by Danile Martens

That connection between enlightenment and house holding…forces us onto rougher ground than that of the smooth purists— but it gives us traction.

Wendell Berry to Gary Snyder in A Distant Neighbor


These days the work becomes more rigorous: lifting and tossing damaged hay, moving soil, bending and stooping to prepare ground for planting.   It is true that spring’s coming can be enjoyed from behind glass windows, or at one’s ease on patio or deck: the barely perceptible softening and greening of fine branches, the emerging bulbs and flowers.  It is pleasant to take a walk through woods wildflowers, hearing songbirds, feeling the warm air currents; but the immersion experience of house-holding in spring is rougher terrain. The body feels the increase of activity and complains in joints and old injuries. Mud and animal shit are tenacious and abundant. One’s hands dry and are darkly lined in creases.

Mucking in spring, as opposed to viewing it, is participating in the rush of growth and disposition of fecundity.  Having one’s hands and nose in the soil, makes emerging from it into warmth and light that much brighter.

The tended garden provides traction of many kinds:  Laying leaf mold mulch between the rows of seeds recalls shuffling in fall under the trees of the woodlot. Strategizing inducements to attract the beneficial tiny helpers of the topsoil— fungi, bacteria, insects, worms– reminds me that I am not alone in my endeavor.  I appreciate the view from the earthen row of the sprinkling of tiny birds against the blue heaven.  Planting, I am one with the soil.

The outsourced life, on the other hand, misses these anchoring activities. Life is derived from commodities provided by others’ ingenuity and strategy.  Goods and services are disconnected from biological cycles, as well as from familial sympathy and generational forethought. Entering physically into the larger themes of life and death, infolding and unfolding, allows one to hitch to the Great Life through which one is connected to all that is.  Seasonal changes and the weather become the backdrop of success or failure of a crop, and a measure of reasonable labor or daily exhaustion. The inevitable dry period, short or long, enters one’s bones, and its end comes as mercy.  Farming, we join ourselves to the earth, acknowledging its discipline.

Traction also comes from limitation: I can do this much, but further affect is beyond my power. Superstitions and petitions are equally unavailing: one simply waits and watches for the rains. We can supply moisture in the meantime by contrivance, but we are always aware that irrigation and rain are separated by orders of magnitude.

There is the daily pull against the earth’s fecundity: life constantly rising.   We must have it or die, and yet, some interference on the crop’s behalf to the ever-growing weeds, the constant pressure of marauders, is necessary. Traction becomes, literally, planting feet to dig or chop or pull against the earth.

Enlightenment is tethered, referenced: by what effort today will I receive the gift of daily bread?. What grace will be creased with soil and drenched with sweat? By what exertion will my soul rise up in gratitude for what is given?


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