catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 8 :: 2008.04.18 — 2008.05.02


Practicing Resurrection at Russet House Farm

Editor’s Note:
This piece, a report on the Practicing Resurrection conference in 2006, was originally published in the October 2006 newsletter of the Christian Reformed Campus Ministry Association.  The theme for Practicing Resurrection 2008 will be home economics, with Brian Walsh giving the keynote address and workshops on canning, design, aboriginal issues, homelessness, immigration, bread making, gardening and more.


Brian Walsh, one of our CRC campus ministers at the University of Toronto, recently moved to the Russet House Farm near Lindsay, Ontario, with his wife, children, and three other households.  With a long string of sponsors (including six Christian colleges), this agrarian collective hosted a week of camping ending in a weekend conference celebrating the gift of sustainable living (August 7-13, 2006). 

Much of the administration and promotion was done by the still-young *culture is not optional group, whose bi-weekly Christian magazine catapult comes out of Michigan through Rob and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma.  They refer to this week at the Russet House Farm as their annual “camping is not optional” event (even though some guests did sleep in houses nearby…).


Practicing Wendell Berry

The theme of the conference was “Practicing Resurrection,” a reference to the final line of a poem about pursuing sustainable culture by Christian farmer-poet Wendell Berry.  The poem is entitled, “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” and begins sarcastically by saying:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

Then the poem suddenly turns around and becomes an eloquent call for a life that “doesn’t compute” but rather seeks to “invest in the millennium, plant sequoias.”  If “stewardship” was the buzzword of a Christian conscience in years past, its more recent cousin “sustainability” is the theme that ties this community together. 

Sustainability, according to a Russet House blog and the Oxford Dictionary, conserves an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources in a particular neighborhood.  “Our Common Future” (published in 1983 by the World Commission on Environment and Development) defined it as development that “seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”  To paraphrase Wendell Berry, sustainability is “not to shake more than you can hold.”

The keynote speaker of the conference was Norman Wirzba, a philosophy professor from Georgetown College in Kentucky who had edited a book of Berry’s essays entitled The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2002).  He spoke movingly on themes of ecology, Sabbath, and beauty in the context of a world that is being made ugly by greed and a disregard for life.  He said that modern culture has marginalized beauty, and so that beauty no longer is able to call us to a deep attentiveness that cares for the creation.  “We are less likely to destroy what we find beautiful,” he suggested.

Henry Bakker, a Dordt graduate and farmer gifted in the theatre arts, is the main farmer of the commune. Bakker says the goal of the farm is to apprentice people in “being creatures” because, in Norman Wirzba’s words, we have lost the art of being creatures.  Says Wirzba:

We cannot be authentic creatures so long as we despise the limits and possibilities of creation, or deny or degrade the biological, ecological, and social networks of relationship that permeate and bless our life together. What we need are to devise apprenticeships that lead us ever more deeply into the requirements of creaturely life, requirements of attention, patience, nurture, and protection. From these apprenticeships there will follow an honest humility and a grateful mind, a heart that celebrates the gifts of God that we are to each other.*

This is a small window into what the conference and the farm are trying to do.  It is not just another isolated back-to-the-land commune.  It is part of an educational movement promoting Christian discipleship and Christian community living in a globalized capitalist economy.


Practicing Sustainability

While concepts deeply buried in theoretical frameworks like “empire” and “ecology” were regular fare in discussions, the focus of the weekend was praxis.  Workshops were held on such practical life skills as canning, gardening, farming, eco-touring, the buying of objects and food and art-making.   It was “down-to-earth” in every sense of the phrase.

The farm itself, of course, is a model of sustainability.  Run by solar and wind energy, it consumes no power from the Ontario Hydro grid.  Wood stoves burn wood gathered locally for warmth in winter.  The chicken coop and duck house are straw bale constructions and a small hut (the “Cob Cottage” where Brian does his writing) is made from straw and mud.  The few head of cattle are Kerry cows—a rare breed from Ireland that is in danger of extinction.  They have a giant, diverse vegetable garden, full of tomatoes, raspberries, onions, garlic, cucumbers, brussel sprouts and some long rows of potatoes (the latter of which will be sold to some high end Toronto restaurants who prefer organic vegetables).

