Better to Wait

I'll Wait

“…yet he would not do amiss to wait and be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.”
Pericles, in Plutarch’s Lives

Yesterday morning in class a student looked out the window at the trees beginning to bud and said, “The trees look so sad; I just wish they’d hurry up and grow leaves.” A very understandable sentiment indeed, especially after a long winter.

Often we not only let ourselves feel the desire to rush things, we also act upon it. But one of the many things we can learn from the natural world is that good things have their proper season. And we must wait for them, and prepare for them. To take something too early is to disrupt, and sometimes to destroy.

In spring, for instance, many young people seem to experience an insistent if subtle inclination toward pairing up. For some this may be the right season; but for some it is not. In this area, as in so many areas of life, we grow impatient. We demand leaves, and skip the budding.

As regards many good things—perhaps most?—wisdom would counsel that we be ruled by time, that we be willing to wait. We seek fruit before its time, without the requisite cultivation. We demand immediate gratification, in everything from love to work to leisure.

Hindsight is said to be 20/20. To those willing to wait and prepare–for any number of things–hindsight can be added to foresight, the two seamlessly blending. And so time can become the wisest counselor of all…before it’s too late.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

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Our Lawn, Our Eden

Dandelion

Last spring I posted a piece on dandelions, after I had been struck by the preponderance of death-dealing chemicals in the ‘lawn and garden’ section at the local big box store. Moved today by the appearance of tractors spraying herbicide over large expanses of lawn on a beautiful spring day, I once again make a plea.

We can care for our lawns—and other green spaces in and around which we live—without using chemicals that kill.

How we treat our lawns is intimately tied to how we approach the natural world as a whole. Is it a gift to be received, with an order to be reverenced and stewarded, or is it something to manipulated according to our preconceived plans?

Over two thousand years ago Xenophon wrote, “For you’ll gain more produce by sowing and planting what the land readily grows and nurtures than by sowing and planting what you want.” He warned that when we plant we must have an eye for what the land ‘wants’ and that we err in focusing too much on what suits our fancy or convenience. In a similar way, and a fortiori, we should be attentive to which plants the land yields up to us unsolicited—growing in our own little corner of the world:  our backyard.

If we take the time to learn the common ‘weeds’ that grow in our lawn we will find that many of them have wonderful properties. Maria Treben, a best-selling Austrian author on herbs writes that dandelions are “Nature’s greatest healing aid for suffering mankind.” Every part of the plant is thought to have healing properties—especially in the spring. Another great example is common plantain. Look up its picture and its properties; chances are both that you have it in your lawn, if you’ve avoided broad-leaf herbicides, and that you’ll find a use for it–such as in soothing bee stings. These are just two examples of the beneficence of nature at work in our own yards, if we but make the effort to learn, and to adjust our expectations and actions. The list goes on: white clover, burdock…

Some species indeed will rightly be deemed undesirable. There are safe and effective ways to remove these weeds without using poisons that kill whole classes of plants and may well have negative, even if unknown, side-effects on numerous other living  things, including humans.

At the end of the day how we treat our lawns is not about the dandelions; it’s about our own identity. How we care for the earth has profound implications. The book of Genesis intertwines the human vocation and the tilling of the earth. For many of us our lawn is the most direct context in which we interact with the earth. How we act here sets the tone of our broader interaction with the natural world, and the order written into it. As the wise have always pointed out, all is interconnected.

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Considered as Triflers

TriumphofBacchus

“Let us therefore lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; … We are considered by him as triflers…” Wisdom of Solomon, chap. 2

Might someone consider me a ‘trifler?’ The thought is rather offensive. In any case, I find myself hoping that someone who really knows and loves me would not so judge me.

But might he? What about someone who really knows and loves me, and thus has a very clear understanding of just what I could be—how I could and should be living. True love, after all, will settle for nothing less than the full flourishing, the true happiness of the beloved. And when the beloved is falling short, might not the lover in all honesty judge him to be a trifler?

But being judged a trifler is threatening. It can evoke various responses. Even violence.

