Terroir

In one of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, he mentions mountains like crumpled butcher paper, which at the time I believed to be probably one of his more imaginative metaphors, fanciful and untethered to reality. I had seen mountains,* hiked mountains, skied mountains, rode horses through mountains, and they all had pine trees and sundry scratchy shrubs and often snow. They were green and grey and craggy, but not deep brown and not crumpled. Even McCarthy has to stretch sometimes, I assumed, to evoke that godless-wasteland feeling so necessary to his novels.

But then, while we were living in Phoenix, I flew back into the city from the north, crossing a stretch of desert. I remember gasping audibly—mountains like crumpled butcher paper. Those mountains were perhaps the most startling landscape I saw in Arizona, although we saw the Grand Canyon, and forests of Aspens near Flagstaff, and, my favorite, Oak Creek Canyon in the fall. But the fearful vastness of these butcher paper mountains—even from the plane they were all I could see. This land can kill you.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that we left Arizona. There were practical reasons, but there was also the fact that life there seemed always a mirage—temporary, improbable, foolhardy. And of course now we live in West Michigan, the third coast, the promised land, where everything grows.

But my soul will always be Kansan. Not just because it is a modest, quiet place, but because it is the land that I find beautiful. Perhaps only people from the Midwest, by birth or adoption, find it beautiful, but the older I get the more I wonder that I never noticed it as a child.

I was driving with my mother east on I-70 toward Kansas City a few weeks ago, and the many shades of green rolled over me like a flood. The many grasses, the hedgerows planted and then abandoned by farmers long ago, the few trees like sentinels guarding their domain, each its own varietal of green. The darkest greens are the leaves of the trees, and then down to the shrubs and weeds, and finally the pale green of the grass, drawing the eye ever downward to the earth, rooted. This is where we dwell, this is where we stay.

"Morning Mist - Kansas River Valley" by Rod Steel

“Morning Mist – Kansas River Valley” by Rod Seel

When the wind blows, one can see the nether leaves of every bush and tree, all silver hued and cold; the heightened contrast of green against silver makes each leaf visible, and the effect is of sharpened, quickened senses. Each blade, each stalk, each branch curves into an arc—vital, dynamic. It is very like the sea, I think.

Whenever I see the prairie, I can’t help but think of all the stories of pioneers that I was told or read as a child. I don’t know if other Americans hear these stories in such great number, or if it is just us plain-states children, nestled in the valley of the country. If tales can be believed, each of these pioneers was a saint, strong and tireless and brave. I don’t know if everyone else sees pioneers as the real heroes of the country, or if that’s just us too.

Sometimes I get embarrassed now, thinking of those early settlers. They moved from strength to strength, but I tend more to move from crisis to crisis, each one less worthy of emotion than the last. It occurred to me only very recently that I could perhaps stop living like that, if I wished. It would take time, and I would have to start small, but I might someday be stronger than I am. I could take as a touchstone the vitality and energy of the plains and decide to live that way, looking toward the quiet peace of Providence and saying, this is where I dwell, this is where I stay.

***

*I remember vividly the first time I saw a mountain. I was quite young, and I was eager to reach the top of the mountain, because in my mind it would be as sharp as a needle, which is how mountaintops looked in my drawings, where they resembled upside-down v‘s. I was devastated, truly devastated, when my mother told me we were at the top. There was plenty of room to park and walk around, and it was not pointy at all. For all I know this was the beginning of my melancholy nature, which tends to expect disappointment.

This Good Earth (Lines from As You Like It)

And I in such a poverty of grace
. . . shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps; loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
– Silvius, As You Like It, III.5

Last Saturday Erin and I woke up early to pick strawberries on a local farm. It was a respite I had looked forward to all week, a leisure ripe from anticipation—and to my younger self it would have been a chore I cringed at all week, a drudgery soured by dread. Such is the miracle of adulthood: those boring pastimes so inscrutable to children are reborn as delights.

When I was ten, gardening was the black spot on my summers, the scourge of my Saturdays. We didn’t grow anything at my house, but my grandfather grew everything at his, and through the perpetual conspiracy between him and my mother, my brother and I were conscripted as laborers.

