Tuesday, August 26, 2008


In my former work for DPRA Incorporated, a small national environmental consulting firm headquartered in the unlikely small city of Manhattan, KS, I studied the use of various herbicides in various horticulture-related industries. One of these was forestry.

As a side effect of my relentless wild-goose-chases-on-the-telephone search for obscure, industry-specific, seemingly trivial information, I was introduced to a number of concepts that have become foundational in my thinking about farming...and, both metaphorically and practically, about life and everything else.

One of these concepts was the idea of "release" in managing re-planted clearcut logging areas. The clear-cut would be planted with seedling trees for the new crop of timber. Of course, the new trees were small, and easily dwarfed by the weeds that grew around them. But the fiercely competing weeds also served as a "nurse crop" (another foundational concept), protecting the trees from blazing sun and harsh winter winds, hiding them from hungry tree-eating beasts.

After the young trees had been established for several years, the forestry company would use herbicides to "release" the young conifers from their competition, using chemicals that killed the weeds but left the trees. Suddenly free of the smothering that both gave them a chance to grow and held them back--drawing on the deep, strong roots they had had to develop in order to survive amid the overgrowth--the young trees suddenly were free to grow fast and tall and straight, to strive towards their full potential. The spurt of quick growth enabled them to reach a stature where they would never be held back by the weeds again, in fact would themselves shade out the weeds.

I see this happen at the farm. A vegetable transplant, limited by the confines of its pot and the artificial nutrient soup it's raised on, is "released" when transplanted to fertile ground rich in myriad macro-and micro-nutrients, with ample space and bountiful water. Suddenly it takes off, while its sibling in the pot lallygags along at a slower rate, under the best of conditions.

I use it deliberately in the garden. A smattering of quick-growing annual weeds keeps the soil most for the delicate young carrots. At a certain stage, I weed them out, and the carrots are "released" to quickly grow to market size. When the carrots or other root crops are planted thickly, thinning them is a form of "release" for those left, giving them space and more resources to grow to a larger size.

But sometimes "release" is not enough. In particular situations, there may be a lingering legacy of the time of struggle. Sometimes the briefest of struggles followed by complete release can leave a lasting mark all out of proportion with the source. I see this in the towering sycamore tree in the front yard. I watched this tree grow from a tiny self-sown seedling about 8 or 9 years ago. In its second winter, when it was already an astounding 8 or 10' tall and straight as an arrow, there was a terrible ice storm. The supple sapling was bent over by the weight of the ice, as were many trees. When the ice melted a few days later, other trees straightened almost immediately. But the sycamore only straightened part way. In succeeding years, as it grew, it lost some of the bend, but not all. And now that it is perhaps 30' tall, its huge trunk still shows the legacy of that ice storm.

I realized today that I also see this concept of "release"--both complete and distorted--enacted in the people who come to the farm. Some come with burdens of terrible things that have happened in their pasts, in whose shape that person will always tend to grow. Some come full of energy to burst into new growth, ready to absorb the rich melange of ideas, concepts, skills, information, etc. that the farm and I can offer, and to use that to feed their own dreams, full of health and vigor.

Either way, I rejoice in watching their growth and development, whether it is quick or slow, whether they are here for an hour or a year.

I see this also in myself, periods in the past when I have been "released" from some overburden, and entered into a time of exhilerating in some or another area of my life. And I find myself waiting now for a "release" that I know awaits me, sooner or later--God only knows.

What a release it will be when I no longer have to work off the farm, when I can give myself entirely to the mission and ministry of the work I do in concert with this land and the people who are drawn here by the mysterious workings of God, the universe, whatever you name it! Right now, I know the job is necessary, and that I am growing deep roots from the experience. I just am excited to see what fruit those roots will produce when they are released!

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