The Earth is your Mother

Everyone has a mother. She is your best argument for how you got here, and for a good chunk of your life she is the only reason you get to stay here. But when you try to explain the entire human race, eventually the genealogies run out and you have to find the mother who never had a mother. The first mama. For the Greeks, this mother who was never a daughter is the ground you’re walking on. Mother Earth. They called her by the name Gaia (γαῖα), which is their word for the land. The Greek myth for Gaia is that she is your mother, your only source of nourishment, and hers is the womb which gave birth to the immortal gods whom you worship.

In the beginning there was only a formless and void something, aptly named Chaos. Then Chaos gave birth to her first daughter, a well formed wide-breasted earth-woman named Gaia. Mother Earth. In spite of the beauty of her mountains, sex still hadn’t been invented, so Gaia had to practice being a virgin mother. Her first child was Ouranos, the sky. He became her first husband, and history moved on. Now Gaia is the bride of mankind. Every gardener is a husband to the earth in the realm of his particular dominion.

This is a myth, but often myths and legends are the truest things around. And even if a story isn’t true, perhaps that doesn’t matter so much as the mileage you get from telling it. Although, usually the mileage you get is an indication of its truth. When a concept like earth as mother has become so prevalent in a culture and defines so much of its thought, the question becomes not whether it’s true, but how true it is. We live in a culture where it’s okay to kill babies. The abortionists are wrong, of course. But they also have something profoundly right. Babies don’t have a right to live. No one does. There is no sanctity of human life, because only God is sacred. We don’t protect babies because they have the right to live; we protect them because it’s a sin against God to kill them. And when we do kill them, it only reveals the truth that no one is innocent. Of course, there’s an exception to every rule, except the rule that we all think we’re the exception. But the point is that when a culture believes something, it’s probably right.

Our culture is Greek when it believes in Mother Earth, but it’s also Christian for the same reason. The Greek mythology of Mother Earth changes the biblical account, but it still captures the important concept in which earth is mother, and also a bride. This second aspect in reference to the bride is one of the most heavily used tropes in all of scripture. Marriage is the most powerful explanatory metaphor the Bible has to offer for understanding the relationship between Christ and the church, and it offers insight for a lot of other relationships as well.

The same theology of the relationship between a man and his wife can also inform us on the relationship between mankind and creation. If the garden is a bride, then the gardener must be a husband to her. Scripture often treats the land as a bride. The people of God are Yahweh’s bride, and so is the land. The two are connected. You cannot have a people without a land to live in. When God promised Abraham a people, he also promised a land which would be theirs. When Solomon built the temple for the people to worship in, he made it to represent the land. From its olive trees to its pomegranates, from its pillars to its massive doors, the temple is a garden and a city, the land in both of its forms. In the new covenant, the temple which is the land, is now the people of God. They are the land, and so the bride of Christ is a garden, and He is the Gardener; a vine, and He is the Vinedresser; a flock of sheep, and He is the Shepherd. The people and the land together are the bride of Christ.

This is why Solomon in the Song of Songs describes his bride in terms of both a garden and a city. Because she is both. This why the prophets describe Israel as a plant when she is growing in Christ, and as a thorny bush when she falls away. Christ took those thorns of Israel’s prostitution on His head when He climbed the cross, and when He came up from the grave, the crown of thorns was resurrected into the garden it was supposed to be from the beginning. When Christ died he was laid in a tomb in which no man had lain before. This is earth described in the same terms of virginity that before had been applied to Mary. Then Christ was born a second time, this time not from the Virgin Mary, but from the Virgin Earth. So earth is a virgin mother, just like Mary. And just like Mary, she is a bride, and ought to be treated as such.

This should be the foundation of every farming ethic: to treat creation as a bride. Of course the obvious objection is that if creation is a bride over which man is called to rule, it follows that the logic can be reversed in a chauvinistic fashion to say that a husband should take dominion over and subdue his wife. Problem? Should a husband rule over his wife? Right now would be a good time to backpedal. But instead, the answer is going to be yes.

