WHEN I FIRST picked up Kyle Kramer’s memoir A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, And Dirt and skimmed through it, I wasn’t sure what to think, as it seemed to be just another tale of back-to-the-land living, seasoned with a pinch of religion. Although I have a deep appreciation for the work of Wendell Berry and other agrarian writers, back-to-the-land narratives have become a sort of cliché over the last few decades, and the fierce self-reliance that typically characterizes them seems to be more harmful than helpful. And as a member of a community that is seeking the flourishing of God’s creation in an urban place, I find these typically rural sorts of homesteading stories generally bear little relevance in our context.
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Fortunately, all my initial assumptions about A Time to Plant were wrong. Yes, it is its own sort of back-to-the-land narrative, but Kramer is a superb writer—honest, compelling, funny, even self-effacing at times—and I found myself drawn into his story, and I breezed through the book in one sitting.
Born into a suburban Presbyterian family, Kramer had few experiences in his youth that would prepare him for what lay ahead. The book traces his formation, from his undergraduate studies at Indiana University (and friendships with Luke Timothy Johnson and Scott Russell Sanders, both professors there at the time) to his seminary training at Candler School of Theology—where he discerned a vocation not to traditional pastoral ministry but to a lifestyle of simplicity and closeness to the land.
This calling led him back to the rural lands of southwest Indiana, not far from where he had grown up. He eventually decided on a rough, building-less, 20-acre plot of land, which was once farmland but at the time of his purchase was unkempt and overgrown. He had the imagination to see that this was “still a fine piece of land,” with fields that “had a decent amount of topsoil and could be cleared, manured, and resown to hay or crop.” He begins to care for the land, starting with a small garden and the construction of a barn that included a tiny, spartan apartment. Over time, he marries, has children, and eventually builds an off-the-grid house, all the while continuing to develop an organic farming operation on the land.
Kramer’s frankness throughout was refreshing; A Time to Plant is as much a spiritual memoir chronicling his struggles as it is a story of survival on the land. As he wrestles with whether to take out a mortgage in order to build a house, he reflects: “[M]any of my early ideals of simplicity and independence had been fairly unrealistic—sometimes even immature and a bit selfish. Part of true adulthood ... entails taking on responsibilities that one cannot and would not abandon.” Similarly refreshing—and in contrast to other back-to-land stories I have read—was his pointed realization that he could not live in isolation. Although the story here is his own personal story and although at times he seems to be shouldering great burdens by himself, he does have a deep sense that he is not alone in this undertaking. After finally completing the work on their house, Kramer concludes: “Though it felt excruciatingly lonely at times, building our house was a communal effort, and has helped me to see how God saves us in community, by community, and for community.”
Eventually, Kramer finds a home in the Roman Catholic tradition, nurturing connections with the monastic community at St. Meinrad’s, where he teaches. Throughout the book, we see him strive to cultivate Benedictine virtues: simplicity, humility, diligence, and stability. (This book would make a lovely companion to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s recent The Wisdom of Stability.) Indeed, Kyle Kramer shows himself here to be a cultivator of hearty fare, not only tilling the fields of his farm and making them fruitful, but also in masterfully telling his own story, tilling at the cold, hard soil of our hearts, sowing seeds of these virtues in our own imaginations, which will—if we give them the needed care and nurture—undoubtedly bring forth fruits of transformation in our own places, wherever they might be.
C. Christopher Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in the Near Eastside neighborhood of Indianapolis and editor of The Englewood Review of Books.