by Erin Martineau
I started farming at 38. Sick of the city, the mountains of trash, the race to consume, I found myself agreeing to an overnight getaway at a farm run by nuns. I’d stopped going to church at 15, furious with the politics and the histories, but I’d married someone who’d been able to see beyond the Church’s transgressions. Through her, I’d made an uneasy peace with a version of Christianity, and so there I was, at a convent-cum-farm. With a snarky, world-weary antipathy, I informed my partner that I would not go to chapel, and that I just couldn’t imagine hanging out with nuns. Left to my own devices, surrounded by quiet, I slept late, and long, nearly 12 hours. Maybe my resistance was lowered after that marathon rest, but I couldn’t help but notice, at the communal lunch with the sisters, that these were whip-smart, witty, visionary women with dead-on sociopolitical analyses.
I started to relax. And then I got introduced to the garden. Week after week, I returned to the farm, taking the train out of the city, happy to join the throngs of commuters I had once sneered at. In the quiet of the fields, digging out rocks or planting celery or hand-picking bean beetles, I felt part of something immense, something thrumming with life. That sense of connection was more gratifying and nourishing than earning my PhD, than keeping my salary and 401k, than wearing my funky shoes and getting my passport stamped. I left my job, moved to the guesthouse, and have never regretted it since.
Now I’m in the middle of my third season as a farmer, no longer at the convent, but at an even more rural location in western Massachusetts. Here I’m learning to build as well as farm, to see myself as a “maker.” City friends have asked me if I ever get bored, out here in the hills. It’s hard not to laugh at the question; there’s so much to learn, and I’m contentedly exhausted each day. No more Ambien—it’s just no longer necessary.
But it’s not sufficient to say that I’m just busy learning. The truth is I’m not bored because I’m deeply satisfied. I think, now, that all those cocktails and fancy shoes were signs of a kind of spiritual malaise, masked as a consumerist cosmopolitanism. It might seem silly, but the satisfaction of growing your own potatoes, making your own yogurt, or building your own shed cannot be underestimated. (For a substantial exploration of this notion, by a political philosopher and bike mechanic, see Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work). There’s a part of me, a deep-down-primal part of me, which recognizes these activities as part of what makes me human. I recognize my drive to create as part of my creatureliness. And feeling more truly human, at some kind of cellular soul level, somehow awakens my sense of the metaphysical.
Even at this small scale, on less than an acre of land, working primarily with hand tools and muscles, I feel more connected to life, to Earth, to the stars and the Moon, than I ever had before. In the pews, the chapels, the churches big and small, God always seemed like a thing apart, someone separate, distant from myself. In the fields, I can feel the whole Universe vibrate, and I feel that I am part of it all. I can marvel at the symmetry and beauty of a slice of tomato, of a head of cabbage halved.
Some clichés hold true: Working in the field can be meditative. You can get into a Zen-like state while weeding. Looking up at skies that are threatening hail can be humbling. But, more than any cliché, realizing that the farmer doesn’t really grow food—that it grows itself, and we are just handmaidens to the harvest—can be revelatory. The drive of life to reproduce—to flower, to set seed, to die and to bloom again—is overwhelmingly powerful. Farmers try to shape a little bit of that life force to our own purposes, to glean a little from the abundance of the Earth. To know this is far more than humbling, it is awesome.
The spirituality of farming takes many shapes, is spoken of by many voices. Theologian Ellen Davis writes of the role of agriculture in the formation of the Bible; author Wendell Berry has written essays and poems about agrarianism, the environment, our local communities and our souls; farmer-activist-educator Joel Salatin does not shy away from speaking in spiritual terms about farming. And across the US, young people are coming together to create communities dedicated to farming and living out spiritual values—some with chapels and service missions, like Good Earth Farm which grows specifically for food pantries—and others less overtly religious or programmatic.
For me, it began with just being thankful for the chance to align my values with my actions—rather than sending a complaint to a company about wasteful packaging, I could harvest my food without using any plastic at all. Without needing to scan labels and boycott certain producers, I could be assured that my food was healthful and pesticide-free. I could use my dollars to support seed companies committed to preserving open-pollinated, rare varieties. I didn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of local conventional produce against organics trucked from California. It might not look like spirituality to some, but being able to leave behind those decisions and conflicts has been good for my soul. But most of all, growing food gave me a chance to feel like a part of the whole, in the flow of the Universe.
I could put my anthropologist’s hat back on, and do some research about the growing numbers of young people eschewing more conventional paths for farming, the growing interest in homesteading, in permaculture. I could point you to a couple other farmers who’ve also left successful knowledge-economy careers, who have similarly found farming more satisfying, more meaningful. You could join me and we could interview the Greenhorns, the WWOOFers, those seeking land and experience through Landlinks, the folks moving to Detroit and other post-industrial cities to help build urban farms, the organizers of BeginningFarmers.org, those agitating against GMOs, lobbying for a better farm bill, a better food bill, more land trusts. Some of them, I’m sure, would speak of their passion in spiritual terms. There’s work to be done, interesting analyses to be made. But I’m going to leave that to someone else. I’m going out to weed the back field, repair the fence where the rabbit got in, and uncover the mounds of squash plants that are pressing up against their row covers. Six a.m., birdsong, and dew—these are like prayers, they rub away my calluses, they make me raw, make me new.