Earth Etude for Elul 2: Oh Deer, What Can the Matter Be?
by Rabbi Robin Damsky
I am sitting with the concept of brokenness as it relates to Tisha B’Av and the ensuing unfolding of the High Holy Day season. We often have trouble connecting with this day; our lives are so distant from the First and Second Temple periods, but its central theme is one with which we can all relate: brokenness. In this day of weeping, we weep not only for the brokenness and destruction in the past, we weep for our own brokenness today, and this brings me back to the garden.
Growing food most closely informs my relationship with the earth so that is where I go to source these writings. Each year there are crops that grow well and others that disappoint. One crop, however, enthused and simultaneously disappointed beyond all: the grapes.
Pruning grapes is critical for a good crop. This year I discovered that April is the right time to prune, but still convinced I had no idea what I was doing, I feared that I was ruining my harvest. Lo and behold, 6 weeks later, a friend visiting from out of town who grows grapes, said, “Look! You have grape bunches everywhere!”
There were hundreds. Literally. I had never had that many grapes before. I was going to have a bumper crop. Enough to have a grape harvest party and to bring delectable fruit to the food pantry in very good quantity.
As time unfolded, we discovered some black rot due to too much rain. We pruned excessively, removing a number of the clusters for the good of the balance. We fertilized with comfrey compost tea, a very smelly and extraordinarily effective plant food. The bunches exploded. Not yet ready to harvest but looking very appealing to the eye, we tied up flash tape to distract birds and squirrels. Harvest time was approaching, but not just yet. The fruits were too sour. We hung plastic owls and falcons for more protection.
These deterrents work well for small animals, but there was one I hadn’t anticipated. It looked like the time had come to pick. We set to pick the next day, but that night I had a set of visitors. Two, or three, or maybe five. I knew it was more than one from the gifts they left me of their droppings. They were deer, who, in having their own territory encroached upon, in having their food sources diminished, and with an imbalance in natural predators, trek farther and farther away from the wild to find food. My fencing has always kept the deer out in the past. But not this time.
They didn’t eat some of the grapes or a modicum of the grapes. They totaled a solid 80% of them. I walked out and the bursting bunches of red, black and green were nowhere to be seen. Or there was one grape hanging left, sometimes 2 to 5.
I was so torn. It’s not that I don’t want to feed the deer. Or the squirrels or the birds. I expect to lose a bit of my produce to them each year. But to have had uninvited guests simply take almost the whole of a crop was just too much. All the hours of cultivating. All the time devoted to pruning, to fertilizing, to trellising, to protecting. All, essentially, gone.
The deer also ate almost all of my pole beans, took off the tops of the beets and a whole bunch of other great stuff. So this weekend was devoted to putting up an eight-foot deer fence, which may or may not keep them out.
How do we take this forward into our preparation for the High Holy Days, and our love for the earth?
I have always felt that the earth nourishes me. One of the reasons I grow food is to give back to the Creator that “gives to each its food in due time,” (Psalm 145; Ashrei). I also grow food out of a sense of responsibility to educate others: how to grow their own food for their health and for the better health of our planet, to show folks how good fresh-picked, organically grown food tastes, and to help feed the hungry. Sure, I suppose I have to include the deer in there – I still haven’t worked out exactly how to address that.
But I think the most poignant point is the sense of brokenness. Not just the brokenness that I felt in finding my grapes decimated, but also the brokenness of our ecological balance that puts us in the position of vying with our wildlife. I wrote earlier this season that I learned from Henry David Thoreau in his book, Walden, that we have to plant an extra row of beans for the deer. This goes way beyond an extra row. It is as if a whole farm needs to be planted for them and their creature buddies.
Where is your personal brokenness? Where do you most closely observe brokenness in our planet’s balance?
In order to find the healing and regeneration of the High Holy Day season, we must first acknowledge the truth of where we are. As we prepare for the onset of Elul and the awakening of its shofar blasts, let us ask ourselves where we feel broken, and where our relationship with the earth is broken as well. As we look inside and spend time with the earth around us, we might find a breath – the breath of acknowledgment, of thanks for taking the time to touch the wounded places within us and without. As we sit with our tenderness, we can ask for guidance from the Source of Life for how to heal – how to heal internally and how to help heal our planet. Our lives hang in the balance, and the deer and their friends are counting on us.
Rabbi Robin Damsky is the founder and executive director of In the Gardens, a new nonprofit bringing edible organic garden design as well as mindfulness practice to food deserts, food insecure communities, businesses and homes. She also serves as the rabbi of the Ames Jewish Congregation in Iowa. She is a 2015 graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Clergy Leadership Program and is currently studying in their Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program. Rabbi Damsky was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and earned her Masters degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has a BFA in dance from Ohio University and has been a medical massage therapist since 1977. Website: http://inthegardens.org/