Monday, August 30, 2010

With Hands Out of the Way, the Mind Was Free to Wander

I managed to arrive in time to get in on the last of the okra harvest for the morning.  It was my second volunteer morning at Turtle Farm, and Ben and Angela were already closing in on the end of the last row by the time I arrived at 8 a.m.  There is more to come, to be sure -- okra, it turns out, is prolific -- but the nubs we left on the woody stalks will have to wait for another day.  At the end of the morning there were more raspberries to seek out and pluck off, though the rainy summer has not been kind to the bushes.

My major assignment for the morning, however, was garlic.  "German Extra Hardy garlic" to be exact, one of the stiff neck varieties.  Dug earlier in the summer, bundled and hung in the barn to dry, it was time to snip the stalks, trim the whiskery roots, and clean away the outer papers.  And, of course, cull the rotted and unappealing.  After my private tutorial, Ben and Angela and freshly arrived John headed off to a different part of the farm to pick summer squash.  The farming neophyte, I remained behind, back of the shed with my scissors, clippers, stacked bunches and collecting bins. 

The breeze was cool, the morning was quiet, the task was pleasantly manageable for a farmer's assistant equipped with my limited skill set, and there was something pleasantly meditative about the repetitive snipping and shedding.  After awhile, the hands continue the steps by rote, leaving the mind...the wander in any of a zillion directions -- at times analytically dissecting an issue; occasionally simply brooding enigmatically around and over an idea; sometimes simply lost in the morning's reverie.  The process of thumbing away the dirty outer papers of the garlic kinesthetically mirrored in my hands the analogical work underway in my mind.

A part of the allium family -- whose siblings include onions, shallots, leeks and scallions -- garlic, as even in the most inattentive culinarian knows, is an intensely fragrant bulb segmented into cloves, whose fingertip residue is want to persist even through repeated scrubbings.  Which, if you happen to like garlic, isn't all bad.  The scent can be an inviting reminder of recipes carefully flavored, company lovingly fed, or in my case, farm labor affectionately contributed...

...and a mind loosed to wander without rein.

Friday, August 27, 2010

There is Something to be Said for That

I don't get out very much.  It was only last night, while nibbling a hamburger at our neighborhood picnic, that I learned about Glen Beck's planned rally tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. -- mimicking Martin Luther King's famous moment almost 50 years ago.  Beck claims he wants to "restore honor to Washington," and if he can accomplish that with a few speeches and a weekend God bless him.  In fact, if he succeeds in Washington we might want to take him on tour, honor being an asset in short supply in any number of places around the country -- indeed, around the world. 

Based on what I read of him, however, my expectations aren't very high -- and "what I read" is all I have to go on.  I've never listened to more than a minute or so of him on the radio, and in that case he was holding himself out as a biblical scholar unencumbered with any apparent reading of it.  So I'm not sure how much he ultimately knows about honor.  He is pretty good at derision, put downs, condemnation, and insult; he seems to have a good and healthy pair of lungs, with a knack for hyperbole, half-truth, and specious generalization; and he definitely can draw an audience.  But then anger, froth and excess volume always can. 

But wisdom?  Experience?  Insight?  And, of course, honor?  Well, I can't say that I know too much about his credentials there.  I do, however, know some things about the wisdom, experience, insight, education, imagination, and, yes, honor of Martin Luther King, and his dream about American life that still sounds and feels expansive and enlarging and ennobling, and by comparison Mr. Beck's "dream" seems a little picayune.

My neighbor beside me at the picnic table was voicing little use for this hypertensive radio personality, but I find one redeeming quality in Glenn Beck.  With him making so much news in recent months, I hardly hear anything about Rush Limbaugh.  And there is something to be said for that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Content to Simply Be Christian

"We are on our way home, too," she volunteered as we settled into our neighboring seats on the plane.  "We had a foreign exchange student a few years ago who is now living in San Francisco that we were taking our grandsons to visit."

The truth, however, was more complicated -- and better -- than that.  It turns out that this "foreign exchange student" was simply a young man that this woman and her husband met, once-upon-a-time in the Amsterdam airport while waiting for their common trans-Atlantic flight -- they, returning from a European vacation; he, on his way to college from Africa.  He had earned a full scholarship to Drake, and since they live just over a half-hour away, they took him under their wings -- both on the remainder of that trip to Des Moines and for the several years he was a student in university housing. 

And they took on this assignment in earnest.  After visiting with the youth minister at the church in which they were active, they concluded that he was insufficiently open to non-caucasians; so they shopped around the area until they found one more inclusive -- in a completely different denomination, in a neighboring town a few miles away.  They kept in touch, they took him to church, they fed him meals, they housed him during holiday dorm closures; and they celebrated with him when he graduated and accepted his first job as a pharmacist. 

