Beautiful discoveries happen outside

I was on my knees propping up a wobbly-legged newborn lamb and steering its mouth toward one of its mother’s milk-engorged nipples. Then, as soon as I heard that tell-tale sound of sucking, from behind me I also heard a loud exclamation, “Awesome!” I turned to see a boy of about 12 years of age who had outrun his friends who were visiting the farm that day and made it to the barn just in time to witness this baby’s first gulp.

What I said was, “I can’t agree with you more. This is life in all its glory, and it sure is awesome.” What I thought, but didn’t say was, “How wonderful it is that you, my young friend, are not indoors, playing a gory video game. Here you have discovered just a bit of this immense, awesome and beautiful world you will grow up in.”

In this column I hope to share lessons from the farm—the farm where my wife and I, in our retirement, care for a flock of sheep and a kennel full of working Border Collies. We believe these are lessons about living together in community.

And the very first lesson in community life is that it is not a zero-sum game. The humane world is truly not a “survival-of-the fittest” world. The more we live on our couches and get all our news from I-Phones and Blackberries, the more the world will be defined by its scarcity and appear to be closing in on us—the more people who don’t look like us or think like us will look like the enemy.

On the other hand, the more we step outside, and like that 12-year-old boy in the lambing barn, open ourselves to the awesome life that is given to us as a gift, the more courage, understanding and patience will guide and empower us.

The touch, smell and sounds of newborn lambs suckling, and mother ewes licking and nuzzling, have a way of keeping us both humble and happy; and what makes a town or a nation great is not only the pursuit of happiness, but the habit of humility. Farmers have a right to be proud of their line of work, but sometimes that pride can turn to hubris. Years ago I saw overly prideful bumper stickers distributed by a local Farm Bureau that read, “Agriculture: Our Life Support System.” No, my friends, agriculture is but a small part of the system. It is not mastery, but humble stewardship of a part of the System. Yes, we need wise agriculture to eat and survive.

But the heavy lifting that truly supports life is going on beyond our control: as the leaves rot, as the worms digest, as the waters evaporate and percolate, and as the vast genetic pool that we swim in goes churning on through the ages.

If we could but open our eyes and ears we would see how very vast it is and it would bring us to our knees. Then we could arise to do our work with a great joy and confidence. Even if our GPS-guided $200,000 combines all broke down tomorrow, life would go on and be just as awesome as it has been since the very first lamb suckled the very first nipple.

This article appeared in the Daily Chronicle, February 4, 2011, p. A2.