An Interview with Fred Bahnson
Image: Soil and Sacrament took you around the country exploring the spiritual practice of agriculture, so to speak. What made you want to write the book? How did it take its shape?
Fred Bahnson: The travel story I’ll describe shortly, but first I’ll say that the impetus to write the book came from a desire to understand my own vocational journey. In 2000 I graduated from divinity school. Six months later I found myself in Chiapas, Mexico working among a group of Mayan coffee farmers. While in Chiapas I had what I reluctantly call a mystical experience, a word from the Lord. One morning while on a rooftop in San Cristobal, I came upon these words in Isaiah: “This is the way; walk in it.” What was the way? Growing food. Feeding people. An agrarian conversion.
I came back to the states, did an apprenticeship on a permaculture farm, and in 2005 helped start a communal food garden in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. We called it Anathoth, after the field God told Jeremiah to buy during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. It was a ministry of a rural Methodist church, less of a community garden and more of a mini-farm. I had a divinity degree and a basic knowledge of organic gardening, but neither were adequate preparation for what I would encounter on those five acres. I came to understand my role at Anathoth as a kind of minister of the land: part garden manager, part community organizer, part chaplain. Sometimes people needed me to teach them how to double-dig a garden bed; sometimes they needed prayer.
At Anathoth I worked with people like Jacob, a troubled young man who sometimes helped in the garden but who mostly smoked Kools while tattooing himself with a sewing needle and a broke-open Bic pen, and who during Prayers of the People in church on Sundays would request prayer for his two-year old daughter who was dying in the hospital at that very moment and who in fact didn’t exist. Or Odell, the 93-year old lady from the local group home who came to the garden several mornings a week, a wonderful senile old bird who in her confusion—God bless her—gave me one of the worst titty-twisters I’d had since fourth grade. Or Mohammed, a teen sent to perform community service who enjoyed shocking himself on the garden’s electric deer fence. I got pretty good at growing plants during those years—we cranked out a lot of food—but the more important cultivating to be done I would learn was the work before which I always felt inadequate: growing people. This is the way; walk in it.
My years at Anathoth were wonderful and frustrating and beatific and utterly exhausting. As I describe in the book, I finally crashed. The average burn out rate for new pastors is five years. I only made it four. Writing this book was an attempt to reclaim the best of those years and to also reckon with my own failures. By nature I’m an introvert, a hermit who through God’s good humor was thrust into a very public role. The writer David James Duncan gave a generous endorsement of Soil and Sacrament. Through his love of wild things, Duncan has been drawn out of his hermit’s cell and into the world. After reading the book he told me, “We’re introverts attempting an extrovert’s gig, aren’t we? But without my introversion, I daresay I’d have nothing to offer.” Amen to that. When I left Anathoth in 2009, my family and I moved to my parents’ farm in the North Carolina mountains and one of the first things I did when we arrived was set up a hermit’s cell. The abandoned milk parlor in an old dairy barn became my cave, and there I began to write what would become Soil and Sacrament.
Image: And the second thread?
FB: Yes, the travel narrative. That story is told in alternating chapters with the first. After writing my way into my own spiritual autobiography, I realized that my story and the story of Anathoth Community Garden were part of a much larger story, what might be called a food and faith movement. To tell this story I spent a year taking a series of road trips. I became an embedded reporter, a spiritual chameleon trying on the hues of Trappist prayer or Jewish davening, as the case may be, and working alongside my hosts in the fields. I learned their practices of tending the soil and immersed myself in their sacramental life. I went to four different communities and spent a week in each place, each visit coinciding with a liturgical holiday. I spent Advent with a group of mushroom-growing Trappist monks in South Carolina (as told in the excerpt in Image 77, previewed below), Eastertide with The Lord’s Acre community garden in western North Carolina, Pentecost with—yep—a Pentecostal farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley, and Sukkot, the fall harvest festival, with a Jewish farm in the Berkshires of Connecticut.
I found the travel narrative the easier of the two stories to write. I could leave behind the intense self-scrutiny of memoir and turn my writerly eye on people like Susan Sides, garden manager of The Lord’s Acre, who described her work as “making love visible.” Or Zach Joy, a former meth cook now the chief coffee roaster at Tierra Nueva ministries in Washington State who blesses each batch of coffee beans as they spill out of the roasting drum and into the cooling tray. Or Sam Plotkin, with whom I spent a morning in the Picklearium at Adamah Farm, who could drop the F-bomb in the same sentence as the words “kosher” and “God” and end up saying something beautiful and profound. Though I visit three admirable Christian communities, the Jewish community in many ways exemplifies my sought-after blend of soil and sacrament. Though I may differ with them about the identity of the Messiah and whether he’ll be coming for the first or second time, I found myself after that week of Sukkot with a deep yearning to become Jewish. Actually, that desire to convert was true of each community I visited. I became so smitten with each community’s way of life that at the end of each week I was ready to sign up.
Image: You worked on a writing project with Paula Huston through Image’s Glen Online manuscript critique. Tell us more about your experience with the Glen Online.