Little wonder that they continue to keep in touch.  And visit.  With their grandsons.  Except that part doesn't turn out to be literally true, either.  Only one of the teenage boys is actually their grandson.  The other is simply a best friend of their grandson whom they welcomed along on the trip, so "for these few days he is a grandson as well," she asserted.

Well, of course.  He was in good hands. 

I am of the humble and often embarrassed mind that Christians persistently and deservedly have a less-than-desirable reputation.  We can be pathetically small in our passions, and distractingly loud in our narrow-minded pettiness.  We commonly pick silly fights while ignoring breathtaking injustices.  In transformational matters where we should be taking the lead, we are often the last to begrudgingly tag along, having squandered our time instead preoccupied with trivialities of no enduring consequence.  But here, in an accidental conversation where I most try to avoid them -- on an airplane, trapped for the duration of the flight beside a total stranger -- I was blessed by the matter-of-fact witness of the Gospel from a woman who had no idea she was being an evangelist.  Without thinking it anything out of the ordinary or special, here was a woman who understands the Kingdom of God...

...and reflects it...

...and welcomes into it anyone who could use a place to stay.

She hardly used any "Jesus language" in the course of our conversation, but it was very clear that she had met him, and was determined to follow him.  In contrast to all those who trumpet and grind others beneath the word, she seems perfectly happy to simply be...


Saturday, August 21, 2010

How we Taste, and Why

Sitting around the table at dinner, the young couple across the table raising two pre-school children talked about how much their kids pick up from them.  Like sponges, they notice the profanity that erupts when a careless driver causes Mom to swerve; they notice that Dad is growing a garden, and ask "why" questions when their parents do this or that.  "It is," I observed, "the human expression of terroir" -- taste of place; the "soil" of home imparting the flavor itself.  We understand that kids learn what they live; we comprehend how they pick up the flavor of their environment.  But for some reasons we doubt it when it comes to vegetables and congregations.  Bizarre.

We began the day with greens -- various specialty leafy growths that Coger Farms produces for markets and restaurants like the Inn.  They grow them year around -- with the exception of about 6-weeks in the dead of winter when the plants essentially shut down even in the greenhouses.  We pulled leaves, sampled, and listened.  We learned about the economic roulette these guys play, and the passion that keeps them in the game, despite the challenges. 

We met with a Christine, a clergywoman serving as an interim minister of a church trying to transition from being a large, wealthy and prestigious church in a burgeoning town, to a hospitable congregation of ordinary people in a decayed town that bears little resemblance to its former self.  Everyone we have talked with describes this town as suffering from depression, having gone from economic titan to a welfare city in just a couple of generations as technical manufacturing moved elsewhere.  Nonetheless, Christine pointed out, "nothing is wasted in God's economy.  Nothing is wasted." 

Not even, at least as she sees it, the challenge and grief of a lost of past and a stripped endowment.  "God has a use for it all."  And I thought back to our May experience of touring Stone Barns near Tarrytown, New York, and how nothing, at least if they can help it, is wasted or lost -- not office paper, not grass, not manure, not the compost-generated heat, not the residual bones from slaughter.  Everything is re-utilized.  The by-product and waste of one process becomes the raw material of the next process.  "Nothing is wasted in God's economy."  Nothing, including personal and corporate experiences of gain and loss, scarcity and abundance, power but also weakness, accomplishment and loss, vibrance but also grief. 

We met Frank whose hobby is raising cattle -- the only one of our visits who seems to have any money, though he made his elsewhere, doing other things.  And he tried to downplay his connection to the cows, but he wasn't very convincing.  Despite his buying and breeding and selling and butchering, he knows those cows  on a first-name basis, and their progeny on the tip of his tongue.  Frank is clearly paying attention, and caring. 

And tonight we ate.  Well.  And along with the eating, tried to explain to those seated around us why we four clergymen are here.  And it's funny; though people may never have heard of the French word "terroir," there is something instinctually graspable about the concept that instantly rings true.  Environment matters.  We neglect where we are at our own peril.  Place -- whether it be the farm place or the homeplace -- is important.  Generalities ultimately only matter in their specificity.  We aren't, after all, abstractions. 

"Do you have a business card or something," the woman across the table asked, and Alan managed to oblige; "I'd like to feel some connection," she explained.