This week I will ask myself whether I can accept a love that calls me to change; to become my true self.

 

Image: Triumph of Bacchus, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

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Divine Descent

Greek-Gods

“I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
I look for Italy to be my fatherland,
And my descent is from all-highest Jove.”
Virgil, The Aeneid

Aeneas says he’s descended from the highest of the gods. Having such lineage set him apart from other men. Most men are just men. As proud as they may be of their lineage, they do not dare claim descent from any but other men.

Does any god claim descent from men? It seems not. An offspring of man is—by that very fact—not fully divine. The divine is diminished, compromised by the intermingling.

Or so it always seemed. Reasonably. But perhaps men have thought about this wrongly; and someone had to open our eyes to reality.

The surest sign of the divine is to raise up that which it touches.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics.

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Living Pleasantly from the Land

Brueghel-Spring

“In the first place, thanks to those who work it, the land bears not only the means for people to live, but also bears the means for them to live pleasantly.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager

This past week I planted my spring greens. There is something about placing seeds in the ground. As though you the planter begin to swell with the same new life of the seeds: a new beginning, a new season. New life.

The ground yields up plants, which enable people to live. Not only to live, but to live pleasantly. Does Xenophon have in mind the crispness of a spinach leaf, the sweetness of peas, the tang of the vine-ripened tomato? Or does he have in mind a late-winter sowing—in recently snow-enriched soil, or a rosy-skied summer morning weeding with your children at your side? Or maybe he has in mind what the prophet Isaiah speaks of: eating the fruit of vines you yourself have planted (Is 65:21).

There is so much life—pleasant life—hidden in dark soil. It is there, waiting. Waiting to be received, by the hand that is open in cultivation. Would that more of us open our hands, together.

Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among,  these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.

Image: Spring, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)

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The Death of a Tree

CutPoplar1I have never thought much about the death of trees. Until today.

I have thought about the death of farm animals, since I kill with my own hands the pigs that I’ve raised, with my own hands. I have often wished they could supply us with the food that nourishes and brings joy and conviviality, without their having to die. But such cannot be. I am convinced that the meat of animals is a gift for human life—to be received with gratitude and care; and this requires that animals be killed. It seems to me fitting that I kill at least some of the animals that I eat. It helps me keep me in mind what my eating of meat requires—of people and of pigs.

Today a tree was cut down. It wasn’t a uniquely majestic tree. But majestic it was, while it still stood alive. Through a miscommunication with the men who are doing a selective cutting of trees in the woods owned—if one can speak of ‘owning’ things that are alive—by my mother, this tree (and indeed some others) were accidentally cut down. The reason this tree was special to me is not to the point. It just was. And now it is gone, on the way to a lumber mill where no one will ever know—will someone at least pause to wonder?—the majesty that belonged to it, and what it meant to me, in its native earth, the very soil I call home. Today was rather traumatic for me, and it gave me occasion to think about trees, and life.

Is it unfitting to be concerned about trees, when so many people suffer in so many ways? Perhaps. But then again, maybe having a true appreciation of trees is somehow a part of knowing who we are, and how to live.

I still intend to use wood and things made of wood, which nourish and bring joy and conviviality. But I resolve never again to take wood for granted; nor the trees, whose life and death, give us wood, and life.

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Picture-Books in Winter

ReadingAloud

“Water now is turned to stone
Nurse and I can walk upon;
Still we find the flowing brooks
In the picture storybooks.

How am I to sing your praise,
Happy chimney-corner days,
Sitting safe in nursery nooks,
Reading picture storybooks?”

Robert Louis Stevenson

So many ugly images. They seem to saturate our everyday. The news can be relentless. Winter weather too conspires against us, weighing spirits down.

But then there are picture-books. Read out loud. Together. For what more can we ask? What better can we do?

Days and evenings come and go. So much to do, and so hard to find the time. Childhood—precious childhood!–passing by.

There is yet time, time for us to step out-of-time; to rest in what really matters. The reality of story books.

R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) is the great Scottish author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and other classics.

Image by Swedish author and illustrator Elsa Beskow

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