As many of you know, I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. My family has lived there for at least 4 generations. The story starts with land that was taken by European settlers in a “treaty” made with the Pottawatomi, Chippewa, Ottowa, Winnebago, and Menominee peoples who originally lived in and cared for the area. Soon after, New Englanders came to trap and hunt; factories, saw mills, and flour mills that depended on the natural water power of the lakes and streams flowing through were built up; and German, Dutch, and Irish immigrants settled and cleared the land to raise crops and farm. This established a booming dairy and cheese making industries that continue to this day.
My great grandfather William Markwardt, Jr. was one of those German immigrant farmers. He would use milking machines with his cows and my great grandma would help empty and filter the milk into cans. She would also care the barn cats, train the cow dog, and shepherd the cows from pasture to pasture. Great grandpa would do field work and clean the barn. But, like most farmers, the conventional wisdom about this way of farming likely changed with new technologies and ideas – fertilizers, advanced machinery, pasteurization, feed crops, hormones… A lot has changed in the thinking, philosophy, and wisdom around our relationship to land and farming since then.
We heard about both the beauty and benefits of living in right relationship with the land and about the idea of Wisdom in our readings today. There are books of the Bible classified as Wisdom literature including Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and others. We don’t get to know this part of scripture very well and passages from these books are not often included in the lectionary readings. The worship team is inviting us all to explore this part of scripture over the next few weeks. We’ll focus in on one passage each month that will be interpreted by different preachers.
The first reading today from Proverbs introduces us to Wisdom as a woman who brings something more precious than jewels and whose ways are always pleasant and peaceful. The ancient Greeks personified wisdom as the woman Sophia and her echos are heard in passages like this one. Sophia, also known as the Divine Wisdom, also known as Logos or The Word is said to have existed before everything, even before creation – as something that hovered over the formless, empty, darkness before God spoke “Let there be light.” Sophia’s presence is then said to have permeated into all of creation. Unlike the tree of knowledge in the Genesis creation story that is off limits to Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life written about in this passage from Proverbs is ready for harvest and with more wisdom comes more happiness. Wisdom is pure joy.
The presence of Wisdom, happiness, and joy in creation is seen in our Psalms passage as well. This song of thanksgiving for the harvest, the rain, the crops, the grain, and earth is so fitting for this time of year. I know that Jacob and I had so many beautifully ripe tomatoes – and hardly any with blossom end rot this year! – that our freezer is now stuffed with salsa and spaghetti sauce that will last us through the winter. Perhaps a modern version of this psalm could be praise for the pickles and kale and the handfuls of spicy peppers. This psalm is like a trip to the Farmers’ Market where your eyes just marvel at the trays of big purple cauliflower and zucchini. Such a happy picture!
But I think a lot of us know that it can be tricky to maintain a positive attitude and happiness when we have our environmentalist googles on. It can be hard to revel in those Farmers’ Market moments when we are just coming down from the hottest summer on record. Climate scientists now say that it is “almost inevitable” that the average global surface temperature will exceed the 1.5 degree threshold so the goal now is to limit the time spent over the mark and then bring it back down. We are already experiencing the consequences right here in our own backyard – drought throughout most of the summer, 90 degree days in October, forest fires, more days when the air quality is not safe…
So what could a new wisdom look like to help us overcome these climate woes? Or what do we need to do to reconnect with that old wisdom that prevailed since before the beginning? How can we live in greater celebration of our connection with the earth and recognize God’s presence in all of creation?
To create more regenerative and sustainable farming practices, we look to the wisdom of the indigenous peoples who have long cared for the land here and have proclaimed the sacredness of the interdependent ecosystems of which we are a part. Many of the farming practices now branded as “regenerative” are rooted in techniques utilized by indigenous communities for centuries. For instance, Agroforestry merges the forest and the farm fields so that the trees prevent erosion while the bean crops put nitrogen back into the soil, fertilizing its neighbors.
In place of acres of monoculture crops, companion planting is common, such as the Three Sisters of maize, beans, and squash, grow all together contribute to each other’s growth. Funny how this division of the way we see crops seems to be an apt metaphor for an individualist white supremacy monoculture that wants to clear out all competition, leaving space only for itself as opposed to a more communal, interdependent system that relies on each other and whose attributes help each other grow.
The phrase “Water is Life” is now a recognizable philosophy through the work of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, Winona LaDuke, and others. Traditional indigenous farming protected their crops from drought with natural water irrigation. These farmers also do not till their land, which limits erosion and keeps the carbon absorbed into the land sequestered there instead of released back out into the atmosphere.
Ray Archuleta is a soil expert and teaches these same farming conservation techniques. He is also a big inspiration for my husband Jacob’s land and garden management. Mr. Archuleta’s classes often include a compelling demonstration where a piece of sod that was taken from a classically treated monoculture field and a piece of sod from a field that was not tilled and grown with cover crops are both soaked for 5 min, simulating a rain storm. The monoculture dirt is only wet on the very top layers and even just a few inches down is bone dry while in the cover crop piece, the moisture gets soaked through the to end. He has a saying that the soil and plant are all one. As was spoken by the psalmist: The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. Water is Life, especially if we honor its value with how we treat our soil.
While paying attention to climate science can be disheartening and disparaging, I do find hope that farmers are returning to these earth-centered practices. The new farm bill, up to be renewed in December, even has language and incentives for farmers who utilize practices like no till and cover crops. We can remember that we are interdependent and irrevocably connected to the land, the water, the crops, and the soil.
Industrialization and white supremacy culture and colonization have taught us to separate ourselves from the land. To forget this connection to the earth and to the rain and the crops that feed us and the sunshine that becomes energy within us. But, just as in Psalm 65, we are invited to return to the wisdom that we cannot be without the other. The rivers in each furrow of the land also flow through us. Let us celebrate and live joyfully with this wisdom.
- Interpretations: Psalms
- Women’s Bible Commentary