The facilities for the weekend were focused on sustainability, including the toilets and wash houses.  The picnic tables were made and purchased locally.  Even the big banquet meal Saturday night was a feast of all locally grown food—corn, beans, cucumbers, carrots, and chicken.  Forty-three chickens had been bought as small chicks in March and fed organic grains through the spring and summer.  They had been slaughtered earlier in the week by some local Amish folks and we barbequed them all over a giant fire pit.  It was a grand celebration of the gifts of the good earth.


Practicing Community

A big emphasis of the weekend was “practicing community.”  Quite a few children were present and there were many activities planned for them.  There were also a few retired couples present, mixing with the mostly younger crowd, putting the group at capacity, which was about one hundred.  Picnic tables were arranged in the camping area under a large makeshift canopy and it was here that many people met, prepared food side-by-side and shared meals as the Spirit led.

There was a community celebration time in the evenings, Saturday night being a talent night “hoe down” jam session, with amps and guitars powered by the sun and wind (until the power ran out and they had to switch to a generator).  There was singing, dancing and song-sharing for all ages, with regular Bruce Cockburn interludes.

The weekend ended with a worship service, which, except for the band, was led by the women present.  Sylvia Keesmaat (married to Brian) provided the overarching narrative for the service by telling the biblical story through the role of water in creation, fall, redemption, and reconciliation.  In between her narrative pieces, Scriptures would be read and “offerings of water” would be given—mostly from those who had come from or traveled to far away places in the last year.  They came to the front with their small containers of water and would describe where the water came from, explain its relationship to its local culture and thank God for its graces.  In the end, after communion, the water was poured out and returned to the land.


Practicing Consciousness and Conscience

For those who are not already deeply woven into the theory and practice of this farm community, the question naturally arises:  How much of what I’m learning here is an indictment of the life I live?  How much of what I’m seeing is this community’s particular way of being faithful, and how much of it is a call to faithfulness for every citizen of the planet?    

I was only there two days, so my idyllic impressions omit much.  The work is undoubtedly hard, the distances from friends and family are significant and relationships on the farm must be tense at times.  The brokenness and folly of sin are not confined to the structures of modern urban living.  But that is where the double meaning of “practicing” is especially apt.  We “practice” resurrection, meaning we rehearse it, repeat it, exercise it, hoping each time to reach a new level of sanctified living.  Resurrection life is a Holy Spirit art, and we are eternally “practicing” the rich, new life in our own neighborhoods, never “getting it right.”

Not everyone on the planet can have 50 acres of arable land, high efficiency wood stoves and solar panels.  But the globe is warming, our lake water is no longer drinkable and most children have no idea where sausages come from.  Russet House Farm is not the solution to all that ails the planet, but it does raise our awareness of our modern “nature deficit disorder” and impress us with the urgent call to stewardship of the resources with which God has gifted us.  We currently do not live within the limits of sustainability, and we need to re-learn how to live with the land that immediately surrounds us.  We need to learn to say “enough.”

Wendell Berry has said that there is nothing inevitable about the course of industrial society (and so-called “progress”).  There can be no “post-agricultural society”—unless we can live without eating, drinking and breathing.  Still, we cannot all be farmers; but we all need to be able to imagine a different way of living, a way of living that is in tune with the land that surrounds us.  Russet House Farm can help us imagine alternatives, help us learn about our food and waste and inspire us to keep in touch with the agrarian culture on which we all depend.  They have joined the “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” and call us to take notice of the land.


Practicing the Kingdom of God

Later in Berry’s poem he suggests a subversive, apocalyptic happiness, which comes easily in a place like the Russet House Farm woods:

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

They are considering all the facts of global economics at Russet House Farm and yet they live with a sense of celebration.  There is a vitality that comes from living so intentionally, so close to the source of sustenance, so close to the cycles of birth and death in creation. 

I deeply appreciate what the community at Russet House Farm is trying to do.  Sure, they still use tractors, and they have to drive pretty much everywhere they need to go, but their “footprint” on the earth will certainly be much lighter than the rest of the population of this country.  Hopefully, by apprenticing scores of people from the cities in the art of being creatures, they will draw many much closer to “practice” living in God’s kingdom of shalom, a culture of care and harmony with all creatures of earth and sky.


  • This quote is from a presentation given by Norman Wirzba at Calvin College earlier this year titled “Agrarianism After Modernity.”

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