Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Harvests and the Agriculture of Life

The Wheel is divided into parts, and each part offers a chance to contemplate a different area of life.  Over the past week, I've been thinking about my life and its harvests, and the harvests I see being collected around me.

Lughnasadh represents the beginning of the harvest season, but here in Austin we've been harvesting for months and are into our second planting season by August, so it's hard to view it strictly as a celebration of the bounty of the field.  We've become so out of touch with the cycles of the land anyway, that few of us really live the rhythms of agriculture -- but life can still be understood by its rules.

The first rule of agriculture is that your harvest depends on what was planted.  Just as you can't plant thistles and expect them to produce blueberries, you can't sow hatred or discord and expect to reap love and happiness.

What this means, practically, is that choices have consequences.  It seems like a lot of people wrestle with this idea.  They seem to understand in the abstract that their choices may turn out badly, but they're always surprised when they do.  For example, as Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A has learned this week, having your right to an opinion doesn't mean you have a right to an unchallenged opinion.  As most of the country seems to be learning in one way or another, choosing to voice your opinion may in fact result in criticism from people who don't agree with you.

It's not just about politics, though.  I see people in my life who scatter love and positivity wherever they go, who seek to live with integrity, to make sure that those around them feel valued and respected, and I see them living not necessarily easier or happier lives, but lives in which they also feel valued and respected.  I see people who choose kindness receiving help when they need it, and people who choose derision or scorn left to their own devices in need.  Most of all, lately, I see that many people around me are living out the set of relationships and circumstances they themselves built.  It's tough for me to say if I am; it's a hard thing to look at objectively.  I know that some things are direct results of choices I've made, but in some parts of my life I can't really tell what's consequence and what's coincidence, and it's possible some of the things I've been tending as my planted flowers are actually just pretty weeds.

Those pretty weeds benefit from the second rule of agriculture:  what thrives, was tended.  In the wild, what thrives is what's strongest, most adaptable, most hardy.  But in the garden, we use different selection criteria and the things that do well are the things we treat with care.  If you neglect your work, your career will suffer.  If you neglect your social life, your friendships will suffer.  If you neglect your body, your health will suffer.  If you want any element of your life to especially flourish, it requires careful attention and management of your resources, but that flourishing may come at the expense of other parts of your life.

A versatile and useful farm has many different sorts of plants.  It has staples like corn or wheat or potatoes, that provide the basic blocks of the diet.  It has green vegetables, to provide vital nutrients.  It has fruit for sweetness, herbs for variety, and flowers for beauty.  It has fall crops like squash, to keep into the winter.  It has winter crops like kale or asparagus, to provide fresh vegetables in the darker months.  It has livestock not only for meat and milk and clothing, but also for manure to renew the soil.  A farmer whose land provided more than enough food might choose to turn some acreage to flax or cotton or hemp, to indigo for dye, or to sugar cane.  A farmer who focused on one crop to the exclusion of anything else, though, would soon find that he was mightily tired of potatoes and lacking some pretty important nutritional components.  He'd be dependent upon his neighbors' prosperity and willingness to trade for his own excess.

A versatile and useful life also has many different elements.  You have to have some staple, some means of keeping the lights on and the roof over your head:  a source of income.  You have to blend family and friends, dreams and needs, art and health, all into some sort of existence.  If you focus on any one area to the exclusion of others, you'll find that your job is going brilliantly but your health is suffering, or your friendships are strong but your creative urges are being ignored.  Like a farmer, you have to find ways to make it all work together, to give the elements of your life the right amount of attention, to carefully tend the things you most want to see bloom.  And if there's something in your life that you don't want there, that you've tried to pull out or kill unsuccessfully, then the only way to be rid of it is to stop tending it: cut off its access to water, to food, to sunlight, and give it no further attention.

Companion planting allows farmers to use fewer resources to get the most.  Tomatoes will thrive if you plant them near basil; with careful planning you can combine areas of your life to greater effect.  If you can manage to be creative in your profession, your career will feed your soul in addition to your pocketbook.  If you and your partner support one another in healthy lifestyle choices, your relationship and your physical health will benefit one another.  Wherever you can find ways to make one part of your life improve your tending of another part, your entire quality of life gets better.

While it's true that what thrives is tended, it's not true that everything you tend will thrive.  That comes from the third rule of agriculture:  we do not run this show.

We are all dependent upon things and people external to us.  Here in Austin, we know very well that nothing grows if it does not rain.  You can collect rainwater, you can irrigate, you can choose drought-tolerant plants, but you simply cannot keep things alive without water by sheer love and force of will.  We do not choose where the hurricane will make landfall, we cannot take another driver's wheel and turn him from our path.

Even more than that, we can't control the lives and choices of those around us.  They may disappoint us, they may make choices that we would rather they didn't.  They might have different politics or priorities, not value the things we value, and disregard things we consider of paramount importance.

I cannot make others love me (or anyone else).  I can't force compassion and tolerance to manifest in my community.  I can't dictate the policies that will guide my country to economic stability and success.  I can't keep aggression and the will to dominate from driving people to war.  Those things will happen, and they will upset my careful plans.  Like locusts or flooding, they destroy my garden and force me to scramble to support myself while I start over.  If I have planned well, I have enough resources -- in money, in friends and family, in stored energy and sheer perseverance -- to rebuild a better garden with the lessons I have learned.  If I have not, or if I am unlucky enough to face multiple disasters together, then I'm in for a lean winter and maybe longer.

It's hard, now, when the sun bakes down in triple-digit temperatures, to think about the winter.  It's hard to look at each harvest and think that it's what I have to sustain me through the dark times.  I see loving relationships I've tended these last years, slowly increasing financial stability, a living space still more lair than home, a job that meets my needs but does not feed my soul, a mind I'm sharpening every day with books and thoughts and intelligent friends, and creativity I'm only just now learning to nurture, and I consider the decisions I have made this last season.

There's a temptation to, as one gathers the harvest, immediately begin thinking about the next year's planting, how I will do better in the next year.  But I can't know, for some time, if what I have is sufficient for my needs.  All I can do now, as I gather my bounty, is consider what part of it comes directly from the choices I've made and the care I've given, and what part of it comes from things I did not anticipate.  Long before I can ever begin to choose next year's seeds, I have to devote my full energy to learning the lesson's this year's growth has taught me.

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