The Long-Haul Goodness of Community

“So, how’s the commune?” asks the man with floppy brown hair. I can tell by his smile he thinks he’s being original.

“It’s great,” I answer. “But it’s not a commune. It’s a community.”

He laughs. “Can’t fool me. Lots of people. Organic gardens. Shared living spaces. Sauna. You’re a commune.”

We’re not! I want to protest. And then I wonder, Why am I feeling so defensive? Why do I so NOT want to be identified as a commune?

I’m sure it has something to do with the most popular caricatures of communes. First, the hippie variety: places roiling with free-love, utopian ideals and hairy-legged women. Or, second, the fundamentalist variety: places rife with rules, head-coverings and dour expressions.

Happily, Kingfisher Farm, my home and the home of 24 others, fits neither of these stereotypes.

Here’s the backstory: About five and a half years ago my husband and I gathered some friends, a few of whom we barely knew, and asked them if they wanted to buy a farm together. (A farm that had formerly served as the A Rocha Environmental Centre we helped start.) It’s a big decision–buying a farm—and even bigger when you’re doing it with people with whom you share no blood ties and, in some cases, very little history. Therefore, we met as a group bi-weekly for about five months to discern. Together we explored if a) we liked each other well enough to live together b) Shared enough vision and values to make this place more than a glorified playground for our kids and c) did we have enough money to make it work.

On one particular rainy night, we discussed our creation care values. A man in the group (we’ll call him Ralph) argued for environmental standards for our little farm. He chose dish soap as his case study. We would all need to agree to use bio-degradable, earth-friendly dish soap, no exceptions. A few of us balked. We had nothing against biodegradable dish soap per se, we just didn’t want our kitchens legislated.

Ralph was flummoxed.

Rick (his real name), gave voice to what the rest of us were trying to articulate. “What the world needs,” said Rick in a thoughtful tone of voice, “is not people who can live united to a high standard. What the world needs is a group of people who can get along, despite their differences.”

Ralph left the conversation disappointed. So disappointed, we later learned, that he hardly slept that night. At our next meeting he announced that his family would be pulling out of the process. They were sorry, it was a very hard decision, but they needed firmer standards. The soap conversation was, evidently, just the tip of the iceberg.

“Peace takes time,” wrote Stanley Hauerwas.

This is why I live in community. There’s no walking away from an annoying friend when his signature is scrawled next to yours on the mortgage documents! A commitment to my 24 farm mates over the long haul has created a stability that has opened possibilities to grow in love and forgiveness. We have indeed held each other to our higher ideals, but not in a preachy, finger-pointing way. I have been encouraged, for example, to resist North America’s dominate narrative of consumerism and individualism because I’ve watched my farm mates shop at Value Village and volunteer with refugee claimants and grow vegetables without pesticides or herbicides....

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Getting Grounded

photo credit: Brooke McAllister
Happy Friday, Blog Chums!  I'm writing over at again today. Click on the link at the end of this post to read the whole story...
A new friend walked with me through our garden. She pointed at the white cloth draped over a row of growing carrots. “What’s that white cloth for?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

She looked at the garlic bed and remarked on how many green shoots there seemed to be. “How many varieties are you growing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

She pointed at a moth fluttering over the cauliflower. “Is that a good moth or a bad moth?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

And then I crumpled to the ground.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” I wailed, clutching my head with both hands and swaying dramatically on my knees. There might have been screechy violin music in the background. The sky might have turned black and the clouds rained blood.

And then I woke up...

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Gardening with the Least of These

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many... The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” ... On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
 (I Cor. 12)

It’s easy to be romantic about gardening – red, ripe tomatoes dangling from the vine, shiny green cucumbers, crisp and fresh. In our promotional material for A Rocha’s Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) project, we certainly capitalize on this sort of romanticism, both in recruiting consumers to eat all those lovely organic tomatoes and cucumbers, and also in our recruiting of interns to plant, grown and harvest those beautiful veggies. And usually the romanticism holds. CSA members relish every last bean and brussel sprout, and interns enjoy the soul-nourishing activity of digging in the dirt and falling into bed with sore muscles and the satisfying knowledge that they have provided for the most essential of human needs – food – and they have done so in a way that cares for the earth. Therefore we were a bit surprised by a young intern from Cambodia who came to work in our CSA project. Though he had signed up to serve as a “Sustainable Agriculture Intern,” he was not very keen on digging, planting, weeding or harvesting. He was a lovely fellow, so were puzzled by his work ethic and reluctance to embrace what he had signed up to do. Turns out, farming is peasant work in Cambodia and this guy had a university degree. Once you’ve escaped the drudgery of farming in Cambodia you don’t go back. Farming is what the poor and uneducated do.

