“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Many of us heard these words at the Mass of Ash Wednesday. As a wannabe farmer, I cannot help thinking of the spring gardening season when I hear them. Instead of seeing the “dust” as only a reminder of my frail and lowly existence, I also am reminded of the promise in my existence. Like dust, the soil, I am a lowly creature of God, but also like the soil I am teaming with the possibility of life and abundance – that is if I have a receptive fertility. But, before fruitfulness comes preparation. Before Easter comes Lent. Before harvest comes the cultivation. Lent is time for preparation and the land traditionally accompanies man on this journey to Easter. If you have a backyard or a few pots on a porch, I think you might find Lent a fruitful time to prepare your garden plots as you prepare your soul for the coming festivities.
Man is a lowly creature of the earth, but also more than that, and this is expressed especially in his cultivation of the soil and the world around him. Cultivation and culture have the same root word of cult, which means “worship”. Our work (cultivation) creates a way of life (culture), and it all comes from our worship (cult) – these three realities were one thing for Adam and Eve before the fall, but now we have to work and attend to them, making sure they are integrated. This can happen in the prayerful home garden.
So yes, gardening, homesteading, and farming are uniquely human and uniquely prayerful, or at least they should be. The name “Adam” (adamah) actually means “ground” as in “soils”, and the Latin word for man homo comes from homanus – which means “earth, ground, soil”. Soil that is humus rich is fertile; souls that are humility rich are also fertile. Humus, humility, and humanity – are you seeing the connection here? Man, get your hands in the dirt from whence you came and shall return!
Nature During Lent
We can benefit greatly from having a connection with nature outside this time of year – and not only garden spaces. Getting outside and seeing the almost of nature at this point, yet still feeling the lingering chill and bareness of winter, can be a great meditation.
Despite the promissory weather,
I fear, hope and expect
the worse before the better
both in this world and the next.
(John Senior, Intimations of Purgatory in Early April)
The noble tree, who was chosen from the creatures to hold up our Lord on Good Friday, will reveal its inner springtime preparation if you damage the bark – they will ooze with the sap that is making its annual trip upward to burst out as leaves in a few weeks. But not yet. Trees are a stable and constant force that through patient endurance, through wind and storm, becomes the largest creature in the wild. They simultaneously stay rooted into the soil (which one day they too will return to) while reaching upwards to the heavens. Their hopeful but invisible inner life at this time of year is a wonderful analogy of the soul’s work in Lent. Jesus compares the soul to trees many times in the Gospel (Matthew 7:16, 12:33, Luke 6:43-44, John 15:4), so I think I can do that too while I’m on my little homestead. I have way more reason to hug a tree than a secular conservationist.
You can see the return of the birds that flew south last fall returning about now. The birds, however, are like the daffodils – they celebrate before everyone else is quite ready, like Easter decorations at the grocery store. The bees come out of the hives when the days get longer and the sun warmer, but they find little food because, again, it’s a new season, but it is still “not yet”. But, they’re hopeful.
Traditionally in the world of farming and homesteading these months are called the “hunger months”, not because everyone was fasting in Lent (though that was part of it), but because usually the winter cellar is running low, the garden may be in preparation but is not bearing fruit, and even early crops like peas and greens have to grow for quite a while before any harvest. It’s a time of hope and work, but the taste of the fruits is far away.
If you are going to get out there and prepare for a future harvest, start with your soil. I recommend a large helping of compost and mulch. The compost will bring to life all sorts of microbes and life, along with its own inherent fertility. The mulch will conceal the work going on underground. Soil is very modest –it hates to be in the nude. Soil has an inner life that simply dies or washes away if put on display too much. Like our prayer, soil’s work is best done in secret. So use mulch (straw is the best vegetable garden mulch). In fact, the very purpose of weeds is to cover up the ground fast if it gets exposed. The forest, for example, is teaming with weed seeds but they remain dormant and ready for work under all that leaf litter (mulch).
After the soil is ready it will be time to plant. And, unlike years where you impulsively bought a flat of tomatoes before you had a garden, your soil will be ready to receive the seeds. When the time comes, you can sanctify your little plot further with this prayer from The Rural Life Prayerbook:
Dear Lord, You are wonderful in everything you do. In marvelous ways You
take the full, rich life of the plant and carefully fold it into tiny
seeds. You form the seeds according to many different shapes and sizes and
colors, so that man can know what kind of growth will come of them. When
they are placed the earth they may look dry and dead, but when they are
watered by the life-giving rain and nourished by the warm sun, they lose
all their lifeless look and grow in an almost miraculous manner. By the
power You gave them, they take the dead minerals of the earth and build up
the nourishing, tasty foods that men need to sustain life.
This week, dear Lord, we will plant these seeds of (wheat, corn, or
whatever it may be) that You have given us. Bless them, and watch over
them, and bring them to the full growth and rich harvest that You wish to
bless us with.
But, should You not allow them to come to full harvest, we accept Your will
humbly. We trust that You will nevertheless watch over us and make the
seeds of grace that You have given us grow to flower and fruit in the full
Christian life that You intend for us here and hereafter. Amen.
So, yes, I think it’s a good time to start preparing the garden.