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a chopped log

Farming the Universe

A Day in the Life of Jack Baumgartner

Jack Baumgartner

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I awake in the darkness and begin the conversation as if it never left off. “Father, show me your heart. Father, please help me to see your heart.” It is more like pleading. Sometimes I wake and immediately I am thanking Him for the life He has given me. More times I beg him to change my heart. I bless and I name His goodness, there in the dark.

It is 4:30 and my alarm is buzzing. I ask Him to bless my wife, Amy, as I restore the blankets I’ve wrested away during the night. I ask Him to bless my children as I pass by their rooms.

Downstairs, I start the hot water for coffee, still talking, and waiting, and listening. I stir the coals in the woodstove we heat our home with, remove some ashes and place two mulberry logs on the embers to ignite. This is priestly work and an art near to my heart, maintaining a fire for my family. It is a part of my worship.

This is priestly work and an art near to my heart, maintaining a fire for my family. It is a part of my worship.

Arlo, my sheep dog, sleeps outside the front door waiting for me to emerge. He watches me watch Orion, the ancient messenger, hovering over my world. The sky glistens and I am in awe at my God and I tell Him so.

I am in my studio with coffee and homemade bagel, made by Amy. I am carving a block of linoleum in an attempt to visually depict a spiritual structure. All labor is a commitment to follow through, a line cast straight out into eternity from a single word of God. My work is a diligent response to a distant revelation.

I teeter on the edge of blasphemy, I think, with what I try to make. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” I am literally engraving these things into a copper plate, or pulling the resulting prints from the heavy steel press bed, or pushing around unclean mounds of colored earth, hunkered in front of my oaken easel. It is the practice of an ancient and slow and silent language of stories and symbols, driven by a mixture of intention and intuition, and an urgent hope that it means something to God, and that it won’t be burned up in the fire.

I am sitting here in the hours before sunrise, as I have now for years, looking and listening for His heart, and trying to faithfully represent what I find in my quest.

The sky begins to lighten. In the yard outside the studio windows, the first hens are scratching around for an early breakfast. I pull on my boots and transition to morning chores. If a child is awake, I may have company. But it is still mostly dark and cold, so I am alone. The dogs crowd me as I walk to the barn, wrestling with each other in orbit around my legs. The UTV, an old Kawasaki I got from my dad, gets laden beyond its capacity with water and feed. All the hens get their grain now and the dairy goats their alfalfa hay.

Learning to grow and harvest alfalfa, an ancient crop with an Arabic-rooted name meaning “best fodder”, is not easy. I was paralyzed when I went from growing a quarter acre that I harvested with a scythe to seven acres with patched together equipment. But my meadow, which I have named Ruth, is a place of pride and trial, success and failure. The decisions I make in that field, in cooperation with God’s earth, affect the life in the soil, the health of the land and of my flocks, my family, my neighbors and my customers.

“I feel like I am farming the universe,” I told my neighbor, an old farmer. He farms thousands of acres, and laughed that I saw seven measly acres as the universe. He told me how to do it, with the injunction not to eat or piss or sleep until I was done with my work.

The does jam their heads into the feeder as I break apart the flakes of hay. I pat their necks and feel along their backs, checking their condition. When Amy comes out to milk them and I open the door of the milking parlor and ask her how she slept. We talk a little, one of the few times we can do so uninterrupted.

“I feel like I am farming the universe,” I told my neighbor, an old farmer.

On another part of the farm I feed the pigs, straddling the electric fence. The race to the pans is on: I have to win or I can’t get the food past their greedy heads and bodies smashing into my legs and crowded around the plastic tubs. Everyone has stories of some uncle who had a heart attack feeding the pigs. The kids don’t get to feed the pigs unless we have spoiled vegetables from my friend’s farm down the road. Then they hurl them over the fence at them laughing.

I look across the nine-acre field I have named Boaz at a group of lambs fenced in the trees at the other end. I watch a lamb standing a little off with her back arched. I can tell that she is sick and probably has a fever. It feels good to tell from a long ways off that one of my animals needs my husbandry, and to know how to apply it. But it hasn’t been, and still isn’t, always this way. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. My best friend and I believe that problems are a sign of God’s favor. It is my Father teaching me to be his son, building discipline within me. Creating his heart within me. I recognize his fathering more readily now that I am a father with sons of my own.

The ewe-lamb lets me come in close, another sign of her tiredness, and a small sign of her trust of me, and I grab her, breaking the trust. I have to gain control fast so that she can’t escape. She’s about one hundred pounds, and plenty strong. I roll her over and confirm with a thermometer what was suspected. A few shots of an antibiotic and some vitamins and she is released.

Now I’m feeding and checking the ewes in another field. They are core of the farm, and my time amongst them is always one of the treasured part of my. God ministers peace to my heart when I am with my sheep. I am feeding them corn, and they crowd around me, but not like the pigs. Brando the Dorset ram has been in for a few weeks and I write down which ewes have been marked since yesterday. (He wears a harness with a waxy crayon that leaves a greasy smudge of yellow on the rumps of the ewes he has serviced. Another week and I will change the color, in case the first time didn’t take, so I know when to expect the lambs in the springtime.) Lambing time is the season of long hours and miracles, joy and exhaustion and sometimes sorrow. And, while I often smell like animals, at lambing time I am a sheep to any nose.

