Take Me to Church: A Farm Prayer

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

The first time I saw what reverence felt like in a garden was on the face of a barn cat. The corn had just taken off, leaning into each other’s stalks as if to create a forest against the winds of summer and the unnecessary (at least, in this case) native bees. As I rounded the rows, twisting the lines that would hold my blue flint corn in place, there he stood: head up, eyes closed, paws perfectly snuggled against the scraggle of corn root and hay. It was the undeniable posture of prayer.

I have seen it since, but like most mysteries, it wasn’t noticeable until it was. There was the time I stopped short of “shooing” a squirrel from my shiitake logs. His tiny hands held the mushroom under the cover of our humble copses, and just as I opened my mouth to holler him away, I saw his eyes close. His stillness, that reverence for what had grown there, halted my breath and changed my course. 

Once I recognized this moment, it was everywhere. Yesterday, on my way to the rabbit hutch, I interrupted a garter snake rolling in the sun. It was a bit of a stand-off, but for just a moment: I saw her. She was languishing, worshipping in a patch of gold on a land that had given her frogs and lizards and mice galore. I dropped the feed bucket (a response born of misplaced fear) and her tiny eyes flashed open. As she considered me, broken from that primal revery with her head tilted toward my intrusion, I understood something old and fine about where I stood. It had become church.

And apparently, anyone can join.

Every evening, the buzzards come home to roost in an old oak tree far from my neighbors and the blast of their shotguns. Their wind dance slides against the dying of the light, angling for the safety and rest of our little farm. They perch in geometric shadows, heads bent in supplication, serving as makeshift gargoyles atop the boundaries of a rag-tag plot of land. Ironic, I think, that they can stand guard so well with their eyes shut tight.
The crows have come to an arrangement with our Aussies, only taking the first few bites of dog food before the soft warning grumble that says “enough.” One watches me as I check on the spongy underbelly of a mushroom bed and cocks his blue-black head to my acknowledgment of “good morning, Fred.” I’m unsure if this is his name, but he closes his eyes when I say it.

Last night, a toad startled me as I walked in an empty bottle of wine after my guests had left. These creatures have lost all fear of my feet, landing upon them as if I walk in tandem with their kind. I bent to stroke the side of a knotty head, and her eyes closed against my fingers. “Be careful,” I reminded her, as the copperheads have begun to wake under woodpiles in these last days of spring. And still, she leaned into my hand, rapt in that brief moment of surrender.

Some days, my grandchild is here. Her feet carry her fairy-like frame to chicken coops, tomatoes, and dandelion without fear. A spider crawls to the top of a reed and her fingers reach for it in greeting. Somewhere between the porch and the back fence, she halts her toddler tear through the grass and lifts her head to the sun. Her eyes are closed, her mouth slightly open as if in search of rain. And I wait, as if outside of a mahogany confession closet, in respect.

At times, I wonder at my resistance to leave this place. In others, I know why.

I remember my grandma, pining for the solidness of her past on a brick porch, leaning into a place that felt more real than the here and now. “The air smelled different then,” she assured me, gnawing on the last of her thumbnail. She regaled me with stories of milk boxes kept in cold, running creeks and homegrown greens simmering in cast iron pots. I heard tales, quite against my will, of the wonders of a tomato stalk and how the perfume of those leaves could inspire romance—much more than the wild roses along the dirt roads of Alabama. I can still hear her as she undressed a long-gone field of beans in a story carved from work and sweat and determination. My grandma wove these moments together, a quilt born of a farming life, staining it in the colors of muscadine, blueberry, and turnip until I could almost taste the soil of it all on the back of my tongue.

And while she talked, she closed her beautiful hazel eyes.

That was forty years ago now. My hair is going white, my back is not so reliable anymore, and some days the dirt under my nails doesn’t pay so well. But then, I end up sitting under the stars with friends and find myself going long on the subject of propagation, or the first flush of zucchini before the squash borers land, or how lovely garlic braids can be hung in a kitchen. What I don’t notice is that moment when my eyes close, but I’ve been told it is my way when speaking of my farm.

I reckon they’re right. After all, this work is a prayer.  

Summer is threatening now, thickening my skin and deepening the water in the air. The figs are turning pink and warning me that soon will come the canning, the harvesting, the pickling, and the preserving. I find myself apologizing to the orb weavers for my careless wandering and pluck their golden webs from my arms. It’s all become a part of me now, I know. No longer do the mosquitos bite, for I am only a plant here. My memory is of the seed that came before, the ancestors of a harvest, and in these sweltering days of the growing time: I am woven into the story, a hand-stitched spine of a book I’m too young to read. At least, not quite yet.

It’s the closest I’ll ever come to something divine, this farming life. And most days, it is enough. But when it’s not, when the buzz of politics and war, taxes, and deadlines scrape at the edges of all that is good and sweet of this life, I recall the scent of tomato leaves against my skin. It surrounds my spirit and sinks into the worn places that I’ve forgotten to patch.

And there, in that green and merciful grace, I close my eyes.

photo credits: Anton Darius, Unsplash