Rain and Remembering

This post is written by Mustard Seed Community Farm Intern, Maria Bergh.

After a month of forecast and unrealized rain, I walked out of church in Story City last Sunday into a steady rain, real and unforecast. This was my first rainy day in Iowa, and a gift after the physical and emotional heat of the previous weeks. I lived the last three years in Dallas, TX, where Thursday’s peaceful protest in response to the continued shooting of unarmed black men in the U.S. was brutally interrupted by an armed gunman. Another farm intern hails from the Twin Cities where Philando Castille was shot Wednesday afternoon. Philando was remembered in the Dallas march, and both tragedies hit us hard here on the farm.

This gift of rain in the midst of trauma reminded me of a short essay titled Rain and the Rhinoceros, my introduction to the noted Catholic writer and monk Thomas Merton. It begins: “Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.” On the farm, the rain has real value (we can stop running the well pump, saving electricity costs) and meaning (rest from watering). And yet it is for the gratuity of the festival of rain more than its concrete value and meaning that I am most grateful. (sorry vegetables, I love you too!) It is necessary to celebrate the joy of the present moment to remain human in this time.

After discussing rain, Merton moves to Rhinoceros, the title of a play by Eugene Ionesco in which all of humankind transforms into thick-skinned animals, except one. This one human rushes out to confront the herd, to speak to them of who they once were, to dissent. You can imagine the resulting tragedy. Merton uses the Rhinoceros as a stand-in for militarism and the crushing weight of class and consumer culture.

Merton quotes Ionesco: “In all the cities of the world, it is the same…The universal and modern (hu)man is the (hu)man in a rush (i.e. a rhinoceros), a (hu)man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does (s)he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.” (Notes et Contre Notes, p129) Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait “for those who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude.” Ionesco is quite right; there is so little time in the city to be present, so little value placed on the beautiful, so little influence available to those without capital.

These last three years I worked long hours on the phone in front of a computer getting healthcare buildings built. This task may seem useful, both for the economy and the health of the community, but felt more and more to me like an exercise in uselessness as I was paid a comfortable wage to fight the same inane skirmishes week after week with owners, contractors, and city government while the people and things I cared about – my neighbors on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of the world, and this planet itself – died real deaths choked by poverty, poverty of imagination, and poverty of will.

And so I came out to the farm, a quite intentional solitude, where we go about the useful (growing vegetables, building prairie) in a way that may, to some, seem quite useless (with many low-skilled unpaid hands). Yet for me (and I hope, for you) this uselessness yields far more usefulness (community, hope, joy, faith, love, beauty) than mere wages or increased productivity ever could. This poverty is richer than affluence. And so I am grateful for the rain, the relief, of the beautiful, of the useless, of your visits, work and words sharing needs, hopes and dreams. Renewed by the rain the farm begins again, new crops germinating as old are pulled. I am grateful for this continual renewal, this peaceful dissent, even as Merton’s Rain and the Rhinoceros’ closing lines ring true for me, reminding me that we are all connected. “Yet even here the earth shakes. Over at Fort Knox the Rhinoceros is having fun.“