One of my oldest friends once named me a “man of the earth.” Trying to explain what her words meant to me would demean their value. It is just as hard to describe why it means something to smell like sheep during lambing season.

Sheepshearer Kevin Ford says that “our sheep help us to live on the land” and I feel it. They are my priests of the land in a way. Because He is in the land. I know because I have found His voice there whispering to me from every molecule and atom. Maybe I am crazy.

At home Amy has come in from milking. I start to wake up the kids. Sometimes I jostle them; sometimes I give them back rubs. Sometimes I shake the whole bed. Abel the youngest calls to me from his crib. “Dad!” Over and over until I pick him up. I understand Jacob’s love for Benjamin when I hold him.

After another breakfast, I am in my workshop building another fire. Customers drop by for eggs or milk and come in to warm up by the fire and see what I am working on. Sometimes a flood of kids wash through the shop on a break from school, working frantically at their benches in a corner of the shop, usually fashioning a weapon. Then they vanish to the big barn to climb the haystacks. To be surrounded by life and community is a blessing.

Eventually I go in for lunch and Amy tells me how school is going, and the funny distractions the little one is making. My best friend and business partner stops by for the afternoon to help me make final design decisions on the table. We talk through some of his other businesses, looking for priorities and strategies. We are looking for our Father’s heart. We are building His kingdom. Maybe we are crazy, but we long to hear His voice and build His kingdom.

I read once about the effects of the industrial revolution upon families, about how homes were once the primary place of industry; maybe a shop on the ground floor and living quarters above. This was the playing field where life happened. The events of one space flowed into the events and space of the other. Home wasn’t an empty life’s building during most of the day, but a perpetual bustle of life and community. This struck me, as a revelation of something I instinctively knew was right. Home should be more than a place where people came home from work and school to eat and sleep.

God is good. I work long hours, but I am home and my children and my wife have access to me and I to them. We live together, not apart.

I come to a stopping point and lay down my tools, the technology of my worship. The axe and the shovel, alliterations into a universe of history, and beauty and purpose and potential. Wheels within wheels.

The axe is the perfect tool, for a woodworker. It is the tool. It is tool. Every woodworking tool is resting there in the axe waiting to be born. The shovel too, is the farmer’s axe. It is his door into his workmanship, a key to a secret universe called soil.

Home should be more than a place where people came home from work and school to eat and sleep.

We have six separate groups of animals right now moving them at varying intervals of four to five days up to maybe two weeks, depending on the season and the animals. That has us moving fence all of the time. Moving fence keeps me on the land seeing how it is responding to my stewardship. It keeps me among the animals, watching how they move and eat. The grass gets a short burst of animal activity and then a long season of rest, while the animals are continuously exposed to fresh and nutritious fodder. It doesn’t take a whole lot of Bible reading to see that God takes the rest of the land very seriously.

The pigs have finished eating and rooting the last of the summer cover crops and I get the last bit of winter cover planted behind them. Like many grass farmers before me, I plant crops, but we let the livestock harvest and store it instead of a combine and silo. Every decision is a conscious one to bring healing and restoration to the land, with the set of resources I have been given to work with.

The ewe lamb is showing signs of a recovering constitution. As the sun sinks, the children help with the evening chores: moving sheep, and feeding chickens and pigs, collecting eggs, and cheering me on as I race the pigs again. We watch the deer in the alfalfa through binoculars and see the King paint the sky pink and purple.

We make it home in time for dinner, after a quick hand washing. After dinner there is prodding the kids to do dishes and straighten the house, take their baths. Maybe we wrestle or play cards. Sometimes the television is out, but now it is away on a shelf in the laundry room, where it should be. We pray and we bless and we tuck in the kids, not without drama and shouting. I ask Amy how she is feeling. We talk a little, but we are both tired. It is a cold week in early November, so I stoke the fire one last time, and add enough logs to last through the night. It is my holy work and my worship.

I lie down next to my wife. Neither of us got as much done as we had hoped, and the list of work doesn’t get smaller, but I am tired. There is always labor, and I have been made to work. Nothing seems to describe or become my search for God’s heart more than my labor. I don’t know how I got to the point where every task becomes a carved out line in the spiritual atmosphere, building an elaborate structure made of prayer and worship and failure and struggle for the Lord of the Universe. Shearing my sheep yields sacred fleeces as well as the dirty ones I have to pick the burs and twigs out of. Bending a wrench on an old square baler at two in the morning to get hay put up before the rain is an archway, or spending the whole day on my knees planting rows of garlic in soil I’ve invested years of my life to improve is a tower. A vessel I turn on the lathe in my workshop is a capacitor for real spiritual life energy from God if He chooses it, if it is fit. Building a new barn is building a mystical space as well. Maybe I am crazy, and a blasphemer or a heretic. I wonder sometimes how long I can sustain this pace. If only I had His perspective. I read for a bit. Then I lie and think about the land and Amy and our children sleeping in the darkness until I fall asleep.

“May I not have peace until I have learned to rest in Christ.” Chuck Missler

“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much.” Ecclesiastes 5:12

a man chopping a log with an axe
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