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A Meditation on Farming and Patience

May 12, 2022

If someone asked you to picture a farmer, what would you see?

I imagine you'd give me a variety of responses. One of the ones I've been thinking about this week is the "patient farmer". You know, the image of the farmer, gazing out at his crops, patiently waiting for the harvest. Moving at a different pace, living a different kind of life.

You probably know enough about farming to know that this is in some way romanticized. Farmers have chaotic schedules. They're indebted to slow Internet speeds. They, like many of you, feel like there's more to get done than there are hours in the day.

I would argue, though, that this isn't just a romantic image, or a stereotypical one. Farmers actually do need patience. Even if we feel stressed or chaotic or perpetually busy, the nature of farming requires that we slow down if we are to properly manage the land.

I've been thinking about this as I've re-read Wendell Berry's essay, "A Native Hill", this week. In it, he writes: "Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch." To illustrate his point, he recalls many of the times that he has simply sat and watched the most mundane things in nature. A squirrel, sunning himself on a roof after a frosty evening. A rusty lantern, laying half-buried in the soil, with worms crawling around it. Ducks, preening on a pond in the late sunlight.

These are beautiful images. But, I’ll admit, as he takes his time chronicling every detail, I start to get a little antsy. Doesn’t he have things to do? How does he find the time to just sit there? How is he not adding to his to-do list in his mind?

In our modern age, we’re conditioned to be constantly productive creatures. We must show something for our time, or if we allow ourselves to do nothing, we often feel that we must make excuses for it. One of the great challenges of farming, I’ve learned, is that if you continue to push this attitude of constant overproductivity, you will cause destruction in your wake.

What do I mean by this? There’s the simple things: rushing through chores and mis-using tools and equipment in our haste will lead to breaking or destroying them. But there’s the big things too. Deciding what we want, when we want, where we want it, often leads us to build or do things in ways that are not ecologically sound or prudent. It takes time, time to sit still and observe and be patient.

When I think of that stereotypical image of the “patient farmer”, my mind can now start to fill in the blanks. If he’s looking out at his crops, he’s probably looking not only at their growth, but also at the life there - both beyond and above the ground. "Knowing" when crops are ready requires patience. It requires observation. And managing crops in an ecologically beneficial way means timing harvesting when it's right for the entire ecosystem - not just the farmer.

But this is also true when we think about the physical spaces on farms, or in rural areas. This gets back to one of the main points of Berry’s essay: because we have not learned a place before we start building, we inevitably cause catastrophe. If we were to learn what works well, in this land, on this space, with these particular qualities, then we would find a way to co-exist with the community of life already brimming around us.

In other words, caring for the environment, whether we live on a farm of not, puts us fundamentally at odds with haste and convenience. Considering what works in a particular space, and according to particular practices, not only enables us to know the land, but to become positive stewards of everything we touch.

How do you practice patience and observation in your life? In what ways do you seek to slow down and engage with the land? I’d love to hear from you.

Michelle Sroka

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