Photo by Sean Fraga
The most obvious benefit of having Ryan Anderson around the farm was that he was big. Broad shoulders, heavy build, long arms: With one hand, he could do jobs that would take three scrawny undergrads an hour. He brought something else to the farm too, however. At a campus where the Bible is rarely treated as more than a piece of literature and at a place where the earth is a more pressing concern than the heavens, he brought an idea of God to our work.
Anderson was a student at the Yale Divinity School; he's now training to be a Lutheran minister in Chicago. He got interested in the agricultural work at Yale because it seemed less intellectualized than the theological classes he had been taking a little farther up the hill. He also felt drawn to a relationship with the earth that went beyond physical experience.
Christianity can have a way of dismissing Earth: Paradise is lost, or Paradise is in the future. The here and now gets a short shrift. But Christianity was developed in a time when the average person was far more in touch with agriculture than today, and the Bible is full of references to farming as metaphor for faith. Anderson points out that Jesus said we were all temporary laborers in the fields of God--this is God's earth, and we are here to mind it.
Agriculture reminds Anderson of a fluid, changing nature in the middle of a culture that is often resistant to new ideas. With human help, plants grow and bloom on their own. They allow the gardener to be not just in the world, but of the world. Plants are not like humans; they don't deal much in rigid doctrine or unflinching belief. A plant does what it needs to do and what it's able to do, and the most a human can do is to cooperate with it rather than attempting to control it, to become a part of nature rather than attempting to understand God.
It's easy for a liberal farmer at Yale University to dismiss the spiritual implications of farming. We work in the soil, we believe what we can touch, and the whole reason we came up to the farm was to take a break from that exhaustive intellectual nonsense that occupies the rest of our lives anyway. But our philosophy of organic farming is to work with nature rather than attempt to quantify it, and to allow ourselves to become a part of the natural system rather than to stand separate from it. It is an attempt to give up and become a part of something larger than ourselves, something that we may not fully understand. That thing might be a balance of soil microbes and nutrients, but it also might be God.