“If the earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality.” — Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth.
In mid-January of this year, a small group of dreamers, representing several non-profits and faith-based organizations (including the Diocese of California and Holy Innocents’, San Francisco) got together and began to cultivate a vacant lot in San Francisco. In the course of three months, with a budget next to nothing, we’ve gone from harvesting used syringes and broken glass to fresh organic vegetables.
Dependent on the generosity and commitment of volunteers, the curiosity and resourcefulness of neighbors, and the loan of an empty parcel from St. Paulus Lutheran Church, something new is astir on the corner of Gough and Eddy streets. It’s called the Free Farm .
Now, in mid-April, under cover of great big collard leaves, weeds are emerging at the Free Farm. In deference to the collards, I will pull these weeds, but why? Is there a Christian ethic of pulling weeds?
When pulling weeds there are at least two possible ways to approach the task. In the first (and more common) case, one could see them as invasive little punks rearing their ugly heads, daring to intrude on a carefully planted plot of land. Pull, pull, pull! Stay on top of them, the little buggers! This is the mentality of scarcity, of fear, and self-preservation.
However, I would like to present an alternative approach. Rather than view the weeds as a nuisance, I might see each weed as a chance for spiritual practice. In this way, I would welcome the weed as a fellow being, as a seed or a root fulfilled. I might admire its skill, its knowledge, its own subjective desire to grow. If I did this, I might find myself amazed by the weed’s resourcefulness, opportunism, and ability to take advantage of the tiniest micro-climate.
In some small way, each weed gives me an opportunity to practice hospitality. I call each by name: “Hello lambs quarter, lupine, oxalis.” (Yes, even oxalis, arrrgh!) Each offers me the chance to practice gratitude. Even as I pull the weed, I give thanks for what it will add to the compost pile. Each weed is a confirmation that we have created a space that these weeds have confused for a real-life working farm. This is the perspective of abundance.
Viewed in this way, each weed is a sacrament. In Jesus the Heretic, the English parson Conrad Noel wrote: “Every wayside flower is a sacrament of his Body and Blood.” The same is true of weeds. Each one provides for us the chance to cultivate within ourselves a posture of hospitality and gratitude. It is a moment to practice the transition from scarcity to abundance. Our ability to develop this disposition of heart, mind, and spirit is crucial, as we seek to live justly, and in peace, on this finite planet.
Originally published in Pacific Church News, Summer 2010, Vol. 147 no. 2