Garden Tomatoes and Rocket Ships

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If all goes according to plan, in the fall I will be filling in for my colleague on sabbatical and teaching the course “Sustainability in Action” at Point Loma Nazarene University. The purpose of the course is “to equip us as scholars and citizens of the United States, the world, and Christ’s Kingdom to be effective champions of the changes humanity must make in order to live sustainably within the ecological and social limits of earth.”

In preparation for the class I have been brushing up on my agrarian readings. Today I have been enjoying Norman Wirzba’s edited volume, The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land: The Essential Agrarian Essays. By itself Barbara Kingsolver’s “Forward” is worth price of the book.

Yet, this afternoon I took a break from reading agrarian prescriptions for sustainability to watch the livestream of the SpaceX Falcon launch to the International Space Station. It was killer! And yesterday’s news from NASA that the exoplanet Kepler 186f orbits within the habitable zone of its star was awesomeness on a Perelandraic order. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to confess I am secretly writing a sci-fi story.

By now, you are wondering where I am heading with this blog post. Well, it is less a post with a point than an inquiry. You see what is odd about my interest in agrarianism and outer space is that I am completely removed from both. I am a non-astronautical, indoors suburbanite who nevertheless thinks farming and space flight are spellbinding.

What I want to know is, why? Obviously it makes sense to ask rabbits about garden tomatoes. This group of rabbits, however, seem to know a thing or two about space. (“Blast through the glass of the atmosphere.” “Rocket, rocket shooting to the moon.” Leonard?)

What I cannot imagine is Wendell Berry in a cosmonaut suit. What I can imagine, if ever I journeyed to Mars, is kicking back in a pressurized chamber reading Jayber Crow. What I am having a hard time figuring out is how my imagination works.

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


20 Comments

  1. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    The header image is the best thing I’ll see all week. Thanks for your thoughts, Dave. Like you, I’m fascinated by space travel and farming in more or less equal measure. The big difference is, the farming thing is slightly more attainable since most of us have some dirt to play in. I actually have a buddy who works with Spacex and texted me a few days ago with the link to watch the launch. As I was driving backroads through Indiana farmland to a show this weekend my buddy Kris and I watched the launch on an iPhone—which illustrates the dichotomy pretty well.

    I don’t know exactly why, but your post reminded me of a Chesterton essay where he tells a story about taking a train with a friend from one town to another. The first town was a delightful little hamlet where everything seemed peaceful and magical, but on a whim they took a train to another town to visit a shop or something. Later, when they took the train back to the first town it was raining and dark, and Gilbert and his friend wandered around looking for the cozy pub they had visited that morning. They couldn’t find it, and they were miserable. In the storm the streets were unrecognizable, and the magic they had felt earlier in the day was gone.

    He and his friend grumbled and complained for a while before they realized they had accidentally taken the wrong train and weren’t in the first town at all. They were in the wrong place altogether. Gilbert was delighted and even in the rainy dark all his grumpiness evaporated. He realized it was the disparity between the place they meant to be and the place they actually were that created all the emotional muck. Their circumstance didn’t change (there wasn’t another train that night and they had to stay in the drab town), but knowing that the magical place was still out there, unsullied, gave him contentment. All the out-of-place-ness they had felt turned out to be justified.

    I’m still not sure why your post brought that little essay to mind, but maybe it’s because we all feel the wrongness here. We’re peeking around every corner for the Great City, often frustrated that we can’t find it—sometimes we look for it in the stars, other times we think we spot it around the bend of a country road, or in a book. The world that Wendell Berry conjures up in his Port William novels is as Edenic as C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra and as far away as Zion was from the Israelites in Egypt. So when we feel the terrible tension of the Fall, it’s good to remember first that it’s not in our heads; the brokenness here as real as the chair you’re sitting in. We’re in the wrong town. It’s also good to keep looking for the right one. The earth itself will be redeemed, the kingdom is coming and has already come, and there are hints of the New Creation all around us.

    Also, rockets are cool.

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ve been thinking about this all morning, because I’m exactly the same way. I think what it comes down to for me is that both things, agrarian ideals and space travel, spring from the same root: love for Creation.

    Springtime is in full bloom here in Nashville and I can hardly stop looking at it. I’ve been driving around goggle-eyed for the past week, half afraid I’m going to veer off the road and wreck the car for all my staring at the legions of cherry blossoms invading the city. It’s this same awe of Creation that makes me want to plant a garden, tap a maple, build a chicken coop—and go to Mars.

