The word comes to my mind today from a healthier place — a deep well in my soul’s aquifer. Fallow, the time of rest for a field that has been worked over and depleted of nutrients, sucked dry of life-giving nourishment by the practice of over planting consumer hungry crops, blasted into magical production by chemical fertilizers. Yep, if you keep withdrawing assets without making any deposits, it’s simple math at the bank or the embankment on a farm. Depleted funds, negative balances, over draft fees, then bankruptcy.
Fallow ground is not ignored or abandoned land; it can still be tilled but is intentionally left unseeded. Apparently this process helps deter weeds while renewing essential nutrients in the soil. A fallow field is land that a farmer plows but does not cultivate for one or more seasons to allow the field to become more fertile again. The practice of leaving fields fallow dates back to ancient times when farmers realized that using soil over and over again depleted its nutrients.
We humans also need a fallow season here and there, like a power nap to refresh ourselves in order to be more productive and/or responsible. The constant do, do, doing of our modern world wears out our be, be, beings so that it begins to seem like what we do is who we are. That’s a dangerous and slippery slope to camp on. Pretty soon you slide into other crevasses of reasoning that the more you do, the more you are worth; or the less you do, the less you’re worth. These false beliefs can feel true because a tired mind conflates being with doing. Just like hikers at high altitudes get feeble minded and make mistakes… Feeling is not thinking; no matter how true the feeling feels, it can never vault into a fact.
[“Where’s Ed, Sidney?” “He just walked over to the loo.”]
I’m looking forward to my next break of a few days by the ocean. Hopefully my wife and I will walk along the unseeded sand and produce nothing but contentment and footprints of peace as our feet slowly press into damp sand. The shore is only plowed by the waves and tides which refresh it every twelve hours. This uninterrupted cycle may explain why a few days at the shore can erase weeks of work tension. By listening to the heartbeat of the planet in rhythmic waves, one is carried away from solipsistic navel gazing; drawn to the horizon of infinity where God rests, waiting for us to join Him.
On the drive across Maryland’s Eastern Shore I noticed tractors harrowing the ground in preparation for winter. Towers of dust rose behind each tractor like butternut smoke drifting and then settling in a hundred or so yards. These strange images reminded me of the Dust Bowl, a man made disaster of over-farming, plowing what should not have been plowed exactly when it shouldn’t have been. And this reminds me of a tank racing across Iraq in hopes of weapons of mass destruction… another completely man made disaster.
The seeds of the Dust Bowl may have been sowed during the early 1920s. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits. Many bought plows and other farming equipment, and between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed. With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops during the 1931 season. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers were unable to earn back their production costs and expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit — they covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare.
A drought in nature coupled with a financial drought turned success into failure, forever epitomized in The Grapes of Wrath. When what you are doing is not working, do it faster and harder, and then step back and reap the whirlwind. And do it louder with more self righteousness. That’ll be sure to work even better.
All those acres of fallow ground served an anchoring purpose that was not understood until it was gone. What appeared to be wasteful and unproductive land wound up becoming dust storms or haboobs that terrorized the Midwest plains through out the 1930’s.
Turned out that fallow wasn’t a negative thing at all.
When the rains come or fail to, the fallow ground and/or person can endure extremes. However, if farmers plow and plant to extremes, or humans run on fumes, nothing is left for less than optimal conditions. As is true in agriculture, so is true in human culture. We can’t outrun our nutrients and roots in a mad dash toward productivity. Just because you drove to Walmart in 8 minutes once at 3:00 a.m. does not make it the new normal for you or anyone else. Remember dial up computer speed? No one appreciates that nowadays because we have been swept up in the rapid adrenaline race of sprinting technology.
Hmmmmmmm, my wife wonders what I’m writing about. “FALLOW”, I reply. “You know, like a field that is not planted for a time?”
“You are such a farmer.”
“Yes, a farmer of words. An etymologist.”
“Oh, that’s good. Yes, it fits you. A word farmer.”
“Uh huh, I’m full of crops and manure. Is that where you were going?”
“No, but now that you mention it….”
So my mind riffs on allow, ballow, callow, fallow, gallows, hallow, mallow, marshmallow, sallow, swallow, tallow, and wallow. Quite a crop of mostly outdated words mixed with a few stubborn hangers on. One might expect a secret connection among all these words that are so close in spelling, but I can’t find one. What they share is old age, dating back hundreds of years. Only a fallow mind can entertain such seemingly useless information, unwinding on a quiet ride home as the world rages on in its dirty dust blizzards of erosion.