Monday, April 19, 2010

An Elemental Life

If you want to get in touch with life at its roots, life at an elemental level, there's nothing like a hundred acres of farmland (or raising small children!). The reality of the land is both more beautiful and less romantic than the world of ideas (where I usually live). The Farm resists idealization, the soil is resistant to theories. Land is always this specific land, and working the place always means working with this particular combination of the basic elements.

The ancients viewed the world as composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. That scheme turns out to be inadequate for purposes of physics and chemistry, but it's remarkably useful for capturing daily experience with the concrete specifics of life and work on the Farm.

Here's an example: when we got the Jeep or the Polaris stuck in the slippery rain-soaked mud, we wrestled with earth and water. To avoid those problems again, we need to work with the earth (soil) and the water and not against them. The messy details all come about from the way these ingredients interact!

And here's another example: we burned off about 20 acres of CRP grassland last week. It was an impressive interaction of fire and air! We were careful, well-manned, and well-equipped, and nothing bad happened: all the stuff that was supposed to burn did, and nothing that wasn't supposed to burn did! No injuries, no running around screaming in terror! All in all, a successful day. But here's the rub: we were "in control" only in a limited way. The direction and speed of the wind, and the heat and the speed of the fire, were more important for our success than our plan or our tools. A contrary wind could have cancelled the whole business, and fire in the wrong place would have turned it upside down.

To live and work happily with the Farm is a series of adjustments and accommodations, a dance of compromises between our human intentions and the elements we are given to work with. The elemental life of the Farm is a life in which we are not sovereign, not the masters of all we survey. We have to learn to live with only limited control.