Every Saturday in high summer, we were roused and shuttled to Grandpa’s never ending rows of beans, corn, squash, beans, cucumbers, and more beans. (The actual size of that small farm is impossible to verify now. To my childhood mind, the place could only have been measured in acres. That it all managed to fit in Grandpa’s back yard casts some doubt on that now, but the important thing is that it felt like acres.)

Worse than the scope of the labor was the climate. This was Texas, and East Texas, so Texas hot and Louisiana humid. It was truly oppressive. Picking beans for an hour felt like swimming in a bog of quicksand while wearing a lead apron. Add the constant scratch of stalks and tendrils and the continual menace of bees and wasps, and you see the just grounds we had for revolt against child slave labor.

We, however, never did revolt, choosing instead the high road of nonviolence—namely, complaining.

To that beleaguered child, it must seem a scandal and a betrayal that, without even a whimper of protest, I would reenact those same persecutions now, moved by not an ounce of obligation but only by what must be recognized as joy. And what explains the change? Maybe gardening can be cataloged with the other chores of domestic life—mowing the yard, washing dishes and laundry, dusting off bookshelves—that earn some affection merely by familiarity and rhythm.

But there is something more here. Gardening—planting and waiting and worrying and harvesting—is unique. Gardening is a world ordinary and even dull at first glance, but saturated with meaning and fertile with metaphor when dwelt in.

The heart of hortiphilia, I think, is really an encounter with mystery. We say we grow things. That is an imprecision. We plant things, we water them, we prune them, we harvest them; they do the growing themselves. There is something entirely outside us at work, something that may respond to our skill and art (or may not) and may be described by our science but cannot be mastered by either will or study. Growth is a phenomenon, shrouded from our senses, that is fundamentally an encounter with grace. We prepare what we can, we participate where we see how, but ultimately we simply receive what we are given.

A garden, then, is a perfect metaphor for the whole of life and a tireless teacher in how to live it. The endless didacticism of the garden seems mostly to burden children, for whom it means work instead of play, but to a slightly jaded adult searching for a gentle voice, its lessons are a balm. When I was a child, thinking and acting like a child, patience was superfluous. No need to work or wait for something; something else just as interesting could always be done. When I became a man, patience, if not more natural, at least became more necessary for happiness.

Patience is harvested in bushels from a garden. There is the more obvious patience, the patience of investing, of waiting to reap what you’ve sown. But there is another varietal, one with less florid fruit but deeper roots. That is the patience of not reaping what you’ve sown, the patience of failure.

Last year, our first year in amateur agriculture, we were all hope and no expectation. Failure seemed just as likely as success. But Michigan, that “other Eden in the summertime,” rains on both sinner and saint, and the harvest was bountiful in spite of our clumsiness.

This year looks even more promising. But things started poorly. My pet project failed decisively. We had planned an addition to our leafy greens—strawberries grown in lengths of vinyl gutter—but I mounted the gutters too high on the fence, right along the top, where the squirrels can run. It was a perfect buffet. Not a single bud survived, we missed the window for re-planting, and now the gutter sits there, sagging under the weight of barren soil until next year when I can try a different spot.

And that is the thing about failing in a garden. Sometimes you can’t fix things until next year, and that fix might fail as well. With the cycle of trial and error stretched to such long intervals, error can feel almost permanent. This staggered me.

Why was I distraught over a lost handful of berries? It was more than the fruitless expense of time, labor, and money. It was, I finally saw, that this particular kind of failure is a brush with mortality. It reveals things as finite—the limit of your abilities and your window to improve them. When you can try again tomorrow, failure is negligible, success almost assured. There are plenty of tomorrows, each coming immediately, and that sequence quietly elides failure into the arc of success.

But you can number your summers, and they come so slowly. Success is no longer in your grasp. Until the next summer does come, you have to live in your deficiency.

The simpler things I work and wonder at are not this way. Wiki blurbs and YouTube tutorials can mend gaps in knowledge and skill instantaneously, painlessly. But this is the state of the truly important things—our philosophy, our theology, our friends, ourselves. We are beings “on the way,” as Pieper says in his essay “On Hope,” and the way is long, and its end is not actually in our view.

Recognizing this, once I had dug down to the root of my frustration, did not root out that frustration, but it did graft on a few shoots of hope. It’s good to be thwarted. It’s good to be stuck for a while, waiting and not even working. It’s good to pause and contemplate for a season the limits of labor and the limits of self. The frustration it arouses, when probed, comes to be felt as the pain of growth. A little more knowledge, a slightly fuller hold on reality. There it was, where I didn’t see it, happening anyway.

