by Paul Clever

I lowered the plow to the furrow in our new four acre field.  The plow, made for another job fifty years ago, would not stay straight. It floated from one side of the hill to another as it vacillated between turning up potatoes and vacant dirt. Forward and backward, I made sure the plow did its job and hit the missed spaces. Neck strained and agitated, I could not fail to notice my brothers and sisters sifting through clumps of soil for a meager harvest.  “Don’t even bother harvesting this year”, my friend said. We had failed on our new four acre field.

Late summer always makes me think of Ecclesiastes.  The body is tired from a long season of work and the heat has finally taken its toll. Yet there is still much more work to do. It is the peak harvest season, canning brings long days by the hot stove, and fall planting must be underway. I begin to think of killing frosts and the short days of winter. Added is the present contemplation of many farm failures. What other book than Ecclesiastes could console my nihilistic tendencies. “All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” I always hear this passage in the miserable heat. Certainly the voice is loud now as I contemplate my own failure. The author, Koheleth, looks far beyond my failure. He wistfully questions the meaning of my work. He reminds me, like all those who have tried in this same soil, that a “generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever”.

We had such enthusiasm. It came, like so many things, as an act of grace. A random conversation followed by a phone call and a major development company allowed us to use this land. I began estimating the bountiful harvests while spending hours, mowing, plowing, and tilling. The planting was joyous as many volunteers turned up to put the seeds and tubers in the ground. We ran our hoes over the field numerous times with giant crews of laborers. It was a thing to behold, fifteen people working together, cultivating the land by hand. 

This beautiful bottom land had not been planted in many years.  Several generations made their life here. Farmers once alternated between hay, row crops, and pasture. A decade ago, when all the other farmhouses on Armitage but ours had crumbled away, a farmer rented it to grow his corn.  Brome grass predominates now, a sign of mineral deficiency that often comes from overplanting corn.  Brambles and honeysuckle also now hold sway. They forgot to take notice when the land was bought by a large development.  They grew strong while the owner failed to find investors to “plant” a golf course.   We now had a turn.

At some point the weeds won. The seeds, strong and resilient, seemingly remembered their wild parents with a fierce desire to regain their hold.  We eventually retreated to our one acre garden by the house, trying our best not to think of the weeds’ increasing stranglehold.  The ragweed was chest high before I mowed it down.  We would be lucky to get back what we planted.

It is easy gathering in abundant fields swollen with pride.  Your hands fill bags upon bags, knowing that not only will you help feed many people, but you, good farmer, brought it to fruition. It is much harder mining through your failure, sifting through scattered golf ball sized potatoes. The rows keep getter longer while you think “what is the use”.  Even though there are still enough potatoes buried to feed dozens of family through the winter, I want to forget the fact that I failed.

What does it mean to fail? Many people before me have tried to bring something up from these quiet acres.  You can barely find the foundations of their houses today and few even remember the names of the families that inhabited them. Did they fail? Millions have been spent to bring about a “golf course community”, yet the deer and groundhog seem to be the only creatures making use of the open greens. Is this too a failure? Now on this tractor, I contemplate another failure as we fall far short of our promise.

Back to Ecclesiastes, I do not think I could live with the author Koheleth. At some point, I would simply stop waking up. While I love Ecclesiastes, I must remember our Gospels are much richer.  We worship life, death, and resurrection with a God who has been made flesh.  And yes, there is meaning to our work, only this meaning is much more complicated than the Koheleth’s dead ends allow.  Jesus teaches that the first will be last and blessed are the meek. We are not given a simple outcome based evaluation. In fact, we can even count among our blessings the persecutions we encounter in Christ’s name.

How then do we measure success or failure?

I think it is important to say flat out that we did fail. There is nothing to say that can explain that away. We did not fail because the harvest was not plentiful.  We did not fail because we employ less efficient practices.  We did not fail because we did not erect a lasting monument.  Our failure was one of discernment. We failed to realize our limits. We allowed ourselves to be caught up in hurried work for the promise of tripled yields. We were not the good soil.

As a farmer, I often think about the parable of the sower.  I have come to know a few things about soil. I have learned to judge tilth, depth, and well cultivated from compacted, thin, and brambled soil.   I have learned a few things about building good soil. It is long slow work. It is said it takes a hundred years to create an inch of top soil.  I have also learned it is deeply mysterious.  Its smell in the spring can quicken your heart. Its feel between your fingers can be like rosary beads. Its yield will always be better contemplated by faith than chemistry.

We failed because our vision for our new field did not build the good soil. Success or failure is about hearing God. We were shallow and thin. The sower sows the word, and we must have the depth to hear, receive, and bring forth fruit. Discernment is our constant work.  It is the hearing, receiving, and bringing forth. Too often we listen for the only big words and forget we must listen for the continuous word. While we received the gift of this new land, we quickly became too busy to hear let alone abundantly harvest. The deep soil is not only about individuals it is also pertains to the body of Christ. Koheleth was a tourist looking for short term validation. Koheleth could not fathom the slow work of building soil. We build soil for many generations. Our “success” will never be deemed any great thing. We build the soil so the Word can be heard and, if we are lucky, take root.  We must dig down and commit to our place.  Our work starts with hearing.

Paul Clever is founder of the Good Earth Farm and the Common Friars. He now assists more than he works and recently won the laziest farmer award. He is also an Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow.

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