Monday, February 26, 2007

Terracing My Own Backyard

Lead Us

My backyard is a hill, in two directions. It is small, bordered by a rusty chain-link fence, visually squeezed by houses on all sides. At the not-so-far end is a large pine tree, some maples, various odd shrubs, and a patch of ivy beneath it all. I do not like my backyard much. I mostly stay in the house. We have talked about grading the yard and terracing. But something inside me fights that.

Recently, with all this talk of erosion control, smallness of scale, and terracing, I have begun to rethink my backyard— especially since it is a place that has eroded my appreciation for being outside. So, I just read Radical Simplicity and am taking Merkel's suggestion about going to a secret outdoors place each day. (More about this on my my other blog.)

"Lead me into contentment," is my new prayer, as I step into this small space to find what unexpected life may be there. It is my way of terracing my own backyard, working with and shoring up what is there, bringing fruit out of what feels fruitless.

What follows is Sunday night's fruit. It is longer than what I usually post here. But, since I'm going to be away for a week or so starting Thursday, maybe you can come back to read it while I'm gone...

I did not think I would go out to my secret spot today. It is Sunday. I sang in the church praise band this morning, came home to a much-needed nap. We made popcorn and tea and chuckled "sorry" to each other in a game of Knockout (I'm sorry to knock you out, it's my only move!) I won the game. Winners get a kiss, "losers" get a hug. In this way, everybody wins.

I got two kisses from the girls, three from the mister ("No, no!" we cried. "Kiss like you mean it!") We collapsed into a family hug. Dinner was leftover Greek food. Sara played the cello. Then, it was off to bed for the children. And I settled into reading Annie Dillard, Tim Bascom, Lisa McMinn. Somewhere along Tinker Creek, after Dillard sees the frog get eaten by the water beetle, something called me imperceptibly. "Look up."

I looked out the window. Snow falling, thick. How did it silently call me? How could I not answer? I put on gloves and a wool hat, my down coat, and went out into the night. It was light enough to see the world of quiet. I carried my sled to the secret spot and lay down where the snow was falling through the pine. It fell steadily on my face. I could hear it too, "tip, tip - tip, tip, tip."

The snow became like rain where it melted on my skin. Rivulets, like tears, crossed my face. Water flowed into my mouth. The taste of melted night snow. My hat drooped from the weight of the gathering snow, began to pull itself off my head. I closed my eyes.

"What if I just stay here, shiver into sleep?" I thought. The ground was a soft bed beneath me. The air a cool, wet cover. I listened to the squeal of a snowplow turning the corner. All else was silence. "Where are the birds? All asleep. Somewhere in the trees?" Between scattered thoughts, my warm house began to send out its own call, imperceptible at first, but persistent. "Come back inside."

I picked up my sled and walked out of the snow-laden ivy... placed the red plastic onto new-fallen snow. Whooosh... I went down the hill fast, stopped by crashing into the house. It doesn't hurt. I laughed out loud. Smiled to the snow and the night. Put the sled under the covered porch. Turned in time to see my backyard neighbor switch off her kitchen light.

I wondered, "What did she see? Does she think she is crazy, witnessing a dark, lumpy figure sledding down my backyard hill... off into the cover of the hemlocks..."

SSI (Standing Seedlings Invitation): If you post something related to this Seedling post, let me know and I'll link to you.


Living in a Throwaway Culture

making do

Lead Us photo, by L.L. Barkat.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007


In the post Erosion Control, I mentioned Wendell Berry's observations about Peruvian farming, and mused that these same dynamics might be applied to our lives. So, we talked about "smallness of scale." And now it seems good to turn to terracing.

Terracing is a way to produce fruit from what might otherwise be fruitless land. It keeps soil in place and makes a patch of workable land right on the mountainside. Stonework cradles the soil, helping it stay put.

Says Berry, "the stonework in these walls is excellent...and provides a good insight into the agricultural thinking of the Incas...these walled terraces testify that [they] aimed at a permanent agriculture, and that aim accounts for the excellence of the workmanship." (p 45)

Conversely, we live in a throw-away culture. The "you can toss it" mindset pervades everything from the way we treat relationships to the way we treat goods, homes, communities, church families, and so on. And perhaps this accounts for the level of our workmanship (which is too often less impressive than the Incan stonework.)

But, what if we stopped and took the view of the Incas. This is what we've got to work with. We're staying here. How can we make the mountain fruitful? I marvel to think of what we might build, how we might terrace what seemed less than productive.

