In a post for April 3, I introduced the topic of water and the medieval Cistercian conservation of water systems. I also sketched out the connection between such practices to our spirituality. What St. James wrote of faith and works is not irrelevant: “I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my works–now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show.” Of course, the actions that we take as a community for our sustainability goals are expressions of our faith; we are certainly taking risks after prayerful consideration and entrusting the results to God. We are certainly exercising moral judgment and our sense of responsibility to our neighbors as we asses possible courses of action. I am also thinking of applying St. James’ insight to spirituality. Spirituality is not a theorem or an intellectual speculation. I should be able to articulate it rationally and logically, but that’s not where spirituality exists. Spirituality is what I live what I decide and what I do. I don’t act primarily to be productive and efficient but my spirituality has to have some positive impact on the world around me to be real. It may not be the positive impact most people are hoping for and it may not be comprehensible to everyone, but it is doesn’t leave it’s imprint on life isn’t only a spectre, an illusion?
Holy Cross Abbey is bordered on the east by the Shenandoah River and our property actually includes two islands in the River. The Shenandoah, like the Nile (and there the resemblance ends) flows north and meets the Potomac at historic Martinsburg, West Virginia. Eventually this water way empties into the Chesapeake Bay. You may already be connecting the dots. Any water system is crucial to supporting life and I am describing a water system plagued by problems, in need of healing. Whatever we are able to do at our location along the Shenandoah will not solve this enormous problem. Whatever we don’t do, however, will perpetuate and even aggravate the problem. Whatever positive contribution we make will support other positive contributions and reforms. As a religious community, as the site of a retreat center enjoyed by many, as one of the major land-owners in Clarke County, as an entity working in connection with local environmental activists, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to a broad public what is at stake and what can be done.
If you care to update your knowledge on the environmental problems besetting our rivers, I refer you to George Pattersons’s informative website www.thedownstreanproject.org . If you’re the sort of blog-surfer who prefers to watch a video rather than read, George has plenty of well filmed material for your consideration. The site itself is a clearing house for the exchange of information, enabling environmentalists to network and organize for serious work.
On this post I simply want to draw your attention to one problem in our rural setting, one that seems perfectly natural: cattle in streams and on river banks. The image is actually appealing; think of Constable’s landscape paintings and the bucolic calm of those bovines refreshing themselves on shady banks; it’s the setting for a Jane Austen novel, seemingly an ideal marriage between nature and human enterprises. But how many of us would really want to revert to the hygiene of Constanble’s or Jane Austen’s day? Cattle that wade and drink in the stream also defecate in the stream and then drink where they stand. That’s not good for the stream, the human neighbors or the cattle, for that matter. Getting down to the stream or river bank means that the native, water-side growth is trampled by a gentle beast who may weigh closer than not to a ton; the natural cycles supporting beneficial micro-organisms is broken and native growth is frustrated, often extinguished. As charming a composition as this may create, the over all effect is detrimental to a healthy environment, to bio-diversity, to the cattle themselves. Why does the practice continue? It does seem an inexpensive way to water the cattle without digging wells–a very expensive necessity–or pumping water through pipelines to watering troughs. Given the expenses of farming right now, I can understand why cattle raisers continue the practice!
We have been very lucky and are very grateful to Ronnie Hope, the farmer who has leased our farm for several decades. When he understood our financial and environmental values, he took his herd off the river bank. To build on this good start, we met with him–and later, with Mark Zurschmeide who has begun growing vegetable on some of our land bordering the River–and Brent Barriteau from the USDA. This meeting was facilitated by George Patterson and Bobby Whitescarver, giving us substantial time and advice to walk us through the project. We went through the fields together and mutually agreed how the streams could be fenced off to protect them from the cattle; two streams cross the land flowing east to the Shenandoah. The land that is being given over to vegetable cultivation, of course, doesn’t need fencing. The plants will not up-root themselves and trample the river bank. But the area to be left uncultivated has to be measured out and designated. Abbot Robert, representing the Abbey, has registered this farm land (roughly speaking, east of our paved road) with CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program). CREP, established in 2000, is a joint federal-state land retirement program to improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife associated with riparian and wetland areas. What is “lost” to cultivation or grazing (e.g., a thirty-five foot barrier on either side of the streams running through the pastures) is “rented” from us through a (renewable) fifteen year contract. We will have to pay for the fencing (and any additional water sources installed for the cattle), for the planting of native hardwoods or grasses to shade the streams, but will also be re-imbursed through the Program. This is certainly an important start for us. We pray it may be an inspiration to other farmers along the Shenandoah.