Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Dirt Beneath Our Feet (May 1, 2011)

I guess you could say that I’m an agnostic –there’s nothing that I know for sure about God. But at some point I made a theological leap that if I was going to believe in God, the God I could believe in was not separate from the world, but was deeply immanent in the world. If there was anything that was sacred, then everything was sacred. It is not enough simply to make that theological pronouncement, however, because such an audacious statement calls me to look deeply at all these manifold sacred things. Each living thing is a sacred text, and like the great sacred texts, new wisdom emerges as you live with those texts. What has surprised me in the years since I made that leap is that Once you put on your “everything is sacred glasses,” that is once you look at things as if you believe and trust that they are miraculous and sacred if you have the eyes to see, even the most ordinary of things begin to blow your mind

For years I have been singing the song “The Earth is our mother” and in my mind I pictured the globe- Gaia – our blue boat home. Recently, however, I heard Vandana Shiva, Physicist, Environmental Activist, talking about the role of earth in her culture in India. "For us,” she says “mud is not just the matrix of life in which we grow our plants, it's our building structure - it's our very sense of who we are." [quoted in a movie I recommend highly- Dirt! The Movie]

I realized she was talking about earth- the soil out of which we are all born. The soil which carries the building blocks of life, all those minerals and elements that make up our bodies, and the bodies of the plants and animals we eat. Says Physicist Fritjof Capra "The living organisms on earth have used the very same molecules of air, water and soil over and over again. Not just the same types of molecules but the very same molecules.", [Dirt! The Movie] Image singing that chant again- the earth is our mother, and picturing not the shining blue sphere, but a handful of dirt from your garden: the soil that feeds you and your children, the soil that turns fallen leaves and apple cores from garbage into life. As it says in the book of Genesis: [3: 19] “for out of [the ground] you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” The earth is our mother. It literally gives us life.

When I first read the passage by Wendell Berry we heard this morning, it awakened some deeper knowing in me- knowing in a deeper way what I had known since I was a child-- that everyone, everything I love as they die becoming part of the soil, and (I’ve been very clear with my family- when I die I want to be buried in a plain pine box) my own body will be part of that soil. I want to rejoin that millennia old chain of life, and when I die I want to rejoin it as soon as possible. When I thought of the soil that way, suddenly I was filled with an awe-filled reverence. That soil IS my ancestors, all our ancestors, all our loved ones, it is us.
As we saw in our opening meditation, dirt is not some inert material, soil is incredibly alive. I recently saw a movie called “Dirt! The Movie” and in it wine critic Gary Vaynerchuk said "With the amount of species that live in a teaspoon of dirt, I think it's very obvious dirt might be more alive than we are."

Because we live in a very fertile area, we take for granted that something will grow out of the ground, bidden or unbidden. We have to mow and cut back and sometimes even use poisons to keep thing from growing out of every bit of dirt. If we lived someplace like Africa we would know better. There about a third of the continent is dessert. Most of the continent is savannah, some naturally occurring, and much of it created when forests were cut down or burned to create farmland Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai has devoted her life to planting trees to try to reclaim that desert, the desert that was created when we humans cut down or burned the trees and plants that held water and nutrients in the soil. Pierre Rabhi: Philosopher, Agro-ecologist Farmer turned philosopher has spent his life helping farmers in such arid landscapes to rebuild soil damaged through cultivation. He is quoted as saying "Africa is not poor. Ethiopia alone, if properly cultivated, could feed the entire African continent." [Dirt! The Movie.]

It is scary to realize that we in North America are not immune to this desertification. Our Top soil is not inert- not something that will always be there no matter what we do. We take it for granted, perhaps the same way we took our mothers for granted when we were children. The way we practice farming in modern times we lose six tons of topsoil for every ton of food produced "The Dust Bowl was an event, not quite on the same scale, but comparable to what happened after the last Ice Age. We made a really big change in the landscape just by bad farming practices” -- to quote urban arborist Bill Logan. [Dirt! The Movie ]

But this is not a sermon about science, this is a service about renewal. I am proposing that the earth itself- the soil is a kind of sacred text that can help us understand how to prevent the burn out, the desertification of our own hearts and minds, and can help us renew ourselves when we need it most.

