There’s a well-worn trail through the prairie that leads from the house to the monastery. It’s a path I take each morning as I make my way to join the community for prayer. Each day I witness the progress of autumn as familiar trees along the trail change color, and birds overhead take to flying in formation in the early light.
Lately on my walks, I’ve begun to notice seeds. It’s autumn, and everything, everywhere is yielding seed. I don’t know how I missed it before. Years of living in the concrete jungles of New York City have numbed me to a miracle that the prairies of Wisconsin reveal plainly in the weeks of October. The conversion of plant, to blossom, fruit and finally falling seed absorbs my attention as I begin to recognize certain species in the long grass along the trail: elegant brown-eyed-susans, tall purple cone-flowers, shaggy prairie bush clover, bloated milk-weed pods, fragrant bergamot, spiky echinacea.
My education in prairie ecology is largely due to the efforts of Paul Boutwell, Holy Wisdom Monastery’s groundskeeper and restoration ecologist. Patiently, Paul shows us Sojourners which plants and seed to focus on for the Wisdom Prairie Project. His expertise and experience are invaluable to our community, but it is perhaps his reverence for the prairies that have influenced me most, training my appreciation for the beauty of this landscape.
Before you can collect seed from any plant it must go through the whole cycle of flowering, being pollinated, developing seed, and ripening. Some plants develop seeds within pods, others hide their seeds inside fruits, and still others hold their seeds directly inside flowers. I’ve discovered that some seeds are easy to collect, floating open to the slightest breeze or so fragile they fall to the ground at a touch. Other seeds are better defended, with husks or fleshy fruit around their precious cargo, or spikes and thorns to keep all but the well-prepared and determined away. On many plants, the seeds don’t ripen all at once and so we learn to wait until the right moment for harvest.
The work of prairie seed collecting reminds me of Jesus’s teaching. Often, Jesus illustrated the spiritual life with stories of seeds and fields, sowing and harvesting. Gradually, I am beginning to grasp what Jesus says and Thomas Merton explains in his wonderful book Seeds of Contemplation:
Every moment and every event of every [person]’s life on earth plants something in [their] soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [people]. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because [they] are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.
It is this “good soil” that Benedictine spirituality unfolding in monastic life cultivates in me. Common prayer in community, learning to love and forgive in the daily foibles of shared life, honoring silence, solitude, balance and reflection—all are preparation for “germs of spiritual vitality” to take hold, grow root and transform me.
There are so many seeds. Some are flowering, others are still developing, not yet ripe. Some float free to the wind and gravity; other seeds are hidden deeper inside, well defended, harder nuts to crack, requiring more time to yield. All are part of the landscape of my soul. I am learning from the prairie. Alongside Benedict, it is a good teacher.
Follow Rosy’s journey beginning with her previous post: First Impressions: A Time of Harvest