And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited. Ezekiel 36:35
I have been working in my vegetable beds today, tilling some I made last year and breaking others anew from the unpromising soil of our lawn. We live on a high ridge in the Ozarks, and so working the soil means struggling against clay studded with limestone, covered with a dense turf. Moreover, I go to work not with a tractor, but a broadfork: a 15-pound steel hand tool, shaped like a U, which I drive into the ground with my feet, then lever back to turn up the soil. Although the broadfork takes ergonomic advantage of the operator’s bodyweight, our soil makes its smooth operation impossible; I jump on it, angle beneath football-sized chunks of limestone, and pry violently against compacted clay.
Yesterday, I continued my work to break one of our new beds out of the turf. The process for broadforking a lawn into a garden is simple, if strenuous: on the first pass, I use the broadfork to cut up the turf, casting it aside in a heap and exposing the bare soil. A second pass allows me to pick out chunks of rock and loosen the soil for planting. The work is no joke, and the weather topped 80 degrees yesterday. So as I lugged my broadfork out to the new bed, I began to turn my choices over in my mind: do I really need this extra bed? this is stupid. maybe I should put in some nice raised beds after all.
For yesterday, at least, my motivation didn’t extend to labor on that rocky new bed. Staring down all that limestone, I was contemplating raised beds—or abandoning the garden entirely —but I didn’t want to waste my afternoon, and so I moved to one of the old beds. We had busted these out with this same painful labor last year, producing a pathetic yield of beans from their challenging soil. I still didn’t expect light work; in the Ozarks, the soil is good for a new crop of rock every year.
At my first move the broadfork sunk to its full depth into the ground. Caught off guard, I almost tipped over on my face. Over the next twenty minutes (no more!), I tilled the entirety of the bed, expanding it slightly, and raked it to the lovely smooth planting bed at which every gardener’s heart rejoices. Even one year of cultivation had transformed that soil. Thoughts of raised beds vanished.I garden according to the principles of permaculture, or “permanent agriculture.” Permaculture gardening mimics natural ecosystems to create a place of enduring health for the human inhabitants and the land alike. Natural ecosystems, if undisturbed, proceed through ecological succession from immature, annual-dominated landscapes (a weedy vacant lot) to mature ecosystems, like old-growth forests or the tallgrass prairie. Most agriculture starts this cycle over every year, introducing new, short-lived plants. Permaculture gardening, instead, tries to mature the ecosystem with perennial plants and reduced outside inputs—the garden as a food-producing forest, not a neat row of annual vegetables.
Permaculture gardening thus aims to create an enduring place, a habitation for human and non-human alike. This is not a quick process, and it may indeed involve hauling hundreds of pounds of limestone. Yet it promises a landscape not just prettied up and made a bit more fruitful, but restored to the sort of health it ought to have. I am unlikely to achieve that promise in my lifetime, in my place. (I am nowhere close to it now.) But the vision entices me still.
Everyone should have a little garden, and if that means raised beds, I would never discourage their construction. But raised beds don’t advance the landscape toward a mature ecosystem—in fifty years they will decay and need to be built again. Only the steady, slow, brutal improvement of the soil, first with a tool like the broadfork, then with the living roots and fallen leaves of growing trees, offers the potential for long-term health.
Just so, the passage from Ezekiel above promises a permanent habitation for the people of God, a perennial restoration of the land and its inhabitants. (While these essays will relate to the liturgical week, I confess I cheated on the lectionary my church uses for this week, going back from Ezekiel 37 to chapter 36. The verse above is something like the charter for these essays. Forgive me.) This promise comes amid Ezekiel’s prophecy to the mountains of Israel, a vision of the high and desolate places restored to fruitfulness—teeming not just with plants but with human life. The rocky ridges are tilled by the fury of God, washed in his dew, sown with seed, grazed by good stock, and built up with the households of the people. “And I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you.”
Reader, as this desolate Lent passes by, I leave it to you to see how this text comforts me.