Danile Martens lives and works in Mishawaka, Indiana. She is married to John Martens. She spent 4 years with her family in Cambodia with MCC working in provincial health services. She is an active member of Kern Road Mennonite Church. For fascinating reading on sustainable farming practice and theology of creation care she recommends the work of Gene Logsden, Joel Salatin, and Ellen Davis.
It is winter and a pristine white snowfall flocks on branches, and gathers in swales, covering the pasture in white under a brilliant blue sky. Soon spring will bring a green flush of grasses and clover, and the calves and their old dams will kick up their heels in anticipation and delight as they move to new pasture. For now I enjoy the quiet of the morning, watching the dance of cardinals, finches, sparrows and juncoes around the feeder. Winter’s comparative leisure contrasts to the months of the growing season, May to October, when work lasts until dark most days. I have learned to accept the long spring and summer working days, at the end of which we have time only to eat, clean up, and fall into bed. We do not live by the clock, but by the rhythm of the seasons. I find order and beauty in working with the cycles of nature but it is out of step with modern life.
We returned home 18 years ago after a term of service in Cambodia, from an agrarian culture with intense planting and harvesting seasons, to the North American midwest with some of the best agricultural land in the world, but where connection to the land consists for most people in growing and cutting a lawn. Direct interaction with the environment for their livelihood gave rural Cambodians a practical ingenuity that I admired, and it contrasted with the utter dependence of most North Americans for their basic needs on anonymous and complex systems and the labor of others. It seemed appropriate to work out a way of life that, so far as possible, reduced our demand on the earth, improved the land we lived on, and kept us in touch with creation. We wanted to practice creativity in the work of providing for ourselves, rather than relying on systems that often hide human injustice and put disastrous pressure on natural systems. We had always grown food for ourselves, now we began eating seasonally and locally all through the year, preferentially purchasing food the food we did buy from known sources. We heated with wood and installed a photovoltaic system for electricity.
We took sustainability to the next level when we began raising beef cattle on several acres, to eat and sell, but also to improve the fertility of the exhausted soil and to sequester carbon by rotational grazing, moving the stock every day to new pasture. The response of the land to controlled grazing has been miraculous. Our first acreage was so nutrient depleted that we had to feed out hay the whole first year while the cattle grazed weeds. In the second year, grass and clover appeared in abundance, and in every subsequent year the fertility improved, the depth of soil increased: the cattle ate their way into plenty, seeding what was most desirable for their nourishment.
In the past few years we have committed ourselves to a co-housing initiative on a larger farm that includes 40 acres of pasture. We hope that Restoration Farm will be a place to build soil and community together and to find out the ways in which we can support one another in nurturing rather than exhausting the earth. I am pretty certain that small-scale sustainable farms are going to be a significant part of human survival in the difficult future we face. Many of us will need to grow some food and produce some energy for ourselves and others as a means of reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Restoration Farm is one attempt to address this need.
I enjoy the work of growing food, and caring for animals. There are tangible results, I spend the majority of my days in the out doors, and I keep physically fit. Though my work is very physical, I am by nature more energized by head and heart than sensory work; happily this work is an unfailing entry to meditation on the mysteries of living systems, the soil under my feet, and biblical texts. It helps me to see how fundamentally the bible is oriented to care of the earth, the story of God’s love for the world, written by and for agrarian and semi-agrarian people. A context of weeding, pruning, harvesting and building soil draws me into the heart of the gospels, and the OT narratives. My hope is that as we transition to a lower energy future, more people will find wholeness and fulfillment in serving and preserving the earth.