No kingdom ever flourished that wasn’t ruled over. Submission to authority is perhaps the most essential condition for beauty and fertility. A man should rule over his wife, but his rule over her should be done for her. No king should ever rule for his own profit, but for the benefit of his subjects, just as Christ did not die to save Himself, but to redeem His bride. Christ’s rule over creation resulted in His death for it. Our rule over creation should lift it up rather than beat it down. Dominion rather than domination.

Mother Earth is a bride to be ruled over with love. Knowing this should impact the way we treat her. Our farming in the soil of her womb should reflect our knowledge that she is a bride. This means that farming can no longer be evaluated merely in terms of inputs and outputs, but it also has to answer to a general attitude toward creation. The argument that we produce food efficiently is not good enough to justify the farming methods we use. The efficiency argument only works to tell us what not to do. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it. But to have a positive idea of what we should be doing, we need a new standard. This standard is to treat creation as a bride. Check your farming methods against that. Do you love her?

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Feed the World

Part One: Driving in the Ditch

Let’s say you get in a one car traffic accident. Black ice. When the road stops squealing under spinning rubber, the car lands flustered but unhurt in the middle of the road, and you find yourself staring into a snow-filled ditch. Behind you is another one just like it. As you drive off, the thought in your head is how grateful you are that you didn’t land in either one of them. Neither ditch is the right place to be, but every road has at least two of them, and sometimes it’s easier to pick a ditch and slide into it than to stay on the road. Especially if it’s icy.

Mankind has always cultivated a penchant for trudging in the ditch. We have a persistent ability to be almost completely wrong almost all of the time. Usually, it’s not a question of whether you are in the ditch, but which one, and how deep.

Quite often, the ditch you are in is simply a reaction to the ditch you think everybody else is in. It’s the reaction catapult. Climbing out of the ditch is precarious because the momentum needed to clear the edge often lands you farther away than you intended. Sometimes, in the opposite ditch.

Life is a balancing act. The truth acrobats between two ditches, and this means that both ditches have different elements of the same truth. No one has ever been completely wrong, not even Satan. Whenever Satan wants to hide the truth from us, he does so by covering it up with a different truth. No one believes a complete lie. Deceit only gets mileage when it pretends to be the truth by wearing some of it. Without the truth deceit is naked, and everybody knows it. Truth is a matter of emphasis, and so is falsehood. A lie is truth taken to extremes.

Part Two: Farming in the Ditch

Feeding the world easily runs to extremes. Wendell Berry, Ellen F. Davis, Norman Wirzba, Joel Salatin, and many others, have all proposed that there is something deeply wrong with the modern food system. We are destroying the world. But before we criticize, we have to realize that modern farming has done something truly great. In terms of easy access to plenty of food, modern America is perhaps closer to the Garden of Eden than any other culture in the entire history of the world since the Fall. The industrial powerhouse of modern farming has prevented more famine and fed more people than any other system the world has ever tried. But it’s ugly. So what? People are alive because of it. Chickens get their beaks whacked off, cows eat pigs, and turkeys live in their own excrement, but at least we all get to eat.

Back in the other ditch. We don’t give a chicken’s leg about world hunger. Until you make your farms beautiful and treat animals with respect, you have no right to feed all those people. Let them starve. They did it to themselves.

Both sides are different extremes of the same truth. Yes, we need to feed the world, but how we do it matters. How you do something is often just as important as what you are doing. Sure, we feed the world, but at what cost?

Farmland is losing fertility. In Augusta County, Virginia, the average one-acre chunk of pasture will produce enough grass over the course of a year to support one cow for eighty days. One acre on Joel Salatin’s farm in the same county will support a cow all of four-hundred days on the grass it grows in a year. But modern farming ignores the kind of care which Salatin gives to his land, and insists on running rough shod over the fertility of the land to get the productivity our culture demands. In the long run it’s an oxymoron. It can’t last.