Seedlings in stones in Guatemala photo by Dorothy Olson Miller. Used with permission.

SSI (Standing Seedlings Invitation): If you post something related to this Seedling post, let me know and I'll link to you.

A Sense of Place

Incas & Disposable Everything


Smallness of Scale

Narcissus Gone Wild

Smaller Scale Meets Toy Closet

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Adios, All-You-Can-Eat

Sara's Birdfeeder

In our last discussion, Craver commented that he struggles to spend time with The Few, as opposed to The Many. I observed that this is symptomatic of our "All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet" society.

In other words, we have access to a lot of relationships, experiences, technologies, goods, etc. In such a context, it's hard to focus on our own plate, to savor and appreciate what's there... to willingly choose "smallness of scale," where we can attend to details with creativity and passion.

A few days after our conversation, I opened up Jim Merkel's Radical Simplicity. Merkel is a former arms trader, who now works for peace initiatives. He shares an experience where he watched an indigenous group solve a problem together. It struck him...

"The elegant simplicity of cooperation and hard work was poetry in motion. This is what you do when you don't have a bulldozer, don't have cheap gas, and don't have a permanent war-time economy. These intelligent, creative solutions were outside of my box..." p.32

Sometimes I think we would be happier if we said "adios" to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. So many people suffer from a sense of meaninglessness. So many people live in little boxes, that all seem to look the same. We even sell our lives for the privilege, going into mounds of debt; or we work long hours or even two jobs to preserve the box.

Then, in the process, our opportunities for cooperation, intelligence, and creativity fall aside.

If you post something about the All-You-Can-Eat phenomenon, tell me, and I'll link to you. Also, Week Two of the Relationship Exercise is now in the comments of the post "Relational Engagement." Be sure to check out Craver's new comment too... the continuing saga of Mr. & Mrs. Craver!

Sara's Creative Squirrel-Proof Birdfeeder. Photo by L.L. Barkat.


Pancake Day

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Relational Engagement


So, I said I'm going to work on a few good relationships. Where to begin? I'll start by spending time with The Few instead of The Many. But that won't make the few relationships automatically good.

Today, I picked up (again) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I want to try Gottman's six-week exercise on nurturing fondness and admiration. Call it my effort at relational engagement. I'll try to record the exercise in my journal.

Here's Week One of the exercise, and I think it can be modified if a person wanted to use it parent-to-child, friend-to-friend (maybe even co-worker to co-worker). If anyone modifies it, let me know what you substitute. I'd be interested...

Week 1

Thought: I am genuinely fond of my partner. (We're supposed to "think" this even if we don't think it!)
Task: List one characteristic you find endearing or lovable.

Thought: I can easily speak of the good times in our marriage. (We're supposed to "speak" of them, even if we have nothing to say.)
Task: Pick one good time and write a sentence about it.

Thought: I can easily remember romantic, special times in our marriage. (We're supposed to "remember" even if we seem to have amnesia.)
Task: Pick one such time and think about it.

Thought: I am physically attracted to my partner. (We're supposed to find "attraction" even if we're put off.)
Task: Think of one physical attribute you like.

Thought: My partner has specific qualities that make me proud. (We're supposed to be "proud" even if we're just irritated.)
Task: Write down one characteristic that makes you proud.

Feel free to ask me if I've gone through with my relational engagement exercise. (Not that I'll tell you my secret thoughts or anything!)

Everybody's Engaged Illustration, by Sara.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Smallness of Scale

Turtle's House

In my last post, "Erosion Control," I mentioned Wendell Berry's Peru-farming observations. I want to discuss each observation as a way to approach life in general. Today is "smallness of scale."

As Berry looked out over the fields, he noted...

"For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on the details." (p 26)

"The fields have to be the right size; to make them too big would be to destroy them....What I was thinking, then, looking down at the little fields of the Andes, was that the most interesting, crucial, difficult questions of agriculture are questions of propriety. What is the proper size for a farm for one family in a given place? What is the proper size for a field, given a particular slope, climate, soil type, and drainage?" (p.43)

How can I apply Berry's "smallness of scale" ideas to my life— to keep things intact or, better yet, to encourage abundant growth? I thought of a few ways I already do this...

• In homeschooling my kids, I keep our lessons short and sweet. Children learn quite a lot in small spaces of time.

• Buying a small house has meant we have less to clean, care for, spend money on, and pay back in mortgage cost.