Which, of course, is part of the point -- connection, and location, and figuring out and celebrating the glorious ways that we fit in.  And how it is that we taste.  And why.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Where...and With Whom

On this first full day of our second farm expedition, our group followed an early breakfast with a visit to a small artisanal cheese maker here in eastern Vermont.  Our timing was fortuitous because their consultant from the French Alps was on site, supervising the operation.  We watched the two copper cauldrons filled with curds and whey stir; we saw the mixture shift to the draining and pressing equipment, and followed the progression of cutting and transferring the blocks of compressed curds into the forms that over the next 12 months will become their unique style of cow's milk cheese.  Afterward, sampling some of the finished product with Jeremy, the chief cheesemaker, and Eric, the consultant, we heard about the variant flavors of cheese made from spring milk verses summer or fall milk; we learned about the importance of which hillside the cows are grazing -- and when -- and the vicissitudes of the weather and the various other factors influencing the taste and the quality of the cheese.  Some of the conversation had alluded to "industrial" cheese and "artisanal" cheese, and I asked for their description of the difference.

After only a moment's consideration, Eric responded that "industrial cheese conforms the milk to the process, while artisanal cheese conforms the process to the cheese."  Because, we learned, the milk is different everyday; and these guys are far more interested in the milk and the cheese to which it leads than they are their procedural routines.

Mid-day, Willis Wood described their family's experience over the past 150 years making apple cider every October and maple syrup every spring.  You have to keep measuring and monitoring because every year the moisture content is different -- as is the sugar content -- and so you have to vary the process to accommodate the fruit and the sap.

When, at the end of the afternoon, we supervised the milking of 20 Jersey cows and talked at length with Lisa, the proprietess of this small dairy farm, we were hardly surprised when she independently stated essentially the same process.  "Everyday I remind myself that if I disappeared, they would still be dairy cows, but if they disappeared, I would no longer be a dairy farmer."  The cows -- their health, their happiness, their comfort and sense of security -- are the biggest part of the dairy equation.  "That helps me keep my perspective," she mused.  And her cows did, indeed, look delightfully happy.  The truth is that, apart from that whole milking problem, we would have been ready to volunteer to be her cows.

And so we heard afresh how it is that where a thing is of critical importance, plus the passionate care of those who are there alongside you stirring, pressing, condensing, tapping and milking.  They are critically important too.

Monday, August 16, 2010

For the Sheer Good Health Of It

One of the artifacts I "re-inherited" when my parents moved a couple of years ago was a piece of poster board with a hand drawn bracket from a ping pong tournament held one summer at church camp.  A dozen or so names were scribbled in for the opening round, progressively narrowed through the week as matches were played and challengers were eliminated.  The bracket eventually funneled down to a single name -- mine -- whose championship victory was no doubt announced to and feted by the entire camp community.  It was hardly the only ping pong tournament that was ever organized at camp, and, if you don't mind my saying so, it wasn't the only one I had won.  Long lost to the mists of time are the reasons why this particular bracket was saved.

The memory of that poster -- and the lifetime I've spent on one side of that net or the other -- made me smile last Friday as we arrived at L.T.'s farm.  L.T. tends to be pretty small on cardiovascular workouts -- the kind that, according to him, put the heart under dangerous stress.  But he is big on activity -- walking, moving, stirring about; chores the likes of which our forebears were constantly engaged.  They moved around -- tending crops, feeding animals, repairing fences, loading hay, fixing a tractor...  You get the idea.  People like me, on the other hand, pretty much sit -- in a car, behind a desk, in front of a computer or the TV.  We haven't cut back on eating, however, which goes a long way toward accounting for the way we look.

So it was that my countenance rose when, entering the meeting room, he introduced us to his ping pong table.  "Activity," he said with an eager smile -- "and mental stimulation" -- both of which, he hinted, we could use a little more of.  I could only smile.  This was very good news.  What I had grown up thinking of as mere recreation turns out to be a good way to stay mentally and physically alive.  He handed me a paddle and invited a few swings.  I neglected to mention that it wasn't the first time I had held such an instrument.  Lucky for him there was no tournament bracket to fill in.  I tried to go easy on him.  Pretty soon he handed his paddle to Harold, content to watch us play.  Recognizing that this could go on all night, he eventually intervened and suggested we get to the lecture.  Wisdom and expertise, after all, are more his playing field.

But I left at the end of the evening with a mandate.  While it has been years since I lived in a home with space to accommodate a ping pong table, through the wonders of technology, our Wii console -- sadly neglected, I'm afraid -- can fill the breach.  Turns out, it is outfitted with a ping pong program that is a pretty good substitute.  I couldn't wait to fire it up and start practicing.  All, of course, in the interest of good health.

I may have to find a frame and place to hang that poster board bracket -- for the inspiration.  And, of course, to intimidate prospective opponents.  Who knows, maybe ego boosts are good for your health, as well.