FB: I did two sessions back in 2010 with Paula Huston, who read some of my early attempts at writing this book. Though I later scrapped most of that early material, it was good to hear from a more experience writer that I was burrowing down the right hole, and to keep digging. Paula also helped me refine an essay called “Reading Isaiah in Chiapas,” which ended up getting published in The Sun. That essay describes my agrarian conversion in Mexico, which resulted in me landing at Anathoth. Most of that essay ended up becoming Chapter Two inSoil and Sacrament. I loved working with Paula. She was generous with her praise, yet gently insistent with her criticism and suggestions for betterment. When I sent her a revision she responded promptly, and her detailed responses made it clear that she had read my work with great care. She’s a charitable reader, which is a great gift for a writer. From the get-go and despite the inescapable power dynamic of teacher/student, I felt that Paula took me seriously as a fellow writer, one who was wrestling with language just as she was.
Image: How do you practice “soil and sacrament” in your daily life? Do you have a garden?
FB: For me it involves an attempt to both have a prayer life and to live a rooted existence on a piece of land. My best days begin with centering prayer. Those twenty minutes or so before my sons wake up mostly involve me trying to listen to God. As Father Kevin, my spiritual director at Mepkin Abbey put it, “If you want to go deeper in prayer, limit the input.”
The way I try to “serve and preserve” the soil still takes place in the garden. My wife Elizabeth and I have planted a ½ acre hillside with fruit trees and terraced garden beds. We grow most of our own vegetables and, as the fruit trees mature, an increasing amount of our own fruit. It’s very rewarding work, and in fact does not feel at all like work. My day job now is directing the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. I spend a lot of time writing and teaching about the intersection of food and faith, but I’ve found that my energy quickly atrophies if I’m not out in the garden on a regular basis.
Now that I’m no longer managing an acre of biointensive garden beds for 60 or 70 people, there’s less pressure and I can experiment. I can plant a grape vine next to a young mulberry tree which it will climb for support, or I can grow figs, which might get zapped during a cold winter but in a hot year (there are more and more of those) just might just produce a hundredfold.
Like gardening, you can approach prayer with too much control and make it really complicated and end up feeling frustrated and inadequate. Or you can tap into God’s abundance that’s been there all along, lying latent in the soil of your life, waiting.
This is the way; walk in it.
An Excerpt from Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith by Fred Bahnson:
Prayer began in darkness.
At three AM a buzzer rang in my cell. I dressed quickly and stepped out into the twenty-degree December night. The moon was full and by its light a host of dark, silent forms glided across the cloistered lawn and into the abbey church. One of the shrouded figures, his face obscured by a hood, held the door for me. Inside a faint aroma of incense lingered from Vespers the night before. The walls were unadorned. Near the vaulted ceiling, windows ran the entire length of the nave. Next to the bare, granite altar, a leafless maple tree stood in an earthen pot, a symbol of the barrenness of winter. Some of the monks walked to a stone font in the center of the nave and dipped their fingers before crossing themselves.
I took my seat next to Brother Gregory and watched the other monks arrive. At 3:20 a bell began to ring. After a few moments the ringing slowed, and everyone stood and turned to face the altar. From somewhere behind me a set of knuckles knocked once on a wooden choir seat, and all bowed toward the altar. We then recited two lines from Psalm 51, the first words to pass our lips since the end of last night’s Compline, sanctifying the night as those words have sanctified every night for the past fifteen hundred years: Oh Lord, open my lips, a lone monk sang, and in unison we joined him: And my mouth shall declare your praise.
According to the guest handbook I found on the desk in my narrow cell, “It is in living out thehorarium and doing the ordinary tasks of the day that you will discover the wisdom of this way of life.” The horarium, or Divine Hours, consist of the daily services, beginning with Vigils; spiritual reading; and manual labor: the three-fold path of Benedictine life.
The brothers knew which Psalm to sing next, but I had trouble finding my way through the prayer book. Brother Gregory reached a clawed hand over and turned the page in my psalter. We sang the first verse of Psalm 57—Have mercy on me, God, have mercy, for in you my soul has taken refuge—and sat down. The prior’s side of the choir picked up the next verse, and then we traded verses, bowing at the end and singing Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, our words lifting slightly on “Spirit,” and our bodies lifting, too.
At ninety-two, Gregory was the last of the original founders of Mepkin Abbey. He would be my stalwart companion all week, guiding me through each day’s seven services. Despite his age, Gregory’s voice rose to meet the others—O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth!—and I found my own voice growing in confidence.
When Vigils ended at four AM we would leave in silence, returning to our cells for nearly two hours of lectio divina—spiritual reading—until we would gather again at daybreak to sing Lauds. When the abbot’s knuckles knocked and the monks stood to depart, Brother Gregory remained seated. At first he seemed to still be praying, but then I noticed a bit of drool on his lower lip. He had only dozed off, his head slumped so low that his chin nearly grazed his lap. To me it seemed as if Brother Gregory was returning to the fetal position, as if through all those years of bowing and rising God had been slowly curling him up again before bringing him home.