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Archive for December 17th, 2009

Editing the journal Caelum et Terra was a rewarding experience, but it was also at times a frustrating one. We had Big Ideas, all right. But we always had a small readership. At its peak, we had around 2,000 subscribers. People would sign up after reading a positive review in the Catholic press- we got good reviews in everything from The Wanderer to The Catholic Worker- but most of them did not renew their subscriptions. Many of these folks felt compelled to write letters to the editor, often hostile and sometimes unintentionally funny, explaining just why it was that we were not what they were looking for. We were too Left, too Right, too Catholic, not Catholic enough, too hippie (the phrase “superannuated flower children” stuck in my mind).

But for those who renewed, C&T was a lifeline, a connection to like-minded people. We had an unusually devoted readership. And while we didn’t appear to have much influence on the Church or the world, we did have a big influence on this small band of readers, many of whom took the ideas we wrote about much further than we ourselves did. And they in turn influenced their children , many of whom took these ideas even further.

I think of Jenny Baklinski, nee Hayden, eldest daughter of enthusiastic C&T readers. Her parents were intensive gardeners and soap makers, pioneers of humanure; the mom sewed the family’s clothes. But the dad kept his day job, like most of us. Jenny, on the other hand, is farming 200 acres in Ontario -about as far north as one can possibly farm- with her husband Tim, a couple of brothers, and her small children. She married into a large and close rural family, so her life is rich in the sort of community life that most of us do without. Recently she wrote about protecting their livestock from marauding wolves. Their income is supplemented by the soapmaking she learned at her mother’s knee, and by Tim’s piano teaching.

Or I think of another young man, Luke Dougherty, son of a couple who hosted the Steubenville Caelum et Terra reading circle in the early 90s, and who own a small homestead and a milk cow. Luke married into a farming family in Minnesota; he is a full time farmer and part time handyman. His wife just had their first child and he is apparently a very happy man.

Now I am not saying that one has to be fending off wolves and otherwise living the pioneer life to aspire to the whole sort of life we espoused. Tom Storck’s son Michael is a college professor, but he often bicycles to work, gardens, and has raised chickens.

And last week we had the rare treat of spending time with the Nickelsons, a young family living in Washington state. Sia Nickelson is the daughter of Will and Dru Hoyt, who own a small farm an hour east of here. Will wrote the wonderful article “Into the Rose”,  a beautiful meditation on the life of John Muir, for the magazine.

When I first met Sia, in the mid 90s, when her family moved to Ohio from Berkeley, she was 13. I was struck even then by the way she integrated the best of the hippie counterculture with her Catholic faith. T Bone Burnett may have sang that the culture kept all the bad and destroyed all the good, in his song “The Sixties” but Sia did the opposite. She was intent, from an early age, at living life in a beautiful and earthy and spiritually fruitful way. In the years before she married she became an accomplished potter, though with three little boys she hardly has time for much of that now.

Sia’s husband Justin is a fine fellow, and we enjoyed the sort of good conversation that is too rare in my life. I long ago learned to avoid discussion of social doctrine and politics with my coreligionists, as it nearly always ends in total frustration. But Justin is one of those Catholics who considers the Church’s teachings to be more authoritative than any ideology. He is a Catholic radical and one of the few people I have encountered with whom I agree on almost everything. You can hardly imagine what a treat this was.

What’s more, Sia presented us with a copy of a new journal she has published with some friends. It is called Soul Gardening: Thoughts from the Home Front, and it is lovely. It is narrower in focus than Caelum et Terra, a small quarterly for Catholic mothers, but it very much continues the older magazine’s sensibility. First, aesthetically, Soul Gardening is beautiful, with a spare and elegant look and finely rendered line drawings, many by Sia. Secondly, there is the content. There are articles about raising chickens in the city, on liturgical seasons, and on candlelit family prayer. This last is by Mary Pemberton, daughter of Catholic writer, artist and iconographer Michael O’Brien, who once did a cover for us.

Sia is asking a donation of $14 a year for a subscription but will send it to anyone who asks. But I hope you will send a little more than the suggested offering.

While most of the second generation CTers do not share the technophobia that marked the magazine, and are very comfortable with the new media in all its forms, and while the young moms who produce this little gem of a journal began with the Coffee and Diapers blog a few years ago, I think this effort to produce a tangible, real thing you can hold in your hands, a real journal, deserves our support.

You can subscribe and send your donations to: Sia Nickelson, 7314 NE 58th Avenue, Vancouver, WA 98661

The byline of Caelum et Terra was suggested by a friend in Virginia, a former Baptist seminarian who later spent some years in a Zen Buddhist monastery, and who devoted himself to intensive greenhouse gardening and raising free range chickens. However eclectic his background, I am struck now more than ever by the utter aptness of the line he suggested: “The Kingdom of Heaven is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground and should sleep and rise day and night and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how”.

—Daniel Nichols

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