In the cult baseball film Field of Dreams, Ray (Kevin Costner) hears a voice in his cornfield saying “If you build it, he will come.” Eventually, despite the mockers, Ray builds a baseball diamond on his land in Iowa and the ghosts of the greatest players start to emerge from the crops to play ball. There is something about Ray’s vision that reminds me of Nehemiah’s unswerving faith that with God all things are possible.
In 445 BC Nehemiah, an Israelite official serving in the Persian government, had never even seen his ancestral home. When Nehemiah finally visits Jerusalem he is devastated to find a city in ruins. God breaks his heart and gives him a vision to rebuild the walls. Rather than moaning or complaining he rises to the challenge and asks the King for permission to return home. Despite the huge opposition and ferocious challenges, God’s people rebuild the walls in record time. Build it and they will come – the Exiles returned. The spiritual renewal of God’s people was inextricably linked to the physical restoration in the land. They knelt and repented, remembered and rejoiced.
“You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.” Nehemiah 9: 5-6 (NIV).
It was with Kevin Costner and Nehemiah in mind, that we set about creating our new veg patch in our front garden earlier this year, and whilst our ambitions were quite humble, it has already become a magical place to dig and play, to listen and build friendships. A place where the community gathers. In allotments and gardens of all sorts – urban and rural, big and small – people are drawn together to marvel at the breathtaking miracle of a tiny seed sprouting, to commiserate when it all goes wrong and to share in the deep joy of tasting God’s Kingdom fresh from the ground.
We’re certainly not going to win any horticultural prizes, but we love getting our hands in the soil. When it comes to growing fruit and veg we are almost complete novices. For example, in our eagerness to make the most of the small space we’ve planted everything WAY too close together, so it is now starting to resemble a dense rainforest with children swinging from the branches and cats hunting in the undergrowth. We are a million miles from mastering companion planting and polycultures, and we don’t really understand how broken our international food systems are, but there are a few important lessons that we are learning quickly:
Our soil is precious, and so is our community.
Teeming with microscopic life, God is in the dark, rich organic matter. Worms and springtails, bacteria and fungi, all death and life meets in the soil. All around the world, the degradation of our nutrient-rich topsoil risks much more than the global food supply, in the ‘fragile skin’ of soil around the earth are beautiful and dynamic ecosystems which reminds us all of who we are and where we came from. In some ways the degradation of community life over the last few decades feels not dissimilar, which is why it has never been more important to return to the land and connect with one another.
When our children pull up a plump fresh beetroot for our dinner, or enter into an imaginary world crouched down amongst the squashes, the joy of God’s design seems to pop like fresh peas (I estimate that 70% of our peas are eaten whilst being harvested). Every day during lockdown our children have treated the veg patch like a big colourful buffet, all memories of beige food forgotten as they nibble on bright green coriander, sniff shiny red strawberries and pick zingy yellow courgettes.
Growing in amongst the rows of mistakes, failures and problems have been some very tasty and rewarding successes; but the thing that has surprised us the most, is the way our community has grown too.
When we first bought our house ten years ago, the only thing we weren’t sure about was that it had no back garden, but it did have a front garden that was surrounded by the other houses. Our garden sits at the heart of our community. Like so many people, during lockdown we’ve spent a lot of time outside, building and growing, digging and resting.
Bit by bit we’ve started to notice that our little veg patch is already attracting loads of unexpected but very welcome visitors…
A hummingbird hawkmoth skilfully weaves through the flowers while our kind neighbour waters the strawberries. A friend pops by to drop off some ‘lockdown brownies’ and dwells a bit longer as he talks and I rake. Nanny pops in to take mountains of lettuce and rocket off our hands, not wanting anything to go to waste. Two ramblers pause to chat, both experienced allotment holders, keen to encourage us, while juvenile Red Kites tumble and soar in the sky above. My daughter sits and writes a poem about the colours all around her, while my son takes tentative bites of a baby spinach leaf – slowly overcoming his fear of ‘green’ food. Our Romanian friend arrives and recognises Red Orach (an ancient hardy annual with bright purple leaves), a wonderful reminder of her life long ago. Chilli plants are exchanged for books, sourdough is traded for tadpoles, and celeriac is swapped for a mango seedling.
Our veg patch is becoming a haven for wildlife, but also for humans too.
In Isabella Tree’s book ‘Wilding’ I was struck by the gravitational pull of the wild, as many rare and endangered species found their way home to the Knepp estate, thriving in the natural habitats as the land was slowly rewilded. In our own little garden, I’ve been struck by the gravitational pull of a small patch of soil, as our community has gathered in our very own natural habitat and our very souls are slowly rewilded too.
Build it and they will come.
Build a bug hotel, and the bees and beetles will come. Build a pond and the newts and damselflies will come. Build a log pile and the hedgehogs and grass snakes will come. Build a veg patch and the community will come… and if we build Churches like this, then the Kingdom will come.
This reflection was written by Chad Chadwick for the Wild Christian email, ‘Nature and Community.’ Chad is the Diocese of Peterborough Children & Youth Missioner and leads a Missional Community in Rushden (Northants) www.gen2team.com / www.wearethewell.co.uk