Editor: I’m sure you’ll enjoy this post by Brazos Fellows alum Emily Verdoorn. After reading, be sure to head over to Instagram to check out some of her sketches and artwork.
Picking lettuce last spring in the Gutacker’s backyard brought me surprising joy and satisfaction. For a few weeks in April around lunchtime, I took the white colander from the cupboard and walked up the street and around the corner to the Gutacker’s driveway. I gingerly stepped past the thorny rosebushes to the gate at the side of their house. Lifting the metal latch I pushed open the gate with a scraping sound which I hoped would act as an informal knock so I wouldn’t unduly startle any Gutackers who happened to be in the backyard at the moment. Pecan shells popped under my shoes as I rounded the house and made my way to their raised bed garden in the corner of their backyard. Sometimes I caught Paul or Paige’s eye through the window in the back screen door and I waved; other times I slipped in and out without disturbing anyone. I picked a few leaves toward the base of each plant taking care to leave plenty behind. The lighter green leaf lettuces were going to seed faster, so I favored those in my selection. I mostly left the redder lettuces till later. When I had picked enough for a salad I made my way back to the Lewis House, washed the leaves carefully, and chopped up a few other veggies and toppings. I made Father Lee’s famous balsamic dressing and poured it over what had grown into a good sized salad for lunch. This I did nearly every day for three or so weeks. I know it is a small thing really—far, far from what real gardeners do. It cost me no sweat, sunburn, or ache like a real gardener. And yet this small thing resonated with me deeply which is why I went back day after day—even when the lettuce started getting old and bitter. What was it about this small thing that spoke to me?
For one thing it captured my imagination because many of the characters I love are gardeners. Samwise Gamgee for one and Hannah Coulter for another. And even our first parents were gardeners. Tom Bombadill who is older than time thought highly of the hobbit Farmer Maggot, saying of him, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.” (The Fellowship of the Ring). There is wisdom and mystery in growing things which I will never understand, but I can enjoy nevertheless. I have often felt that there is a truth in growing things in which I am invited to participate. If I can extend the mystery of growing things to learning or making I will see what I can find.
. . .
Roots. Before we even see the little light green seedling poking his head out of the dirt there has been a lot of work that happened invisibly, underground. Much of the work we do whether it is thinking faithfully, serving anonymously, or creating visual art or music is invisible work. It is work which may not be seen much less bear fruit for quite some time. Although they are often unsought, roots still play a living part for the growing thing. Words written for Aragorn, King of Gondor also come to my mind. “Deep roots are not reached by the frost”. Although for Aragorn, I think these words hold true for things which are sure, trustworthy, and old in our world as well. This past year it was such a unique time to look at the deep and living roots of the Church, the deep roots in ourselves, and hopefully tend and attend to the old things.
Rest. Taking time for Sabbath has helped me loosen my grip and open my hand to God’s grace. In one of his sabbath poems, Wendell Berry writes:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
– Wendell Berry
For the last few years I have often returned to this poem. It reminds me that I am an active participant in my work, study, care for people, painting, and prayer. And yet at the turn of the poem I also remember that there is a power beyond anything that we could ever do which unfolds young leaves, converts sunlight to food, and turns flowers into fruit. This past year we read all sorts of books old and new, we watered our digging with conversation and fellowship, feasting and fasting, and yet whatever fruit the Lord will bring out of this labor, may I have the humility and the delight to know it is not of my own making. It is a mystery and a magic.
Wonder. Our neighbor, Jim, kindly gave us six tomato plants to plant in the backyard of the Lewis House. In a sunny spot in our backyard we dug the holes using shovels borrowed from the Gutackers and planted the young tomato plants. We watered them a little every morning before the sun grew too hot, and then we waited. One afternoon I took my sketchbook and sat in front of them for a couple of hours to paint the leaves and a couple of subtle and delicate flowers which had recently emerged. I can dig the holes, water, weed, investigate, appreciate, and wonder. I cannot make the little light yellow flowers turn round and green and then red. I can participate in the work and rest in the gift but that is not all. I can also enjoy what I cannot understand, I can be a sub-creator in response to the Creator, I can wonder at the mystery and beauty of it all.
In the scope of so much to know—a web of infinite complexity— a year is a short amount of time, and the books we read made a small garden. And yet, like a mustard seed, it was beautiful in its smallness. As the world around us seemed to grow smaller because of Covid-19 and we quarantined with the fellowship, these small things grew much larger: friendships with little friends (James), cooking together, and, yes, collecting lettuce. And I found out that these were not small things at all but rather signs or seeds of great things: great hospitality, springtime, Eastertide feasting, roots and rain, a place where heaven seems for a little while to break through onto earth.