Growing (lines from Love’s Labour’s Lost and Brideshead Revisited)

unnamed

At Christmas I no more desire a rose,
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
–Berowne, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1.1

Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. . . . The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces—Did the fallow deer graze here still?—and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs. All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity.
– Brideshead Revisited

The hardest part of gardening, at least for me, is not gardening. The gardening part comes simply, if you live in Michigan, as I do. What you plant grows, what you drop on the ground grows, what you forget to dig up before winter grows again next year. This other Eden, Michigan in the summertime.

Winter, on the other hand, is a hard, barren stretch. March is harder yet, because it feels like the time to plant, but it isn’t, not yet. Everything is gray and flooded for days on end. It stops snowing, but the sun seems shy, and everyone has to continue trudging toward spring. Garrison Keillor says that God created March to show those who don’t drink what a hangover feels like.

But the hardest time of all is after you plant. (Planting, of course, is a foretaste of paradise. Often I find myself digging around in my work clothes, with my wedding ring and all my other jewelry, and I wonder how exactly I got there.) After you plan and dig and toil and plant, there’s nothing to be done but wait, and sometimes anxiety sets in. Of course you water when it doesn’t rain, and fertilize sometimes, but for whatever reason, things don’t seem to grow at first. The seeds sprout, but they stay very small for a long, long time. It’s hard not to become a little desperate. Last spring my father, a farmer’s son and a lifelong gardener, had only one piece of advice: Calm down.

But then, one day, the plants explode. It is almost always about a week after you stop checking on them daily—not by works, so that no one can boast, I assume. How odd that so much toil is required, when in the end it seems that there is growth just when you ease off. And yet, if gardening were mechanical, if it were an input-output relationship, I doubt we’d be so drawn to it. It would, in that case, be like an assembly line. The expert gardeners at Philip’s work told him that gardening is a lifelong experiment. “Sometimes things that have always worked stop working, and sometimes things that have never worked before do work,” they told him.

Indeed, there is something miraculous every time plants flower and vegetables produce. That’s probably why gardening figures so heavily in spiritual metaphors. You can’t see seeds germinating in the soil, and you can’t explain why one day there are no tomatoes and the next day there are dozens. But clearly something is working behind the veil, something that has nothing to do with you.

I was thinking the other day about how much this reminds me of Josef Pieper’s ratio and intellectus. In Leisure, The Basis of Culture, Pieper differentiates between the two: ratio as discursive knowledge, which takes some real work and effort, and intellectus as receptive knowledge (like the eye taking in a landscape), which is effortless and given to us by grace. It’s tempting to see these two as opposed, but while it seems that one cannot pursue both ratio and intellectus in the same breath, Pieper does suggest that man’s spiritual knowledge is the result of both. While the highest form of knowledge (intellectus) comes effortlessly to man like a gift, it is often preceded by a great effort of thought (ratio), and, he says, perhaps this must be so. In other words, for academic types and for gardeners, both ratio and intellectus are necessary for growth.

I’m not sure why it can’t be one or the other. I don’t know why we can’t just open ourselves up and receive divine inspiration every moment of the day, or, failing that, why we can’t just “achieve” it by laboring. Either of those seems simple enough, “doable.” But in fact, divine inspiration is not doable at all, which is the point, because it is grace. But it also does not come to those who do not prepare themselves for it; it comes unexpectedly, but not unbidden.

Because I tend in all things toward neurosis, I often see this tension between toil and receptivity as a dualism that can only induce anxiety. But in the best moments, the moments when I realize that I’m digging in the ground in a dress and my good watch, there is no anxiety but only this other thing, this simultaneity of the pleasant now and the future joyful harvest, a thing I think they call hope.

I was watching a YouTube video about how to plant bleeding heart the other day, and an elderly British man with a fully furnished gardening shed showed me how to bury the bare root completely underground. He was planting a new varietal, and he’d never seen it before, but he was so excited for the day he would first see the new blossoms. At the very end of the video, he said, so very, very casually, “Life is anticipation. But this one, I’ve got a feeling, is going to be a good one.”

