For a short while, I stepped out of time into eternity.
My lovely sister, Becca, and I made the spontaneous decision to drive down to south Florida. We got lost a few times, once accidentally ending up at FSU. The GPS did more harm than good, so I maintain my belief that each GPS is inhabited by a little gremlin, perhaps even a demon. We learned very well the detriments of sitting in a car for 10 hours on end, arriving with sore backs and less than sane minds. On the bright side, the hours were graced with long conversations, folk music, and chocolate. And maybe the occasional argument about the route details.
So, my cousin Andy works at a place called HEART (Hunger Education And Resource Training), a missionary training center that works with agriculture and community development, the destination of our journey. He called and asked Becca and me to drop by Gainesville to pick up some banana trees. Just your typical errand, right? So we found this place, a long drive back in the jungle. Magical. The trees were a ceiling, abundantly adorned with spanish moss and dew, through which dim green-gray light crept. There were actually multiple residences at the end of the dirt road, so naturally we decided to first check the one farthest from us. After walking across a field and finding only a storage garage, we approached the door of the house we were sure was the correct one. So, at this point, we were slightly on edge. Stormy day, at a secluded, dirty trailer home, to meet a stranger and purchase…banana trees. Yeah. No one answered the knock, thank the Lord, so we left and looked at the other houses. A man who was out with his dog kindly directed us to the correct place, so after narrowly avoiding an awkward (at least) situation, we obtained the trees (small ones; we had to fit five in a Honda).
We arrived at HEART and immediately left, this time with six more people in a very obviously donated van, which was missing at least one half of each seat belt, in addition to several other things. But hey, naps are so much better if there’s no strap inhibiting curling up like a cat, and the vehicle had more character than most that I’ve seen. We talked, laughed, sang old gospel songs and even the national anthem (it was July 4th). After dark, with fireworks besmirching the otherwise peaceful, dense night air, we arrived at our hotel. It was a farm, but not at all like the picture that “farm” conjures in one’s mind. The land stewards (that’s seriously what they call themselves! So happy.) practice permaculture in a swampy area. There was even an outdoor shower in a stand of banana trees and a compost toilet. It was so beautiful (the entirety of the place, not only the compost toilet). The most beautiful part is the welcome we received from friends previously unknown. There were no barriers or formalities, for we shared something deep within. One of our party voiced the observation that the permaculture community is remarkably loving and generous, and I must wholeheartedly affirm that.
After a peaceful morning of gradual waking, misty sunrise, and coffee (and pickled eggs, which were delicious), we took our leave and rode our gypsy wagon a tad farther south, to a place in Homestead called the Fruit and Spice Park. It is a large acreage that over 500 tropical plants call home. For $8, a person may go enjoy as much strange and fantastical tropical fruit as a stomach can hold (maybe more). Do you like mangoes? There are 150 varieties there, a couple dozen of which we tried, at the luscious peak of ripeness. We drank water straight out of coconuts and enjoyed a few dozen species of other fruit. We happily scampered from tree to tree, delighting in the abundance, the rain pelting our wide-brimmed hats an afterthought, if not a friend. Visitors are limited to fruit that has already fallen, so we had to pick around rotten spots sometimes, but we can share with the bugs, right? Some of my personal favorite are as follows: The jackfruit. It’s at least the size of two footballs, a little bit like a pineapple inside, but with very smooth, slick sections/fibers/not-quite either within, each housing a large seed. Apparently Juicy Fruit was based on this fruit, but the real thing is a 372 times better, including the sticky sap that coats the knife and mouth. White mulberries, which were a lighter flavor than their inky counterparts and about about 2-3 inches long. Mamey Sapote, with a rough, brown skin that belies the brilliant salmon-orange flesh, with the texture of an avocado and the flavor a fusion of dates, butterscotch, and sweet potato. This fruit whose name has fled my mind, which was sweet, slippery, and tasted alcoholic–seriously!–with a seed that was encased by a sticky, slimy, viscous substance that coated my entire mouth and throat and wouldn’t leave. Weirdest food experience ever. We had such an enchanting, surreal time. There is no such innate, primal joy as feasting straight from nature on a sumptuous, unfamiliar array of sweetness, texture, and flavor. I felt like a child again, in the best way. After this, we were feeling an acute need for salt and fat and protein–basically something other than the sugar that comprised the basketloads of rare fruit of we’d just partaken. So we ate Chinese. And then discovered that the right rear tire of the van was screwed. Literally. A screw was embedded in it, and of course we had no spare. We like to live on the edge.
After this, we made our way to the night’s dwelling, the farm of yet another permaculture farmer, this one a friend of the one who had previously granted hospitality to us. We camped in the middle of his tropical forest, which contained not only many edible fruits, but also some lethal ones, one of which could “kill three of us,” according to him. We set up our tents, then took a dip in a pool deep in the ground, enclosed with a dome of trees. It was cold groundwater (which smelled a little like sulfur), so enchanting, as if we had stepped into a secret, sacred place. Later, we roasted a coconut on the campfire. It was so delicious and buttery, and the hot coconut water was wonderful, too.
