Ash.

 

I spent Wednesday morning in a train station, my hands and face covered in ash, reminding people that they were going to die.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The longer I farm, the more these words mean to me.

~

I spent Friday morning and afternoon with my hands and face covered in ash, too.

We cut down a lot of trees here at Maggie’s. This is not because we don’t like trees, but rather because we need to produce cordwood to heat our house. We also cut down trees to increase the amount of light and air that our pastures and fields receive.

However, the excess tree material that cannot be used either for cordwood or at the sawmill is burned. It’s the easiest and most economical thing to do, especially since we produce so much of it.

We burn brush not because there’s inherently anything wrong with it, but because it is no longer useful to us and clearing it away will make way for the grasses, flowers, and plants that we need to grow, to sustain ourselves and our animals physically and economically.

As farmers, we often have to eliminate an old living thing to make room for a new living thing–often so that we can eventually consume or eliminate that living thing, too. This can certainly feel like an act of destruction, or even violence. It rarely feels good to interact with life and death in this way. Even with trees.

But it still somehow feels more right to me than living in a death-denying culture where decisions about what and who gets to live and who must die–and to what end–are mostly hidden from us.

It feels messy, because these decisions are rarely easy or without moral ambiguity, or at least some sense of loss. It feels hard. It sometimes even feels tragic.

But at least it always feels honest and real.

I think it’s significant that so many life-and-death-related decisions related to our agricultural system are made by people whose offices are 50 stories up, whose feet never touch the ground and whose expensive suits are never dirty. They are paid to help us pretend that all of our choices about life and death aren’t messy and imperfect, that chicken naturally comes in perfectly-sized, well-priced pieces and was never a living thing, that we are by nature dependent on things dying in order for us to live.

Which is exactly the opposite of standing in a train station or an open field with your hands covered in ash.

~

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the period of 40 days of repentance, prayer, and fasting leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday for many traditionally liturgical Christians like myself. We receive a small cross of ash and oil on our foreheads and hear the ancient words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Lent is our way of burning the brush, of considering deeply what things inside ourselves–or what social, economic, environmental, or food systems we participate in–are separating us from the New Life we seek. It is our way of recognizing that we all participate in death-dealing systems on the path to our own death, that physical death is not avoidable, and the denial of these truths only produces more death-dealing systems and suffering.

Lent is our way of recognizing our responsibility within the mess, so we commemorate it by wearing a bit of that mess on our forehead.

Lent is our time of burning all the brush to make way for new growth, air, and light, so we mark our bodies with something old that we have reduced to ash.

Lent is our time of recognizing that our life is sustained by the death of other things, and that we cannot escape that same physical fate.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In our mess and death-avoidant culture, these are the ways I resist.