    One of the things I love most about Dr. Who (especially David Tennant) is how much he loves Creation. Whenever the Doctor goes wide-eyed and starts talking about the wonders of Galifrey, or the Ice Crystal Falls of Epsilon 4, or the Diamond Canyons of Mantoros, or some other weird and amazing place, I find myself wondering if, when we’ve all put on incorruptibility and the New Creation has become a present reality, we might not easily translate our love for bees into a love for entire solar systems, our love for growing fresh vegetables into a love for mid-wifing new suns into existence. Might we shepherd moons into orbit on one day, and cattle onto the prairie the next? Creation was created to be loved, I believe, and I hope one day to love and care for it in its entirety. What we now do only in part, we may one day do in whole: beets, bees, trees, planetary rings, quasars to quarks—all of it.

  3. Joanna Sawatsky

    My personal fascination isn’t so much with the very large (though rockets are undoubtedly cool). I’m more fascinated by the small-ish. Not quarks or string theory but cells, bacteria, organelles, and proteins. I like to think of science as art history; studying God’s masterwork. Hopefully my musings about bacteria are somewhat helpful in answering your question.

    The world is shot full of wonder. I find it funny that we call ourselves “Homo sapiens” because in reality there are more bacterial cells associated with the human body than human cells (though, to be fair, by volume we are more human than bacterial). This community within our beings is a picture of the communion that God has within himself, that we have with God, and that we have with each other. The heavens proclaim the Glory of God. I would contend that the bacteria do too.

    This world is wonderful, but it is also fallen. I study pathogenic bacteria specifically, the “arms race” between humans and bug. It’s terrifically fascinating and terribly sad: the bacteria that hurt us are really beautiful beings. I try to annihilate the pathogen, what I want to do is unbend it, to make it right again. I feel like I’m trying to bandage the fall, when really we need a surgeon. I don’t know if a sense of the fallenness of this good world is as intrinsic to the study of astronomy as it is to the study of microbes, but I’d guess that the stars groan along with the earth somehow.

    As for farming: I find it all too easy to pretend that I am a disembodied head with a body dragging behind me. I take advantage of myself – eating poorly, exercising rarely, sleeping only when convenient. More than that, I tend to think of my faith in terms of concepts, not linked to the physical. I forget that the chicken I’ll cook for supper tonight was, once, actually a chicken. I forget that someone had to wash the dirt off of my lettuce. But when I sink my feet into the earth, when I plant seeds and watch them grow, I am brought back to the earth again. This walking head receives anew arms and legs, hands and feet. More than that, though, I am participating in the common grace of feeding the world. My faith becomes again more than a concept as I participate in the ministry of reconciliation, continuing the work of bringing the Kingdom.

  4. David

    Fun post, David. I have to confess I’m especially amazed at the articulate responses to it above; the header picture reduced the analytical parts of my brain to oatmeal.

  5. Brady Martin

    Will one of you talented writers please write a story with the basic idea being “Port William in Space?” In this story you can resolve this agrarian-space tension. Many generations will be appreciative of your work.

    Thanks in advance. Oh, and you already have a cover photo for the book!

  6. John Covil

    I don’t know that this answers any of the questions so far, but recently my Pastor was teaching on the various resurrections in the Bible, and he said something very interesting. He was coming from a different eschatological framework, but I think the point applies regardless of how Creation gets to its eternal, redeemed state. He said that we wouldn’t just suddenly know everything in our redeemed bodies. We would still learn, and have all of eternity to learn. It’s one of the things we were made to do (less so than love, of course, but still). It initially disappointed me, because I thought of all the questions to which I’ve always wanted immediate answers. But then the disappointment disappeared as quickly as it came. We can learn!

    Our love of Creation contains both the love of the familiar (described here as the agrarian), and the love of the novel (space). And it is good that space is large, because eternity is long. As incomprehensible as it is, I don’t think our curiosity will ever be sated.

  7. Britt Norvell

    Is nothing sacred? Blasphemers. All of you.

    You Sci-Fi, outer-space loving, fantasy nerds keep your alien hands off of The Mad Farmer. His feet are firmly rooted in the ground underfoot, not on Planet Zipadeedoodah like you space nuts. As it is written, “My house shall be a house of topsoil and gravity.” But you have turned it into a den of space rabbits.

    *My apologies to the author, with whom I have never exchanged even an electronic “hello”. But to quote another contrarian of literature, “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”

  8. Wendy Stallings

    How aptly timed! My brother heads up the NASA project “Veggie” that just launched their prototype for growing vegetables on the space station. If all goes well, they hope to supplement their tube foods and freeze dried ice cream with actual vegetables in the near future.

