Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

A couple weeks ago during Shabbos I read "Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains" (Indiana University Press, 1995). It is what the title suggests, the memoir of Rachel Calof, a Jewish woman who "took the road less traveled," literally. She left the Old Country in 1894 to meet her husband-to-be in America, and they moved to North Dakota prairie land to stake a claim, start a farm, and raise a family. Needless to say, it's almost impossible for me to imagine the difficulties the two of them and their children experienced on the frontier. They arrived with only the shirts on their backs, but they eventually prospered. One passage moved me deeply, and I want to share it here. I know it's a little long, but it's worth it:
My spirits rose with the promise of spring and the improvement in my health. I began casting about for something to do which would improve our lot. One of our big problems was our water supply. We had dug three wells, each to a depth of seventy-five feet with poor results. Now our water supply was so scant that I decided to find some usable water in some low place on the prairie where the snow melt might run together. I did discover such a place about a mile away. I carried two pailfuls from that place, but when I got back to the shack I saw that the water was full of worms and grass. The water would have to be boiled to be usable. The solution to the problem was not so easy as we had just run out of fuel. There was nothing with which to start a fire. I was determined though, and again went out into the prairie which held many provisions if one only knew where to look. I took with me only a rope and my huge [pregnant] belly.

About two miles distant I came across a place where new grass was growing through a bed of dried-out grass. The dried grass was plentiful and looked dry enough to burn. I was delighted with my find. My pleasure, though, was tempered with a certain dread. I knew little of the wildlife of this country, and i became fearful that I would encounter a snake in the beds of dried grass. I hesitated, but soon my stomach informed me how hungry I was, and the child within me needed food too. My husband labored in the field removing rocks and I knew that he too must be hungry. I needed that boiled water to prepare some kind of a meal and I said to myself, "Don't be a spoiled person. You must risk it. Even if there is a snake there, you must try." I stepped into the area. No snake bit me and soon I was enthusiastically gathering the dried grass. Quickly I gathered a great bundle and tied it into a compact bundle with my rope.

According to the sun it was already midmorning and Abe would be coming in from the field not long after noon. I had to get home quickly but the food left in the shacks was only a little flour, some barley, some soured milk, and a little butter. A really daring idea came to me. I decided to spend a little more time looking around the place to see what else it might offer. Promptly, my further exploration brought results. I found what appeared to be wild garlic. I was delighted and ate a kernel. It tasted wonderful and didn't seem to harm me, so I gathered quite a number of bunches. My ambition by now was really on the rise. Bread and garlic alone make a poor meal. I enlarged my search area and before long I came across plants which unquestionably were wild mushrooms. Now I knew that some mushrooms were deadly poisonous. Still I thought that this was a good time to take a chance. I bit into one and held it in my mouth. It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it. I waited a while for something to happen. Nothing did, and I gathered an apronful of the mushrooms, and with my garlic and the bundle of dried grass on my shoulder, I started for home happy with my accomplishments and eager to see how I could put them to use.

Arriving at the shack, I immediately began my preparations. First I sieved the water through the fabric of a flour sack. I kneaded the dough and put it in the oven. I cleaned the mushrooms and steeped them in hot water. I then chopped up the garlic, put butter (we had our cow back) in the pan, and fried everything together. This meal made in large measure with food gathered from the wild prairie was simply delicious
. . .
My husband would soon be coming through the door. I was so happy, truly in seventh heaven, and very proud. I had used my brains an my nerve and as a result my husband would soon sit down to a fine dinner, just the two of us alone.
. . .
Never was there a more delightful dinner than that one. The food was delectable and our shanty was filled with happiness. After we finished our meal, Abe insisted on knowing all the details of my accomplishment. As he listened, his gladness became tinged with a sadness that our condition was such that I was reduced to searching the prairie for food. But nothing could destroy the magic of that hour. . . So ended a charming interlude in the harshness of our lives. It was a great moment for us and its memory has been a sustaining treasure to me over the years.
pp. 41-43
Talk about eshes chayil!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Potential for Growth

Two weeks ago I learned a Tu B'shvat sicha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of the lessons the sicha focused on is what can be learned from the fact that the regalim correspond to the crop cycle (Pesach is the time of barley, Shavuos is the time of reaping the wheat, and Sukkos the in-gathering). While the Rebbe analyzed the spiritual insights to be gained from the physical growth of crops, I personally took a powerful message on physical soil management out of his spiritual analogy. Here is the excerpt from the sicha:
[I]t's possible to learn about the manner of avoda of Neshamos Yisroel from the growth process of crops.

The growth of a grain crop does not originate from the wheat seed itself which is planted in the soil; rather, it comes through the decay (riqvun) of the wheat seed which is planted. By way of planting, the seed decays and becomes botel to the potential for growth (koach ha'tzomeach) in the soil. This, in turn, arouses that very potential for growth which is in the soil to cause stalks of wheat to grow. And from this another concept is understood--that the addition which comes about through the growth is not strictly an addition in quantity (that from one wheat seed comes about quite a number of seeds), but rather it can be said that it is like a new creation, something wholly different.