Another cost is what we do to local economies. We think we feed the world, but really we just make it so they can’t feed themselves. A local third-world economy cannot possibly compete with the nuclear industry of the American Great Plains. They give up and sell themselves to dependency. This is the problem that’s so lucidly addressed in the Communist Manisfesto. Capitalism sees no limits, produces far beyond what it needs, saturates the market, and then has to go looking for new ones all over the world. Are we feeding the world because they are hungry, or because we are? Do they need more corn, or do we just need to sell it? Given our initial premise, it’s probably some of both.

Part Three: Getting out of the Ditch

So how do you return farming to a more nurture oriented stewardship such as Joel Salatin practices, without causing millions of people to starve? First of all, if half of what he says about his farm is true, then moving in Salatin’s direction will not cause anyone to starve. The earth’s fertility will skyrocket. Modern farming has lots of problems, and the argument that we need to feed the world is not enough to defend them.

Secondly, when you realize you’re headed for the ditch, don’t jerk the wheel too fast or you’ll end up in the other one. We’ve already covered that. But don’t ignore the ditch. Pretending it’s not there won’t make it go away. Ignorance is bliss on credit.

Takeaway point: Feeding the world doesn’t have to be at the expense of creation. Joel Salatin’s farm is proof that productive capitalistic farming can be beautiful.

To see it, go here: polyfacefarms.com

A Bigger Tractor

There weren’t any tractors in the Garden of Eden. Bulldozers, combines, dump-trucks, and the like are all modern inventions. We build them because we live in a world where we think bigger is better. If your machine can push more dirt faster, you win. If your combine can eat more acres in fewer bites, you win. It seems like every year we build bigger machines, breed bigger cows, and let our corn fields creep over more land. We think that just because we can do it means it is okay. Maybe it is.

There aren’t any tractors in the Garden of Eden. But hey, we’re not in Eden, so it doesn’t matter. God put us in a garden, but we’re going to a city. He planted us in Eden, but we are building Jerusalem. This is a story of progress. We move from something elemental to something bigger and more complex. We grow from immaturity to maturity; from children to adults. As adults, we can drive tractors. Big ones. And our new city needs them.

We are going from the garden to a city, but the city we’re going to is also a garden. Just because we left the garden behind doesn’t mean we should forget it. The garden is still here, and it still has things to teach us. We did our lessons in the garden as little school-children, which grew us up in maturity so that we could be strong enough to move into the city. You can’t do calculus until you know what two plus two is, and you can’t build a city until you’ve learned how to garden. The garden is where we learn simple things, and having learned them, we learn even more complex things in the city, and build bigger tractors.

The problem is that when we are in the city, we forget what we learned in the garden. That is why the New Jerusalem is a garden city where we are both children and adults at the same time. We are ageless, always learning new things, and always remembering the simple things we learned in the garden. Unless you become as a little child you shall not enter the city. Okay, maybe that’s little crazy, but in any case, it’s the childlike instruction to tend and keep the earth that keeps us from wrecking it with our bigger tractors.

Driving bigger tractors requires more discipline than driving small ones. Living in the city requires more discipline than living in the garden, because there are more places to mess up. The garden is where we learn discipline. Farming without tractors is hard, and sets limits on what you can do. Farming with the tractors that the city has given us is a lot easier, and so the limits of what you can do are far higher. It’s hard to wreck the world with a one-horse plow, but a big John Deere can destroy something before you even know what you did. Having bigger tractors means we need more discipline, because they give us the dangerous power of taking our industry to a higher threshold than perhaps we should.

But regardless of the dangerous potential, a bigger tractor is not bad, evil, or wicked. It’s a hunk of steel. Having only a tiny tractor keeps you from wrecking the world, but that doesn’t mean having a big one is bad. It’s hard to steal anything when you’re in jail, but that doesn’t mean being out of jail is bad. It just requires more discipline. There is a time for every purpose under the sun, including bigger tractors. Just be careful what you do with them.

