Common Wisdom: Breaking Ground

We broke ground for the farmhouse, finally, on October 9. By our original calculations we were six months late; we had intended to break ground last spring. The delay, however, was a blessing, just that much more time to acclimate ourselves to the leap we are about to take in leaving the city and moving permanently to our farm overlooking the Ohio River at Rabbit Hash, Kentucky.

Our decision to build a permanent house rather than a weekend house came gradually, when it dawned on us, first, that we could not furnish and maintain both a city house and a farmhouse, and, second, that by moving permanently to the country we were not isolating ourselves from our married children and from our friends.

In the first instance, a kind friend broke the logjam by asking pointedly, “I don’t mean to be nosy, but do you have a stash of furniture somewhere that you are going to use to furnish this second house?” Her question demolished in a flash our hazy, ill-defined imaginations of a fully-outfitted second residence. We realized one house is possible; two would be nigh impossible, and if we were to live on the farm, we needed to sell our house in town.

In the second instance, regarding possible isolation, we convinced ourselves, by traveling the distance many times over a period of three years, that a 55-minute drive to our son’s house or a 45-minute drive to downtown Cincinnati is manageable, and we would not be stranded in the country.

For these reasons we began to turn our minds toward full-time country living. We had another reason, too: our desire for soul food. The farm provides plenty of that kind of sustenance — a river view, woods, meadows, wildlife. The sustenance, though, that we call soul food, and which we look upon as extraordinary, G.K. Chesterton called natural and ordinary — in other words, just what, if the world were not turned upside down, we would expect to be surrounding us. Said Chesterton in one of his columns from the Illustrated London News, what was once ordinary has become extraordinary; what was once unexceptional has become exceptional. Once, for example, we all lived amid natural things, and only occasionally did we go among the supernatural. Once we all lived rural lives, and only once in a while did we go to the city.

“The natural thing,” said Chesterton,

would be that man should live with the natural things, trees and water and animals, and should, as an exceptional treat, go and look at great buildings and impressive works of art. But for us who live in cities Nature is not natural. Nature is supernatural. Just as monks watched and strove to get a glimpse of heaven, so we watch and strive to get a glimpse of earth. This is unreasonable; it is even comic. It is as if men had cake and wine every day but were sometimes allowed common bread. That would not be more grotesque than our condition, that men should have great streets and tall buildings everyday, but be sometimes allowed common grass.

To live among common grass is the normal thing, a condition most of us have inverted to the unusual. Yet nature, according to Chesterton, is the soothing, secure, earthly thing in which we are meant to live everyday. The great cathedral, on the other hand, is the supernatural thing that is meant to call us toward the heavenly, toward what is exactly not everyday.

“The whole point Of Christianity,” Chesterton wrote, “is that man at his highest has a divine authority which is denied to Nature. Nature is not supernatural; in a sense art is supernatural, because man is supernatural. But exactly because Nature is only natural we ought normally to live in Nature. And exactly because great architecture is in some sense super natural, we ought to go specially to see it at special times.” Chesterton, with his flair for paradox, likened our present position of reversing natural and supernatural to the man who dines and goes to bed in church and then signs hymns in his bedroom.

“The best mystical tradition,” he declared,

is not to be found in the modern poet whose notion of a holiday is to go into the country. The best mystical tradition is to be found in the old rustic whose notion of a holiday is to go up to London. He sees the green hedges and the grey sea as what they are, the quiet and rational background of man’s life. And he sees St. Paul’s Cathedral as what it is — a sight. But for people like you and me this natural relation of town and country is turned entirely upside down.

Our decision to move to the country is our effort to normalize the natural, to make nature once again not the occasional treat but the ordinary backdrop of life. Chesterton’s “green hedges” and “grey sea,” or, rather, our green hills and winding river may become, we hope, “what they are, the quiet and rational background of man’s life.”

To reassert the normality of living in the everydayness of nature will mean a dramatic switch in our lives, the impact of which I do not minimize. We anticipate considerable adjustment and even momentary misgivings when we encounter a cistern, septic system, rural power outages, and curly country roads at night. All the same, our world can but expand when we learn to do such things as clear algae from our two ponds, plant prairie grasses, manage our forest, or raise a couple of llamas.

After three years of taking care of the farm, and despite our thorough greenness, we are discovering just a few of the delights that moved Cicero to write, “A well-kept farm is the most useful thing in the world, and also the best to look upon.” Perhaps we may never advance to the point of being able to say knowingly, with Cicero, that “cornfields, meadows, vineyards, woods, all give added pleasure to the cultivator’s life. And so do orchards, cattle-pastures, bees in their swarms, and flowers in their infinite variety. Planting, too, is a delight, and so is agriculture’s most ingenious operation, grafting.” Yet, my husband is well on the way toward acquiring a Ciceronian or Jeffersonian affection for his land, and it will not surprise me if he becomes one day like old Laertes, father of Odysseus, finding his chief consolation in tilling his fields.

The middle-aged mind, it seems, undergoes a transformation. One begins to sense that human time has its limits, and therefore what is to be done in one’s life from now until the closing curtain must be worthy of the time spent on it. Wasting time on projects of questionable value afflicts the middle-aged psyche with a case of the jitters. Time is precious; it is unrepeatable. Once lost, it is never recovered. Thus, there arises an urgency in us, especially as we grow older, to recognize that our lives have permanent meaning. The impetus is to put our energies into projects that appear to have permanent significance. The long-term becomes more compelling than the day-to-day schedule. Our energies, as a result, bear at least partly on the generations who will follow us. We build houses, for example, that will outlast us, and we plant trees that will come to maturity in the next generation.

Our yearning to stamp this new house with permanence, to mark the ground holy for all generations, inspired our ground-breaking ceremony. If the Lord does not build the house, said the psalmist, in vain do its builders labor. For when nature, by way of man’s craftsmanship in a building, is about to give way to something superimposed upon nature, something supernatural, then the Lord needs to be recognized as the source of the creation. We build the house with the Lord. We are merely his co-workers, after all. Our design merely reflects an order already designed by him. Only in that reflection does our design become truly supernatural, a graceful artistry that builds upon the order already in nature.

We gathered this brilliant October day, priest, architect, contractors, owners, a few friends, with our hard hats and our new yellow-handled shovels. The girls in our family — our daughter-in-law and daughters — were, for one reason or another, absent. As my sister- in-law and I lament, now that our children are grown, some child is always missing from family celebrations. If any children have to miss one festivity, however, they usually make it to the next one. And so the continuity goes on. This day our son represented his generation — much as he will do, I suspect, at many such gatherings.

“You are God’s field, God’s building,” Fr. Becker told us. Using the blessing for a new building site, he stretched forth his hands and prayed.

All powerful and all-merciful Father, you have created all things through your Son and have made him the unshakable foundation of your kingdom.

Through the gift of your eternal wisdom, grant that the undertaking we begin today for your glory and our own well-being may progress day by day to its successful completion.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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