It’s easy to be critical of this sort of stance, but upon reflection it hits awfully close to home for those of us born and raised in the privileged North. Very often we’ve relegated the sweaty, backbreaking, daily and dismal tasks of everyday life (whether that be washing dishing, cars, carrots or babies’ bottoms) to those economically desperate enough to do these “thankless” jobs. We have, in fact, reserved the “less honorable” tasks to the “least of these.” The injustice of this sort of hierarchy of labor can be seen in all its starkness in the migrant farm workers who can’t afford to eat the fresh produce that they grow, choosing instead the affordability and convenience of fast food (and therefore unwittingly choosing the array of health problems, from diabetes to heart disease, that go along with that sort of diet). In a word, these workers suffer. But, if we are take seriously the words of Apostle Paul, if one part suffers, the whole body suffers.

An acknowledgment of that suffering and an act of solidarity with those on the bottom rungs of the agribusiness ladder, might be to plant a garden: stand with the least of these, if not literally, then figuratively, under a common sky. Get our hands dirty, break a sweat, grow some food. Such an act not only has the power to create empathy and solidarity, it has the power to ground us, literally, in and on the earth as we become aware of the cycles of seasons and weather; as we slow down and give thanks for the gifts of rain and sun and good soil; as we acknowledge the generous hand who provides it all. If done intentionally, gardening can become an experientially bridge not only between us and the Creator, but also between those for whom growing food is a romantic hobby and those for whom it is a grinding way of life. Sore muscles and callused hands can become a prompt that leads us to remember and pray for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. By planting a garden we proclaim that we are part of a bigger human community – a bigger body – as we give honour to those who appear least.
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Who Speaks for the Trees?

I watched a forest felled last week. First I heard the rumble of a large machine, then the cracking of wood splintering, then a shivering balance and the fall of a tree appearing both ponderously heavy and bizarrely weightless as it toppled in slow motion, seemingly drawn to earth as much by subjected surrender as by gravity.

I had been standing near the garden outside my home on Kingfisher Farm when this occurred.  The forest in question ran along the 5 acres of our eastern border.  Most of the trees were alders – weeds of the tree world, but also home to squirrels, raccoons, and countless birds including a pair of Barred owls that called regularly to us from across the fence.

Three different envoys of farmmates pleaded with our new neighbour to leave a few trees standing – the cherry that draped over the fence onto our land, but especially the towering cedars on the slope toward the pond. But our case was made in vain -- every tree came down. In as sense our pleading was hypocritical -- our own gardens and pastures were once a tangle of Firs and ferns and our houses are built of wood. And so we pause and lament, recognizing both our own culpability in creation’s destruction as well as the potency of our technology which can destroy in a few days what had flourished for centuries. And we recommit ourselves to know our place, to steward it well, and live in peace.

The Sacrament of Spruce

credit: Mr. Po

My farmmates slaughtered a cow recently. I didn’t want to be there. I liked Spruce, his tawny curls, bawling voice, and thick tongue that wrapped around blades of grass like an arm of an octopus. His death was an event I would happily forgo.

I went to church instead. I love church. I love the singing. I love our pastor Anne’s sermons. I love the prayers. It all draws me to the Real. Technically we’re “low church” Baptists – thus, no robes, no candles and just two sacraments, baptism and communion. In the seven years of the church’s existence we have only performed one baptism; but what we lack in water, we make up in wine (or, in our case, grape juice). Rooted in the image of the table -- where all are welcomed and nourished -- we celebrate God’s tangible demonstration of love every Sunday. I love the remembrance integral to this ceremony. I love the earthiness of the bread which is often homemade and sometimes still warm. I love the way the servers say everyone’s name as he or she receives the elements. “John, this is the body of Christ broken for you...Danielle, the blood of Christ, shed for you.” I like to go first so that I can sit and watch others receive, which is a communion too.

Given that I had chosen sacrament over slaughter I was surprised when my farmmate Karin described Spruce’s slaughter as “sacramental”. The officiating “priest” hardly seemed a candidate for such a label. A chain-smoking man in his early thirties, he consumed three cans of Old Milwaukee beer during the 30 minute early morning procedure. When Karin asked if he would be willing to slaughter their next cow in a couple year’s time, he answered, “If I’m still alive, which I doubt.” 

But there was evidence of sacrament in the channel hand-dug from the slaughter area to the field, which still shone bright with blood when I saw it hours later. And there had certainly been reverence as expressed by Karin and our fellow farmmate Angela’s prayers of thanksgiving for Spruce’s life. True, there was no, “Behold, the cow of God that takes away the sins of the world.” But there was an encounter with the “Real” and in turn, a turning – of hearts toward the Creator in gratitude and humility at the provision of nourishment that only comes through sacrifice.

