by Catherine Doherty.
The stocky peasant with the square beard that tumbled down to the middle of his chest stood easily before my father. I heard his usually calm voice acquire a vehement accent: "No, sir," he said, "it doesn’t do to make the earth angry. It will punish us if we do."
The words struck me forcibly. I was around thirteen. I wanted to know what our farm manager meant by this strange sentence, and I asked my father that night.
He smiled; then his face became serious. Father explained to me, quietly and with a depth of feeling I did not suspect he had, that mankind was the child and servant of the earth.
The earth was our mother, in a manner of speaking, and farming was a holy way of life. It was a way of life that God meant for the majority of people. In the growing of things, first to feed one’s own family, and then to serve one’s neighbor, man fulfilled himself as a workman.
He went on to say that work was not a curse. Adam had worked; God himself had worked. Work was holy, especially work on and with the earth. One had to be reverent when one was a farmer. God spoke very clearly to those who farmed, and taught them many lessons in this place of formation.
Above all, he taught them prayer, faith, humble submission to his most holy will and reverence for all created things—trees, flowers, seeds, grains, animals. Even the tools used for this tending of the earth and of living things must be reverenced.
All this I remembered recently as I discussed our farm with others who were interested in the land. We sat up late talking about chores and about ways of working the earth and fertilizing it.
When I returned to my little cabin, I couldn’t sleep for hours. Out of a distant past a thousand images crowded into my mind. They filled my heart with a strange sadness. Long-forgotten pictures, sounds, and smells overwhelmed me.
I began to recognize something that had been bewildering me and strangely hurting me since I first came to this new world. Like a refrain to all these memories, a phrase kept intruding itself—"this beautiful land, this beautiful land."
Yes, it was becoming clear; this infinitely rich and gracious earth of the new world was being ruined and destroyed by man.
You must put back what you take away. The spade-bearded figure of our farm superintendent of yesteryear rose before me. He was discussing a field with my father, who had a farm of 800 arable acres, which had been in our family since the twelfth century.
He was talking to my father about one field in particular. He said it was sick.
One unacquainted with the Russian peasant farmer’s speech would have thought that he was talking about a person. As he explained, the earth was black and soft to the touch. It looked healthy, but it was not well. Oh no, it was very sick! He advised my father to let it rest, to let it sleep its sickness out.
He told my father why this field got sick. It was because we had not put back into it what we had taken away from it.
It had grown wheat last year, but there was a new hired man who hadn’t put the straw back after the harvest. Earnestly, the peasant—the farm doctor—kept repeating that the law of soil fertility was very simple: you must put back what you take away.
I recall the spade-bearded man discussing with my father another field that he said was dying. Sleep, he said, would not restore that field. It had to be healed lovingly and patiently. He spoke of trees as the remedy.
They decided on a mixture of evergreens and deciduous trees. Planting only evergreen trees would make the soil sour; leaves from deciduous trees were needed to feed the earth over long years.
I asked my father why he was giving so much acreage to trees which grew very slowly.
"The earth never hurries," he said, "and if a man makes her ill he has to apologize to her, beg her forgiveness, and start all over again to make her well and fruitful.
Sometimes it takes four generations to restore the soil that has been hurt by one generation."
Father told me that once upon a time a large part of our land had been very sick. My great-great-grandfather decided that the only way to restore it to health was to plant it with trees, and this he did.
He left instructions for his great-grandson (my grandfather) to cut down the trees and plow the land when the latter’s son (my father) would turn six years old.
Father remembered men cutting down those mighty trees and plowing the earth. It was black again and rich and full of life. It was, in my day, our most fertile piece of earth.
—From Apostolic Farming, pp. 13–17, available from Madonna House Publications.
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