I live in Maine and I don’t know how many horror stories you may have heard about winters here, but sometimes they’re exaggerated — and sometimes they’re not.
Winter is long, cold, and most of all — when Christmas is over and we’ve run out of enthusiasm for skating and sledding — dreary. Cloud cover clings to every low sky and the streams run steel-colored water where they aren’t frozen.
Seed catalogues stuffed in the mailbox at this time of year are startling. Scarlet-orange carrots and purply green kale hurt my eyes after the palette of the gray horizon and dirty brown-white snow. Color! I remember. And soil.
I’m not a very good gardener, though I’ve grown at least some small thing in my little suburban garden every summer for the last decade. I consider it practice for the future — when my husband and I make our dreams of rural living come true, and build the house we want with the big windows and the sunny garden just a hose-length from my kitchen door. Then, watch out. Friends will beg me to stop throwing ruddy beet globes and fat butternuts their way.
A few years ago, I met the Catholic Rural Life (CRL) movement through a friend — a priest, baker, sometimes farmer, and general outside-the-box thinker — who was starting a festival in the mindset of the CRL community at his rural parish. He and others were looking for a celebration, a dialogue about the Church and the agrarian way of life – her continual practice of affirming the earth, the seasons, the farmer; and of what this looks like today.
I held off from digging deeper, feeling like a fake – the movement is targeted to support rural and agrarian communities, and right now my husband and I aren’t anywhere close to having a back 40 and planting a baby orchard to delight our someday grandchildren. Instead, we can read the marquee of a car dealership from our living-room window.
But we’ve been attending these festivals every year now — prayer, lectures, discussions, lessons and sold-out farm-to-table dinners — though we’re still more city-dwellers than country folks. Bit by bit, however, I’ve learned that Catholic Rural Life is more about a way of looking at things, and not a geographical location.
It’s about opening my eyes to see the actual earth, the ground and trees, the plants and birds, and listening to the voice of the Creator in them.
It’s about forking a salad or pork chop on my plate and seeing the hands that tended those delicate greens, or wrangled that giant hog for butchering.
The CRL movement itself is doing great things to support rural families and farmers, but it does not exclude me and many others whose dream-gardens might stay dreams. It is, as is so much of our faith, about the little ways.
There is a goodness in my seed-catalogue perusal, learning the names of so many varietals, hunting down an heirloom seed or two to try this year.
There is goodness in spending a little more money on food that was grown in my own town or county, or state.
There is goodness in having soil in my yard for my children to poke small fingers and drop in a knobby chard or broad cucumber seed. For them, that is prayer, that is conversation with the Creator.
As with many of the things that we realized in our thirties, the dream my husband and I have had may or may not come true. But every year, as I take a vacation in the pages of my seed catalogues, I become a little more okay with that.
Part of this has been the realization that I can still participate in the way of life I long for, on my 1/3 acre sandwiched between neighbors. My eight raised beds are not going to feed us in an Armageddon – but they slow down the modern speed of my life. They become an interaction between my soul and my body and the earth, and that is really what I’m longing for in all this.
It’s an echo of what St. John Paul II, in a millennium address for the Jubilee of the Agricultural World, knew:
“God entrusted the earth to human beings ‘to till it and keep it’ (cf. Gn 2: 15). But you understand clearly, dear friends, that this principle of order, which applies to agricultural work … is rooted in the human heart.”
This desire is rooted in my own heart. Now to decide whether to try Old German or Cherokee Purple tomatoes this year.
For more information on the Catholic Rural Life movement, visit catholicrurallife.org. Many seed companies will send free catalogues upon request, so brighten up your remaining weeks of winter!
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