 

Trading Gladness (lines from Antony and Cleopatra)

                                               For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping . . .
–Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2

My father, noble man that he is, was raised on a farm, feeding cattle and doing chores before school. I grew up on a cube farm.

At least, my two summer jobs during college took place in enormous windowless offices. I was shy, and I hadn’t yet learned how to cover that up, so I smiled at everyone but struggled with the small talk. I struggled so much, and so dreaded elevator rides, that I started memorizing the little throwaway lines other people used so that I could use them later, almost like a foreign language student learning conversational English. It was an elaborate mental catalog to maintain, because I couldn’t re-use a line on the person from whom I’d lifted it. That would be ungainly, like re-gifting or telling someone else’s joke.

Though “Got any weekend plans?” and “How are things on the fourth floor?” seem embarrassingly obvious to me now, having spent a childhood avoiding strangers at all costs leaves one ill-prepared for defense against the dark arts. Or small talk or whatever.

I was thinking of this lately when I ran into one of our office volunteer in the dead of March and said, with effortless informality, “It’s not getting any warmer out there, is it?” How absolutely meaningless, how artlessly familiar and jovial! A milestone.

I still struggle with office relationships, though. I fail to say hello and goodbye, because it simply doesn’t occur to me. And I often forget to find out whether my coworkers have spouses or children until it’s much, much too late and I have no decent excuse for not knowing.

Back when we were teaching, I heard about a student with Asperger’s who did well enough with other students in class but had trouble socializing outside of class because there was no structure to the interactions. Anyone could talk at any time, and the topic was not predetermined by the day’s lesson plans. Maybe I have Asperger’s, I thought.

And not unrelated is the fact that I do friendship strangely. I’ve relocated from Kansas to Michigan to Arizona to Michigan, which means I have several discrete sets of friends. I do not “keep up” with them, but I love them ardently. I would never, never for any reason call to “catch up,” but if they showed up at my door unannounced, I would gladly welcome them into my home for any amount of time. My fondness for people does not wane over time, though unfed.

The other day, someone called me a misanthrope (albeit jokingly). I did not know we still used that word outside of literary analysis, but I suppose I’m bringing it back. I was complaining because my husband wants us to have dinner with some people who seem really nice. Too nice, probably, I was telling someone. I think one of them is a teacher. That seems too nice. I don’t usually like nice people.

So all this is to say that every friend I have, from new acquaintance to kindred spirit, is a gift and a mercy.

My coworker friends are perhaps the most valiant in this regard because they have to navigate both my office awkwardness and my friendship awkwardness. For my birthday, I invited them to sushi with me, but my invitations are always shy and graceless, based on the assumption that almost everyone almost always has something better to be doing. I wondered if there was some unknown office etiquette that dictated my buying everyone food or something; honestly, nothing would please me more than generosity in the name of celebration, but perhaps that wasn’t done. Or perhaps it was done. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Before I could figure out if it was meet and right so to do, a friend told me that she would be buying all of my food for the occasion. It seemed wrong to decline, so I gladly accepted.

But really, how fitting to celebrate with giving, regardless of direction. Though giving and receiving seem counterpoised, perhaps it need not be so. They are in some ways the same, a rejection of survivalist calculus. Giving is an obvious vulnerability, for in the end one has slightly fewer material goods than before. But receiving can also make one vulnerable; I think often of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, who will not receive favors or loans, lest he be indebted. “He is disposed to confer benefits, but is ashamed to accept them, because the one is the act of a superior and the other that of an inferior. When he repays a service he does so with interest, because in this way the original benefactor will become his debtor and beneficiary.”*

This sameness seems only present when there is true mutual fondness. When I exchange gifts with my sister at Christmas. Two months later, I’m not entirely sure what I gave her or received from her, but the joyful trading of symbols of affection, with no rivalry or scorekeeping, illuminates me year-round, leaving us always anticipating the next holiday or birthday.

Trading gladness; this is giving and this is friendship.

*The Nichomachean Ethics, 1124b, trans. J. A. K. Thomson

 

Wishing to Believe

“The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: ‘My Lord and my God!’ Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart . . .” - The Brothers Karamazov I.5

Peter I like—the Rock, the firebrand, the one who, when he doesn’t know what to say, makes sure to say something. (“Moses, Elijah, great to see you! How about we build you some huts here on the mountain?)

John I love—the youth, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who sees that love is paramount.

