Barnyard epiphanies

September 02, 2001|By Kathleen Feeley

WHAT DO the four H's stand for?" I asked a young boy grooming his heifer for presentation at the Maryland State Fair.

He finished the long sweep of a brush before he replied with a grin: "Head, Heart, Hands, Health." He finished brushing, and patted the flank of the cow. Then I watched as he adroitly maneuvered a small clipper, painstakingly clipping the straggly hairs that marred the clean division between white and brown hairs on the cow's leg.

Instinctively, this lithesome boy was demonstrating the four H's. He understood what he was about; the caress of his hands revealed his heart; he exuded health. With his heifer ready for the ring, he waited to be called.

In the ring, young boys and girls were leading cattle 20 times their weight. With slim black prods, each urged an animal into position: legs parallel; head high. I imagined the patient work needed to effect such precision. Four H's and "D" for dedication!

When the judges announced the winners, the youngsters holding the prize animals glowed.

As I watched the proceedings in the cow barn, I thought of Thomas Berry, an ecologist-theologian who experienced, at age 14, the "numinous presence" of the natural world when he discovered a meadow covered with white lilies in an unexplored wilderness near his home in North Carolina. That experience set his feet on a life path of probing the relationship between our care for the earth and our spiritual fulfillment.

Mr. Berry believes that the magnificence and the mystery of the natural world constitute the grounds for our religious imagination. When we destroy the natural world, we destroy our ability to imagine what God is like. We starve our souls. A healthy earth-human relationship is the basis for each person's spiritual health. The ecological crisis in our times is, most deeply, a spiritual crisis.

The 4-H girls and boys whom I met at the fair could never articulate these ideas, but I sense they know them. They, perhaps, have their moments of epiphany, when they realize the subtle spiritual dimension of digging in the earth, of raising crops and caring for animals, of baking bread and preserving fruits. Many of these 4-H youngsters will retain a life-long love for the natural world, and they will lead in its preservation. They will counter-balance the world-depleters.

I left the fair grateful for Maryland's farms and farm families and inspired by the dedication that I witnessed. I asked a young girl if she would be there for the week. She assured me that she and her family were leaving that evening, so she wouldn't miss school, but they would be back next weekend. Her eyes brightened when she mentioned school.

The masses of children and adults who crowded the fairgrounds represented all areas of the city and the counties. They stood, shoulder to shoulder, in lines for the rides and the fresh, well-prepared food. One could hear the voices and see the faces of Maryland in miniature. Many visitors never arrived at the cow barn or the 4-H exhibits.

Those who did experienced the most inspiring feature of the Maryland State Fair.

Sister Kathleen Feeley is a former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. She now is a professor of English there.

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