I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. [Henry David Thoreau]
I have had the good fortune to be a homeowner since 1999. “Owning” (I use the term advisedly) a piece of land has provided the impetus for reconnecting with the Earth. One of the things I set out to do was to “grow my own”, and to start a gradual return from the industrialised insanity of consumerism.
By this I mean, I wanted to set an achievable target of the amount of food I consumed off my own land and by my own hand, rather than merely bought via a corporate supply chain. I set the goal at 1% for the first year. It’s now nearly 10 years later and I am nowhere near that.
My family and I moved in 2006, settling in Cape Town. I restarted my program, breaking the earth from scratch. Despite the failings against my goals, my inner rationale for connection to nature has only grown. It is my conviction that any journey towards God is a journey through Nature. I recently quoted Thomas Aquinas: “A mistake about Creation results in a mistake about God.” I find this fact curiously absorbing.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, in “Pied Beauty”, describes Nature in her abundant diversity, as pervading both the wild and the tamed:
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
My agricultural revolution is playing an important role in my life.
- As an emerging culture, we are trying to recover from the effects of over-industrialisation. This means that we are alienated from, to use Marxian terms, the “means of production”. I feel this alienation keenly, as a negative spiritual condition.
- We are also trying to re-appropriate a view of the Divine as inherent within all things, and not a predominantly transcendent “other”. When I actively engage in nature, be it to merely admire and be present in it, or to work with it and its processes, I am engaging God.
- I am rediscovering toil, and appreciating how hard it actually is to simply grow a few vegetables. This sense is all but lost in this age of “easy” produce.
- I am benefitting greatly from using my body in a non-artificial way. I’m sore, but getting fitter by the day in the cosmic gymnasium.
- I am becoming increasingly intimate with the processes of life. This includes planting seeds and tending them, digging the soil and removing rocks and roots, curating a decay system and producing rich nutrient, burning dead material, together with the regular duties of the agriculturalist.
I have a neighbor who has lived here for over 30 years, and he has been giving me local natural histories, of the trees and of the land. Apparently we live on a slope which was once a vineyard, called “Hardeklip” (hard stone). It is composed of mostly red clay, and thus needs substantial enrichment. Particular knowledge like his is becoming extinct, awash as we are with the global, the universal, the abstract and the virtual. What is the Incarnation, the Advent, and Nature herself, but a particularisation of the Eternal God?
As Henry David Thoreau taught some 150 years ago, a life of balance requires deliberate action. His retired from “civilisation” for 2 years, during which he wrote his most famous memoir “Walden”. In its conclusion he observes:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment;
that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
But for me this process is in essence, Liturgy, “the work of the people”. In my thinking it is integral to community, creativity and the Sacred. Hopkins assents, ending off his poem with the words:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: