April 5, 2019
Steam rises from a fallow field. You may have seen it, driving through the countryside early some morning at a change of the seasons.
I remember one early morning almost thirty years ago when Debbie, the kids and I drove out north of Aberdeen, Scotland, along the coast to find the castle in the shadow of which Bram Stoker conceived of his novel Dracula. Leaving the main road, we followed a gravel path toward the castle ruins teetering on a cliff high above the North Sea. Darkness still clung to the land, that morning, a granite sky above us, the sound of wind and waves our only companions. On each side of our path lay sodden fields from which misty steam rose like towering specters from their graves.
I often wondered why this is. Probably an organic chemist could explain it with real precision. Meteorologists have a variety of terms for the phenomenon: “steam fog” or “evaporation fog,” or more poetically, “frost smoke,” they call it. When I look on a field that is resting from cultivation, bathed in rain and rich of loam, especially if that field has been tended by a good farmer, when I see the steam rising from it, I am pretty sure it is secretly burning with life. I know that’s not science, but still I think it’s true.
Good earth needs rest. It needs sabbath just like we do. But if sabbath is well observed, good earth loves nothing so much as giving life again.
Tides ebb as well as flow. Seasons die and rise again. To everything there is a proper time, said the ancient preacher. And it seems that all nature, left to itself, is wise to know how to rise from the dead. All of nature, but too often not us. Too much of the time we waste ourselves.
Too often the things we praise others for and pride ourselves in seem destined to defeat us in the end: Calendars burdened to the margins by activities without accomplishment; lives despoiled of life; work turned to toil; an endless trudge through days without joy thinking by some absurd calculus that if we accumulate enough such days they will somehow add up to a meaningful life.
The late Carlyle Marney, a preacher without par today, once observed how we need our caffeine and other stimulants to get revved up in the mornings and our alcohol and tranquilizers to get calmed down enough to steal a few hours of restless sleep at night.
All this only to repeat the procedure. World without end.
Even our vacations exhaust us. We brag about how full our calendars are, but we cannot brag about how empty we feel.
Right there is the secret, of course. It’s the wisdom the earth knows. The earth does not fear its own emptiness, its need to rest, to fall silent, to receive.
Left to itself, the earth rests in emptiness. Good farmers in their respect for the earth imitate the land. They know that the best way to kill a field is not to let it lie fallow, not to let it sit empty. In emptiness there lies life. Spring comes in its own good time. And the steam that rose from the earth in the fall, blazes with life soon enough.