I think we should start with roots. Roots hold the soil together. Roots draw water and nutrients down into the soil and up into plants. Without an interconnected of roots the soil washes away, or is blown away as in the days of the dust bowl. This is what causes desertification. This is why it is so important for farmers to plant cover crops in the off season- it keeps the soil healthy and whole when it is not producing crops. When we go through a storm, if we have laid down a web of connections, to one another, to our community, to the earth, it helps us stay whole during times of change or times of loss. Moreover, the deep roots help us through droughts, through times of scarcity. In times of drought the deep roots reach sources of water the more shallow roots cannot reach, they can also reach elements, nutrients from deep down. If the soil is low on phosphorous, say, but there is a layer several feet down the plants with deep roots can reach those nutrients that those annual plants with shallow roots cannot. Deep roots are the ones that take time to lay down, the roots that last from year to year, decade to decade. The earth teaches us that it is worth laying down roots slowly over many years, of keeping connected to the sources of nourishment and connection from long ago, because while we grow new roots every year, the plants that have deep roots have special sources of nourishment and strength to draw from. My grandfather told me once about how hard they worked to encourage their neighbors to plant a row of trees at the edge of their fields to help preserve the soil and slow the wind. Even in a life which depends on the annual crops, there must be trees, there must be deep roots for the health of the soil and of ourselves.

We also learn from the soil that we need change, and we need rest. A piece of land that has grown corn for too many years will bear less and less produce as the nutrients that corn needs are used up. Sometimes we need to just let the land rest- to lay fallow. By lay fallow we don’t mean that the bare dirt is just exposed to the sky for a year, we mean that it is uncultivated. In the same way rest for our soul is probably not sitting on the couch watching tv, but when soil is lay fallow it is “left to its own natural growth.” I guess for me this means to leave some time unscheduled sometimes- to be spontaneous and see what grows. Good farmers also rotate crops to keep the land fruitful. We all need change in those things we cultivate in our lives.

A natural ecosystem will find its own balance over the years if “left to its natural growth.” But when we cultivate land, when we cultivate ourselves, we have to very carefully keep track of the balance, to build a relationship of plants that are mutually supporting- elements that work in harmony with one another. It is widely known that it was the custom among the first nations people in this land to plant corn, squash and beans together- this is referred to as “the three sisters. Squash protects her sisters from weeds and shades the soil from the sun with her leaves, keeping it cool and moist. Beans help keep the soil fertile by converting the sun's energy into nitrogen filled nodules that grow on its roots. And the corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb. Or think of the compost pile. Most folks use a layering of dry and wet compost materials (lasagna is the common metaphor) Too much wet stuff and it will not get hot enough to transform. If there’s not enough oxygen it doesn’t transform (this is part of the problem with our current landfill system.) But once the right balance is achieved, the compost practically creates itself. What do you need for balance in your life right now?

And here’s the most amazing thing of all. What feeds the soil? Builds the soil? Waste. Death. Decay. Think about an old growth forest. There are trees there in all stages of life- young, old, and those laying there on the forest floor decaying. It can take a tree the size we see in our backyards about 20-25 years to decompose. All through that time it is food and habitat for many species of bugs, birds, rodents, bacteria, moss, even new trees. The leaves that drop from the trees in autumn become over the next few seasons the very food that will feed those trees and other members of the eco-system in future growing seasons. But what do we do in our own yards? We rake up all those leaves, haul away the dead trees, burn them or send them to landfill to keep things looking tidy. Then if we want to feed our yard we go buy fertilizer at the store. Here’s the wisdom I take from this scripture. What you need to feed your spirit is in you right now. It’s in your life, in your relationships, in the traditions and heritage you were born into. We so easily go looking far and wide to find food for the spirit, but all the basic building blocks are already around us. It’s in a story your grandmother told, memory of time shared with your father; it’s in this 400 year old religious tradition. Each generation does not have to start from scratch, but can let the leaves of past seasons, the lives of fallen trees that were the lives and work of our ancestors feed and nurture you. The same is true within your own life and spirit. You already know a lot. Experiences that may have seemed incidental at the time can come back to us later as wisdom. I never did become a professional ballet dancer, but I was so amazed to find that 20 years later all the work I did in ballet class as a child made yoga so much easier and fun for me as an adult. And as counter intuitive as it may seem, What you need to feed your spirit is in the loss you have experienced. Instead of raking loss and grief away to keep things tidy, sometimes the greatest gift we can give our spirits is to allow those griefs to remain where they are, to decay and change and be transformed into new life.

The main message I want to leave you with this morning is the same one we started with today. The earth, the sacred ground we walk upon, is our mother. All life comes from her, and she turns death back into new life. We must take care of her. We care for her by allowing deep roots to grow, by creating communities of balance, and by allowing the soil to rest and be renewed. The earth is our mother. She will take care of us. She will feed us and our children for generations to come if we remember to nurture and care for her.

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