• In choosing a small dinner plate, I find that I eat an appropriate amount of food.

• I developed and follow (though not slavishly) a 30-Day Meal Plan.

• In reading just a little bit of scripture each week, I eventually make it through my whole bible every so once in a while.

Some new ways I want to incorporate "smallness of scale"...

• get on-line for shorter time periods, and on fewer days (I think I'll try posting on Tues/Thurs for awhile, instead of Tues/Thurs/Fri... I'm over on Green Inventions on Wed/Fri, and my daughter's picture of the Sermon on the Mount, complete with computer on the "me, me, me" side, has made me realize I've once again slipped into too much computer time.)

• focus deeply on a few good relationships

• read only the best books (put the boring ones aside, without guilt!)

So what about you? How might you use "smallness of scale" to make life good, or just prevent erosion?

(If you do a post on "Smallness of Scale," let me know. I'll link to you. Speaking of links, check out what Craver & Son did in response to my "Blessed are The" post. Check out his comment in the original post too. Cool.)

Turtle in His Small Home. Photo by Sonia.


Smallness of Scale

Narcissus Gone Wild

Smaller Scale Meets Toy Closet

30-Day Meals

Smallness of Scale As I See It

Big Things

Caffeine Addiction

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Erosion Control

Flower Pot on Grass n Leaves

My friend Charity finally got me reading Wendell Berry. I've been meaning to read him for a very long time.

In The Gift of Good Land, he talks about the mountain farming of Peru. Erosion is a serious issue to consider.

Says Berry, "I had begun to be impressed with the way erosion control is built into the patterns of this farming, as one of the dominant themes. I started a list of the various means... smallness of scale, terracing, fallowing, proper timing, polyculture, downhill rows to let water out quickly, weeding after crops are established...the return of organic wastes to the soil."

As I read this, I was fascinated by the ingenuity of the peasants. I was fascinated, too, by their intimate knowledge of their own conditions, which fostered appropriate solutions.

Then, I thought, ...Do I do this in my life, in my heart and relationships and ways of living? Do I have a good sense of how to exercise erosion control? Or is everything just pouring down the mountainside...

Photo by L.L. Barkat. (Nope, this is not the same pic as on my Green Inventions Central blog.)

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


My seven-year-old daughter hopped in the car.

"Show me some inestitude, Mommy," she said.

"Inestitude? What's that?"

"It's kind of like attitude, but good," she replied, with a look of inestitude.

The next day we went for a walk in the rain. My little coiner-of-words poked sticks in puddles, sang to the dogs behind fences, shouted to the clouds, declared that we were lost in the rain forest. I watched her with some amusement, and a sense of longing... to be like her... a person of inestitude.

"...then I was beside Him, like a little child; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always..." Proverbs 8:30

Ferris, pondering the meaning of "inestitude." Photo by Gail Nadeau. Used with permission.


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Monday, February 05, 2007

Blessed Are The

blessed are the 1

blessed are the 2

Llama Momma asked me to share about my experiences with the on-line bible study I'm doing.

The group is currently exploring the Sermon on the Mount, which I've heard so many times that I've lost a sense of its richness... until I did my salt pictures (see below and on my other blog) and the picture above as part of my response. Some members of the group wanted to know what the illustration means.

So, here's how I explained it...

The right side of the picture is "our world," full of all the things we want...with people adoring and serving us.

The left side of the picture is a trail of loss... the crown and apparel, the fallen Q's (our right-to-rule), as we climb the mount to meet Jesus... who waits in his loving sacrifice, to teach us how to live a life of true color.

I had fun changing the queen from a diamonds person to a queen of hearts. And though I didn't draw the queen of hearts, I implied that the heart would be her ultimate suit of destiny, as signified by the heart near the cross.

If you had to draw your response to the Sermon on the Mount, what might you draw? (see Matthew 5-7)

Illustration by L.L. Barkat.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Apple Lies

apple & chinese plate2

On Tuesday I interviewed an organic farmer. We sat onstage, just chatting about the differences between organic and industrial farming. We called the presentation "Choice Foods."

People were a little surprised to discover that their red apples and red tomatoes are a misrepresentation of the truth. The truth is that they are green apples and green tomatoes that have been gassed in the greenhouse or in huge chambers, to make them blush red. They aren't really ripe. But they sure look good.

This got me thinking about my self, my choices. Do I put on a nice rosy face to the world, while indeed I'm just a green apple inside? I know that sometimes I do.

Apple photo by L.L. Barkat.