato had me hooked.

 
That garden was 13 summers ago. I suppose it is trite to say so much has changed since then, still it is true. We’ve moved twice, got married, had two kids, and changed jobs numerous times. What started as a 4×4 raised bed in my backyard hobby is now a 25 acre farm with 4 species of livestock, a half-acre blueberry orchard and 1/2 acre of vegetable production – a more than full time job. As impressive as those details are, they just scratch the surface. The change runs much deeper.

 
The garden is where I go when other places in my life become unbearable. I’d say it is cheaper than therapy, but I just ordered this year’s seeds and well, I might be better off financially if I just went to therapy. But nothing soothes my soul like working up a good sweat in the garden, the sun shining down on me, soil in my hands, complete physical exhaustion. I joke that some moms like a glass of wine at the end of the day to decompress after the kids have gone to bed, but I just need an hour in the garden weed whacking the paths to set me right again. I remember one fight Bones and I had, actually I don’t remember the fight it was probably trivial, I just remember being so angry I couldn’t think straight, so I headed down to the garden and weeded ruthlessly until the garden and my soul were free from the stranglehold and weeds and anger.

 
As someone who cares about the state of the world, longs to make a difference and gets involved in all the ways I can, I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Like the popular Facebook meme says, “My desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane.” My personal overwhelm does nothing to fix the world, in fact the overwhelm leads to a sort of paralysis in which I disengage from the causes I care so much about. I’ve learned instead that my best response to feelings of overwhelm is to either dig a hole or turn the compost pile. The physical exhaustion that comes from these two activities leaves little room for anxiety induced paralysis. Instead, I find the physical exertion allows my mind to wander in more constructive pathways. Each pitchfork full of refuse – garden waste, leaves, soiled animal bedding, manure – gets turned, exposed to heat and microbes, and eventually broken down into something useful, full of life.

 
I can’t solve the world’s problems, sometimes I can’t even solve my own, but I can turn a compost pile. With that compost I can grow healthy food to feed my community. With that compost I am caring for the 25 acres of this earth I am blessed to steward. With that compost I am reducing my negative impact on this earth with less waste, less tillage, less fossil fuel consumption. With that compost I am keeping nitrogen heavy manure from entering and polluting our watershed. With that compost the demons of anxiety and overwhelm that so often rage inside of me are quieted allowing me to be present for my kids, for my spouse, for my friends, for my community. With that compost I turn the anger and fear into words of hope and encouragement for my congregation.

 
So how deep do you have to dig for soul prep? If I ever finish digging, I’ll let you know.

Carrot Seeds

The parable of the mustard seed drives me a bit batty. It’s not the smallest seed. Basil is considerably smaller and lavender seeds are impossibly tiny. Also, it does not grow into a big bush. Perhaps the mustard of Jesus’ day was just bigger than the mustard I know, who knows. I mean, I get the point of the parable, but if I had to choose a seed it would be a carrot seed. It is just as small as a mustard seed, but where as you can just toss a mustard seed wherever, forget about it and still get decent results, carrot seeds need tending and care. They can take as much as three weeks to germinate and they need daily watering till they do. Meanwhile the fast growing weeds can quickly choke out the delicate carrot seedlings. But the end result is so worth it, sweet and nutritious, especially fall carrots that make it through a freeze.
That’s more what faith is to me. A seed that needs daily care and nurturing to realize the fullness of its life-giving potential, made sweeter after weathering the harshness of life.
I had to waste a considerable amount of carrot seed before I got a decent bed of carrots. Last summer I planted carrots three times before finally reaching success. The first bed I planted about a week before going away for a few days. I came back to a severely, dry cracked bed and no matter how much I watered, the seeds never germinated. The next planting I tried to correct by watering a little everyday, but a month later, still no seedlings in sight. I resigned myself to one more planting. This time I found a length of soaker hose and ran it every day for an hour. Success! Though perhaps a month too late. The carrots were delicious but just didn’t get big enough before winter stunted their growth. However, I finally had a recipe for success. Subsequent carrot sowings have been more successful, though I still lose some to weeds.
I am a person of faith today because of all the people in my life who have watered and tended the carrot seeds of my faith over the course of my life. I don’t have some dramatic story of losing my faith and coming back to it, or finding faith after years of searching, or any trauma or major life event that forged my faith in the fire so to speak. Instead it has been the slow, steady watering by many faithful souls along the way. Is that a story worth reading about? I hope so, because I think it is true for many folks. Ordinary lives, lived faithfully.

Folks often suggest that I write a book about my adventures in farming. Perhaps I will one day. For now though, I have lots of stories to share, reflections on food and farming and how I find faith in the midst. I’m not a great photographer and I doubt you’ll find any earth shattering new insights here, but I hope you’ll find some carrot seeds for your own faith.