Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cultivating Life in the Dessert

It was a scorching afternoon, but as they say in Arizona it was a dry heat. That did not stop the sunshine from feeling like a cosmic laser beam that was attempting to burn your skin right off your body. The day before I had been invited as part of a small group to see a local pastor's field. Coming from Ohio where large swaths of land are covered by corn, wheat and soybean I had been trying to imagine what this field might look like in the Arizona dessert in the middle of the Hopi and Navajo reservation. I had seen no sign of vegetation and each time the pastor said he went to his field, I imagined that he would go to a small piece of Ohio-like farm land hidden somewhere nearby near an oasis behind a barrier of trees.

The small group of us piled into the white rental van and passed through one of two stoplights that Tuba City has. We drove to the edge of town and our guide took us on a driving tour of the new and the old Hopi villages. The older village looked like it could have been a small pueblo straight out of Galicia, Spain except that it was in the middle dessert land and over looked a small (small by Arizona standards) canyon.

As we drove out of the village the road began to descend slowly into the small canyon. Along the way we passed by a spring where some people were filling of large plastic containers with water (many of the homes on the reservation have no running water). The pastor explained that the Mormons helped the Hopi's find this spring several generations ago. As the road brought us down between the canyon walls we could see the land divided into small fields before us. We parked the van in a space that entirely shaded by a fruit tree and as we got out we heard the distinct sound of rushing water. Beside the parking spot was a ditch with clean, potable water rushing through it. The ditch made it's way down into the canyon, bisecting the fields.

A Communal Culture- According to Hopi culture and law, the land is not owned by individuals but it is owned by the tribe. If you want to farm a piece of the land you can petition the tribal counsel. Our guide said that if you let your farm land lie fallow for two complete seasons then someone else could bring a petition to the counsel asking to take over the field. Since our guide was also a pastor he said he personally observed the Old Testament practice of working the land for six years and then letting it rest on the seventh year. The first time he did this his Father thought he was crazy, but on the eighth year his crop was significantly more robust than the other nearby fields and now his Father lets his own field rest on occasion.

The water that comes down the ditch in the middle of the field can be hooked up to pipes that will divert some of it to the fields. Our friend comes to his field every morning at 5am. In the dessert the air is crisp and cool and refreshing in the early morning. He said he will spend about two hours taking care of the plants in the field. He waters the crops and hoes the weeds so they can't take root. Sometimes he said that coyotes or foxes will come at night and gobble up the water melons. He also pointed out that some of the other farmers had over-watered their crops (this was evident by leaves that were yellowing).

The pastor grew peppers, melons, squash and a lot of corn. He said that the Hopis use corn for a lot of different dishes and so they plant several different kinds and colors of corn. In his larger of the two fields that he works, it was entirely planted with corn. At the end of the season he said it would produce multiple barrels of corn that could be dried and stored. Whenever some was needed for a meal it would be boiled in water and was ready to eat. He said that of all the barrels of corn that this one field would make he would keep one and then deliver the rest to cousins, aunts and relatives around the reservation. At this point in out tour one of the visiting group members asked, "Do your relatives come and help you plant, cultivate, or Harvest the fields?" The Pastor thought for a moment and said, "No, not really." Our group member said, "Well, it seems strange that they get to benefit from the harvest even though they did not participate at all in the work." The pastor smiled and nodded in a knowing way and said, "This is just the Hopi way. The one who has takes care of those who do not."

I was totally impressed by the richness of Hopi culture and the way it was displayed even through such a small task as having a small field of crops in the middle of such and arid landscape. I also had the sense that this field was a living, tangible illustration of the spiritual work that good pastors are engaged in every day. Watering, cultivating, protecting from weeds and pests that would devour the crop, it reminded me that there is someone working hard on our behalf to help us bear fruit, even in the worst of soils and conditions. Not only that, but like this pastor's relatives, I know I receive far more of the blessings then I ever deserve or worked for. It is my prayer that I can be more like this Hopi Pastor in the way I think about and care for those around me.

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