Thursday, October 5, 2023

Of Seeds and the Falling Thereof

Every few years, the large oak that sits closest to our house decides that it is time to mast.  

Most seasons, there are acorns.  But some years, things are different.  The world, or so the old oak decides, really needs more oaks.  If it produces at a normal level, there's a chance another oak might be produced.  But there's also a chance that the normal quota of acorns will fall on poor ground, or that the squirrels and chipmunks will gorge themselves and leave nothing remaining.  So masting occurs.  It can come, some scientists believe, when environmental triggers tell the tree that it needs to hyperproduce.  

Is that trigger a good sign, of possible optimal conditions?  Or a sign that the world is more threatening, and that a desperate effort is needed?  We have no idea, as the mind of an oak is hidden from us.

Whatever the cause, this year the great old tree has rained down a hailstorm of acorns.  They bang and clatter against the roof, one after another, tumbling audibly down to the gutters, then pranging percussively off of the stone patio.  All day long they drop with startling loudness, an utterly randomized chinese acorn torture.

They are a living hyperbole, an embarrassment of seed.  They cover the patio flagstone, which I clear daily, only to find it covered again.  So many of them.  So very many.

All seed is like that.  I seedsave almost everything I grow now, and what seedsaving has taught me is that life is utterly profligate.  Life pours wantonly out into the world, spamming itself against the void.  One sunflower produces a fractal whorl of seed for hundreds of possible plants.  Each basil plant I let run produces enough tiny black seed to fill a garden.  A single bush bean plant, enough plump beans to populate half an acre.  

Because most of it fails.  Almost all of it fails.  Most is devoured, or falls on the sidewalk, or just doesn't make it.  Even the ones that sprout will succumb to illness, or be nibbled away by deer or bunnies or crawly critters.  It's a radiant cornucopia of failure, a groaning table of falling short.

"A farmer went out to sow his seed," Jesus once said, as he so often did, his teaching filled with tales of earth and life and growth.  As an anxious suburban American, that parable always troubled me.   Seed is scattered.  Most dies.  Some thrives wildly, sure, but the supermajority does not.  

And...we're that seed?  As he told it, it's such a harsh parable for most of us.  Sure, there's a mighty harvest, but only after so much waste, so many souls cast aside, so much failure.  We, precious unique individual persons, are falling on rocky soil, devoured by birds, scorched by the sun?  We and our children, nothing more than Divine spamming into likely oblivion?  Aren't we all worthy?  Aren't we all special?

Yet we clearly are not.  We are no more than acorns.  

So few of us find our way, with ill fortune, joyless choices and ill-considered paths.  We moderns feel that fear, and hover over our careers and our one point eight offspring, trying to be sure they thrive, carefully optimizing probabilities, tending to each moment with fear and trembling.  Because we know how fragile we are, and they are, and how easily all of the structures around us might prove shallow soil.  

We want to defy or deny this.  We want to manage it, to find workarounds, to apply our assumptions about the Wonder that is Us to creation.  But creation does not buy into our hype.  

This is too hard for most to understand, Jesus says.  It is.  It feels unjust, unfair, too hard, wildly unequal.

"I find this parable problematic from an equity perspective," one could say, clucking one's tongue at Jesus.

But that would place us cleanly into the "most won't understand this" category.  The parable of the sower isn't a socioeconomic statement.  It's an allegory of our engagement with our intended purpose, of our receptiveness to a call that transcends us, of our willingness to resist the lie of power and the chimera of wealth, of our being both good soil and seed.

Human beings are bad at finding good soil, and have always been bad at it.  We tumble thoughtless and aimless through life, and seem no more aware than the oak's innumerable failed progeny.  We can choose, of course, to act differently.  We can scare away the birds, and amend the soil, and plant ourselves with care.  But we do not.

It should trouble us, should knock against us, like seed on a rooftop.