Tikkun olam on the lord’s day

The Jewish tradition (of which I happen not to be a member) has a duty they call “tikkun olam” which translates to “the repair of the world” – as I understand it, it basically means that the world is a messed up place, and it’s not enough to just be pious or whatever, you have to actively work to patch it up and make it better. In the Christian tradition Sunday is a day of rest, but I’m not that either, so I didn’t rest, but I had an inspired day nonetheless. In the carpool on the way back from music class this afternoon we passed a truck towing a big four-bottom plow and some other implements on a trailer, and maybe that got me thinking big. Or maybe it’s the global food crisis, which is variously attributed to climate change, biofuel production, market manipulation, high energy costs, or any number of associated evils. And instead of wringing my hands about it, I reckoned I’d do something. So I went over to Pete’s house (a great guy from music class; we all get together at his place on Thursdays for potluck dinner and play traditional music) and borrowed his TroyBilt Horse tiller. This is a great old red rear-tine beast that’s approximately the same age as I am and about four times heavier. It’s all chunky iron castings and it has a funky design where the drive is engaged by a linkage that raises the whole engine to tension a belt. To reverse, the engine is lowered until the sheave on the crankshaft contacts the rubber-rimmed sheave on the front of the gearcase. Pete has kept the machine in phenomenal running order, and it starts with little more than a flick of the wrist.

Anyway, I ran the tiller over the garden a couple times, and it quickly incorporated the layers of leaves, lime, ash, and horse manure. Since it’s self-propelled, you just sort of walk along beside it and let it till and fluff the soil; the only real effort comes at the edge, where you have to rock it forward to raise the tines out of the soil, then grunt it around for the next pass (there’s no differential between the drive wheels). It was so effective that I couldn’t help myself – I attacked a large chunk of the surrounding lawn, which the tiller digested with apparent ease. I left a narrow path of grass between the garden and the trees at the edge of the yard, and left just enough room to roll the dory out between the garden and the garage, but otherwise that whole side of the yard is gone over to garden. The first year we lived here I turned over a small area of the lawn, perhaps 200 square feet, by hand using a turning fork; last year I doubled it with the help of a small Snapper tiller borrowed from a neighbor who has since moved away, and now it is more than doubled again. By pure luck I learned after we rented the house that the previous owner had spread silt from the local crushing mill to landscape the yard, and the soil that resulted from shredding the lawn was dark, smooth, and full of earthworms – it looks like decent garden soil already, but since I still have the tiller and there’s plenty more horse manure (the woman with the horses says she normally puts the manure in the three yard dumpster in her yard – I kid you not), I’m inclined to pick up another load tomorrow and till it in.

I suspect it is obvious from reading this how enjoyable I found it to shred my lawn and create a thousand square feet of vegetable garden, but I can tell you I was grinning from ear to ear. Some of the people who walked and drove by looked at me and smiled, others kinda gawked as if they didn’t know what to make of it. But I truly felt that I was participating in the repair of the world – that my corn and broccoli and turnips will act in a small way as a counterweight to the prevailing insanity, in which every SUV tankful of ethanol consumes enough corn to feed a person for a year. And, Lo, I cleaned up and came inside, and what did I find in the NYT magazine online but a piece by Michael Pollan on exactly this subject! He starts by asking why people should bother trying to reduce their impact on the climate, a subject that some friends and I discussed a few weeks back. And he concludes by saying that people should tear up their lawns and grow food – it’s enough to make me think that I’m part of a movement or something!

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