Genesis 2:8-9, 15 (NRSV) And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. […] 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
Debi and I celebrated the first warm, sunny weekend in spring by going out to Jubilee Farm and taking a look around. As we transition into what we all hope will be the final stages of a two-year pandemic and the advent of a long-awaited “new normal,” it was the first time I felt like I was fully vaccinated and able to get out and enjoy the sunshine and greenery. In 2020, we were in lockdown, and in 2021 we didn’t know how effective the new vaccines would be given our age and medical history.
So this year, going out to Jubilee Farm felt like a new beginning.
It also felt like something very old. Something I’d felt 50 years ago as a grad student, when I’d take day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Older than that, even. My father was a forest ecologist for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and he taught me to go out in the wooded greenbelt that surrounded our hometown, be still, listen for the birdsong to resume and observe the wildlife around us. I’ve never exactly been a nature freak, but it centers me when I slow down and just let it.
Wildlife wasn’t much in evidence Sunday afternoon when we visited Jubilee Farm, established in 1999 by the Springfield Dominican Sisters as a “center for ecology and spirituality” a few miles west of town on Old Jacksonville Road. According to their website, it is designed to be:
A peaceful destination, a place of integrity, a home to farm animals and wildlife, an educational resource, a demonstration of living in an ecologically responsible way, an oasis for spirituality, a special gift to those who seek solace and spiritual enrichment in nature.
Jubilee Farm is also something of a demonstration project. Working together with the University of Illiois Springfield, the sisters are “engaged in a long term plan to revitalize our prairie areas, small wetlands, and remnant oak savannahs.” They also conduct weaving and vegetarian cooking classes; sell herbs and pollinator-friendly seedlings (this year’s sale begins April 18); and “engage in study, and learn about sustainable agriculture and healthy foods.”
When Debi and I visited Sunday, the farm animals were very much in evidence. Next to the entrance, the sisters raise chickens, a llama and alpacas that provide fiber for their craft program. And a little farther back, we were greeted by a friendly tortiseshell cat. Her name, we learned from one of the sisters, is Amiga. She’s one of two barn cats at the farm.
Amiga is a graduate of the Animal Protective League’s barn cat program — her ear is clipped like a feral’s — but she lives up to her name. She’s friendly, with that kind of wary caution you so often see in rescue kitties. She tagged along with us as we explored the 164-acre tract, mostly grassland with well defined trails in gently rolling terrain that slopes down to Archer Creek just to the east. At times she led the way. After all, it’s her farm! And I was reminded a little of Dante’s Beatrice, his guide through Purgatory into Paradise in the Divine Comedy. The picture below shows Amiga leading me into the entrance of a labyrinth on the farm (my ponytail is the product of two years without a haircut during the pandemic).
I don’t think I had ever heard of using a labyrinth as an aid to prayer — if I did, it was when I was flipping pages through Biblical Archaeology Review and flipped on to the next article without absorbing it — but it’s a tradition that’s at least 3,500 years old. A labyrinth is not a maze. Basically, you follow a defined pathway to the center of the circle and back out again, praying and meditating as you go. Jubilee Farm’s labyrinth is cut into the grass, but it’s modeled after one in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres.
“There are no wrong turns or dead ends in a labyrinth – there is one way in and one way out,” explains the Jubilee Farm website. “Millions of people around the world use the labyrinth as a spiritual practice.”
In early April when the grass is still cut back for the winter, the pathway into the center of the labyrinth is scarcely visible. It must be beautiful later in the season when it’s had a chance to grow back, and Debi and I intend to go back again.
But Sunday afternoon we let Amiga the cat lead us to the center, and — again — I sensed I was in the presence of something very old as I took in the contrast between the greening grass in the pathways and the tufts of yellowed winter stubble in between.
When I was in grad school, an English major at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, I’d read scholarly monographs about the cycle of the seasons, of death, rebirth and new life every year in nature. Sunday afternoon it came back to me, but in a new way. This time in this little patch of rolling prairie in the Midwest, I was aware of it as something pulsing with life and beginning to stir again this April, as it does every April.
I still have a lot to learn about labyrinths, starting (as I always do) with Wikipedia and a Google search on how they’ve been used in Christian worship. (I Google everything!) Chicago’s Loyola University has a webpage on the labyrinth at Chartres that looks informative, and Eastern Mennonite University has an explainer on how to use the prayer labyrinth at its seminary campus in Harrisonburg, Va. Another new beginning. If, of course, I follow through on it. I suspect I will — I’m in the final stages of a process of discernment as a Dominican Associate candidate, and doing something about my prayer life is at the top of my spiritual to-do list.
There’s something else, too, that I felt awakening Sunday afternoon. It’s even older than my long-ago day hikes in the Smoky Mountains.
My father had a gift for experimental design, and he wound up mentoring younger colleagues as they published their research. I remember when one of them, who later experienced a call to ministry and left TVA for a Methodist seminary, wrote about forest management from a standpoint of stewardship — what do we do with the resources God has given us? The same question, in other words, that Adam and Eve faced in the Garden.
In the second creation story in the book of Genesis, the one that speaks most directly to me, God puts Adam and Eve “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” To exercise stewardship, in other words, over the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. To till the garden, not to exploit it.
How do we answer that call to stewardship now, 3,500 years later? “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history,” reads a corporate position statement adopted in 2012 by the Springfield Dominican Sisters, “a time when humanity must choose its future.” What does that future look like in a time of anthropogenic climate change, global warming and extreme weather events? Where do initiatives like Laudato Si’ fit in? What can I do to be a better steward right here, right now in Springfield?
But all of that comes later.
For the moment, it’s enough to be thankful for the first warm days of spring, the first time I’ve really felt like spring since before the pandemic; for the subtle hints of new growth in pasture grass just beginning to turn green; and for a friendly, but still slightly wary, rescue kitty to keep us company.
[Published April 7, 2022]