What does Sabbath mean when we can’t worship together physically because of the dangers to physical health? Do we take a break, essentially “fasting” from celebrating the Sabbath? Are we in “a time of eucharistic fasting, in which we join with the whole communion of saints in longing for the bread of new life and the wine of the age to come,” as the Anglican Church of Canada’s website suggests? During COVID-19, do we take a break from Holy Communion?
Whatever the theological argument for how to celebrate the Sabbath during normal or abnormal times, virtually all the discussions centre around what people do or don’t do. We almost never hear about how to give the rest of creation a rest.
In a recent article in Christian Courier, Jessica Banninga reminded readers about the Torah’s requirements about giving the land a rest, and animals too (“Eco Sabbath,” July 13, 2020). I’d like to suggest some ways that various people have responded to the Sabbath principle for all of creation, written in creation for its good, for our good.
The Bobolink Field
David Heidel of Random Lake, Wisconsin, is a dairy farmer who sets aside one portion of his hay land – about five acres – each year so that ground-nesting birds can raise their young there. Generally speaking, in dairy country, hay crops are harvested early for the best quality, something that improvements in bunker silos, plastic wrap and other means make possible during weather unsuitable for drying forages to the desired level for baling hay.
When I was a child, sometimes haying weather didn’t come until July. This allowed pheasants, grey partridges, bobolinks, ducks, meadow larks and various sparrows to lay eggs, incubate and rear their young before the field was cut. Now, with early harvesting methods, which give much better protein values in the silage, such birds often suffer nest destruction. If the female survives, she may re-nest, just in time for the second cutting: apocalypse next.
David Heidel knows this: he is a dairy farmer who needs high quality hay and pasture. But he also knows the needs of bobolinks. So he waits to harvest his Bobolink Field until August, giving a poorer hay product for those five acres, but safety for the birds. It’s a sort of Sabbath for the birds.
Pastures need rest, too
Ranchers and livestock farmers all over the world are (re)discovering that continuous grazing may exhaust pasture plants. This means they often make smaller paddocks and rotate the cows through them. The key to good grazing is whether the grass is tall enough, as much as whether the pasture plants have had enough times to rejuvenate energy reserves. Grazing expert Victor Shelton puts it this way: “How productive would you be if you worked 24/7 with no rest?”
Farmers across North America are doing something that they never dreamed of 50 years ago. They are planting radishes in their corn fields. Really. This is not driven by an attempt to squeeze another second commodity crop from a field but to help the soil recuperate. Daikon-type radishes punch holes through compacted ground to improve drainage, “grab” excess nitrogen and tie it up so it doesn’t wash away during the winter, and aerate the soil. By spring the soil is able to give a sort of sigh of relief, having been enabled to take a good, deep breath. Like a winter trip to Hawaii, perhaps.
In the garden
Not everyone has a yard, a garden or a big lot in which to grow things, but for those of us who do, we can set aside a certain portion of our garden for a rest each year. In my garden I throw all sorts of left-over seeds like peas, godetia and cosmos, kohlrabi, hemp, beans, corn, marigolds and turnips onto the piece and stand back. I also include a legume like crimson clover (an annual with gorgeous blooms), which fixes nitrogen. I don’t need to harvest this plot, although picking the odd vegetable out of the mix is a pleasure. This jungle of growth stays standing while the rest of the garden is weeded, cultivated, mulched and harvested.
In our region, this means that the Sabbath garden is favoured by Lincolns and song sparrows, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, and the occasional ruffed grouse. My Sabbath garden this year is only about eight feet on a side and is calvinistically square. Some years it may be bigger and often is irregular, curvilinear – charismatically free in shape, one might say.
When it comes to gardening, there is more to life than order, more to life than productivity. One needn’t “work” the soil any more than six years out of seven. Even the land says, “Give me a break.”