The yerida and aliya of the soul is a similar process. The way to achieve "growth" of the soul through "being planted on the earth" is that through a person being in a movement (tenuah) of bitul (similar to the concept of decay)--like we say in davening, "May my soul be like dust to all," which means avoda in a way of kabalas ol (which is "the beginning of avoda and its principal and root," as is written in the holy Tanya)--and then through the subsequent ascent of the soul and its "growth" it achieves an aliya completely beyond measure, and then that soul becomes like a new existence, literally.

(Likutei Sichos Chelek 36) (translation and adaptation for readability my own).
In other words, the process of a seed being planted down in the soil and then arising out of the soil, strong and bearing fruit, is analogous to the descent of the soul in this world and the potential for "spiritual growth" (a concept encapsulated in the chassidic maxim "yerida l'tzorech aliya").

But what caught my attention was the concept (as I understood it) that there is something in the soil that a seed needs in order to realize its full potential (which was referred to in the sicha as the "koach ha'tzomeach"), and that the soil "reacts" to the desire of a seed to grow. The Rebbe is presenting a piece of traditional agricultural wisdom as a matter of fact. I wonder how many people who learned this sicha completely glossed over this idea. This touches on the argument I made in my first post that there is a whole layer of understanding that we're missing in our learning because we've become separated from the land, despite the fact that the Torah and much of Jewish thought throughout the ages is rooted in an agricultural view of the world. Sure, there is a lot of content to absorb in a single sicha, and this was probably not the most important concept. It's true, there are many lessons to be learned and angles for each person to connect with. But the point is, an idea like the koach hatzomeach and similar themes in Jewish thought are not amorphous, lofty concepts. They are very real facts of life, and without knowing and understanding something so basic, like the Rebbe did, how can we really expect to plumb the depths of any Jewish literature?

So that we can start to appreciate our traditional wisdom, I will start to break down what I understood the Rebbe to have been referring to. "One tablespoon of soil contains more than one million living organisms . . . Soil isn't just dirt. A square meter of topsoil can contain a thousand different species of animals." (Keith, Lierre. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 18.) Ecologically speaking, soil is a living organism that interacts with plants and helps them reach their full potential. The community of microorganisms in soil "slowly breaks humus [topsoil] down into the chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical, involving the symbiosis of plants and the mycorrhizal fungi that live in and among their roots; the fungi offer soluble nutrients to the roots, receiving a drop of sucrose in return." (Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Books, 2006, p. 147.) In fact, some plants, like many legumes for instance, have clearly-established symbiotic relationships with these microscopic communities. If you pull up the roots of, for instance, a lupine plant, you'll most likely see little white clumps interspersed on the roots. Those are nodules where bacteria are working to fix nitrogen from the air and make it accessible to the plant. Without those bacteria, in other words, without the soil reacting to the needs of the plant, it would certainly not grow to its full potential, and it is doubtful whether it would grow at all.

A counter-argument might be: "But plants can grow without soil! What about hydroponics?" It's true, a seed can grow without soil. However, a plant that grew in rich, active soil is more complete, in a deeper way, than one grown with chemicals in a sterile hydroponic medium.

As farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his opus The One Straw Revolution, "Gravel culture, sand culture, and hydroponics are getting more popular all the time. The vegetables are grown with chemical nutrients and by light which is filtered through a vinyl covering. It is strange that people have come to think of these vegetables grown chemically as 'clean' and safe to eat. Foods grown in soil balanced by the action of worms, microorganisms, and decomposing animal manure are the cleanest and most wholesome of all." (New York Review of Books, 1978, 2009. p. 66)

The same can be said of the soul--A soul can exist basking in G-dly light without coming down to this lowly world, but you can't compare the completeness and advantage it attains in this world to before it came when it was basking in G-dly light.

Throughout history, plant agriculture was conceived of as more or less a magical and miraculous process (which, in fact, it is). Indeed, as Yidden, every single day we acknowledge that plant growth is beyond our power when we daven that G-d should bless us with "all the varieties of [the year']s produce for good." (Siddur Tehillat Hashem. Merkos L'Inyonei Chinush, 2003, p. 48.) But farmers work hard, don't they? Shouldn't we give them a lot of credit? Well, they do work hard, but they have no control over the fact that a seed wants to grow and the soil wants to help it. A very hard-working farmer I know once wrote, "Nothing we do has anything to do with the fact that a tomato grows. We may seed, transplant, hoe, water, thin, sucker, tie up and clip, and harvest--but ultimately, the fact of a tomato at all is completely beyond us."

But today, in large part, we don't think about agriculture. We don't think about where our food comes from, and as a People, many of us have forgotten about facts of life like the koach hatzomeach, and when, for instance, the Rebbe refers to that concept (or the Gemara or Halacha), we lose out. We also lose out when we use our money to support agricultural practices that either kill the soil or deplete the rich topsoil layer that has been built up by hardworking microorganisms for hundreds or thousands of years. That should suffice for the discerning.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Tu B'shvat and is getting excited for Adar, as I know I am.