But having said that, it’s important to point out that a bigger tractor comes with its own particular set of temptations. That doesn’t make it bad. It just means that it’s prone to abuse in a particular way. Any gift can be abused, and most of them are. Every tool we have comes with its own special seduction. But some tools have a far sweeter seduction than we can resist; they have more risk than we have discipline to handle. If you have a nuclear missile there’s really only one thing you can do with it. Blow somebody up. If you have a gigantic tractor, there’s only one kind of field you can put it in. A big one. Bigger tractors need bigger fields with less diversity to make planting and harvesting more efficient. If you think single species farming is the way to go, then this is good news. But if it’s true that God built the world with a principle of interdependence, meaning that different species depend on each other and flourish when they are complimented by other varieties integrated with them, then a bigger tractor is dangerous.

This is the balance between extreme environmentalism and flagrant capitalism. We are all called to be environmentalists and watch the size of our tractors, we are all called to tend and keep the earth. But our environmentalism should result in fruitfulness, not stale protection. On the other hand, capitalism is great, but if it doesn’t recognize limits, it’ll be a great train-wreck. Industry should grow, but not at the expense of everything around it.

Takeaway point: Don’t buy a tractor that contributes to a paradigm in direct conflict with the way God built the world. Keep it small.

The Food Chain

Part One: Deep Sea Food Chain

To really show us what it can do, the ocean needs a rock to splash against. Life is structured on the need for others. That’s interdependence. Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, tells an intricate story of the terrifying and delicately balanced marine food-chain. On the beach, a crab snatches a sand flea, but a few minutes later the hunting crab is himself turned to prey in the mouth of a large bass. The bass, not learning from the death he just inflicted, strays out to deep water and gets impaled on shark-teeth. Nice food chain. We depend on each other, sometimes by eating.

Vicariously experiencing this food chain through Carson’s book makes me wonder who will eat me, and how good I will taste. It also sparks an admonition: fill yourself with good things so that when the heron of your metaphorical fish’s existence comes, the meal you offer will be worth the beauty performed in the snaking arch of his neck and the crunch of his beak, as he returns your life to the death which gave you life.

No one can really be at the top of the food chain; even God died. He was sacrificed to save His people. The question isn’t whether you will die, but who you will die for.

Part Two: Relationships

Dying for someone implies a relationship. We love relationships. We crave them. And we all have them. Sometimes unfortunately. In fact, all we really have is a web of intermingled relationships. Everything else in this world is there only to enhance them and give them bodies. We are in relationship with God and with creation, which is demonstrated by our dependence on God and interdependence with creation. There is nothing in this world worth having without a relationship to have it in. We are built to live in community with other creatures. Without this we die, and worse, we die for nothing. We need other creatures.

Part Three: Relational Farming

Different species need each other. Grass needs to die, but it doesn’t want to die for nothing. It needs to feel the rough traction of a cow’s tongue wrapped around it. It needs to be torn and mixed with warm saliva, not left to fall down and die strangled on cold dirt under the snow when winter comes. It’s a good thing for tall mature grass to be cut down, because that allows the plants to restart their juvenile growth curve. Life comes out of death. You only get one growth spurt; if you want another, you have to die. Hungry cows need to eat grass. That’s one level of dependence. Grass needs to be eaten. That’s full circle.

That said, if a field never gets a rest from the bovine machete, the grass will never get tall. Since the root structure of a plant reflects what’s on top, if the plants never get tall, the roots will never get deep. So, the cows need to go eat somebody else for awhile. This is where the predator-prey relationship helps: cows are push-mowers, and predators do the pushing. At least they used to, as with buffalo on the plains. Now we do the predator’s job. As we take dominion, it becomes our responsibility to understand how creation works the way God designed it. We perform a sort of bio-mimicry to work with the relationships that God has already established. This is not to say there is no progress beyond what God has made; it’s only to point out that our best progress tends to work with God’s design rather than against it. If you have a knife, you might as well cut with the sharp edge.