Life and Death on the Farm

credit:  Brooke McAllister

     We killed a bully rooster at A Rocha one spring. He had attacked my daughter and an array of interns and thus became destined for the soup pot. We killed a few of his brothers as well – to make a full meal. I, city wimp and vegetarian that I am, didn’t participate in the actual killing, but joined everyone in the kitchen for the gutting and dressing.

     One of my teammates plunked a big-breasted, puckered-skinned bird on the counter in front of me. I swallowed hard and decided the best way to attack my meat queasiness was to really go on the attack. I stabbed at the bird’s abdomen and with a swift slice upward opened its innards to plain view.

     “This one’s a meaty one,” I quipped to the cook over my shoulder, feigning a butcher’s ease with the entrails that presented themselves so readily.

     “Yeah, thought we should get at least one good roaster from the day,” he said.

     “Roaster?” I queried. “You mean rooster, right?”

     “Nope,” he said, nonchalantly. “That one’s a hen. That one is Susie.”

     I froze. Susie, this bird was Susie?

     My daughters and I had bought Susie as a two-day-old chick the previous Easter and had raised her, first in our living room, then in the playhouse, until she was four months old and finally graduated to the chicken coop. Glossy black, with a speckled brown head, she was a beautiful bird. Evidently, she had been a last-minute addition to the slaughter roster.

     I fought back feelings of betrayal and the wave of nausea that suddenly washed over me as I mentally composed an A Rocha Centre memo concerning the protocol for future meat harvesting so that would-be pets might escape beloved Susie’s fate.

     Gritting my teeth and refusing to be undone by the harsh realities of farm life, I began to pull out Susie’s intestines and toss them in the garbage. Then my fingers clamped onto something hard. I pulled it out and discovered it was an egg -- a beautiful brown egg. I reached in again and pulled out another egg. This one smaller and paler. Again my hand went in and again out came an egg, still smaller and a bit paler.

     A crowd of four A Rocha butchers gathered around me. No one spoke, everyone stared. I felt like a magician pulling miracles out of a hat. In all I pulled out seven eggs that varied in size from a tiny soft white ball to a fully formed, hard, elliptical egg.

     We were, each one of us, hushed. There before us, spread across the kitchen counter, we beheld the miracle of life itself—and, by extension, the somberness of death. We had killed the goose that laid the golden egg without realizing she was full of golden eggs.

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Eating Shaggy


     They say you should never name an animal you plan on eating. Perhaps, but I’ll say one thing: when you know it’s Shaggy on your plate, it sure adds authenticity to your pre-meal prayer. Firsthand knowledge of your dinner’s name brings you face to face with the fact that everything that feeds us—from a beef steak to a beefsteak tomato—has to die to give us life. As Gary Synder so ably puts it, “if we do eat meat, it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with four square feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.”

    Rick Faw taught us a lot in this regard. Rick, who serves as A Rocha’s Education Director, came with his family to live at the Field Study Centre the spring after we arrived. One of the first tasks we bequeathed to him was the care of the cows, a task he gladly accepted, being a closet cow whisperer and all-around animal lover. The image that stays with me from those early days is of Rick, baby Jared on his back and a farm cat at his heels, pushing a wheelbarrow towering with hay through the sodden grass to the pasture. He’d deftly launch the bales over the fence and into the cows’ troughs, pet their foreheads while they munched, and then go on with his other farm chores. This was his morning routine.

     In the late afternoons, while Jared napped, Rick returned to the fields to brush the cows. I think he really wanted a dog, or any more sentient sort of pet, but since he had cows, he poured all his pent-up pet affection into them. He’d stand out there, in the cold, in his 1980s bright blue ski jacket, and brush those cows down as if they were Arabian mares and tomorrow was the Kentucky Derby. Markku and I watched all this from our kitchen window and, I must admit, wondered if Rick was making the best use of his time. Surely he could be writing a fundraising letter or planning a talk or following up with potential interns. There was just so much to be done.

     Our attitude just goes to show our lack of groundedness. Brushing the cows, by Rick’s own admission, served no practical function. Highland cattle on the moors of Scotland never get their coats brushed and they survive just fine. A few burrs and tangles in no way mitigates their enjoyment of sun, grass and stars. But then Rick wasn’t really concerned with burrs and tangles; the brushing was a way of de-stressing for Rick (and probably for the cows as well). In this way it was both an act of contemplation and even, dare I say, of fellowship. Given his bonding with these beasts you’d think Rick would have been the first of us to go vegetarian (I alone of all the A Rocha staff hold that distinction). But no, he ate the stews and roasts just like everyone else. He did admit, however, that he felt a measure of sadness when eating our cows, but for him this was a good thing, for in his sadness lay the seeds of gratitude.
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