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Cross with 4 season trees

Let the Land Teach Us
About Healing and Creativity

Sr. Joyce Rupp, OSM

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Rural Life, Spring 2000

Cross with 4 season trees

  

    When I speak at conferences, I often ask to be introduced as a farmer's daughter because the experience of growing up on a farm and working the land has greatly influenced both my spirituality and my writings. I have learned much from the land and have been inspired and challenged by what it has taught me. My mother lived in a small town in northwest Iowa and hoped she would marry a farmer so she could live on the land. She often told me stories of her childhood, especially about happy vacations on her grandparents' farm. The land drew her to something deep and strong. I feel these same strong roots in me. My parents loved our farm and took good care of it. That appreciation easily slipped into my heart as well.

   In the early 1980s, I was working in five rural parishes in Iowa's Harrison County. We were going through a farm crisis at that time and I was part of a group who created a program called SPARK, to tend to the spiritual and psychological needs of farmers and to encourage them to have hope. I sense that the situation has come full circle, except that what we're currently experiencing in the farm crisis is even more painful and difficult than it was in the eighties. I thought it was very bad then as I went to farm sales and rallies and listened to people's struggles and concerns. During that time I learned about the inherent pain that farming people experience as they said farewell to their land and to a way of life that had been a source of strength and meaning for them.

The current situation of rural America includes grim prices for products, weather disasters, genetic modification challenges, inadequate farm bills, destruction of soil, pollution of water, and the powerful momentum of consolidation and depopulation that threatens to annihilate a valuable way of life. Amid the luxury of financial growth for much of the United States, it is one of the worst economic times for farmers in this same nation. All of this is readily apparent for those who are in touch with the issues of rural America.

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Old Interior Angel
"An Old Interior Angel" 
 
     A poem by David Whyte, titled "An Old Interior Angel," speaks to me about rural America's situation and the hope I hold for those struggling in farming. In this poem Whyte describes how he was hiking in Tibet and decided to separate from his party in order to hike for himself for a while. He planned to walk by himself for three days to a certain bridge where he would rejoin his group. In order to do this he would have to cross that bridge and meet them on the other side of it.

    All went well until he got to the bridge which hung over a 400-foot chasm. It was then that he saw it's condition: all of the top cables of the swingbridge were broken, as well as many of its wooden planks. As he sat down near it he felt discouraged and disheartened, deciding he would have to walk back to where he had started.

   Just then an old Tibetan woman came shuffling along caring a basket, gathering dung for fuel. She walked right past him, her eyes on the ground, giving Whyte the "Namaste" Indian greeting as she passed by. (Meaning "I greet the God in You.") The she walked straight ahead, onto and across the broken bridge without even taking a pause. At that moment something stirred in David Whyte. Seeing this old woman do the seemingly impossible helped him realize that he, too, could cross the bridge. He concludes his poem by calling this woman "an old interior angel," someone who gives him the courage to take action and follow her across the dangerous bridge.

    I see the broken bridge as a metaphor for the current barriers rural America faces right now. David Whyte, fearfully sitting at that rickety, scary bridge, is anyone who faces great difficulty and fear. When we get to that bridge we hesitate, doubt, question, - wondering if we can make it to the other side. We've never crossed a bridge so dilapidated before. It looks dangerous and risky to do so. Facing this bridge causes doubts and raises a lot of questions: "Why did I come this way? Why didn't anyone fix that bridge? How am I supposed to get any further? Will I make it if I try to cross over? Do I have to go back instead of forward?"

    These questions underlie rural America's questions: "Did I make the wrong choice? Can I farm in the future? Will the family farm survive? Who will fix the farm bill? How can I get to the other side of this perilous time? What will I do with the plummeting prices and the problems associated with genetical engineering? Will consolidation destroy rural America's land and way of life?

    When we're in a difficult place, we can get stuck, too paralyzed to move on due to concern for what might happen to us. We can lose hope, believing the only thing for us is to go back into what we know instead of moving creatively into the future. Whyte chose his journey but he did not choose the broken-down bridge, just as those who choose to work the land do not choose all the difficult things that happen in the process of farming.

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