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Gardening 101: Good Work is Boring

My friend Kirby and I were going to play a show in an upscale planned community, and I felt the need to prepare him. “Just be forewarned,” I said. “I’ve been here before. It’s a little weird.”

We pulled into the drive, puttering past a capacious barn that looked a more like a Colonial Inn than any working barn I knew. A dainty roadside sign proudly offered to direct us to “Goat Yoga.”

“I see what you mean,” said Kirby.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you want to do yoga around goats, I guess that’s fine. It’ll probably teach you that goats don’t care about yoga—a universal truth I lament isn’t more widely known. Goats do not look good in stretchy pants; they are eating, bleating poop-machines.

Many people who don’t farm have a mental image of farming that’s best described as cute. Cute little critters running around making cute noises, cutely not excreting on every available surface. Cute little seedlings growing up into a newsworthy bumper crop. Never mind that the very term bumper crop implies a kind of surprise, as if we hold it to be self-evident that our curse from the Fall includes stumbling blocks in plant husbandry. Yet there is still magic in the smallest aspects of gardening. I recently discovered the magic of the hoe. It’s awesome.

I wanted to try sorghum this year. It’s a crop grown round the world, both highly drought tolerant and highly useful. You can roast and eat the grains or simply toss the prolific grain heads to your chickens—assuming that, like me, you’re fool enough to raise chickens. Depending on the variety, you can cut the cane and juice sorghum, firing the liquid until it boils down into a delightful syrup with a nice cereal overtone. After that, the cane mash makes great silage.

Geeks are people entranced by material that leaves others bored. . . Each of us is geeky about one or several things, and I’m convinced that—if we may say so—God is the biggest geek of us all. Adam Whipple

This is where the hoe comes in. Unlike those beautiful squashes leaching your nitrogen supply, sorghum is happy to be left alone. You plant in good rows at appropriate distances and commence regular hoeing. In your hand is an ergonomic ninja staff, armed with a flat, perpendicular metal plate at the end. With all the enthusiasm you can muster…you scrape it across the ground. Then, you do it again. There is no Sigur Rós backing track. No one is Instagramming you. You are scraping dirt with a bladed stick, trying to maintain your rows and keep the weeds at bay. This is called trusting the process, and no one watching you would be able to tell at a glance that you might be doing work dedicated to Christ, serving people by your labor—because good work is boring. Process, most of the time, lacks marketable charisma.

When my kids summon the audacity to tell me they’re bored, I tell them I’m glad. Boredom is the blank space where attention is cultivated, the marathon track upon which our minds learn to breathe properly and endure strain. If we don’t appreciate the quietude and lack of stimulus, we’ll never acquire the ability to work through it. Furthermore, if we assume that good work, whatever the unique discipline may be, is only the surprise egg-laying of a finished product, we’ll tire and quit when our own labor hits a wall of drudgery. You see this in everything from music to teaching to demolition—perhaps especially demolition. Years ago, a bridge over I-40 had to be brought down. Weeks, probably months, were spent in planning. Then came a few seconds of crack and boom in the early morning dark. Then there was cleanup. Nobody stays to watch cleanup. This is hoeing: it’s cleanup and maintenance. It’s management of a million tiny scoops of surface-dry soil. You must have the imagination to see plants slowly gobbling up minerals, for they do it quietly.

I am learning the grace to be more interested in the minutiae of my own endeavors. Adam Whipple

We have a term for people who possess the imagination to find interest in boring things. We call them geeks, or nerds. These days, geek is thankfully more chic than it used to be. Those of us who suffered the daily derision of our schoolmates—except when that pop quiz came around—are glad for a reprieve, glad to reclaim a pejorative epithet as a term of endearment, almost praise. So, what does it mean nowadays? Well, it means the same thing it used to mean: someone who can outtalk your attention span on a given subject. We have baseball geeks, Tolkien geeks, culinary or psychology geeks. Of a time, geek referred to young people interested in chemistry, music, grammar, and the like. I’m still there. My friends know I’m willing to die on a hill of well-placed commas. I feel physical anger at John Dryden over his seemingly arbitrary decision that we ought not end sentences with prepositions. Sometimes, that’s what prepositions are for. Jerk.

Geeks are people entranced by material that leaves others bored. That is to say, geeks possess the imagination and wonderment to engage subjects more deeply than other people, to dig into good work. Each of us is geeky about one or several things, and I’m convinced that—if we may say so—God is the biggest geek of us all.

Think about it: the idea of atoms has been around since before Epicurus, and since then we have learned about quarks and bosons and leptons. While the universe seems to be of incomprehensible size, it also encompasses humanly inestimable complexity, a fact God knew before Epicurus or anyone else. Our Lord could discourse with perfect joy on electron orbitals for ten hours straight and more. He loves them and knows everything about them. Me? I’m Biff Tannen, my hippocampus balking at wave-particle duality.

I am learning the grace to be more interested in the minutiae of my own endeavors. Besides gardening, there are all the uninteresting parts of recording music. Standing as formidable obstacles to my laziness are the unrolling of cables, the plugging in of cables, the setting of levels, and the waiting for a time of day when no cars are passing. It’s good medicine to be able to connect such things to the moments when songs, by the mysteries of the Holy Ghost, come to bear on the souls of actual people. If plugging in cables brings people encouragement in this warmongering world, it’s totally worth it. Besides, it keeps my work from becoming goat yoga.

The sorghum is knee-high now. I wish I were an expert at this—I can certainly outtalk my own knowledge on the matter—but I am learning. Most days, I spend a little time with my hands in the dirt, or I let the chickens out while I wander the Tennessee-red rows, plucking spears of fescue or pulling out fibrous tentacles of crabgrass. I wield a hoe, and I am a bit bored, and it is good.


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