SEEKING FALLOW TIME - an opportunity for rebirth and renewal
(Adapted from a reflection written originally for St. Stephen's, Orinda in December 2017, and published in various forms and manifestations since)
Living in Brentwood as I have for almost thirty years, you become used to seeing the seasons reflected in the land. I first saw Brentwood in the spring when the fruit trees were in bloom. It was one of the reasons we decided to make our home here. And even though the number of fruit trees is greatly diminished, every spring I am reminded of that by acres of white and pink blooms covering the trees like snow.
The bloom is followed by the fruit – first the cherries in time for Memorial weekend, when crowds descend from other Bay Area communities and Brentwoodians stay home to avoid the traffic. Cherries are followed by peaches, nectarines, plums, that delicious hybrid – pluots, and eventually apples.
Fruit trees blooming is not the only activity happening in spring. Interspersed throughout the orchards are fields of vegetables, primarily tomatoes and corn with occasional fields of green beans, bell peppers and zucchini. The fields are busy with farmworkers and machines weeding, watering, and planting.
The first shoots of corn appear soon after the fruit, followed by the tomatoes. The summer is busy with pickers and trucks and traffic coming and going from the fruit stands. From my house I can hear them, sometimes working all through the night. Then fall arrives with pruning and bonfires and spraying and ploughing.
At this time of year the land lies fallow, ploughed into neat, clean lines, waiting, anticipating the arrival of seed so that cycle can being all over again. But for this moment, all is quiet and calm. As I drive out of town into the heart of the agricultural core that surrounds the city, I see as if for the first time again field after field of bare, brown earth; orchard after orchard of exposed, empty trees; the land lying fallow under grey, wintry, rain-laden skies. Seeing it used to be like a deep, cleansing breath in a day filled with errands and chores, things to do and places to go, like hitting the pause button on the business of the season.
However, after more than a year as Missioner for Jubilee Farm Church, immersing myself in environmental sustainability and sustainable agricultural practices, learning about how conventional commodity farming damages the environment, now all I think about as I drive past the bare fields, are the tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the ploughing required to make the nice, clean lines that create the fallow fields. Ploughing releases approximately three tonnes of CO2 per hectare (2.47 acres). It is estimated that around twenty percent of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from ploughing. About 11,000 acres of Brentwood is designated agricultural core, pretty much all of it lies fallow at this time of year - ploughed. That is 81,510 tonnes of CO2 entering the atmosphere every fall. Given that there is approximately 43 million acres of agricultural land in CA, equating to 318.63m tonnes of CO2 released if it was all ploughed, it is no wonder farming is a major contributor to climate change. Jubilee Farm Church hopes to demonstrate another way of farming, a way that is good for the earth as well as good for our stomachs and our souls. No-till farming not only prevents the release of carbon into the atmosphere, it also improves the quality of the soil, encouraging biodiversity and water retention – so important in drought-stricken California.
The bare, ploughed fields lying fallow can be a compelling metaphor for Advent. Advent is the season which begins four Sundays before December 25th. It is a time of preparation for Christmas. Not the shopping, decorating, tree trimming, present wrapping, baking or any of the other things which herald the world’s observance of Christmastide, but the arrival of the Christ-child. In Advent we wait expectantly in hopeful anticipation for the birth of Christ and for the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom into our world in all places and at all times. Advent invites us to prepare ourselves by taking a deep, cleansing breath, hitting the pause button, stepping back from our busy-ness and laying bare our deepest hopes and yearnings; trusting that God in Christ will come into our hearts and minds and souls to bring all the world to Godself.
The land needs fallow time to rest and recover from its exertions during the spring and summer, and the assault of the fall harvest. It looks like nothing is going on, but in reality the earth is busy replenishing itself: microbes are breaking down organic matter and building nutrients; worms are burrowing tunnels to aerate the soil; rains are watering it. In the spring it will burst forth again, bringing forth fruits and vegetables to feed and nourish people who rely on it for their livelihood and their sustenance.
Advent is a similar time of joyful preparation. Like the land, this preparation happens deep inside our hearts and souls and cannot always be seen. It is not always obvious and requires that we find time to be quiet and reflective and do nothing; to spend time in prayer, or worship, or contemplation. Advent is a great gift at one of the busiest seasons of the year. It reminds us that if we create fallow space in our lives, we can look forward in hope to new life springing from our own hearts and souls.
We live in a society that rewards productivity and encourages accomplishment. There isn't much fallow time in our lives. We are increasingly busy and constantly on the go. Driving through the fallow fields and bare orchards I wonder about a society that requires its land to lie fallow for a season, but cannot seem to allow its people to seek similar renewal and replenishment for their souls. If it is necessary for the renewal and replenishment of the land for it to lie fallow in order to recover its productivity how much more is it necessary for our own lives?
We all need fallow time; time to rejuvenate, rest, and heal from the hard work of being a human being living in the world. Advent is an opportunity to do that. But as in agriculture, all fallow time is not created equal. How we prepare for that time, how we spend it, matters. The old ways, the ways we have always done things, do not always work and can sometimes be counterproductive. Our practices of rebirth and renewal need to not only benefit ourselves but reflect God’s intention for the world God created; to benefit the world and make a difference to all of God’s creation.
As this Advent draws to a close, consider how you normally spend this time of preparation for the birth of the Christ child. What no longer serves you? What is missing? What still brings you joy and makes your heart sing, even after years of doing the same thing, and what needs to change to make a difference not only to yourself but to the people and things around you? Ask yourself where God shows up in your practices? What do you need to change to reorder your life to the coming of Christ? Have you left enough space in the busy holiday season to wait, and watch, and wonder? If not, why not, and what can you do to change that?
Not only your well-being but the well-being of the world depends on it.