Part Four: Pathogens are People Too

A good farm will have lots of species all tripping over each other. Dancing. This will keep the pathogens confused. God built two fundamental realities into creation: relationships and rest. Together they comprise our worship. Pathogens do their best when either one of these principles is violated.

Relationships. Most pathogens don’t cross between species. Integrating multiple species or rotating them through the same place takes pathogens off guard, because they have to deal with the complications of either not finding the correct host, or wasting precious time with the wrong species. “Whoops! I thought it was a goat. Now my life is over.” But when they can rely on having the same species in the same place all the time, they don’t even have to think, they just proliferate.

Rest. The only time pathogens get rest is when nobody else does. Giving a place rest creates a host free period during which the microbe has no place to live. He needs that animal, but the place is empty. Rest breaks the pathogen’s feeding and reproductive cycle, making him work overtime just to survive.

Part Five: It’s Complicated

The beauty of life is that it’s complicated, just like a woman. God gave Eve to Adam, and he has been trying to understand her ever since. God gave earth to mankind, and she is complicated. She keeps her secrets for those willing to try to understand the way things really are instead of trying to shove everything that’s beautiful about her complex nature into simple stupid categories that make it easy to rape. This world is elaborately designed. Embrace it. Mono-cropping is stupid.

Takeaway point: Life is interdependent, and good farming should reflect that.

God Doesn’t Care What You Eat

The table is set, and I’m hungry. As I wait, the touch of cold metal bushes against my wistful fingers. I know the knife wants to leap into my warm grasp and slice into mountains of goodness that the kitchen has almost finished preparing. But what will it be? What if it turns out to be meat that some devil-worshipping infidel has been sacrificing to his idol? What if it’s unhealthy? Does it even matter? No, as long as it tastes good. God doesn’t care what you put in your mouth, as long as you put it there with thanksgiving.

That’s part of the truth. But the truth isn’t something you can chop into little pieces. If you only tell part of it, however accurately, it’s still a lie. The truth is something you can live by. If it starts sending people to the hospital for diabetes and heart-attacks, you should ask if it’s really the truth.

God doesn’t care about the food you eat in the same way as he doesn’t care what kind of house you live in. He doesn’t care if you live in a mobile home that looks like it almost survived a hurricane, and on the other hand, he’s not proud of you if you’ve built a cathedral with a lot of stained glass. Beauty doesn’t matter. God doesn’t care if you build cities that look like rats should live in them; and he doesn’t care if you eat food that turns your body into something ugly. What goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out of his mouth defiles him because it came out of his heart. Love God, and eat what you please.

God doesn’t care what you put in your mouth. This is true. But only in the context of the food system considered broadly. What goes into a man’s mouth is only one small part of a larger system which may or may not be compromised. What goes into a man usually results from what has already come out. First he says what he wants to eat; then he eats it. The sin isn’t what he actually ate, but what he did to get it.

Contemporary farming in America does sick things to get cheap food. And we say it’s normal. The things that come out of the mouth defile a man. America has a mouth, and things come out of it. Her prophets consult together, and here is their verdict: Cheap food is worth raping creation for. After all, we need to fix world hunger.

We treat creation like a cow ready to be milked, and crush her udder to get everything we can, without ever considering how to feed or treat her respectfully. We think we have to dominate creation to make it feed us, but I believe that God created the world in a fundamentally helpful way; we just have to understand how it works. But instead of trying to understand the built-in operating system of God’s created world, we refuse the mental effort and deny his authority and our own responsibility, and this is why our food system is so grossly messed up with a lot of devastating health bombs.

The food we eat is sin, not because of how it’s going to tear our bodies apart, but because of how we have torn it from a nurturing relationship with the rest of creation. It turns out that what goes into a man’s mouth does not defile him, rather it gauges how defiled he and his culture already are. Our cultural stance is one of rebellion against God, and until we address this central problem, the food on our tables will continue to be defined by our defiled nature and will devastate our health. Until we make God our friend, food will be our enemy.