But Thomas is my favorite. Doubting Thomas, as he is inevitably called now, though in scripture he is the far more mundane Thomas Didymus, Thomas the Twin. (I can’t be the only one who grew up thinking “didymus” was Greek for “doubter.”)

I’m inclined to root for all the doubters in scripture, the Abrahams and Zachariahs slow to believe that they’re somehow set apart, that they somehow deserve a special dispensation. To scoff at their doubting seems ignorance at best and hypocrisy at worst. To doubt that all the rules of nature, which have been our lifelong tutor, are somehow to be waived in our favor seems perfectly human.

But I’m not so sure Thomas is a doubter. Yes, he doubts his friends. Their stories of the resurrection don’t sway him. But when we dub him Doubting Thomas, it seems we’re not so much accusing him of doubting friends as doubting God—and when compared to those friends, he doesn’t seem  any guiltier than they. Thomas doesn’t doubt God; Thomas sets conditions. Thomas doesn’t say Jesus can’t be raised from the dead; he just wants a little proof.

The first condition he sets, that he has to “see in his hand the print of the nails,” is merely the baseline for belief shared by all the other disciples (John 20:25). Jesus, the gospel tells us, “showed unto them his hands and his side” (20). Thomas hears of this and, repeating the language of the gospel, asks for the same experience. It’s only fair.

Maybe what irks us most is that he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t precisely want the same experience as the other disciples, he wants more, and maybe that seems a little unfair. Seeing isn’t enough. He has to “put [his] finger into the print of the nails, and thrust [his] hand into his side” before he will believe (25).

Yet it’s this demand for tactile knowledge that makes me love Thomas above all. I understand the need to clamor, over the hum of skepticism, for metaphysical truth and modes of knowing. I used to struggle so hard with my middle school students over this. They were all such thorough and naive little modernists, already trained (though without any of this vocabulary) in the epistemology that says knowledge means certainty and certainty means empirical fact, but I wanted them to understand they could still know their parents loved them even if their senses could produce no data to prove it. Augustine speaks of a light that shines “above” the mind, above the senses (Confessions VII.10). I wanted them to glimpse that light. And yet as creatures that are flesh as well as spirit, we cannot always live up there “above” our bodies. We have to come back to earth, and we have to find our bearings here. We need the firm knowledge of seeing and the even firmer knowledge of feeling. Thomas needs that knowledge.

 I see no frailty in this, not even some kind of quaint but unfortunate human weakness. To the contrary, I think this tactile knowledge is essential to the faith we try to juxtapose against it. To see and touch Jesus’s wounds is to confirm that this is really Jesus, and that this Jesus is really real, and that this real Jesus really died.  These wounds prove his crucifixion—which only John actually witnessed—was a real event that pierced and killed his body. And these wounds—not just seeing them, but touching them, probing them—prove that body as well as spirit rose from the dead. (Remember, Jesus is passing through doors and walls into locked  rooms at this point. That sounds more ghost than flesh.) These are central doctrines, articles of our faith and not contrary to faith. Thomas’s so-called doubt is helping us write our creeds—that is, helping us say “I believe” (credo).

We often speak as if Christ disapproves of Thomas, but where is this disapproval? Christ does exactly what Thomas asks, and he does it, not begrudgingly, but swiftly, immediately, without actually being asked. Christ is willing to reenact the whole experience, appearing in the locked room just as before, proclaiming peace just as before, and if all this is not strictly for Thomas’s benefit, the next part clearly is. Christ turns to Thomas specifically and offers him the special treatment he demands, using the very language he used: “Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it in my side.” If Thomas has erred so terribly as we pretend, why does Christ reward him? Even the final command“and be not faithless (or ‘unbelieving,’ as I prefer), but believing”—which I’m sure we’re tempted to interpret as a good scolding, is perfectly aligned with Thomas’s program (27). Thomas has said he will believe when he sees and touches. Christ calls him to see and touch, and then Christ calls him to believe. Thomas gets what he wants and does what he promises: “Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘my Lord and my God’” (28).

Yes, it’s true, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (29). But Thomas too has been blessed. He has seen and touched the risen Lord—the blessing that is our hope too while we wait and do not yet see. And because Thomas has seen, and “seen feelingly” and not just with the eyes, because he has known in that deeply human way, I find it easier to believe.