The Common Sense Sabbatical

The focus of my sabbatical is the land we inhabit. How does it shape us? How do we shape it? And what role does our faith (in my case, liberal Christian) have to do with it? I began this exploration with a week in California at the home of Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, otherwise known as the Bartimaeus Institute, in a course called “Rooting Faith: Theology and Practices of Bioregional Discipleship” — a time for us to reflect biblically and theologically on the land, and to learn more about permaculture.

An old California oak under which we did some good thinking and reflecting.

As our permacuture specialist Chris Grataski noted, permaculture has about a million definitions. At heart, it is a form of agriculture that is based on mimicking naturally occurring ecosystems — so for example, rather than cycling the same annual crops in and out of the same piece of chemically enriched soil, you try to create an agricultural ecosystem that, through living and dying, is able to nourish and sustain itself. The more I heard Chris talk about permaculture, the more I remembered Indigenous agricultural traditions like the companion (or closely grouped) growing of the three sisters (beans, corn, and squash), wherein the beans fix nitrogen in the soil for the other crops, the corn provides a structure up which the beans can climb, and the squash forms a kind of living mulch, keeping the soil damp and preventing the growth of weeds. (It makes a pretty nice soup, too, by the way.)

The more Chris taught us — double-digging rather than mechanically tilling, building a garden bed by sheet mulching — the more I imagined my grandmothers working their mixed gardens in Safe Harbour in the 1920s or 30s, tilling the soil by hand, adding natural organic fertilizers (capelin!) and moving things around year to year. “Why, it’s like common sense!” I blurted out one afternoon, and that got one of Chris’s infrequent but large, generous, and thoughtful grins.

What exactly is a sheet mulch bed, you ask? Why, it’s when you take this dry patch

Add a layer of cardboard

Then a thick layer of straw or hay — it can even be mouldy! This and some other dry brown garden waste mimic the older material you would find falling in a natural ecosystem such as a forest.

Then a layer of green waste — this mimics the newer material an ecosystem sheds.

A heavy layer of manure and compost — we all know what this mimics.

And then finally we have something into which we can plant

Elaine plants a Viburnum opulus, known as Kalyna in her ancestral home of Ukraine, where it has great cultural resonance, signifying both struggle and the rootedness of family. Also known as cramp bark, in folk medicine this plant was used by women all over the world to deal with menstrual and childbirth pain.

Building this garden, which took a couple of days on our part and even more of Chris’s and Elaine’s energy in the planning and gathering of raw materials, was hard work but it feels good to have been a part of something that will continue to grow, feeding itself and providing beauty and healing to all who seek it. The work of my hands, together with others’, is now a part of this place in the oak chaparral of Southern California.

But what we did there is a very small piece, as Wendell Berry reminds us in his foreword to theologian Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

We have been given the earth to live, not on but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge that we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this …

My sabbatical journey continues …


One thought on “The Common Sense Sabbatical

  1. Very thoughtful, and something I will have to come back to ponder. I find your writing pulling me along a path from which I have been struggling to follow in my oh so inadequate way.

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