In the end, it’s not food that matters, but God. If taking care of your body becomes your new religion, I don’t want to be part of it. But if you think you can keep eating the products of abuse that contemporary farming calls normal, you deny your cultural responsibility. Just because the sin isn’t what you eat, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address our culture-wide food problem when it shows up in your mouth.

Love God, and eat what you please. But make sure you really do love God, by tending and keeping the creation he gave you.

DIY

Some of us compulsively take everything we come to as do-it-yourself project, from growing our own food and fixing our own cars, to handmade ice-cream and home-birth. But even if an inflated perspective of your own manual competence  train-wrecks the project into something only slightly less chaotic than catching ten greasy pigs in a minefield, sometimes it’s not the result that matters but simply the experience of doing it with your own two hands. Some people play video games in exchange for a virtual experience, for others the game is how to fix the car.

I went home for Christmas, a week filled with food, feasting, and laughter. But the best part of the whole time was out in the shop with my dad. I drive a Chevy truck, bright cherry red with four-wheel-drive, but functionally it was two-wheel drive for the moment because the front axle wouldn’t engage. In the shop, our first task was to find out how it worked. It took awhile. Much longer that it would have taken a professional mechanic. But once we figured out that it was vacuum operated, we traced the lines and discovered a frayed one. A new two-dollar rubber hose popped into place and it wasn’t long before all four wheels grabbed dirt. The job was done.

My dad and I emerged from under the hood triumphant, but the point isn’t that we did it ourselves, or that we did it for far less than calling a mechanic, or even that the car was fixed at all. The point here is the experience. Perhaps human experience isn’t as disposable as American industrialism treats it. Maybe it has a value that can’t be reduced to the abstract currency of dollars per hour. And if you told me that I wasted time fixing my own car, I might tell you that I hadn’t just used up time, but had a different experience of time, of my car, and of my dad.

There’s a cool word that helps describe what just happened. Propinquity. It means being close to something. This closeness has a subtle power with emotional consequences, which is why time spent together with someone often develops attraction. You can’t love a girl you never met, but after awhile you realize you love the one you spend a lot of time with.

But what we have to gain from being close to something isn’t merely an increased fondness. This world is built in such a way that to really treat something right, you have to love it and know how it works. This love and knowledge comes from being close. The same is true for any created thing; cows, paper clips, or coffee, we love them more and treat them better when we spend enough time with them.

In short, what we need to know is that the immediate economic consequences of a given project are not the only consideration; human experience has value apart from what it directly accomplishes. Sure, good results add to the experience, but they can’t replace it.

Take away point: go get your hands dirty on something real.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Here is a chicken tractor my dad built. Tractor, yes. But is has no engine. Instead it has a rope which my little sister takes and gives the whole thing a tug onto new grass. The chickens all run forward, both to peck at the brand-new green carpet, and to escape the final end of the cage which plans on running them over.

Can a little girl really move this entire chicken fortress all by herself? Easily. The curved design adds a super light strength so that the roof needs very little internal structure, and the open design erases heavier materials in favor of good air flow and a grand view. Winter will see the open places covered in plastic to stop the wind while still bringing light in.

This is no coop. It’s a wide open space with new grass every day the sun shines, and a loving caretaker with small hands that like to pet chickens. Dominion in chicken-farming has never been more beautiful or more interactive. My sister loves her chickens and they love her. I wonder if this interaction is important. Maybe her closeness to natural creation through these chickens has an impact which we haven’t pondered. Perhaps she realizes more closely and deeply the wonder of God’s providence when she bends down to touch His creation. She sees His hand every time one of her hands touches a warm little egg, and she sees it again every time the grass sprouts up greener behind the chickens than in front of them. Chickens kill grass, life comes out of death, and my sister is the chicken angel.

Did you know you can farm chickens in the city? Watch other people do it right here: Seattle Tilth.

Question: Why did the coffin cross road?

Answer: Because the chicken was dead.