Tied Up With the Soil and Human Work

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Slow Living. Read other perspectives here.

The wild blueberries of Northern Michigan hold a nearly mythological character for me. Their coming seems to change the nature of the forest. They coat the landscape, roots reaching deep into the dark sandy soil, being nourished by the acidic needles that fall from the evergreens overhead. The magnitude of their ripening in late summer is mystifying to behold. They serve as a reference point firmly planted in my childhood — camping in these forests and waking up to blueberry concocted breakfasts cooking in cast iron over the morning fire, or the hours spent (many times reluctantly) picking them the evening before.

Now as my children grow, I watch as that same look of fervor comes into their eyes, realizing what surrounds them on all sides, stretching further than they can see. The fields and forests of northern Michigan seemed to be the place that always reminded us, or taught us rather, the virtue of good, slow simplicity. I suppose then it is not too unexpected that it was a conversation about this land and these same blueberries that lead Holly and me to drop nearly everything and move our family to northern Michigan to live on the land.

Only a few months ago, I was a doctoral student in Theology. It was a profoundly demanding program, and one that I loved. It pushed me, stretched me beyond what I thought was the limit of my own ability. I found mentors who poured into me, and constantly challenged my assumptions, often in ways I could not have encountered elsewhere. I had entered the program out of a desire to learn and write about the theological relationship between the human person and the land, and I was. Seeking after the ideal of the worker-scholar proclaimed by Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement), Holly and I believed that the pursuit of this academic work could function as the means to the ultimate end we sought: to find ourselves living on the land, raising up our children to do the holy work of cultivation.

But as the years passed, we began to be haunted by the thought that such an end was only becoming further out of reach. The work I had desired to do in graduate school would bear little fruit if not paired with the work of my hands. There became a too thick dissonance, even an irony, in the work I was doing. While I spent nearly endless hours working at my studies, our children were getting older and (no matter our strenuous attempts otherwise) being formed by the chaotic and relentless pace of the city.

Further, I began to feel that my academic work, due to the pure volume it required, took me away from the daily life and work of my family in the home, functioning to alienate me from them as father and husband. The formation offered by the pace of graduate school and the city undoubtedly affected all of us, gnawing at our attention, distracting us from the splendor of God's good earth. The work of our hands was being spent idly. Like muscle memory lost, we were struggling to remember the vocation before us; fatigue was setting in.

And yet, not all was lost. The distraction brought by life in the city did not prevail over the alternative formation we continued to undergo. In the lives of the saints and the Eucharist, we were continually brought back to our hope to return to a more simple, slow life on the land.

As "fruit of the Earth, and work of human hands," the Eucharist is brought before God as a deeply agrarian offering. In these bold words, humbly uttered in the sacred Liturgy, we realize that our giving thanks to God and his response of giving a worthy sacrifice are both, in some way, tied up with the soil and human work. Should the earth refuse to yield its fruit, we would have no Eucharist. In the Eucharist, land and life are not estranged, nor are they commodities; they are a unity central to the Christian faith.

At one time, this sacrifice was deeply intertwined with the communities of its celebration. Wheat was grown. Vines were tended. Bread was made. Wine pressed and fermented. Ironically, in our technological milieu, we can talk about the Sacraments offering some sort of immediacy between us and God. It seems to me in a different ordering of society, one would (or maybe should) be painfully aware of how much the Sacraments actually teach us about our eschatological waiting. They are slow in their fruition. Those who tend the soil know the long yet no less active pause before the ripening of precious fruit.

Back to wild blueberries. One particular night, Holly and I were joking that whenever we did finally settle in the north, it would probably take us at least ten years to learn the art of both foraging and preserving enough wild blueberries to get us through the long winter. Ten slow years, harvesting and learning the forests, our children beside us. Ten years. It was beautiful to think about such a passing of time, paced according to the seasons.