    In speaking with him about the project, I’m struck by the effort needed to adapt the biological systems of plants to a zero g environment. The amount of transformation we will have to undergo to participate in the new creation is equally mind blowing. What does it even mean that the laws of time and space as we understand them will be completely remade? or is it unmade? or perhaps just more fully understood?

  9. Peter B

    Dave, I’m ever so glad you’ve joined the writers’ guild here.

    As a would-be gardener (if we ever get some space in which to garden, since our pots never survive outside for long) and a big-time space aficionado (of the homemade reflector telescope variety), I pretty much agree with all the “delight in Creation” comments that have gone before.

    And yes, Tennant’s Doctor was at his best when waxing effusive about not only vast wonders of interstellar creation, but also the fascinating foibles and surprising strengths of the human race.

  10. Hannah Hubin

    Wow. This is all so beautiful. I’m not quite sure how much I have to add to this conversation (if any), but these comments upon redemption, beautification, and discovery brought me back to this quote from Orthodoxy:

    “The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”

    Dear God, may your Kingdom come.

  11. Dave Bruno

    I just knew – just knew – I could count on you rabbits. So many thoughtful replies to help think this through. Truly grateful for you all.

    Britt, you made me laugh heartily – “topsoil and gravity”!

    John, I have often thought about that point. Lewis gets the imagery right, I think, when he shows everyone running “further up and further in” at the end of The Last Battle or the same idea in The Great Divorce. There will be so much to learn, especially about our Creator. But also about the new creation. I suspect we will be nearly as stumped with the details of how He accomplishes the new creation as we are stumped about this creation. The difference will be we’ll have all eternity to learn…and from the Craftsman Himself.

  12. Matthew

    I agree with those who say our fascination with both farming and astronomy is rooted in our fascination with the created order. I pursued a couple of physics degrees for that reason. There is something beautiful about the world both looking out at the biggest things and looking down at the smallest things.

    I was also reminded of a quote from Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, where one somewhat God-like character says this:

    “You want to know what I am, do you? Bull, you are a man of science. Grub in the roots of those trees and find out the truth about them. Syme, you are a poet. Stare at those morning clouds. But I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the top-most cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall be still a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf–kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.”

    I think that sums it up nicely, though you should really read the rest of the book as well.

  13. Carl A.

    This is funny and curious to me, David- that you are teaching “Sustainability in Action” and have this great interest in space exploration. This dichotomy is similar to my love for hiking in the wilderness and yet having to transport myself to the trail in a 2 ton carbon dioxide-spewing vehicle.

    My kids and I planted a small vegetable garden last year. What amazement we found when those first shoots of green topped the soil! Others have already very eloquently stated it— I think the amazement, wonder, and joy we experience of the goodness of God through His creation (and even our technological sub-creations) points us to that yearning that we have for the New Creation, when, at last, everything will be “put to rights.”

  14. Christina

    My husband is working on a PhD in Sustainable Agricultural Development here in Southwestern China. Sustainability in Action is something direly needed in these parts.

    Couldn’t find your contact info David, but I actually know a guy who is trying to set up a similar course here focusing on stewardship and sustainability, wondering if you’d be willing to share some resources with him?

  15. Dave Bruno

    Hi Christina, you can reach me at guynameddave at gmail com – Would love to hear about your husband’s PhD program and also connect with the person you know who is teaching a similar program. It would be really a blast to bring an international component to the class!

  16. Dan R.

    I think I fall mostly into the ‘love for Creation’ category, but I wanted to take that idea in a bit of a different direction, and say that the two sides of this conundrum actually feed into one another.

    When planet earth shows up in Sci Fi (at least all the times I can think of) there’s always a strong connection to and value placed on it. If we’re zooming through galaxies, it always makes us homesick for our native planet. And if there are aliens attacking it, there’s always this noble idea of defending the homeland for the sake of… well, that part varies, but it’s usually something intrinsic in the existence of earth, or at least her inhabitants.

    I might refer to this phenomenon as contextualization. It’s the reason that the ‘earth-rise’ picture from the moon is so moving. Think of that: one of the best things that came out of our journey to another world was a never-before-attainable look back at ours. I guess that could apply to all our explorations and knowledge-acquisition in the heavenly realms. At the root it always seems to be about how we can use that knowledge to better live life in connection with this earth, or better appreciate all we have in the light of everything we now know. As far as I can tell, one of the most compelling reasons to be fascinated by what’s “out there” is a renewed sense of awe and love for everything that’s “down here.”

  17. Hannah

    This is why I love the Rabbit Room! I mean, Chesterton and Doctor Who in the same post?! 🙂 Fantastic!

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