“A Life Fully Lived”
A review of
A Time to Plant:
Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt
By Kyle T. Kramer
Review by Ragan Sutterfield.
A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt
By Kyle T. Kramer
Paperback: Sorin Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I have long been haunted by the closing of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
The passage speaks to the deep longing in our time for a community of sustainable virtue and values; a place where practices that ground us in what is truly valuable can thrive.
Often thinking of this passage from MacIntyre, I was struck years later when I read the introduction to farmer and writer Gene Logsdon’s book Living at Nature’s Pace. The last sentence of the introduction of Logsdon’s book recalls with amazing parallel the last paragraph of After Virtue, as Logsdon writes, “Sustainable farms are to today’s headlong rush toward global destruction what monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.”
Might MacIntyre’s new St. Benedict might be clad in overalls rather than a habit?
Kyle Kramer’s book, A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt points in the direction of a “yes.”
It is a book that illustrates the possibilities of a life of hope—a form of work, prayer, and community that helps hold the fire through a new dark ages masked by artificial light.
“What does it mean to make a home in the world? How does one live a life of faithful belonging to other people, to Creation, and to God?” These questions, which open the introduction of the book, frame the core of its argument; an argument not played out in wishful theory or armchair agrarianism—Kramer is one who is living the answer and correcting and revising that answer through a muscle working, hand callousing struggle with the limits of soil, of weather, of time, of money, of place. It is by seeking to be a lived answer to the question of belonging in his place that Kramer is able to offer a hopeful story to those of us seeking to belong in our place whether rural, urban, suburban and all the in-betweens.
The first part of the book is a narrative—the story of Kramer’s homecoming from the temptations of elsewhere to a farm not far from the place he grew up. Starting with experiments in urban gardening and moving toward a life of part-time farming, Kramer’s story is essentially one of being planted, nourished, putting down roots, as the old cliché goes. Those roots, which are both anchors and streams of health, came overtime as Kramer discovered the pockets of life in the soil of his life and sought attachment to them—the work of farming, his role as a teacher at a monastery, his Catholic faith, his marriage to Cyndi and their homemaking together. With each root Kramer began to feel the health of a life lived fully, as he writes his goal has been “to become my truest and best self, or as St. Irenaeus urged, to give God glory by becoming fully and truly alive.”
The second part of the book continues the tone of the personal, but turns more to the form of essay as Kramer reflects on “Food and Farming,” raising children, and hospitality. These essays are powerful following the story behind them and their messages are critical to those who would seek a life answering the question of how we should make a home in the world. I found Kramer’s reflections on farming particularly important for those who fall into the trap of believing that farming is only a possibility for those who can make a full-time go of it. Instead of being a farmer whose entire livelihood is dependent upon his crops, Kramer, urged by his wife Cyndi, has come to see his farming “as a ministry that serves our family, our customers, and the earth itself.” If more of us were only to seek such service more of us would find ourselves digging in the dirt and worrying less about how to escape our day jobs for the very American dream of 40 acres and independence.
In an age of much darkness, of much loveless living, we need testimonies to hope that are not captive to the myths of progress. A Time to Plant offers us such a testimony of a life seeking to live deeply, fully, present. I do not think we can hope for some revolution in our food system or great turning of the tide of climate change through the progress of better understanding. We must instead turn our attention to living—here, fully here, with these people we call our family and our neighbors, with this ground that holds the possibility of life, in this creation where God seeks to live here with us.
Ragan Sutterfield is a writer, teacher and farmer is his native Arkansas and is also author of the book Farming As A Spiritual Discipline (Doulos Christou Books 2009).