catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 16 :: 2013.09.06 — 2013.09.19


Dirty diplomacy

We live in a world that has practiced violence for generations — violence to other creatures, violence to the planet, violence to ourselves.  Yet in my garden, where I have nurtured a healthy soil-plant community, I see a model of a highly successful, non-violent system where I participate in gentle biological diplomacy rather than war.  The garden has more to teach us than just how to grow food.

Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest

It’s late summer and several hours of each week are filled with harvesting.  As I move among the beds of tomatoes, squash, beans, kale, chard, cucumbers and other edibles, I note the progress of an idea I set in motion months ago.  The plants that I defended from an early aphid infestation with a hard spray of water are now producing dozens of acorn squash, even while their leaves succumb to the powdery mildew spawned in a relatively wet, cool summer.  The space that’s been vacated by carrots and radishes are sprouting again with a second planting of arugula and lettuce.  I’ve taken many of Coleman’s ideas to heart as I seek to steward the rhythms of creation toward fruitfulness, choosing to trust in a hearty, open source layer of compost instead of Miracle-Gro and leaf mulch instead of RoundUp.  And yet there’s a violence to it all that I can’t seem to escape.  The tomato hornworm that defoliated many of the sprawling branches I neglected to tie up until almost-too-late has met its match in a wasp that kills the worm and lays eggs on its corpse so that the young will have something to feed on when they hatch.  Makes a sort of stomach-churning sense, I suppose.

Lest I get lost in the garden of my mind, back at my computer, I click on an article about Syria, where chemically-induced destruction is being visited not on quack grass, but on human beings — on children.  Yes, the garden can teach me how to be gentle with a persistently annoying neighbor, but what does it have to say to us on a geopolitical scale?  Thinning, rather than annihilating, the mint that’s worked its way into the blueberry beds as an act of biological diplomacy seems decidedly precious in light of the senseless suffering of thousands of civilians.  And yet, perhaps that’s precisely what such ordinary rhythms of life are supposed to prepare us for.  I may never know the terror of being afraid to breathe the air for fear it will kill me, but I do hope to become the sort of person who is capable of forgiving those who choose to do their worst to me.  What nourishes this capacity is not just forgiving the hornworm for doing what comes naturally, but forgiving myself for failing to mulch the potatoes in time to avoid blight or prune back the nasturtium so that it doesn’t crowd out the thyme.

There are others in the world who work at this formation from other angles.  In Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris writes of the historic monastic approach:

Imagine for a moment that the people you encounter at home, work, or school are the very people God has given you to pray with, eat with, and play with for the rest of your life.  And you are supposed to thank God for this, every day, several times a day.  This is what monastic people take on.  And what they’ve learned from this particular asceticism, in attempting to live in peace with themselves and with others, may constitute their greatest gift to us.  How radical to think that we can best know ourselves by embracing commitment, not rejecting it; by relating to others, not callously relegating them to the devilishly convenient category of “other.”

Norris’ reflections take me to the story told in the film Of Gods and Men, which is based on the actual experiences of a monastic community that chooses to stay put in Algeria in the mid-1990s amidst a growing threat of violence from religious extremists.  Woven through such ordinary tasks as growing food and tending the sick, the liturgy of the monks forms a web that is strong enough to hold them when the choice is not just between life and death, but between escape and fear.  At one point, a local official tries to convince them to leave the country out of respect for the privilege that, as foreigners, they can leave.  And yet, they stay.  “We’re like birds on a branch.  We don’t know if we’ll leave,” says one of the monks to a group of neighbors.  “We’re the birds,” one responds.  “You’re the branch.  If you go, we lose our footing.”

The story of the martyred monks of Tibhirine asks me to consider not just what the internal family systems of the garden can teach me, but the critical decision about where I, as a person of privilege, plant such a garden.  Will I invest in soil that is safe, or will I choose to till the cracks between factions, growing goodness in defiance of destruction, love in defiance of hatred, abundance in defiance of scarcity?  To be continued…  In the meantime, I’ll hold the tension like the handle of a heavy harvest basket, cherishing the opportunity to pick sun-warmed, blood-red tomatoes for the great privilege that it is, while remembering my neighbors, near and far, who are too familiar with insecurity and despair. 

Oh God, make speed to save us. 

O Lord, make haste to help us.

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