i grew up a california “city” kid in farm country. every morning i’d leave my small town and drive 10 miles up the freeway to an even smaller town for school where a majority of my classmates lived on almond ranches or dairies. they had gotten up even earlier than i had in order to milk the cows, move the cows, or tend to irrigation systems. they didn’t work retail because they worked at home, learning farming, feeding, and business skills primarily from their parents.
i, too, worked for my parents. i, however, sat at a desk and reported for work immediately after school. typing, filing, answering phones, and interacting with clients felt so different from the work that most of my friends did. our whole lives seemed different. where i rose early to run before school, my farming friends simply did their chores and got a work out in to boot. while my dress code required professional attire, they wore jeans to work and got dirty. where my schedule was predictable and set, theirs was often dependent upon weather, seasons, daylight, and crop conditions. so much about how they lived seemed somehow wonderful and compelling. the task i romanticized most was irrigating.
i don’t remember exactly when i became so enthralled with the irrigation process but i do remember how fully it captured my imagination. in the central valley of california water was a precious resource. in the 1980’s lists of farms were kept within each community and dictated who would receive water and when it would arrive. each farmer got the flow for a certain number of hours in a rotating fashion. when it was your turn, you had to make the most of it. never being able to fully determine when each farm’s pipes would need to be set and ready, there were frequently mad dashes home to help with getting everything set to maximize the water to be gotten in the time frame it was available. often, this happened in the middle of the night.
sometime during the summer before heading off to college i received a gift when my friend keith invited me to help him with his irrigation duties. late into the evening we donned tall rubber boots and traipsed through acre after acre of almond trees making sure pipes were set. once the water was released to keith’s family’s property our follow up work began. as each area was well watered we’d prepare the next section of the orchard to greet the water as it was diverted to new pipes. it was exhausting and yet magical to be working so diligently and to be so wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. in the middle-of-the-night-so-late-it’s-morning-hours i walked straight into a tree limb, scratching my eye lid and drawing blood. even later i tripped and landed, spread eagle, in the freshly made mud. nothing in my life felt as fun as this was to me. to stay up all night. to do something worthy. to get dirty and scratched up and be sore from lifting and walking and walking and walking. to keith, however, this was old news. everything but magical. hard work.
as i reflect on this i think about the fact that there are many ways to water plants. one is to pipe water in to where the plants are, demanding an exacting and exhausting investment of time and resource up front. bringing water to places it doesn’t naturally live is expensive in many ways. a second is to plant next to a water source where the soil is more naturally ready and hydrated. this optimizes the chances of seeds taking root, of roots being nourished, and of plants growing well.
a disclaimer is necessary here. i am not so naive as to believe that all orchards, farms, gardens, and the like should/could be planted next to natural water sources. this is an impossibility on too many fronts to count. the opportunity for analogy, however, to the way in which we nourish our own lives is too rich to pass up.
the point is this: we are impacted by where we plant ourselves.
today we plant ourselves in front of screens. in front of large ones that connect us to “clans” in our massive multiplayer online games and enable us to watch the latest movies without leaving our homes to rent them. in front of small ones that provide us with youtube videos to watch while we wait in line at the store. we plant ourselves in front of facebook for an average of 24 hours a month even though research tells us it lowers our grades, leads us to feel bad about ourselves, and is correlated with distortions in our images of our bodies. we plant ourselves near our phones that tell us the time, that control our thermostats and home stereos, and deliver texts and tweets to keep us hyper-connected. we are “followed” and we “follow.” we are “liked” and we “like.” we are “friended” and we “friend.” we plant ourselves in the soil of technology and we think we’ve watered our relational selves.
but have we?
when orchards are planted in dry, water-limited valleys, the farmer tending the trees must plan ahead for how she will water them. if she does not, they will either die or fail to produce. they may have all the sun and heat they need. they may be perfectly pruned and manicured. they might even get some water for the surface from the bit of rain that naturally occurs. in a drought, however, or in conditions where heat evaporates rain water, irrigation must be planned for and executed for the plants to thrive. water needs to seep down deep to feed an almond tree well.
and so it is with us. if our investment in the watering of our selves and of our relationships has happened via screens we are likely found lacking when conditions become less than ideal. when we face deep disappointment, loss, fantastic news, or need help do the number of friends we have really reflect the depth of the connection we hope for? we may have a multitude of onscreen connections that comment, but is commenting all we really need? pouring a bucket of water at the base of a tree makes things look watered. dig an inch or two down, however, and the dirt is dry. so a hearty comment string looks good but does it feel good...down deep?
social networks, be they facebook or linked in or mmog-based or okcupid, have their place. they allow for maintenance of relationships otherwise lost, provide fun and helpful outlets for casual connection and play, offer ways of intersecting with people unreachable or unknowable in any other way, and make communication easy. they are like sprinklers attached to hoses that can be placed and used to water certain places and certain times.
in complex farming situations as in life, however, sprinklers may not be enough. plans need to be in place and investments made to have what is required to water deeply, to anticipate needs over a lifetime. plans must be made ahead of time and kept to.
farmers learn to do hard work. even when it doesn’t seem like they need to. even when they don’t want to. and so must we. if we are to have what we long for relationally we must tend the soil of our interpersonal lives with intention and care. at times substituting texts with phone calls, facebook updates with in-person conversations, and the like. we must be willing to get dirty. to stay up all night if necessary. to do the work of irrigation when it is needed and to ask others to help and to know us in ways that reach deeper than the surface and down to the roots.
it may not be magical to do so. we will have less control of how others see us when we reach beyond facebook photo galleries into real life. we may experience awkward silences when we attempt in-person conversation since we’ve grown unaccustomed to waiting until the perfect comment comes to us to post. our in-person relational efforts may leave us feeling more exposed than in the past simply because we’ve become so adept at conducting our social selves on screens outside of ourselves. and yet it’s important to try. we may return bruised and sore but we will be watered and the landscape more prepared for the next time we need water.