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Soil and soul

First slide

Into a tough winter came more tough news — the death of my Uncle Paul (1941-2021), an Iowa farmer, forester, public servant and much more. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack noted, "Paul Johnson loved the land and fiercely advocated for all of us to preserve and conserve it."

Reflecting on his life, I picked up an essay of his on conservation. Just as I was getting lost in his technical language about fertilizers, nitrates and drain tiles, I glimpsed something new: His prescriptions for the soil apply to the soul as well. I don’t know if he would react to the following three "translations" of his core vision with the famous twinkle in his eye, a dismissive wave of the hand or a rebuttal, but I offer them in grateful remembrance.   

1) "Riparian zones" are ecosystems and areas of land that hug our streams and rivers. The 50,000 miles of rivers and streams in Iowa alone, Paul wrote, deserve special attention if we are to prevent soil run-off and bank erosion. "Every one of them should be wrapped in native grasses and flowering plants," he advised. The vegetation sends roots down more than 6 feet, filtering water and preventing bank erosion.

Coursing through the fields of our lives are tens of thousands of miles of sacramental graces. The banks of our daily life run right up to the breathtaking rivers of the Mass, the Eucharist, confession, the ever-unfolding streams of our baptism and confirmation.

Do we cultivate a riparian zone that teems with the flowers of habits such as preparing worthily for communion and confession; a daily examination of conscience and time spent in the Word; reflecting on the readings before Mass; arriving to Mass a few minutes early; dressing for Mass in a manner that reflects our encounter with the Lord? The deep roots that anchor this spiritual riparian zone will reflect our love and respect for the rivers of grace flowing through our lives. 

2) "Buffer strips" are long strips of grasses, trees or shrubs that, like natural fences, separate fields and in the process, reduce erosion and improve water quality. "In the past few years, farmers have pulled most of the fences within our square-mile grid system," Paul lamented, resulting in a shift from four 160-acre fields to massive 640-acre fields. "Within the larger fields," he wrote, "we should now be planting native species in long strips." 

One glimpse at our daily agenda often reveals that we have pulled most of the fences in our day and succumbed to the "total world of work." Are the fields of our workday buffered and interspersed with the strips of a morning offering, the Angelus, a brief midday examen, a noon Mass at the nearby parish, or a walk during which we pray the rosary, listen to the silence or call a loved one to offer encouragement? The call to "ora et labora" (pray and work) requires that we resist the industrialization of our workday by cultivating vibrant spiritual buffer strips.

3) "Roadside vegetation" is simply that. "Just think of it," Paul wrote. "Every time you drive in the countryside, you’re driving next to some of your land." Of the public land in Iowa alone, 60 percent of it consists of roadsides. Paul’s vision included the win-win of roadsides populated with beautiful native prairie grasses, forbs and flowers that simultaneously reduce erosion.

Transitions between tasks fill a large part of our everyday. Our roadsides are the many seemingly wasted minutes jammed between our activities: between waking and morning prayer, breakfast and work, the end of the school day and chores, dinner, cleaning up and bedtime. Have we littered these roadsides with our distraction, impatience and indifference — or instead, cultivated them with the native vegetation of attention to the needs of others, prayer, silence, reflection, gratitude and praise? To invite the Lord to adorn our spiritual roadsides is to resuscitate "dead" seconds of transitions, and be renewed.

"In agriculture, we often deny that we have a problem, then we delay in fixing it," Paul wrote. He was hailed as a "conscientious visionary" who did not delay, whose "legacy will last for decades in the soils he improved with his life’s work." He not only opened my eyes to riparian zones, buffer strips and roadside vegetation — literal and spiritual, but his life also invited me to hear these words of Jesus as if for the first time — "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow" — and to join him in marveling at the sheer gift and wonder of "how they grow."

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community (trinityhousecommunity.org).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021