That night, we were a circle around the fire, sharing communion of smoke and stars, words and silence. Our gaze was in the fire; we spoke through to the fire to one another, as if the flames were a channel that burned down conventional barriers and left nothing but our beings, open in community. Partway through the night, an apprentice of the farmer came to share the fire with us. It was a very surreal, genuine time; also a little strange. I won’t talk about our conversations. Some things belong in the past and in memory. Besides, it was a little odd, and you have no context. So I will let memory be what it is, sacred and perplexing.
The next day, we visited the Everglades. Jungle, trees, water, wild cocoplums, MOSQUITOES. EVERYWHERE. We wet our feet in ocean at the southern tip of Florida (a couple even went all the way in). After leaving the Everglades we visited a beautiful outdoor market called “Robert is Here.” where we bought tropical fruit and milkshakes made with said fruit (I can now say that I have had a jackfruit-mango shake. Oh yes.). After all these adventures, saying a prayer for the tire and eating lychees and rambutans, we commenced the return journey to HEART.
Work of Love
The next morning, we awoke early and went to the large, diverse garden to do a little work. We really just watered a few plants and decided to go get breakfast. ‘Cause we can, that’s why. I loved not being enslaved to a schedule. We shared food and coffee, then Andy gave Becca and me a tour of the place and an explanation of their work. We saw the variety of plants and their amazing uses. Seriously, God is so good. This world was designed to have all that we need and so much more. Why do we keep trying to contrive solutions to solve our “problems,” when the solution causes more problems and we sever the connection to the healing gifts of the earth? The botanical life of this planet is so complex and powerful. We also saw their animals–rabbits, ducks, goats, chickens. The goats were so sweet; they acted kind of like dogs. There was one that didn’t like being led by the horns (as the other goats are led), so she would literally flop onto the ground and make people drag her wherever they needed to take her, like a child throwing a tantrum. HEART also has outdoor, wood-fueled stoves, a clay oven, a manual well, and all the stuff you need to live without electricity but with strength, cleverness, humility, and skill. I’m so inspired. After some work, we caught several tilapia from the aquaponics tanks and took them to the outdoor slaughter/cleaning area to kill, scale, and gut them. That was a new experience. Even though I fully expected them to jerk when the spinal cord was cut, I still jumped each time. We cooked them on the outdoor stove and had a lovely meal, followed by a nap. Hey, no schedule, remember? You need rest, so you rest. Novel idea. Rejuvenated, we went back to work, preparing a bed for those little banana trees. Much dirt had previously been removed and dumped, so that dead plants and compost could be put into the sandy soil, to provide nutrients. Now we had to shovel all that dirt back into wheelbarrows and a cart and return it. That was one of the best afternoons of work I’ve ever accomplished, being one with the dirt and having good conversation while collaborating to accomplish a task that would directly benefit both us and the creation that we steward. Then dinner at dusk and front porch conversation, and a little more dirt-moving afterwards, because we could. Then we climbed up a water tank platform to watch the sunset and survey the beauty of creation, both cultivated and wild.
Sunset had just slipped away, and we were exhausted in the best way possible from work. We showered, and it actually felt worthwhile for once. We sat drinking tea, with quiet music playing and lavender incense burning. We talked, played a game, and shared a goat leg that my cousin had cured several months ago (wow, so good). There was quiet community, satisfaction with our work, joy in the small, intricate beauties of life. I don’t think that I’ve ever truly known peace until that moment. It was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had, and the effects have lasted. My priorities are clearer, and everything seems so hopeful and simple. All the stupid little irritants that used to steal peace and joy are nothing now. My whole being just feels renewed.
Lamentably, all good things must come to an end…or must they?
Back to…“real life”? Or maybe ready to create it.
So Becca and I awoke, loaded up the car, and…the battery was dead. A jumpstart and a little time later, the Honda was resurrected. We bid farewell and departed, bearing several gift plants (literally gifts that keep on giving), a little piece of life and eternity, from the care of one to another, love that does not run out but multiplies.
The drive was long and arduous. It may have involved getting lost. And almost being late (we were on a tight schedule). And maybe breaking the speed limit. We also stopped at Dairy Queen for a blizzard, for old time’s sake. Any suggestions on how to pass the time while hurtling in a straight line down a freeway for 150 miles? Because predicting the location at which the odometer will change every mile gets old quickly.
It’s odd…you know the feeling after a lovely time, whether a party or a visit or whatever? I usually feel so sad and let down, having experienced community with such beauty and joy, knowing that it cannot last. All good things come to an end, they say. I’m left wishing that the good times would last, that joy would be reality. But real life obnoxiously shatters my dreams. The awakening is bitter, because the time is an exception from life, unsustainable. Well, this time was so different. The entire experience was beyond words in so many ways. And while coming back home was rather melancholy, there wasn’t regret or a feeling of finality. This time was hopeful. It gave me direction and purpose, a dream for the future. Community, with people and with all creation, is one of the highest purposes that we have, and it does not come to an end. To quote Wendell Berry, we are supposed to “practice resurrection.” A life of resurrection is, in its very essence, eternal. The confusion and fear are proven baseless, and everything makes sense. God is SO good. And it’s not hard to believe that in Creation. It’s evident, simply and beautifully.