“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.” ~ Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
What Wendell Berry said in that last paragraph is basically the whole purpose of our “Season of Creation,” that we embark on every year. Our worship on Sunday is a weekly prompt and a reminder for our worshippers to “grow humble before the place and begin to take it in—to learn from it what it is.” We celebrate a particular aspect of creation, and this coming Sunday, when we’re focusing on “Land,” it is perhaps an ideal time to hear from Wendell Berry, who is a farmer/poet/theologian/sociologist/novelist. I hope some of you may have had an opportunity to hear him in person when he came to Tulsa in December of 2012 to receive the Tulsa Library Trust’s Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. I wasn’t there to see him, and I’ve been hitting my forehead with my palm ever since at the mention of his name.
“Understanding what the land is” is a human task that we’ve become quite distanced from in modern urban society. Dig a hole, and you can become a little more acquainted with the task. I marveled at Wesley’s persistence in digging a hole in our front yard a few months ago to make way for our new Chinese Pistache we were putting in the footprint of the Live Oak that died in our front yard and had to be cut down. This became a difficult task when we kept running into the old dead roots of that tree. Though it had been cut and even ground down past the surface—its rotting roots still presented us with limited room for a new hole for the new tree. I find the same thing happens when I think I “cut off” a behavior that I find undesirable. Sometimes, the latent “roots” of that behavior or attitude continue to dwell and rot under the surface and I have to find a way around the resentment, heartache, or fears in order to make a hole for something new to take root. The guy at the nursery said that pouring nitrogen down in the hole would be a good idea, because the rotting roots of the old tree will rob the soil of nitrogen, and that’s what would really prompt the new tree to grow. Once it does though, the new tree will just wind its roots around and find a place.
We deal with this “old roots” issue societally as well—any new hole for a new tree usually runs into the old roots of the old dead one. We’ve got to be persistent to keep digging around and find a spot that will work. Roots grow fairly quickly and so if something is growing that we don’t want in the garden, you’d better nab it quickly upon noticing it, or it might turn into a fairly stubborn opponent—I’ve noticed that even both hands around a fairly benign looking sapling and pulling from a squat position like my old high school football/weight lifting coach (back straight!) isn’t enough to dislodge it. To me, that translates to a spiritual point of view as well. We must be attentive and vigilant about the “unwanted saplings” that “spring up” in the garden of our heart. They will become difficult or impossible to uproot sooner than we might expect! So, understand what the land is—not just the land around us, but the land within us.