Angels in the Fields

Angels in the Fields May 15, 2012

Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living . . .
~ The Who, “Teenage Wasteland”

Today is the feast day of the man usually known in English as St Isidore the Farmer.

I don’t know much about farming, even though I’ve lived my life in two major agricultural states. Growing up in California, what I saw of farming was the view out the station wagon windows driving north on 101, El Camino Real, from Los Angeles to San Francisco for family vacations. In the 1950s, that view grew rural right outside the city limits, with fields of lettuce and strawberries, soybeans and rapeseed (canola) stretching wide from the highway to the distant, crouching mountains. There’s little of that view left today, with housing tracts and roadside development now making that part of the state one megacity from north to south, but the fields are still there behind it all. For sustenance, they draw on two perpetual streams: water channeled from the lakes and snowmelt of the north, workers from Mexico to the south. Both are problematic and endangered.

When I made the decision to move to Ohio in 1996, one of the tipping points was the ability to be surrounded by green and subject to the turning of the seasons. Nowhere in Dayton is further than a 15-minute drive from farms and fields and orchards full of seasonal bounty. I saw my first Swiss-roll hay bales in the fields between Dayton and Yellow Springs. For the first time, I worked with people whose kids raised pigs and meat rabbits for 4-H. In late summer, I can walk across the downtown street from my house to the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and see the results for myself. Farming in this part of Ohio is still very much a family affair, as opposed to the agribusiness machine that California has become, but there’s one thing the two states have in common, the reason that Dayton now has real Mexican food: dependence on migrant labor, mostly from Mexico.

St Isidore is the patron of farmers, but he was not a farmer. He was a day laborer, a desperately poor peasant who eked out a living selling his muscle and sweat to his patron in 12th-century Madrid. In Spanish, that fact is recognized: he is San Ysidro Labrador, St Isidore the Laborer. Isidore’s reputation for sanctity is rooted in his essential goodheartedness and love for God’s creation. Pious legends tell of his kneeling in the fields while angels did his plowing for him, or of angels’ plowing side by side with him so that he did the work of three men. Isidore was married. His wife is also a saint, known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, St Mary of the Head, because her preserved head is carried in procession as a remedy against drought.

Today, when the plight of migrant workers continues to be as perilous as it was in Isidore’s day, or in the days of our own American Dust Bowl, or when Mexican migrant workers were killed in the plane crash at Los Gatos immortalized by Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” or when Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez fought for the rights of grape and lettuce workers, I ask Isidore’s intercession for those who put their backs into our living.

Today, when immigration, illegal or legal–especially from Mexico–is such a divisive issue, I remember that the busiest border crossing in the world is south of San Diego, CA, in the little community known as San Ysidro, and I ask for some of the saint’s compassion and humility to inform our continuing conversation.

Today, when I look forward to the taste of summer tomatoes and sweet corn, and savor the slow food and locovore movements with their attention to fresh food, locally grown, in season, with attention to the health of all who grow and consume it, I ask God’s blessing on the farms and the fields and those who own and work them.

And while we’re at it, Santa Maria de la Cabeza, preserve us from drought: of water, of mercy, of health, of concern for all God’s creatures.
If you have a chance today, get out to a farm or field, and give thanks for the angels God sends to plow them.

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