Reclaiming the Thistles

Before the adjective “essential” was attached to specific jobs and careers, environmental stewardship was designated essential by God. The first designation of this crucial role came in Genesis 2:15 when God appointed the first humans to “tend and keep” the earth. After creating the physical, chemical, and biological elements of the universe, God turned to Adam and Eve to offer them a task: to name, care for, and keep creation. When Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden in brokenness, God declared their sacred callings would now be burdened with toil and pain.

As a vegetable farmer, I often find myself remembering the first act of rebellion when cultivating weeds. Genesis 3:17-19 speaks of thistles and thorns being produced from the ground rather than good, nourishing food.  Whether hacking away at thistles with a hand hoe or the tractor weeding equipment, I turn my frustration towards Adam and Eve. However, modern weed science has shown that certain weeds respond to specific environmental conditions. The Canadian Thistle, a common weed in certain fields on our farm, is an indicator of compacted soil.  Compacted soil is the byproduct of working the soil improperly just as my grudge toward the thistles and Adam and Eve is misplaced frustration at my own brokenness. God gave humans a calling to care for the earth, but too often we have neglected that calling and brought harm to the earth.

Much has been said about the failures of farming in particular to protect our natural resources. Farming has been a responsible for acts of degradation such as algal blooms in lakes, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico from over-fertilization, or the incredible erosion of Iowa topsoil over the last several decades. In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report describing land use and its impact on climate change.  Agricultural enterprises were found to contribute about 20-35% of the human-caused greenhouse gasses.

When the information was released, many farmers felt their livelihoods were being unfairly targeted. Corn and dairy farmers in our region of Wisconsin shot back their defenses on social media or around the coffee pot at church.  But farmers must do more than defend; we have been designated as keepers and tenders and have an essential role to play in climate responsibility. Since farmers have their feet on the ground, we must reckon with environmental successes and failures.

Farmers must join with activists, policymakers, and lay people if true reckoning and actions are to be accomplished. Farmers, including myself, take pride in putting our heads down and working without asking for help. The first year my husband and I farmed on our land, we refused the warnings of older farmers regarding the land, thinking we knew better.  At the end of a disheartening year, we learned pride had closed our ears and hearts, that the older farmers were correct. Nothing is more important than the call from God which asks us to join in keeping and tending. Pride, political disagreements, and cultural divides are the thistles and thorns dissuading us from striving for climate improvement. Though they may be onerous to work around and require work to dig out, a fruitful crop requires labor.

The best solution to remove thistles from a field is to break up compaction through deep tillage. It is a several year act that requires mindful work and perseverance. But essential work, like climate stewardship, is painful. It requires discipline to change the ways we act, travel, purchase, and grow.

Like the brokenness flowing from Adam and Eve’s first sin, the command given to them in Genesis 2:15 extends to us all. We are all essential workers in God’s creation. Our earthly labor is to hoe the weeds and reclaim a small patch of ground at a time. But with every swipe of the hand hoe, we remember: to tend, to keep, to reclaim.

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